Interview with Rob Simonsen

By • March 13, 2019

Even in the more earthbound realms of coming of age (“Love, Simon”), eternally adult romance (“The Age of Adeline”), social justice (“Stonewall”) psychological striving (“Wish I Was Here”), the post-birth blues (“Tully”) and even a heist caper (“Going in Style”), the music of Rob Simonsen has intrigued with its willingness to escape normality. Starting under the innovative wing of Mychael Danna, Simonsen started notably coming into his own for their collaboration on “500 Days of Summer.” Showing a versatility that could range from symphonic murderous intent for “All Good Things” and “Foxcatcher” or work that bubbled with indie music energy for the sleek “Burnt” the hyper-propulsive “Nerve” and the percussive fall of Gary Hart in “The Front Runner,” Simonsen’s music over dozens of scores has taken listeners to new dimensions. They’re ones that that could sometimes confront the listener with raw experimentation, or hypnotically sooth them with beauty – but always with a focus on human character. Now Simonsen gets to hear both stylistic extremes as he takes a giant leap for his first major studio alien invasion film “Captive State” and the super-heroic intimacy of “Fast Color.”

“Captive State” throws us into a metaphoric America that’s been taken over by “legislators,” with of course the nation’s majority happy to accept alien rule that will bring absolute order. One mysterious agent is Mulligan (John Goodman), who’s after Gabriel (Ashton Sanders) to help him unlock the mystery of the resistance group called Phoenix, and the fate of his resistance-leading brother. Simonsen’s score powerfully conveys the dread of an oppressive, human-abetted alien rule with grinding, metallic samples, a bullhorn-like sound alerting us to the overlords as kinetic beats race for their life. It’s a sometimes harsh, oppressively atmospheric score that buzzes like a hive mind to reflect the constant terror of occupation. Electronics here create a sci-fi sound along with the militaristic threat of percussion, an orchestra standing for the resistance to bring the score down to a more relatable earth than we’d like.

While symphonically cosmic girl power certainly has its place in the comic book movie universe, Simonsen’s music for “Fast Color” takes a far more mystical and low-key approach for a woman in a water-starved future. Though men in black think that the matter reforming, earthquake-generating powers of Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) might be the key to saving the world, it’s an ability that’s brought her nothing but grief. Fleeing back to her rural home to reconnect with her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and abandoned daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), Ruth concentrates on putting back together her own life more than any atomic particles. Simonsen’s beautifully drifting melodies take an unconventional view of meta-humans as his ethereal synths and yearning bells gradually unite the family. Just as astounding is how chamber music serves to embody the creative, day-glo visual effects that emanate from this unique family. It’s superhero scoring as melodic Zen for a most unconventional, yet powerful entry into the genre’s growing diversity. Simonsen’s “Fast Color” transfixes with the kind of innovation that he brings to his entire scoring universe, one that now takes off to the stars while bringing itself furiously into the present day.

Both “Captain State” and “Fast Color” make particular use of your electronic “hybrid” abilities that were on display in “Nerve.” Could you tell us how you got started in that world, and how it’s developed to the point of these two scores?

My ear has always been drawn to hybrid scores- combining electronics with acoustic instruments has captured my imagination more than anything else. When the opportunity to do “Nerve” came up, I was pretty elated to get to dive into a world of synthesizers. I grew up on Vangelis and am a true child of the 80’s. Mark Wike, who was the music editor on “Nerve,” was also the music editor on “Captive State.” He presented some of my work to the director, and that’s how that job came about.

“Fast Color” was a filmmaking team I had worked with on their previous film and it went great- they’re also friends of mine and we were happy to work together again. The director Julia Hart was really into the idea of using synths and making it a hybrid score. She always wanted the synths to be louder in the mix, which I loved.

Though you’ve done such genre projects as “Dollhouse” and “Seeking A Friend at the End of the World,” “Captive State” marks your first large-scale, effects-and-action filled sci-fi movie. What was it like to take on that challenge?

It was a thrill. Sci-fi and films with a fantastical or surreal bend to them are my favorite kind of films, so to be able to finally sink my teeth into one was very exciting. There’s so much opportunity for experimentation there, and the director Rupert Wyatt wanted to experiment. We stayed away from using any temp in the film, so the palette was developed in collaboration of working on the film as opposed to in context of anything else. I loved it. I hope it’s a first step into a larger world.

“Captive State” is very much part of the classic tradition of such sci-fi shows as “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” that stand for metaphors with contemporary issues – here being a fascist takeover under the guise of “kindness.” How did that influence your approach?

We initially started sketching with brass melodies. My first stab at the opening (which is completely different now) was a descending brass theme, which was about the crumbling, darkening, twisted state of government authority, and an aspect of deluded society. A darkened American, patriotic theme. In the end the score became a bit more about an alarm bell for a rebellion.

Did you ever look to other “alien invasion” scores or films for inspiration? Or did you set out to do something truly unique with the genre?

I avoided listening to other scores when I was writing, but of course, I’m naturally influenced by so many of them just by virtue of being a fan of the genre. I’m sure they informed things subconsciously. But I wanted to keep my head clear of anything else as much as possible to try and give myself the best shot at creating something pure. One of the only things Rupert and I looked at from a musical tone perspective was a scene from “The Battle of Algiers” which Ennio Morricone scored, and had some fantastic percussion in it.

Tell us about working with Rupert, who’s now moved from apes to aliens here when depicting our contemporary world under siege.

‘Captive State’ director, Rupert Wyatt

Rupert’s awesome. He has so much passion for filmmaking and really pushes, which I love. He’s also a fantastically warm and genuine guy. He lives in upstate New York so I would go out there and we’d work at a house that was rented out for post-production. I had a little room up there, visual effects were on the ground floor, and the edit was in the basement. It was pretty cool being all under one roof. Rupert gave me a lot of leeway and autonomy in terms of finding gritty sounds and was always straight when he liked or disliked something. It was straightforward and satisfying.

How does the focus being more on humans dealing with an alien invasion, more than the aliens themselves, play into the score, especially given that people are split into camps of abetting or resisting the occupation?

We worked on a theme for the cell, the team of rebels. It needed to be a little warm and human, but it is often heard adrift amongst crunched synths and processed sounds. The aliens have sounds assigned to them but not a melodic theme. The humans got that.

Would you describe “Captive State” as being more of a conspiracy-paranoia score than a science fiction one?

Another film that Rupert mentioned early on was “The Parallax View,” with a score by Michael Small that speaks to what you describe. It has a kind of 70’s conspiracy-paranoid-Americana vibe to it. I think “Captive State” is a conspiracy-intrigue drama set in a sci-fi world.

There’s an especially gnarly feeling in how you use percussion, which meshes dark beats with a militaristic tone. Could you talk about that blend of music and sound design?

There’s a brokenness to everything in the film, whether obvious or underneath what we are seeing. We wanted things to have an off-kilter vibe to them. One of my favorite drummers out there, Ian Chang is a bit of a master when it comes to off-kilter, in the best possible way. I called him up and he made some beats for me. I took those and chopped them, pitched them around, processed them and that was a great element of energy and aliveness that was woven into the score. We also recorded a couple percussionists doubling on more militaristic type drums and augmenting the more processed sounds. Some of those also got processed as well. There are also some hits that I created by blending low drum hits with animal growls. I think there’s a lion growl in there!

How did you want to play the “legislators’” presence among the characters, even when we don’t see them?

In the film there are flocks of drones that the legislators use to police/survey people. It’s not a far-off idea actually with pretty impactful implications. We came up with a sound for the drones, which is a bowed mandolin that bends in pitch a bit. Then pitched that down a couple octaves in kontakt. It’s got this “swarm” kind of sound to it. Since we hardly see the legislators it became more about how the humans feel when they encounter them instead of having their own theme.

You also reach some fairly low tones with your samples, especially with bullhorn like effects, which serves as a sort of theme. How do you think the score personifies the alien machinery that keeps the humans in line?

The bullhorn sound is a synth patch I made using this little soft synth called Basic. It was inspired by tornado sirens I used to hear growing up in Missouri. They’d spin up at different places throughout the city as portents of a possible severe storm. Oftentimes the sky would be full of dark, twisting clouds and you’d hear some in the distance, some nearby, and it would make a creepy, sickening choir of dissonance and portent. It was unnerving and awe-inspiring. I was trying to get at that. It’s about the humans rallying, being called to action in response to the threat of the aliens.

We also recorded brass effects and gestures with the London Contemporary Orchestra, which also performed the strings. One of the tuba players for the LCO can circle breathe and play multiphonics, which is achieved by singing into the instrument and playing at the same time. We spent a day with different brass players doing multiphonics and extended techniques. It was a lot of fun. They are a wonderfully talented group of musicians.

It seems like there’s no way to beat the aliens, let alone human turncoats, how important was it for the score to reflect a sense of hope when it comes to bringing orchestral emotion into the nerve-grinding tonalities?

In the end, that’s exactly what the film is about, hope and courage. It was important to give glimmers of that and connect to human warmth and heart at points, even if there was a lot of tragedy and sacrifice involved.

Could you channel your own political feelings in “Captive State?” And do you think the current state of America makes the film, and score even more disturbing and suspenseful than it would have been?

I definitely was able to channel my political feelings in this film. It’s an interesting experience, seeing the rise of authoritarian regimes and nationalism throughout the world, which does feel like a threat with real consequences. Where it will all lead, who knows. I don’t want to give anything away but I think the film does offer a chance to see situations from different viewpoints in a way that we (specifically Americans) might not have considered before.

Abbey Road Studios (L to R) “Captive State” mixer Stan Neff, composer Rob Simonsen and director Rupert Wyatt

With such an offbeat score, was it difficult creating a song out of it with me for home “Home?”

Home was all Jake (Kill the Noise) and Mija. They took the stems of the prologue (track no 2, “Captive State”) and ran with it. I loved what they did with it.

Conversely, “Fast Color” takes an ethereal approach that reteams you with Julia Hart and writer Jordan Horowitz, for whom you scored “Miss Stevens.” Given that this was a completely different genre, how did your collaboration differ?

‘Fast Color’s’ Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz

We were going for something much bigger on this one. The palette was quite different and we were dealing with larger themes. It’s a bit of an emotionally driven superhero origin story. Our collaboration was very similar, propositions, notes and refinements!

With “Fast Color” being done on a very intimate scale, how important was it for your score to open up the story to the earth-changing, and even cosmic aspects of the characters, their powers and the bigger story that lies beyond this one?

Orchestras are great for adding a sense of scope to a film, and we knew we wanted that. There’s a fair amount of solo violin, which adds a lot of emotion and sense of a central character amongst a larger backdrop. The film deals with larger themes from an intimate point of view so we definitely wanted to bridge that.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has superpowers in trailer for Fast Color
Credit: Jacob Yakob

“Fast Color” could be called a superhero film, much in the way the show “Heroes” tries to show normal people gifted with extraordinary abilities. What was it like to score that genre, be it in such an offbeat and independent guise?

It was great. Sci-fi is such a rich genre because you can deal with really large questions. You can build fantastical worlds and put forth very human questions that we all face. It’s my favorite genre so I loved it.

Do you think that scoring a heroine who’s mystically granted eternal life in “The Age of Adeline” helped you portray super-powered ones here?

I think my natural response to these kinds of stories probably has led me to using the orchestra both times. They are characters touched by something cosmic, mysterious, larger than life. The orchestra is great for that.

Does the emphasis on non-costumed female characters allow this score to be melodically softer than if it involved men with the same abilities?

I think it’s more about the intimacy of the relationships between the characters and the fact that no one has fully come out with their powers. These are people in hiding, dealing with personal and interpersonal issues, including motherhood, the processing of which leads them to stand up and be powerful in plain sight. I’m not sure what I would be drawn to if they were costumed and/or had fully embraced their powers. There are so many great metaphorical threads running throughout the film and we were just giving it the tones we felt were right to support it. I’m not sure how it would be different if it were men. Interesting question!

How did you want music to personify color?

Swirling strings seemed like the most accurate representation of colors flying around in the sky to me.

We’ve seen lots of super powers, but “Fast Color’s” ability of molecularly separating, and then re-forming objects brings something new to the game. How did you want to capture that family talent?

There’s a violin motif for their powers that is heard on solo violin the first time we see anyone really enacting powers. That same motif is played by the full orchestra at the end, so there’s hopefully a through line for all three generations whenever they’re wielding powers that grows with them.

How did you want to merge the synth style here with more traditional symphonic colors?

Again, hybrid scores are combining my favorite sounds in the world- orchestras, synths and processed sounds. Orchestra wasn’t quite right for a score like “Nerve” but for “Fast Color “it felt like the appropriate texture to get at what we were going for emotionally.

How did you want to reflect the toll that Ruth’s powers take on her life, and her relationship with her family?

I think that was rendered pretty successfully in the film by the story and actors so it was more about holding a space for that to take place- the longing, tenderness, regret. Ruth is a loner when we meet her, she’s a woman on the run so we needed the music to help get at the feeling of that. But once we get the full picture, more tender threads come in.

Talk about the “lullaby” sound that links mother and daughter,

Again we knew we needed something to echo the tenderness between them, and speak to a love that exists even though physical circumstances might pull a mother away from her child.

Given that a more conventional score could have expressed “Fast Color’s” emotions in an immediately recognizable way, was it a challenge to use a more ethereal style here to get those feelings across?

Not really, I think a more ethereal approach is something I gravitate towards naturally. I’ve loved listening since I was young to Vangelis, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol II, Michael Stearn’s score to “Baraka,” Brian Eno, Steve Roach and others that do more ambient work and have ethereal qualities to them. It connects me to similar feelings I get looking at stars in the night sky, which has always been a big inspiration for me. So I’m probably always trying to get to those ambient musical textures in a lot of my work.

In your non-score life, you created a truly fascinating musical collective with The Echo Society that did site-specific conceptual non-score concerts with other film composers. What do you think these events added to LA’s musical landscape, and would you hope to do more of these events?

Ah thanks. My hope is that they’ve been explorations in what’s possible and getting together to create exciting new works with other creators. There are a lot of musical groups doing similar things both before us but especially now- it’s a rich landscape in LA for music and art. We are definitely planning on doing more and are beginning work on our next show. Stay tuned!

When science fiction scores like “Under the Skin” and “Annihilation” are increasingly “out there,” does this make it even more difficult to create a unique score like this? Or do you even set out to create the kind of “hybrid” sound that no one’s heard before?

I think overall the rising tide of inventive and as you say “out there” scores have given filmmakers and studios a lot of confidence to stand behind a director’s bold choices to experiment and be different. Of course, it can be a daunting proposition to say “we’re going to try and do something totally different that no one has heard before”, as all music stands on the shoulders of what came before it. But it’s an exciting challenge to attempt. I love it.

“Captive State” opens on March 15th with Rob Simonsen’s score available that day on Sony Classics here. “Fast Color” opens on April 9, with Rob’s score available shortly thereafter on his label Miles of Lions Records.

Visit Rob Simonsen’s website HERE

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