Whether or not you’re fully on board with the quirky tone of Landscape with Invisible Hand, Cory Finley’s adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s young adult romantic sci-fi novel, there’s no denying that a lot of what pulls things together is the score by Michael Abels. In recent years, Abels has become Jordan Peele’s go-to composer for films like last year’s Nope, which has a few things in common with Landscape, but it also won Abels a Society of Composers & Lyricists award earlier this year.
Landscape takes place on a world after an alien invasion where the aliens (known as the Vuvv) are living comfortably while earth’s inhabitants have been left in extreme poverty. In that environment, Asante Blackk’s Adam meets Kylie Rogers’ Chloe, and the two of them decide to make some money by live broadcasting their relationship as it progresses, something that proves hugely popular among the Vuvv. When Adam and Chloe decide their romance has run its course, the Vuvv want their money back, forcing Adam’s mother (Tiffany Haddish) to step in to deal directly with the aliens.
Below the Line spoke with Abels before for Nope, but we had a chance to talk to him for this soundtrack, which is a very different beast.
BTL: How did Cory get in touch with you? Had you worked with him before?
Abels: I had worked with him on a film called Bad Education with Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney, and it ended up being bought by HBO. It was a few years ago, and Cory is just a great guy to work for, so I was really happy he called me again. I was happy to work on this.
BTL: At one point did Cory tell you he was adapting this?
Abels: It’s a novella by M.T. Anderson, and Cory adapted the screenplay. I remember when he told me he was working on it. He contacted me early, which I think he does anyway, because he’s one of those that likes to plan the whole world of a film, and think about the audio design as well as the visual design.
There was one particular scene where the wedding march is played very badly on camera. His beginning of sharing with me about this movie was to try to explain why he needed me to play the wedding march as poorly as possible on a really bad little synthetic keyboard, so that he could have some playback for the actor while shooting the wedding scene. It was super fun to play really poorly [chuckles] and make it sound like a cheap portable keyboard. As a result of that, he sent me the script and was explaining the context.
I did that one track for playback on set, and then I was just waiting for him to finish shooting so I could get to work on it. Even from the beginning, he had mentioned the theremin and wanting there to be a definite throwback to ’50s sci-fi, because not only is it first of all, there are aliens, but second that they’re obsessed with ’50s culture in general. It would seem natural that they would be accompanied by a ’50s sci fi soundtrack
BTL: I heard the theremin when it first played, but then I thought it might be a musical saw, because there’s so much vibrato to it.
Abels: You can dial that in electronically, and it seemed like that much vibrato actually made it a little more graceful than less. I’ve used that much vibrato, because even though it’s supposed to sound like old cheesy science fiction, there’s another part of it that wants to be a love story, so the music has a gentle, hopeful, although depressing quality. There’s a need to be both a little sad and a little aspirational at the same time. Behind the theremin, that’s what’s trying to go on in the emotional vibe of music.
BTL: It’s funny when you’re listening to the soundtrack and that wedding march comes on, and I thought, “Is Michael having a bad day? What’s going on here? Oh, that’s interesting…”
Abels: Right, what is going on? I don’t know. I could have always left that off the soundtrack, but to me, it just makes me laugh every time I hear it still, so hopefully other soundtrack listeners will have a sense of humor about this.
BTL: With soundtracks in general, when you don’t have the picture in front of you, it’s nice to have an experience listening to the music as well.
Abels: I think so, I think so. Everything I put on the soundtrack, I try to include things that people will like listening to even though they may be ripped out of context.
BTL: You touched upon something I was going to ask you anyway. I think your main instrument was piano, so are you playing piano on this score?
Abels: I’m playing some and my assistant is playing some. I don’t feel like it’s playing when you’re using MIDI, and then you edit yourself. It’s not the same as the live musicians who are flying without a net. I’m a great pianist in my computer.
BTL: When you mentioned theremin, I wasn’t sure if you have a theremin you played or hired a theremin player or just did it using MIDI?
Abels: It’s digital, and the reason is, because gosh, there was a part of me that wanted to use a live player, of course, but by the time we had gotten it to where it was just vibrato-ey enough and just loud enough, and all the swoops were just right, they would have had to duplicate every single part of that. The whole goal of the live performance of it was going to be to make it sound exactly like the digital, if you see what I mean.
When you have live players, you want them to bring something more to what is there. In this case, it was going to be having someone come in and say, “No, it needs to sound exactly like this.” And that didn’t seem like an enjoyable experience for a person. We got it just right, then we used that.
BTL: When you think about live theremin playing, it ranges from Jon Spencer just doing “woo woo woo,” but I’ve seen someone playing a walking uprgiht bass line on a theremin, which I could never figure out how they did that.
Abels: That’s the thing. The people who play the instrument bring this artistry to it that actually wasn’t what I was looking for. By the time that we got it to where, “Okay, this works,” that was the choice that we made.
BTL: I get the impression from what you told me that Cory knows instruments and maybe more about music than most filmmakers?
Abels: Yes, he’s a very bright Renaissance guy. I don’t think he’s a musician. He grew up singing, maybe that’s what it was. My understanding is that he did some a capella choral singing. These are probably not credits in his bio, I have a feeling. He grew up being musical, and therefore, he’s very good about incorporating knowledge that he’s picked up in whatever way into his art.
He’s really smart about that. He’s very observant when if I change something… because I remember changing something just ‘cause I thought, “Next pass of this, I have a better way to do this.” He noticed, and said, “What happened to that part?” that, to me, was a mistake. He said, “No, that was my favorite part.” So I had to restore what he had fallen in love with. It just shows how closely he’s listening, because to me, that was a part that was a background thing that wasn’t even gonna matter. But he noticed.
BTL: There’s also orchestral stuff, so is this a mix of MIDI and then doing orchestral strings on top of it, or are you doing separate things and blending them together?
Abels: No, absolutely. It’s all live strings. It’s all largely live percussion. There’s a trio of recorder players. I never thought I would be writing for this ensemble in a million years. Each of the choices that we made were based on… it’s a world where there’s a worldwide economic depression, not to mention maybe emotional depression among people as well due to the circumstance. The score needs to have a wistful hopefulness, and there’s a sense of despair as well. The instruments are designed to sound like there’s … a lot of the percussion instruments, they sound like things that Adam and Chloe might have found when they were scavenging for things that the aliens had discarded off their floating city, when they go scavenger hunting.
The string ensemble is small, so that it has more of a chamber feel. There’s a pipe organ, which plays the cue where they go off into space, and it’s supposed to be big and grand, but rather than a symphony orchestra, like a giant movie, it’s done with a pipe organ, which is all designed to make it feel like it’s smaller and a little economically-deprived, maybe. That’s where the idea of the different instruments came from.
BTL: By the way, I spoke to the guys of Tutti Music Group last year, mainly for Lord of the Rings. Do you still work with them, or mainly on the bigger projects? How do you decide when to bring them in?
Abels: Some of it is timing, at times, there are financial consideration about how a project is happening, it’s all things like that. I love working with them, and also, Tomas [Peire] has orchestrated a number of my films, and we have a really good working relationship, too. He does a great job. He is an orchestrator and composer, and he also does a lot of other music gigs, but he acts for me as an orchestrator that I use on different projects.
BTL: Maybe even more than Nope, this is a difficult movie tonally, because it’s a comedy, there’s romance, but then it has all that social stuff. Where do you find the balance to keep the tone light, but not make it so light that it takes away from the tension?
Abels: You’re exactly right. That’s a thing that we had to talk about a lot. I would like to say that I have a sense of that. I tried to, but ultimately, you try something, and you put it against picture, and you get feedback. Fortunately, because Cory is really intuitive, he’ll know whether he feels it’s working and whether the problem is that it’s too happy or it’s too sad.
It’s kind of a dial that you have to tweak and get just right. In fact, there’s one cue, it’s in the end title, and it was called “Father’s New Family.” It was meant to go in a scene in the film, but it ultimately made the scene too silly. Whereas the scene is funny, but somehow, music, doing the same thing, just took it right over the edge, so I put it in the soundtrack, but it’s not in the scene that inspired the music.
BTL: You did mention the recorder trio, and I do want to ask about the Sad Recorder Consort cue. I don’t remember the scene from the movie, so how did that come about, where is it in the movie?
Abels: The idea for the instruments came about, because of the pureness or simpleness sound of a recorder, I think is what attracted me to the sound of them. They have a formal sound to them, that maybe other woodwind instruments… It’s funny, because woodwind instruments are very serious classical instruments, but the recorder has this ancient sound that I think appealed. In the environment, I felt like they matched. That’s in a scene…. I’m having trouble remembering, because we moved it around, and that’s really something that Cory will do. He’ll have a lot of scenes with dialogue with no music and then he’ll have a scene that has no dialogue that’s deliberately meant to be a musical moment, visually. Different cues I do, he’ll often move them. If something’s working in one scene, he’ll then later on try it again.
But it’s in a scene where… It’s one of the later scenes where the Vuvv are appreciating Adams artwork, and they’re deciding what they think about it, so the formalness of it works for that sort of situation. It was actually M.T. Anderson, who named it the Sad Recorder Consort, because after he heard this score, he sent me a really nice note, which I was thrilled to receive. He was mentioning the different soundscapes, and he said from the theremin to the pipe organ to the “sad recorder consort.” The fact that he could identify that’s what it was and what it was doing and verbalize that, I thought was a great affirmation of what the music was because that’s exactly what it was, but no one had said it that way. I thought in honor of him that cue should be named the “Sad Recorder Consort.”
BTL: There are a lot of shorter cues in this, and it isn’t as wall-to-wall music, so was that also something that came from Cory that the music is used more sparingly?
Abels: I don’t know if he consciously would say he uses music sparingly. Maybe he would. It just seems that there are certain scenes that seem like a good opportunity for music, and then others don’t. I don’t remember if it was even temped with things, to be honest, because I was working on it pretty early on, and then certain themes started working, then we were expanding on those themes as we moved forward into finding the score. It seemed like that was enough music for the film, and we didn’t compare it to other expectations of how much music there might be.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is still playing in theaters across the country. There is no announced date for VOD or streaming as of yet.