After the critical and commercial success of his two previous efforts, Get Out and Us, Jordan Peele is back with his biggest budget and most ambitious film to date. Expertly mixing his brand of socially-conscious horror with classic Spielbergian adventure, the simply and perplexingly titled Nope is an original and incredibly entertaining filmgoing experience.
One thing that’s not original with Nope, however, is the composer. Working with Peele for the third time is veteran concert composer, Michael Abels, whose works have been played by symphony orchestras around the United States and the world. Thanks to the success of Get Out and Us, Abels’ career in media expanded to include films like Bad Education and the docu-series Allen v. Farrow. We spoke with Abels about his experience scoring his latest film; how it required him to write in many different styles; as well as how he feels about being labeled a horror composer.
Samuel Chase: Not to overstate the obvious, but how’d you get involved with scoring Nope?
Michael Abels: Well, this is my third film with Jordan [Peele]; he has been very gracious in asking me to collaborate with him on each of his films. Sometime last year, he sent me the script for Nope, and, of course, it was just as interesting and challenging and unexpected as all of his other films, and I couldn’t wait to work on it. He likes to start designing the sonic part of his films in pre-production just as much as he would design the visuals. So, we talked early on about the themes of the film, and I don’t remember when I first sent him my first demo for the project, but it was very much about getting the sound of “What’s a Bad Miracle”—having music that was both terrifying and yet awe inspiring, in the way that amazing natural wonders give you a sense of awe and spirituality. It was about trying to find a balance between those two opposite feelings.
SC: You started working on it before they shot the film?
MA: Yeah, a little bit. Jordan would sometimes send me some stills or even just looks at different parts of the scenes. Because as much as I loved the script, I also know that the movie in my mind can be very different than the way the director intends the movie to be, so it’s great to see it coming together as they shoot it.
SC: Once you started writing to picture, how did the process go?
MA: I try things and Jordan gives them a full listen and then he often moves them a little bit. Sometimes he’ll move them just within the scene, which changes the way the music informs how we interpret the emotions of the scene. He wants to make sure—as do many filmmakers—that the music doesn’t feel like it’s leading the audience. He believes in treating the audience’s experience of the story with respect, and doesn’t want it to feel manipulative in any way.
He also likes to move music to a completely different scene and temp with the score in other places to see how it works. It’s gotten to where I really look forward to that—to see what he thinks about the music, where he thinks it belongs, and how it works. I often end up learning about the music by Jordan experimenting with it. We go back and forth in that way. And the cut is changing as well, and he’s trying different things or trying to tell the story in different orders, so it’s back and forth until things start to land and really work. And those things become the foundation around which the other parts of the music are shaped.
SC: Is it like you’re temping with your own score?
MA: I guess when he moves cues around, that’s what that would be, precisely. Sometimes he’ll temp with cues that I’ve done from his other films. It’s not so much about using my music but just using a cue that helps inform something about this film. He might also temp with any other piece of music that helps them find the right vibe for a specific scene.
SC: Jordan seems like someone that would be really good at picking the exact right temp music to let you know exactly what he wants.
MA: He is. However, he also likes to be surprised, and not just by the music but by any of his collaborators; he wants new and different ideas that can help him look at the film in a different way that wouldn’t have occurred to him, even though he’s the author. So, as much as he’ll choose a piece of music that is speaking to him in some way, he’ll then explain what it is that’s working and what’s not working, or what he’d like to hear differently. He doesn’t automatically like everything I do the first time, but he also gives everything a real listen. Especially when he’s challenged by something, he’ll be very interested in trying it. He likes the fact that there’s a different perspective in the room—it causes him to think creatively too. There’s a lot of back and forth until he finds something that speaks to him.