Filmmaker Jordan Peele has now made three fantastic feature films, and for all three of them, he called upon Composer Michael Abels to provide the musical score, which is amazing when you realize that Get Out was Abels’ first movie credit.
Abels has pulled out all the stops for Nope, which features an all-orchestral score that mixes film scoring genres as effortlessly as Peele mixes genres to create a very different “alien invasion” thriller. It’s a score that does exactly what’s needed to create tension in scenes when that’s important, and to enhance the emotions of Peele’s talented cast. But it’s also a classic score that stands on its own, much like the work done by Bernard Herrmann for many Hitchcock movies, which is among the biggest compliments one can pay to a composer.
Like many of Peele’s collaborators, Abels is just an incredibly talented and creative composer, one who helps make Nope stand out among other sci-fi thrillers. Last week, Below the Line jumped on Zoom to speak with Abels for the following interview, where we learned a lot about how he and Peele worked to create the sonic palette for the movie.
Below the Line: In your bio, it says you started composing when you were eight years old. Is that true?
Michael Abels: I first tried when I was eight, so that piece, I didn’t finish, but that was my first try. It took me till I was 13 — I tried again and finished a piece, and then I was hooked.
BTL: But you didn’t do any scoring of television or movies or anything until Jordan came to you for Get Out?
Abels: I went to USC and I was scoring TV and radio commercials, even in school, because I had a friend [who] was in music school and his dad was a director of commercials. So we would get a chance to… when the client didn’t know what they were doing for music and maybe didn’t even budget for it, maybe, we’d get a chance to pitch, and that was great because it was real-world experience. I had familiarity with scoring to picture and having to budget, and writing under deadline and taking clients’ notes, but I had no headway on getting into the industry upon graduation. So, no, I hadn’t scored a film until Jordan Peele called me.
BTL: What music of yours did he hear? How did he even know about your music to contact you?
Abels: Some of my concert music for orchestra was on YouTube, and it got several dozen hits, as you do when you put your music on YouTube and you don’t even know how to maximize your viewership. One of those hits turned out to be Jordan Peele right as he was looking to film his first written-and-directed-by film. He was clearly looking for someone who could write in a dissonant, 20th-century contemporary classical style because he noticed that music like that worked very well in some of the suspense and horror films that he is a student of. But he was also looking for someone who understands the black experience, and so in that way, he was kind of looking for me, and that’s pretty inspiring to imagine that you put your art out there and that there is someone who is looking to receive it and all the things that it can be.
That was before Get Out, but actually, the piece he was listening to that had him call the producers of Get Out and find me, an excerpt of that piece actually made it into the score of Nope. That piece is called “Urban Legends,” and years later, Jordan was listening to it when he was writing the script of Nope, and he imagined that music as part of a certain place in the script, a very exciting moment. And so, we temped with it there, and we were both amazed at how well it was working. Even though in Jordan’s process, he tries a lot of different things because he wants to make sure he’s making the freshest and best decision, it made it all the way to the final cut.
BTL: That’s a remarkable story and one that’s quite different from the ones I normally hear from composers about how they got into scoring. I assume you arrange your own pieces as well, but are you also a conductor?
Abels: I do conduct, but when I record scores, I don’t conduct much of it, because I prefer to be in the booth. I feel like I’m able to focus on what’s going on with the recording a little more than when I’m conducting. I have to think about conducting to do a good job so I choose to delegate that mostly and stay in the booth.
BTL: Us came out in 2019, so at what point did you hear about what eventually became Nope? Are you told about it while he’s writing or after he’s finished it and has something for you to read?
Abels: Both with Us and with Nope, and even with Get Out, he started by sending me a script when he was probably in pre-production, because none of them had been shot at that point, but there was a production date scheduled. I think Jordan really wants to design the world of his film, sonically, at the same time he wants to design it visually. While a lot of those visual decisions have to be made before you can even get on the set, there’s more flexibility in the audio, but he takes it just as seriously, and I think he very much shoots with the sound in mind. He’s one of those filmmakers who can see the big picture from the beginning, in part because he’s a writer at heart. In each case, I started with the script, and we had a conversation before he even went into production.
BTL: Sound design is especially important for Jean Jacket, because right from the beginning, when we first have any sign of it existing, OJ hears it before he sees it, so when you get the script and are sitting at the piano or wherever to write something, how are you keeping that important sound design aspect in mind?
Abels: There are a couple of answers there. One is that for the sound design, Jordan brought on Johnnie Burn, the sound designer, extremely early on. I think he called Johnny the same day, he called me, or maybe even earlier, because he knew how crucial the sound of Jean Jacket and that part of the world of the script was going to be. I had even more interaction with the sound designer on this project than any other I’ve ever worked on, for Jordan or anyone else, because it was important to hear how the sound of Jean Jacket was evolving and how not just the sound of Jean Jacket itself, but the sound of the valley that OJ and Em live when they’re first hearing something that they’re not sure what it is. They hear Jean Jacket really before they see it. That’s a super important part of the story of the film, as it reveals itself and what it’s about.
Also, yes, even though I haven’t heard what the sound designer is going to do, I am starting with ideas of my own for different parts of the film and the different genres that this film touches on and belongs to, in certain ways, were each an entry point for me, musically. Just like the piece that Jordan wrote the script to was one entry point for some of the action-adventure music, I had an entry point of the Western music and the Haywood ranch music and the horror, all those things were things that I started working on separately, as we figured out exactly where the film was gonna lie in between all those different genres.
BTL: I particularly love the “Jupiter’s Claim” theme, since it’s perfect for those John Ford-type movies. You hear that cue and you immediately know what you’re going for.
Abels: Great, great — thank you.
BTL: The three most important things for me when it comes to a genre or horror film are the production design, the sound design, and the music — and those three things often can make or break a genre movie for me.
Abels: I think that’s a really wise assessment, although I don’t know if most people realize how important those things are.
BTL: No, I just watch a lot of movies as a film critic over the years. I listened to the Us score again and that seems to be more piano and MIDI, as well as some vocal stuff, but for Nope, you went full orchestra almost from beginning to end. That goes back to the old Hollywood thing that kind of permeates Nope. Do you generally write stuff on piano or computer before recording with an orchestra?
Abels: Well, all the strings are live in Us, and there’s a lot of string writing. All the vocals are live, but there’s also a lot of sound design and virtual instruments. In Nope, yes, there’s a definite need to harken back to old Hollywood. There’s a cue called “Brother and Sister Walk,” where [it’s] all woodwinds, and it really has an old-school feel, and that’s deliberate. When you see OJ and Em walking along the ridge on their property, and you see that you’re in this big California Valley, you’re meant to feel all of those old Western films. Then, in the more epic adventure sections, it’s the brass section. There’s a giant film score brass section in this film, and it’s not like it’s not in earlier cues, but you really hear it in the last act of the film, where that’s their job to give you that sense of, “Okay. This is an epic adventure.” The score needs to feel just as big as that IMAX theater that you watch it in. The score can’t fail to deliver the bigness of that whole experience. Jordan knew that going in, and it was a huge opportunity for me to just be able to say it’s never going to be too big in the Nope score when the time comes. When you get to the Jean Jacket in the valley and OJ, that’s the big battle.
BTL: By the time you recorded the music for this, were you actually able to record in L.A. with California musicians, and were you able to do it with a full orchestra, or did you still have to do it in layered parts?
Abels: We were able to do full orchestra, which is very exciting. The musicians said it was only the second gig they had had, where they were allowed to all be together. I had the full string section and the full brass section and the winds all in one room, and that was great. We didn’t include the percussion, but it’s not that we couldn’t have. It’s that I like to have them bring like every toy in their garage when I do one of Jordan’s films. We used the emptiness of the soundstage to be able to fit way more instruments than you ever could. Even though I have it all notated, and there are things I know I want, there are things that it’s great to play with them and figure out what the sound is, especially for suspense and horror, where you’re looking for sounds.
Part of Jordan’s aesthetic is that horror comes from a natural world. So far, he hasn’t done something where it’s technology. It’s more about people and things that exist and breathe. To him, I think, that’s where the real terror lies, and so, the sounds that he appreciates are sounds that come from a natural world, even if you can’t tell what they are. And especially if you can’t tell what they are. That’s really scary to think that there’s something alive or nearby, and you don’t know what it is. That’s a real place of scariness. Any percussion sounds we can find that are really surprising and interesting, yet really played by people, are things I’m going to want to use.
BTL: How many drummers or percussionists did you have playing at once? There was at least one cue where it sounded like maybe three or four people, and I wasn’t sure if they did that at the same time or if you layered it.
Abels: There are three guys, and then there’s also sometimes I’ll use a virtual stem of percussion if it’s working, and there’s no need to record it live, I can also use that. Sometimes, there might have been up to five different tracks of percussion happening on something, maybe six, but not always. It depended on the vibe of the score. There’s even a track called “Preparing the Trap,” which is actually a kind of mellow cue, but at the same time, it also has a lot of different percussion layers or plucked instruments. I like to, not overriding, but giving each thing its sonic space, It’s a chance to really create some music that’s three-dimensional, even though it may be, overall, kind of mellow. It gives you a sense that you’re sonically reaching into something, and there’s something there, even though it’s quiet.
BTL: I also felt like this movie has more music than your typical score. It just seems to be music almost from beginning to end and all different cues and themes, too.
Abels: On the soundtrack, there is at least one cue that only part of which made it into the film. Because people who listen to soundtracks appreciate that, give them the full version, some of which when they get to the final cut, they’re like, ‘We don’t need this part.’ What you hear in the film is actually a little shorter than it is on the soundtrack, but it’s a lot of music. I think there’s officially about 80 minutes of music in the film, and that’s a lot. It is a lot, because it’s a larger-than-life story, ultimately, even though you don’t realize it’s gonna be at the beginning. And larger-than-life stories need a soundtrack.
BTL: Do you generally name your own cues, or does Jordan ever throw ideas your way? I thought calling the one cue that grinds to a halt “The Star Lasso Expeerrriii…” was pretty funny. Are you naming tracks while recording or during the mix?
Abels: The names are actually done at the end, because part of Jordan’s process is to take music I’ve written and move it around in different scenes. I actually look forward to him doing that, because it helps me learn about how he’s listening to the score. He knows what he wants, but he also likes creative ideas, and he wants to really test things out, and it’s part of his process. I don’t always know where a cue is going to end up. The cue that is called “Nope,” the one with the whistling, and the guy shouting, and at the end, they say, “No.” That ended up being the end title. When you see it, it seems obvious, like of course, that’s the end title. But that’s not how I originally wrote it. When Jordan heard it, and decided, in watching it with picture, that made sense to him. Some of the original titles are correct from the beginning, but when it’s time to release a score album, I’ve renamed the cues, according to where they’ve ended up, but also, I don’t want to actually have any spoilers in cue names. Some have to be renamed for that, and I actually like titling things. I like to think I’m clever like that, but also, if Jordan thinks the title is wrong, he has a sign-off, so sometimes he’ll think of a title or he’ll say he wants it to be different, and I’ll change that according to his wish.
BTL: Earlier, you mentioned that Jordan temped a scene in Nope with one of your older orchestral compositions from YouTube. Do you remember what that was?
Abels: It was a piece I wrote called “Urban Legends,” and on the album, it’s called “The Run” and it says in parentheses “Urban Legends.” People who want to can take a deep dive and find “Urban Legends” on YouTube, and you can hear how it’s the same piece, but think the cue in the score is about 90 seconds or 100 seconds, and the piece is about maybe 12 or 13 minutes. I edited the cue to match the picture, so you hear the same music, but it’s in a different order, so that it fits with the picture, if that makes sense.
BTL: Recently, Jordan posted a funny video that was the opening titles for the sitcom “Gordy’s Home.” Did you have anything to do with the music for that?
Abels: I was gonna do a crack at “Gordy’s Home,” but then, at some point, he decided it wasn’t going to be the film regardless and I had a lot of music to write, so I didn’t do a full crack at “Gordy’s Home.” But when he did it, that turned out great. Each film he does, the world of it is so rich, that he’s able to create these Easter eggs for people that he can either release separately or put on albums or whatever, and it’s really cool.
BTL: I know you scored Breaking, which is coming out next month, although I missed it at Sundance. Anything else you’ve done we can look forward to?
Abels: So, Breaking, John Boyega‘s performance is just on. Because we didn’t get to have a premiere, not like a regular type, I have yet to be able to congratulate him in person, and I hope to. It’s based on a true story, and it’s just a very moving film. Abi [Damaris Corbin], the director, has done a terrific job, so I’m really glad that’s getting released and finding its audience.
I have [also] co-written an opera called Omar — I co-wrote it with Rhiannon Giddens who is a Grammy-winning, MacArthur Genius-winning Americana and roots artist. If you don’t know her music, check it out, because she’s astounding. Anyway, we’ve co-written an opera. It’s called Omar. It opens at Los Angeles Opera this fall, and it’s going to Chicago and to Boston and other cities eventually, so that’s a thing. And then, I also have done some music for a film called Chevalier, which is coming out soon.
BTL: That’s premiering at TIFF, I believe.
Abels: Exactly. It was an interesting collaboration in which Kris Bowers (Green Book) did the score after it was shot, but I did the music that’s on-camera. Because it’s the story of a composer, there’s some of his music, and there’s some music [from] other composers, because the story is about him competing with other composers, and then there’s original music by me that helps to tell the story of the composer that’s done on camera. I got to write music in the style of Mozart, and I got to write music that helped tell Joseph Bologne‘s story. That’s a really unique and beautiful film.
BTL: I’m looking forward to that, as I’m a massive Kelvin Harrison Jr. fan, and I’m always looking forward to movies that get him out there.
Abels: He is a great guy. He had to learn to play the violin for this role. He also had to learn to fence, because this composer was a champion fencer. He actually toured Europe, doing fencing competitions as a way to make some money. So, Kelvin is multitalented.
Jordan Peele’s Nope is still playing in theaters nationwide. You can also read J. Don Birnam’s review here, and our previous interview with Production Designer Ruth De Jong. Abels’ soundtrack for Nope is available to buy from Back Lot Music and Waxwork Records, or to stream on all of the major music services (Spotify, etc.)