Flickering Myth writer Justin Cook chats with composer Michael Abels ahead of today’s home video release of Us…
In hindsight, Jordan Peele’s Us had the thankless job of being the follow-up to the director’s previous directorial outing — indisputably one of the most culturally impactful films of the past decade — Get Out. It should have been disappointing by all accounts; it had every right to be. But Peele rose to the occasion once again and continued his journey of becoming the next great American horror maestro. However, it wasn’t just him whose status among the visionaries of the horror genre was solidified with the film’s massive success: his go-to composer Michael Abels is deserving of esteem and praise in equal measure.
Behind every great horror film is a great score, and Abels has crafted one of the best of the year. As diverse a soundtrack as any, Us’s score has a slow but unshakeable sense of impending dread throughout — until that dread eventually confronts the listener head-on, becoming impossible to ignore. The score plays with sounds that are familiar yet foreign, contributing intrigue and tension to every situation the Wilson family encounters, as well as explores the film’s central theme of duality through the use of conflicting instruments and assorted cultural inspirations. It’s bold and eccentric, and as instantly iconic as just about any musical work that has come out of the horror genre in recent memory.
Much like Peele, Us is only Abels’ second cinematic venture. Before his transition to the silver screen, Abels composed concert orchestral music for upwards of 30 years. It was when Peele discovered the composer’s work on YouTube and was thoroughly impressed, that he met with and eventually hired him to compose the score for Get Out. Now the two are a seemingly inseparable director-composer duo.
With today marking the release of Us on 4K, DVD and Blu-ray, it’s the perfect time to revisit Abels’ masterful composition paired with Peele’s image-making directorial eye on home video. Flickering Myth contributor Justin Cook spoke with Abels to discuss his work on Us and collaboration with Peele…
So to me Get Out is less a horror movie and more a psychological thriller than anything, while Us is more squarely in the realm of straight-up horror. What was it like pivoting genres from Get Out to Us and how did that affect the film’s score?
Michael Abels: I gotta say, I agree with you. In terms of your assessment of the genres there. But how it affected me was not — most the time you’re trying to… just like the actors manage to make you feel that the emotions they’re having are real and in the moment, in the score, I’m trying to do the same thing. I’m trying in my art [to] react in the moment. And so, if a character is terrified because she doesn’t know what’s going on, you’re responding to that. You’re not saying, “OK, now I’m in this genre versus that.” Its gotta feel right in the moment, and then if you do that, overall, the score’s gonna have the right feel for it.
Was there an added pressure this time around working with Jordan following the massive success of Get Out? Just considering how Get Out was a movie made on a relatively small budget and had far fewer expectations attached to it, and Us was a much bigger studio release?
Abels: I certainly knew that there were gonna be a lot of people anticipating this film and that to me was intimidating, but I didn’t really feel like there was more pressure actually. Jordan is one cool, professional person. He has high standards, but he also knows what he wants and he communicates really well, so it was a really great adventure.
Unlike most composers, Jordan Peele actually brought you in during the film’s pre-production process, not just in the post-production stage. What was it like being involved from the beginning of the process and going about composing while the film itself is constantly evolving?
Abels: It’s great — you get to feel like you’re part of the team. You know, like, often a composer is brought in at the end and the actors and all of the other crafts kind of all bonded around this experience of shooting the film, and you’ve maybe never even met them. But I got to feel like I was part of the team, and I certainly was not on set every day or anything like that, but Jordan played the main title, the “Anthem,” for members of the cast and the production team, and I did visit the set a couple times and it really helped me — I don’t know if you can hear it in the score, but it certainly informed the score. The score was shaped along with the rest of the movie, for sure.
Can you talk about the importance of silence in the score for Us? I know you and Jordan had some conversations on Get Out about the relationship between silence and horror, and I’m curious how that translated to the music writing process for this film.
Abels: Well, there’s a couple of examples I could name. Us and Get Out are very different films, but he’s very consistent about his vision and what he thinks works, and he’s very thoughtful about why things work. And so, his belief in silence as part of a score remains true, and I’ve learned a lot in writing music by really embracing that idea. So how you hear that, for example, in the “Anthem,” there’s no silence, but it’s much slower than your traditional march, and I got that idea out of this idea of silence, and so I ended up filling in the silence between the notes, when the violins enter and they’re playing eighth notes and there’s a note in between the notes that are being sung. But just the idea of the slow tempo allowed more space in the music, in general, was something I got out of Jordan’s love of silence being in the score. And also, in the “Pas De Deux” where I deconstruct “Five On It,” there’s the baseline, the “Yump, Dump” and “Dee Da Dee Da” and at the beginning of that scene. All I’m doing with that is playing with the silence and where it happens. Not letting the answer and the hype and the melody come exactly when you think it’s going to. So I’m really playing with silence as a way to build tension in that sound.
Us has such a varied soundtrack, between “Anthem” which you’ve described as a battle rally, to “Femme Fatale” which is reminiscent of old Hollywood, to “Pas De Deux” which is a horror ballet of sorts, so what were some of the challenges of working on a soundtrack that is constantly defining and redefining itself?
Abels: The challenge would be that it would seem not cohesive, like it would be too many separate things, but Jordan and I talked about that as we went along because we both knew that we didn’t want that. We wanted — the moment of “Femme Fatale,” we wanted that to feel like an old Hollywood moment. So that character (Elisabeth Moss’ Dahlia), she’s beautiful, she’s making herself beautiful for the first time in her life. It needed to feel the way she was feeling. But how we solved that was by making sure, whatever one of these worlds we’re taking you to, it has the same sonic palette, and by that I mean, it’s overall a score that is performed by strings and by voices. And by kind of very organic sounding processed sounds. Most of the things that I do in the score are coming out of those worlds, so as a result, that was my way of making sure that it all felt a part of the same world.
There are so many brilliant and striking little music cues and decisions made throughout the film, but one that, in particular, I wanted to ask about was how you went about adapting Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” for the opening Hands Across America commercial?
Abels: Yeah! Alright! That was… maybe the last cue I did actually. Even though it was at the beginning. That’s another like Jordan Peele joke. Like in Get Out, Chris the lead character is being forced to watch a video that explains what’s about to happen to him. In that video, is a cheesy little home video but there’s music in it, and I did that music. Made as part of the score, but made to sound like it’s sourced. It’s a sly little joke in there. So Jordan said, “Have it sound really cheesy,” and I said, “OK great.” I had always done [a piece] for that Hands Across America video — of course it’s fake — and Jordan said, “Its gotta have some cheesy 80s music.” So I did a little cheesy 80s thing. It was super fun! But man, [the idea later became that] it should be “Les Fleurs” because he figured out that that was the bookend (“Les Fleurs” plays at the end of the movie). I said, “Oh that’s a great idea.” So, of course, I went back home and I said, “OK I’m back in the 80s, and I’m gonna use synths and it’s gonna be fast, but its gotta be “Les Fleurs.” So it was really just a cross between those two things.
Whether you want to watch the Tethered wreak havoc on the vacationers of Santa Cruz again or experience it for the first time, purchase Us on 4K, DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital/rental services now!
Many thanks to Michael Abels for taking the time for this interview.