Here’s the full interview with Get Out composer Michael Abels, conducted and transcribed by Tim Hare B.M. ’11:
As a USC grad what was your college musical education experience like?
I went to USC specifically because I wanted an excellent music school that allowed me to stay on the west coast. It’s strange, but the first time I went to LA I was 9 years old and I looked around and just knew that’s where I should be living. I can’t explain it, but you just have to listen to your gut. Since then I have questioned my 9-year-old self (laughs.) At the time I really wanted to learn how to orchestrate, I just loved the sound of the orchestra. As a keyboard player I didn’t have any experience in writing, so that was my singular goal. When I got to USC I was turned on to so many different styles of music that helped me learn about me and myself. The genre we call World music was being defined at that point in popular music. Those styles of music and cultures had always existed obviously (laughs), but here in US we were just waking up to those styles of music. So after I graduated I went to Cal Arts to study West African Drumming because I wanted to hear more and learn more about that music worked.
Was there a lesson or bit of advice stuck out the most in college?
Wow great question! I don’t think there were particular words, but every Friday [at the University of Southern California] we had a class called Composition Forum and they would get guest composers to come through. Some day’s the composer made us feel cold (laughs) and the students would look at each other and think “What is going on here?” There were days however the guest composers were so inspiring and made us happy to be artists. The composer who made the biggest impact on me was Steve Reich. He said a few things I disagreed with [such as] he dismissed most music from about 1600-1900 as stuff he didn’t like (laughs). And remember this is an impression I got from something he said in the 1980’s so take it with a grain of salt. What stuck out to me was how down to earth and approachable a guy he was. He had made little harmonic analyses for us to follow along while we listened to it. I was so blown away that he was opening up and in his own way saying “Anything I know is yours.” I thought that was really generous and inspiring and that happened at a time that I was excited about music but also intimidated that every idea I had was already done better a hundred years ago than I could have done it (laughs). So I was questioning what I had to give to music that makes it uniquely me. Right at that time, I saw Steve and he was so cool it made me think, “Maybe I can do this”, because he has inspiring us.
Take us through your basic workflow while scoring Get Out?
So we will start at the point where I have spotted the film and I know all the work that needs to be done. I figure out what I need to write that day and I pull up the pallet of sounds we have decided on that are right for the film after trial and error. I will listen to the temp score and listen to why it works. The director has chosen it for a reason and it’s meant to tell you something. I will review my notes that I have asked the director about the temp and about the scenes, then I take the temp score out and I try to understand the emotional contour or arc of the scene. Finding that emotional arc or emotional contour of the music to the scene that is your purpose. The reason we do music in films is because of its ability to speak to emotions without any words. So I get my cues off of places where I want the music to have a certain emotional feel to it. So then I’ll start playing along and see what comes up. Of course I am working with themes I got approval from the director when I started so I see what occurs to me and then I figure out what tempo I want to write in. I have discovered if I don’t have a tempo then I will wander when I write and I will write something I love and it doesn’t fit the picture. So I will play and work in a tempo that fits the scene. Then I know how many measures I have to fit my cues and then from that I work to mold my ideas so they fit where the cues go.
If you do Midi Mockups are there particular libraries you love?
Every cue was first done entirely as MIDI and in fact when we started we didn’t know if we would have a budget for any live instrument “sweetening.” I was planning that it would be an entirely digital score. While I was mocking them up I was trying to make them as final as possible. I am not a great mixer (laughs) so I was doing my best before I sent the music to the score mixer because that could have been it. Once Universal picked up the film we were able to record live strings.
As far as sample libraries I really like Spitfire Audio and I liked the tuned percussion by 8dio especially the metal bowls. When I determined how I was going to use the metal bowls instrument I was thrilled with it. The film straddles so many genres and I can’t think of any other films that does it as well as this one. That is a tribute to Jordan and his writing and directing. The score had to live up to that. In spite of the different genres it gets put in, I regard it a psychological thriller. It’s a slow burn; it’s a “monster” [that] is slowly being revealed. During that there is a lot of music that is tense that is leading up to something so the music had to recall a classic “Hitchcock” thriller. I wanted that classic, elegant, thriller quality, but it also had to have a modern flavor because it takes place in present day. I felt the tuned percussion sound was one of the ways I took the classic sound and made the music seem and sound modern.
How did you feel working with a temp score?
It’s fine! It is possible to score without one, but I found it really helpful. Anything you have that can help you communicate with the director is your friend. It is a well-known cliché that directors fall in love with the temp score, but honestly you need everything—you need every resource to help you communicate clearly with the director. The music that goes into the film needs to be approved by them. It’s their vision and their film. Jordan is so incredible at painting word pictures and the temp score can help you figure out what they are trying to do. My first take on the scene in the Garden Party where Chris is meeting Rose’s grandparents friends and they are trying to be polite, but they are all tripping over their tongues. To me that scene is really funny so I went for a humorous take and wrote a “Vivaldi” harpsichord concerto with strings. It was very much what those characters would listen to if they were hosting a garden party. I thought it was great so I played it for Jordan and he said “No” (laughs). Jordan is so polite when he says “no” because he loves the collaborative process, but he said “The film needs to be seen through Chris’s eyes and Chris is feeling very uncomfortable, on display, and tense.” Jordan had temped the scene with music that was tense and I ignored that and did something else and ended up wasting my own time. He was OK with me trying something else, but he knew exactly what he wanted. The temp track was already telling me the emotional contours he was going for and that is why a temp track is your friend.
What musical pitfalls did you experience when scoring Get Out? How did you work your way out?
There were a few things Jordan said no to because he knew what he wanted, but there were no major pitfalls cause I could reference the temp. For all young composers out there I would say, “You are going to hear the word ‘No.'” Even after you get the job you are going to hear the word No. So the way to get over it is to leave your ego aside. If you go into a high-end clothing store, there is a sales person there is who is way more knowledgeable about clothes than you are. And when you tell them you are looking for something, they find you something and you try it on and they say “You look marvelous!” So you look at your self and say to them “I am unsure.” They don’t respond with “Of course you do! Don’t be silly”. They will say, “OK what isn’t working for you?” They give you their best shot, and if it doesn’t work for you they want to figure out how to help you not force you into clothes you don’t like. Film composers have to be the same way. The issues are that as composers we are making all of the clothes ourselves (laughs). It’s easy to take it personally and think “well what’s wrong with my stuff?” That’s not where to come from, where to come from is: what can I write that makes them happy? So if you keep that mindset you won’t lock yourself into something you’ve written that the director says no to.
Was there a musical moment in Get Out that brought you the most joy in your work?
The most joy for me was when the whole film was finally mixed and we watched it all the way through and we acknowledged it was a really good movie (laughs). I had been working on it for a while because I started a little bit when Jordan sent me the script. I knew it was a great script, but so much can happen from a great script that won’t equal a great movie. So once it was all done and it all worked it felt great.
There are a lot of great rhythmic patterns in Get Out, are there patterns you are particularly fond of?
The rhythms I used were just things I used to fit the scenes, there wasn’t a specific rhythm I had in mind when I started to draw from. If I were going for a particular emotion the rhythm would have to contribute to tension or action. It was all about what rhythm that worked for that emotion.
Does anything scare you as a composer?
(laughs) Everything! You’re trying to be creative under deadline and under budget for the approval of people you really respect. If that doesn’t terrify you I don’t know who you are (laughs). You do have an obligation as a team member not to stress out your colleagues with that fear, but it is totally normal to feel scared.
What advice would you give to a composer coming out of college?
Find your voice. By that I mean “What is it I have to say that makes it worthwhile for me to write music?” If you don’t have an answer for that I don’t think you should be writing music. Not to put anyone down; it’s a difficult profession and lots of people think they want to do it. If you aren’t sure what you have to say you can probably choose a different path that will make you happier and your life easier. If you find something you have to say then do that thing and make it clear to other people and yourself. If you’re not sure what to say then I recommend starting out by identifying music that you hate. It sounds funny, but if you can identify and define what about it that drives you crazy, in the opposite of that is what inspires you. It’s the type of music you want to write. It seems easier to figure out what we hate than the music that we think is inspiring and awesome! Loving something doesn’t tell us how to do that. I’ve really seen that work. So find your voice, do it well, and find projects where you can do it well with people you enjoy working with. You could work on the biggest project in the world, but if you hate the project and the people you’ll hate the project, so find ones you love!