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By Ben Larned · January 7, 2019
Oftentimes, music is the element that we most remember from a film. A theme can chill us to the bone, swell our tear glands to bursting, stick in our heads for days. The musicians behind the soundscapes of two of the studio’s most viscerally powerful films – Daniel Lopatin (Good Time) and Mica Levi (Under the Skin) – come together to discuss their first encounters with music, theory on mood and construction, and the ultimate importance of sound in narrative.
Both musicians grew up with strong family ties to the medium, and both have a background in classical scores. “A house without music is a different thing,” Lopatin says – and Levi agrees that she couldn’t imagine her home life otherwise. Levi’s father had a special knowledge of Third Reich-era music, a blend of sound and politics; Lopatin’s mother couldn’t find such an individual focus under the Soviet Union’s iron rule.
Classical isn’t the word to describe the musicians’ approach, though. Lopatin speaks to his intuitive process – he searches blindly, focusing on emotion rather than form. He speaks to the style of genre masters like Jerry Goldsmith – “following some kind of incredible sense of pacing and rhythmic structure… and figuring out how to use fairly large orchestral medium to reinforce what’s already there.” He scored Good Time as an action movie. Levi also lets the film’s images lead her process – “it’s not too much of a struggle to catch a feeling from the film,” she says. “All the hard work comes later.”
The individual images can accomplish this on their own – Lopatin references a shot in Good Time that contained an intrinsic geometry, and influenced the score that he created in this way. “By tethering to that really specific thing that you created… you confine all of these variations underneath a voice.” Levi works from moods as well, which is evident in her rich score for Under the Skin; but the moods can transcend themselves.
“Electronic music is like the best game ever,” Levi says – it’s a complex, cosmic series of unlocked layers and discoveries for her. She speaks to getting stuck on various levels, breaking through and finding new forms – the end result being, as Lopatin says, something clear and decisive, with its own identity. Lopatin also notes the added difficulty of scoring a video game; more so than in film, the different stages need to escalate and build in sound. This came into play with Good Time, which the Safdie Brothers constructed to feel like “Grand Theft Auto.”
Living in the world of the film is also important to Levi – she notes that, for example, if she were scoring Rocky, she would train and wear a mouthguard as readily as if she were performing the role. Her score for Under the Skin was tied closely to her teenage experience, discovering new parts of herself and rebelling against the old. Lopatin also believes that this practice, which he deems “method scoring,” should “be a part of the job.” As a current New Yorker, Lopatin feels that Good Time hinges itself on the “gatekeeping nightmare” (as Levi calls it) that many residents experience; something that he remembers from his own childhood in Boston. Levi notes that this ‘method’ can be psychologically damaging, but this might be part of the job.
Both filmmakers feel that no music can be far more effective, however, especially in horrors and thrillers. In the films of Michael Haneke, for instance, tension and dread increase because of the silence that broods over the events. Levi believes that music creates a surreal space for the film – “it heightens dramatic possibility” – so the lack of score keeps the audience embedded in reality. Though Lopatin dislikes “underscoring,” he agrees with this.
Luckily for these artists, this isn’t always the case. Many films rely on score to find their full identity. “The score is a sculptural object in a film… that makes the flat image 3-D,” Lopatin says. He refers to different mantras about what music ‘should be’ – whether traditional metaphors or wild representations of mood, as with Stravinsky – and notes that electronic music can do both. While it’s often considered a “frivolous” genre, as he notes, it’s as valid as any other, because it’s about evoking a world, the emotions within it. Filmgoers are lucky to have this medium at their disposal – it’s difficult to imagine these iconic cinematic experiences without their digitized, textural, and deeply felt sounds.
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BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid