How composer Michael Abels produced the chilling score for Get Out
Everybody is talking about Get Out.
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut has now grossed over $100 million at the US box office. The film tells the story of Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) who travels upstate to meet his girlfriend’s parents. Initially, Chris thinks their overly attentive behaviour is just old white folks coming to terms with interracial dating. He soon finds out that the truth is something much more sinister.
To score his politically charged thriller saga, Peele called upon the talents of Michael Abels – a California-based composer who had never scored a motion picture. Subtly incorporating all the subtext which seeps through the film’s plot, Abels’ score helps to bring this hyperreal nightmare to life. We caught up with him to get the lowdown.
For those who might not have heard of you, give us some background on your work before Get Out…
Well most of my work has been in concert orchestral music. I also run the music department at a private school in Santa Monica, California.
And how did your work on the movie come about?
Jordan Peele, the writer/director, saw an orchestral piece of mine called Urban Legends. It’s a piece in which all hell breaks loose. I think that made him think I’d be up for this job! He’d been looking for someone who could have lived some of the scenes that the lead character in this film has lived. I’m African-American so I could write from my own experience.
Did you have personal experience to draw from?
Yes! Some of the awkward, funny scenes where Chris, the lead character, suddenly becomes very aware that he’s the darkest face in the room. I’ve had similar experiences.
How was the concept for the film explained to you by Jordan?
Well he started off by sending me the full script, which is so brilliant. I immediately knew I really wanted to be a part of it and be involved in the project in whatever way I could. He said that, first of all, the music has to be seriously scary. He explained a lot of things he finds scary in music and films. His knowledge of suspense and horror in movies is encyclopaedic, and his thoughts were really insightful.
Did you watch any horror movies in preparation?
Well I listened to music that Jordan thought was scary rather than watching movies. He sent me a track once and said, “This is the scariest blues I have ever heard!”. I had never thought of blues as scary before so the mere fact that he put that adjective with that music was cool to me. He also sent me some tracks of chanting in Latin and said, “This music is terrifying!”. All that music gave me a clear sense of what he liked.
Also, the film straddles genres. It’s a psychological thriller but there are scenes which are really funny! There’s also a level of it which is a horror film. So, it was important that the slow burn in the film – the way the monster is slowly revealed – played out like a really classic suspense thriller. The music had to have the emotional depth that the music in a Hitchcock film has. I was really shooting for that.
The film subverts a lot of familiar genres. Was that something which influenced the score?
Yes. So there’s scenes that have funny lines – especially in the garden party, where people are saying awkward things to Chris and they aren’t really aware how they’re coming off. When you watch those things as an audience you laugh. But from Chris’ perspective, it’s not funny. It’s awkward and he feels tense. So the music – rather than being satirical or funny – takes his point of view.
That’s interesting. So what would normally be a knockabout comedy moment is positioned as something more serious and personal. The film uses quite subtle imagery and subtle storytelling to portray the racial themes. How did you reflect that strategy musically?
So the main title is called Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga. That means “Listen to the elders” in Swahili. The voices are meant to represent the departed slaves and lynching victims. They are trying to reach Chris, the lead character, and speak to him from beyond. The use of Swahili is so we hear an African language in their tone yet we don’t hear the exact words they’re saying because the dead speak to us through imagery and emotion.
I had them say things in Swahili that they would be saying if they were trying to warn him. That’s what the phrases are. The translation is, “Brother, run! Listen to the elders! Listen to the truth! Run away! Save yourself!”
Was the recipe a mixture of typical horror tropes with Afro-centric styles?
There wasn’t a checklist of African instruments to use or anything but there’s a kind of rhythmic pulse to the score which is unlike a normal suspense score – it’s a lot more modern. To me that kind of incorporates the influence. There’s also a definite preference for live instruments over electronic sounds. Whenever we needed a sound which was unfamiliar, we would look to strings or rattles – something based in the natural world.
I was interested in something you said in a different interview about focusing on a Western imagining of African music and culture. How much did the idea of exotic fascination inform the process? I imagine it’s a theme which aligns closely with the plot of the film.
That’s a great question, this is a whole other subject, let me see how I can answer this. Film music is ultimately trying to tell a story with emotional responses that you have to music as a listener. That’s the assignment. The film has to tell a story so I knew that choosing Swahili would cause us to hear voices that we, as English speakers, would identify as African. Therefore, that was going to tell the story effectively. In choosing Swahili, I had to read up so I could be reasonably informed. What I learned was that Swahili was not the language of most of the Africans who became slaves. But Swahili is a very musical language and I’m writing music. I have poetic license to be able to successfully paint this picture. But I get that it’s not authentic – it’s designed for storytelling. I’m an American person of African descent and I’ve never been to Africa and I don’t speak any African languages. What I know is what sounds African to American ears. That’s the spirit I was coming from – storytelling with respect.
This was your first work on a motion picture. Is it something you’d like to revisit?
For sure. I really enjoy telling stories with music so anything that can give me an avenue to do that, I’m interested.
The film is our here in the UK tomorrow (17 March). What can people who have seen all the headlines but won’t have seen the film yet expect?
It is well worth your time to see this film. First of all it will give you a scare! It will give you a lot of laughs! And it will leave you with something to think about.