The French composer, pianist, and recording artist Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (Living, The Forgotten Battle, The Strays) draws her inspiration for her music from a very deep place within herself. Levienaise-Farrouch used her intense emotional reaction to the movie All of Us Strangers to craft the moving score of a screenwriter (Andrew Scott) who starts a relationship with an enigmatic neighbor (Paul Mescal), while encountering flashbacks to his early years with his parents who seem to be alive, despite having passed away 30 years earlier.
A fan of writer/director Andrew Haigh, she was asked to watch a cut of the film while they were already editing. Moved by the dreamlike quality of the story, Levienaise-Farrouch immediately felt that she could write the music for the film, viscerally connecting with the character Adam, portrayed by Scott. She understood the universality of grief and loss and the missed opportunities we experience with our loved ones.
Below The Line spoke with Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch via Zoom video from her recording studio in London, where she discussed what inspired the haunting and hypnotic score. She talks about her approach to creating delicate music to illustrate the emotions of the characters with subtlety in the sexual scenes as well as the memory scenes.
Below the Line: So, you originally connected with Adam’s character. How’d you relate?
Levienaise-Farrouch: I think grieving a parent is something that I understand quite well. I know so many people around me who are grieving a parent in that sense. We all have an idea of things we wish we could tell our parents, of things we could repair, of mistakes that we made, or of things that we didn’t say clearly. That felt very, very universal, that element of the story, because we all have parents, so we can all connect to that desire of being accepted as we are by the people who made us, which is quite strong, and I really resonated with that.
BTL: What other emotions did you relate to?
Levienaise-Farrouch: To a certain extent, the sense of loneliness or sometimes difficulty connecting is also an experience that most of us have had at some point, and the way it’s portrayed in this, the subtlety with which it’s portrayed by the character Adam, was something that felt very truthful to me because, in real life, people display their emotions in a way that’s unsettled. That felt really true when I watched it, and it really touched me.
BTL: So how would you describe, Emily, how music translates those kinds of emotions?
Levienaise-Farrouch: There are a few adjectives here that I tried to embody with the score. I wanted the score to remain delicate and subtle. I really didn’t feel like having a huge orchestral score or something really heavily melody-based or romantic would be right because you have a very subtle performance. I just didn’t want to have something larger than his life, in a sense. It’s a chamber piece in a sense.
In this film, you only have four characters, so I wanted the palette to reflect that, to be as intimate as the film itself, and to limit myself in terms of the amount of sounds and instruments that we would use. I think it was also the dreamlike quality of the film I wanted to capture. Something that both invites you in and… and in a way relaxes you into suspending your disbelief and just going on that journey with Adam.
BTL: In conveying that, what instruments did you choose?
Levienaise-Farrouch: I chose live instruments, even though they are manipulated, because it is a story about being human. I wanted humans to perform the music. Musicians have an ability to infuse emotion into their playing, and I wanted that for the score, even if it was in a delicate way. We have analog synthesizers, which I’ll use quite extensively, and I play myself. Then I used a piano, a cello, and a violin as well, because I thought string instruments would probably be the most malleable. They just have flexibility in intonation and timber that felt really right for the film.
BTL: What musicians performed the score?
Levienaise-Farrouch: We had two cellists and two violinists; it was a really small and intimate performance, which is nice because then I got to really communicate with the musicians and explain to them what was happening in each scene and what the music needed to carry in a way that’s much more tailored than when you work with a large group of musicians.
BTL: There is a love story here as well, so what was it like scoring those moments? What was your goal there?
Levienaise-Farrouch: It was interesting because that’s the moment when I think synthesizers are the right approach. There’s two different approaches in a sense because you have moments where it has to feel very exciting and like a quickening of the heart for Adam, like all of a sudden he’s letting someone into his life and into his bed. So you have those moments of excitement—those moments that need to feel slightly more muscular and slightly more joyful in a more rhythmical way.
But then you do have another scene where it has evolved in a sense. They are in bed together, and we have a reintroduction of the love theme that opens the film because they’re moving from something that’s mostly physical and about physical attraction to moving into intimacy. It was nice to score a sexual scene in a way that’s more delicate, subtle, and touching.
BTL: What were some of the challenges for you in scoring this film which jumps around in time?
Levienaise-Farrouch: Because the timeline is complex, we jump around, and it’s quite fragmented, we’re really asking the audience to follow a story that, if you post too much to think about the logic of it, kind of loses its magic. So for me, the challenge was how to go throughout the film, creating a score that would unify the experience while also making sure that we accompanied the specificity of each scene.
I didn’t want to jump and have one sound for the retro scene and one sound for the present-time scene. I just wanted something that really helps you drift and just go with the flow in a sense. So how far can you take it when he’s having a nightmare? Because if you take it just a little bit too far, you’re going to get people out of this kind of dreamlike state. So it’s just finding the balance between all those elements of the film.
BTL: When you compose something, are you watching the scene and then going away and thinking about it, or are you composing while you’re watching the scene?
Levienaise-Farrouch: It’s a mix of both, really. I do watch the film quite a few times before properly starting to write because I need to see it as a whole. You kind of have to keep in mind how your score should evolve from beginning to end. If you just focus on an isolated scene, you’re probably not going to get that clarity, but once I start focusing on each scene individually, especially on scenes that are very character-driven, like you have in Andrew Scott’s performance, I think it’s so important then to really tune in and take my pacing from his performance in a sense, and also take my level of intensity with the level of intensity of his acting. When I write each scene, I do have to become very familiar with what’s happening on screen and what the actors are doing, for sure.
BTL: Were you surprised and moved by the twist?
Levienaise-Farrouch: I was quite heartbroken, not by the twist in itself, but by that moment for Adam. It feels so sad. I just felt so sad for this young man. His heart is broken, not just because of the twist, but because of what the twist implies about where his life is at—the fact that he always ignores his emotions. He always had a playfulness, like pushing away his isolation and loneliness and the fact that he wasn’t in touch with his family anymore, and all of a sudden his own heart is breaking from the realization of that. That moment probably broke my heart more than the realization that came just a bit before.
BTL: Yes, it’s such a beautiful film. How did you make the transition from creating your own music and albums into musical compositions for film?
Levienaise-Farrouch: What was interesting is that I did quite a few short films when I was at university, and then I started doing albums. I kind of wanted to wait until I had the right projects, in a sense, because I love films. I really think they’re such an important art form. I didn’t want to just write music for film to write music for film. I wanted to write music for a film that I truly believed in. I did albums after I started scoring features properly, but I think it’s more of life throwing it to you.
Maybe life didn’t think I was ready to write music for film until those films came to me, but it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, even though I will say I was really grateful to have those years during which I could develop my own sound and my own way to express myself through music, rather than having to be shaped by the needs of whichever project I’ve been doing at the same time. That’s a real luxury to be able to develop yourself as an artist, first and foremost.
BTL: When you look back at the film, how pleased are you with the result?
Levienaise-Farrouch: I try, as much as possible, to only work on films that I think are meaningful. I only want to work on projects where the people making them are trying to express something, and it’s just beautiful when what you’re trying to express is actually being received by an audience. There are just so many people who feel seen by this film, and that’s just a beautiful experience for me.
All of Us Strangers is now playing in theaters.