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When Daniela Vega, star of A Fantastic Womantook to the stage at the 90th Academy Awards, she became the first openly transgender person to ever present at the Oscars.

The film that propelled her to international recognition took home an Oscar that night for Best Foreign Language Film. Taken together, the achievements that night felt like a breakthrough moment for trans visibility. Perhaps most significant, A Fantastic Woman has reopened a debate over a gender identity bill in Chile, where the film was produced and set, underscoring the real-world import of bringing the stories of minorities to wider attention.

Yet, in the clamour to claim cultural monumentalism, it’s easy to overlook the simplicity of A Fantastic Woman. At its heart, it is a story of a waitress dealing with the death of her partner and her human right – here, denied and denied again – to grieve. Crucially, the audience is asked to identify and empathise with Marina – to feel every micro and macro aggression, but also escape with her into an interior world. To do this, co-writer and director Sebastian Lélio called on Matthew Herbert, the British producer known for his conceptual and often deeply political projects, to create the score. From its sweeping main theme to the throbbing club tracks – a callback to Matthew Herbert’s own house productions – Herbert’s score enriches the film’s emotional tonality, teasing out nuance and beauty where oppression and trauma prevail.

We spoke with Matthew Herbert to find out how he approached the score and how music, in particular melody, can be a powerful force in bringing people together.

Hi Matthew. How did you get involved with A Fantastic Woman?

It’s like, when you make records you’re a dandelion or something. At some point you blow the seeds off the stalk and you never know where they land, or what they turn into, or what they become. Sebastian (Lélio, the director) listened to a record I made called Bodily Functions at the end of the 90s, and when he came to this film he felt that I’d be a good person to contact. We met, and we got on, and that was it really. So it came from a record I made nearly 20 years ago.

What do you think he heard in that record that he thought could work in the context of this film?

I think there is something intimate about it and also something dreamy, maybe. Even though it’s house music, the record wasn’t designed to be played in nightclubs as such. It had an intimacy to it, a late night quality where things are a little uneven or slightly unexpected. When we talked about the film we talked a lot about the sense of dreaminess, the kind of hallucination of it, and I think maybe that atmosphere was something he heard there and felt could work here.

Obviously there’s such a memorable fantasy element within the film and it’s interesting how the score teases that out and plays with it. One example is the use of harp.

People also talk about the flute, but actually one of the big orchestration interventions I made in it is a church organ. It’s pretty subtle, I mean it’s pretty massive, but it’s subtle as well. It’s interesting that nobody hears that – there’s something about the scale of it. I’ve grown to love church organs in the last year or two, because it’s one person creating this enormous noise with air and mechanics. I love the metaphor of that, and obviously you inherit all the implications of sacred spaces. It’s just trying to set the idea of one person in a huge landscape, or an implied landscape.

Speaking of which, does it raise any challenges when you’re creating a score for a film that is so bound up with the experiences and perspective of one character? 

In some ways it’s easier because the score becomes a portrait. I’ve [scored] Sebastian’s next film, Disobedience, and that’s much more of a landscape, it’s a world that these characters inhabit. I felt that a lot harder, in a way, because you’re trying to accommodate lots of different perspectives. Democracy is a lot harder than dictatorship.

Whereas with this, I think we wanted to treat her like Marilyn Monroe and give her a big melody, to give her this elegance and this grandeur, this dignity. We’re going to take her so seriously that we’re going to employ 30 people to sit in a room and play this melody, just for her. And for me, the music never gets louder than it does in the opening titles. We just put down a massive fucking flag in the ground to just say this woman needs your time, and your love, and your sensitivity. We just felt that the character deserved that.

Speaking of Marilyn Monroe, were you tempted to revisit scores from the golden age of Hollywood?

No. One thing to say is that, from meeting Sebastian for the very first time to delivering the final film, mixed and finished, was three-and-a-half weeks. I think that was why it works I think, it was just one gesture or one experience. Films are made so much by committee these days, and because it’s music everybody has an opinion about it, and pretty soon it gets diluted and changed. It gets pulled around like pizza dough, eventually it just starts to fall apart. And because we had such little time we were able to make an honest shape, I guess.

Also, I worked quite a lot on melody on the piano in quite an old fashioned way. I did two melodies, the first one I loved more than the other one, but my wife’s mother, who we call Grandma Judy, was over from Hong Kong and she was like, “what’s that pretty piece you keep playing?” And she was singing it. I was telling Sebastian about this and he was like, that’s who we want, we want Grandma Judy, we want her to like the film, we need to take people like her with us. It was really cute, this idea that the melody could help bridge the gap in the story between a transgender woman in Chile and a Chinese grandmother in Hong Kong. I think Sebastian loved that melody could help bridge those worlds.

I wanted to ask you about the club scenes. Nightclub scenes are notoriously hard to get right in films – they always ring so false, but that wasn’t the case here. Obviously, it had a lot to do with your music.

Sebastian and I had a little… tussle. We got on really well, but there was a little spike around the club scenes where I was just like, please just let me rewrite it. The track they had on already, the temp track, was a little bit 80s and a little bit trashy. It felt like music chosen by somebody who doesn’t spend a lot of time in nightclubs; I don’t mean that in a critical way of Sebastian. But I like that piece of music [that I wrote for the scene] because it feels like a piece of music I would DJ in a nightclub. Even though I’m 46 I still DJ once every two weeks, mostly abroad, mostly in Europe, so I’m still up at bloody 5am in the morning playing techno. So for me, I was like, we don’t need it to be anything flashy. We need it to feel real.

“We wanted to treat her like Marilyn Monroe and give her a big melody, to give her this elegance and this grandeur”

There seems to be a renewed interest in film soundtracks recently. Is this something you’ve noticed?

I feel like the Hans Zimmer big orchestral stuff has got a little saturated, it feels like that world has become very homogenous. If I asked you to sing a melody from a film score from the last 10 years, could you do it? But then you go back to the 80s or even the 50s. Melody has really gone from film music, it’s just an emotional state now. As a consequence, interesting film directors are approaching people outside of that world: Jonny Greenwood, Mica Levi, Trent Reznor and, I guess, people like me, people who are a bit outside of that world who come to it with much less of a need to fulfil a traditional musical role. It’s a really exciting movement.

You mentioned earlier that you joined the project late in the production process. How much were you working with images from the film?

It was finished pretty much by the time I saw it. I watched it, then I met Sebastian and then I wrote on the piano away from the screen and away from the film.

I felt like I wanted to just get to the heart of the thing and I just wanted to embody – because of the role of music you have to embody the quality of the film – so you have to take it all on, physically, inside of you and then try and get it outside of you onto an instrument. I’m making it sound like it’s some kind of sacred… I’m definitely over-egging the pudding.

I think I understand what you mean.

I don’t mean for it to sound as dramatic as I’m making it sound and I certainly don’t want to sound pretentious about it, but I’m also just being honest. You have to take it seriously. Particularly because of the story of it, because of the trauma she goes through in the film, and by implication, the trauma that marginalised people or minorities, or oppressed people, go through every single day. The way for me to do that is to put myself in that position. I’d just done jury service, and it’s interesting, you’re constantly asked to embody the problem or the question. They’re like, “what would you do in that circumstance”. And I think it’s part of the role of imagination in our lives, right across all experience, just that sense of trying to put yourself in the position that you need to understand, and then once you’ve reached a position of understanding, you’re able to express or take part in a meaningful way. Our whole society is based on storytelling – money and economics is storytelling, politics is storytelling, all Donald Trump is is a storyteller. He’s telling fairytales. How we organise ourselves as a society, it’s all about telling stories, it’s what makes us different from, say, rabbits.

It makes me think of that famous phrase from Roger Ebert, the film critic: films are empathy machines.

It’s true. The capacity to tell a story about empathy on such a big scale, feels really political right now. It feels really valuable. I’ve done quite a lot of films and worked with some really interesting directors, but this is by far the most important film I’ve worked on, and I’m proud to be part of it. Just to be part of a team that is creating a piece of work about empathy at a time when hatred is the currency of the moment.

Did you have any idea how important this film would turn out to be in terms of trans visibility – the Oscar win was obviously a historical moment.

Sometimes I did. The film is not sensational about Marina being trans at all – it’s just a very elegant love story to begin with, and ultimately it’s a story about a woman who wants her dog back. It’s quite a slender narrative arc, so there’s something seductive about the film. That felt slightly unknowable as a result, you had no idea quite how people would respond to it. I think people are just taking it on its own terms, a study in love and empathy. It’s just very, very elegantly done and I think ultimately that’s one of the reasons why it’s done well, it’s just a very beautiful bit of filmmaking with a very classic quality to it.