INTERVIEW: Composer Marco Beltrami Discusses ‘A Quiet Place,’ ‘Free Solo,’ & Experimenting in Horror

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One of the busiest composers of 2018 was Marco Beltrami. The two-time Oscar nominee gained praise early in the year when “A Quiet Place” premiered to a massive box office and used its score to perfection. The balance of Beltrami’s work with the silence of the world John Krasinki’s character inhabited made for a perfect pairing. Jumping between minimalism, strings, and even electronic sounds, Beltrami delivered excellent work. He even received a Golden Globe for his efforts and is now on the Oscar shortlist for Best Original Score at the Oscars. He also composed the score for “Free Solo,” which received its own spot on the shortlist in Documentary Feature.

Alan French/Awards Circuit: A large part of “A Quiet Place” is that it uses minimalist sound, or silence altogether. What about this attracted you to the project? 

Marco Beltrami: I was attracted just out of curiosity at first. I was given this script that had like two lines of dialogue in the whole thing, and I was interested in what kind of project this was going to be. After I met with John [Krasinski] and went to the set to see what they were achieving with the script, I was really interested. To me, it wasn’t just a horror movie. At that point it was a family story, a story about the lengths a father would go to save his family. I thought it had a lot of potential to develop into something scary, but because you create an emotional bond with the family.

AF: Well speaking of horror, you have worked in the genre before on landmark films the “Scream” franchise. What made you interested in returning to the horror genre? 

MB: Honestly, I’m not a big fan of horror. In fact, “Scream” was the first horror movie I had ever seen. The thing that does appeal to me about horror films is that you get some license to explore different instrument timbres and sounds that I might not get to in a more conventional movie. In this film, we weren’t conventional at all. I didn’t feel like I had to repeat things I had done in the past, but I could fully explore new territory. I had a lot of fun playing with tunings of instruments, the recordings, and the techniques as well.

AF: So you mentioned John Krasinski a couple questions ago. Tell us about the process of collaborating with him. 

MB: Well it started in a conceptual place and John mentioned there was some music that inspiring to him when he was writing the script and shooting. I took that as a first step to listen to and sort of get familiar. Whenever you work with a director for the first time, there’s always a language barrier because music is abstract. Getting to understand what he was hearing in his head, and the things that were appealing to him, helped me understand where to go from there. I would send things to him, and we would talk on the phone. Eventually, he came out to LA and we actually spotted the movie together. It was a close working relationship, and we shared a lot of ideas back and forth.

AF: One of the things that I love about this score is that you can tell you’re experimenting around in a fun way. Some parts I love are very minimalist, with just a piano and some strings. Can you tell me about those sections of the score?

MB: One of the original concepts we talked about was the family living in silence. They did not have music around them during this time, so the sound was like a memory. I was thinking, maybe the piano wasn’t quite in tune, but how do you do that but keep it in tune with the rest of the orchestra. The solution I came up with was to detune the black keys on the piano by a quarter tone. Then you have the piece in a modal feed that didn’t use too many accidentals. That way when you hit on them, it makes the score seem off, but not enough so that it sounds like a circus piece.

AF: The music that surrounds the monsters was very cool. It gives off a distorted and electrical feel. They contrast well together. 

MB: We had two different recording sessions with instruments. The first one was simply for processing strings and brass and we recorded them motifs. We then processed them and used them as scoring tools that felt like they were created in a sampler. That would make them tough to recreate in a live setting. It was taking something that was played by a human, and then subverting it a little bit and becoming more progressive with it.

AF: The actual monster theme was horrifying to hear when you were in the theater. Were there any inspirations you used when making the sequences so intense? 

MB: I knew we wanted to go simple and low. It was almost like a “Jaws” theme, and even when you hear it, the first couple of notes make you feel the creature’s presence. Even when it is not in the frame, you can feel it by signaling it with the motif. It was sort of playing around in the lower range that made that possible.

AF: One of the iconic scenes of the movie is Emily Blunt’s birthing scene, and your score helps to ramp up the tension. How do you make sure the score complements the action and doesn’t become too big? 

MB: That was such a great scene, and her acting is brilliant in it. To be honest, I think the scene would work great without the music in it, but I was happy to add what I could. One of the biggest challenges in working on a silent movie like this one is that you don’t want to get in the way of the movie. If it stands out from the movie too much, then its not doing its job. It was something I was always conscious of, and in that scene, we had a lot to do. The creature’s theme creeps in, and it gives you that sense of dread. It also connects with the bigger picture of what is going on around it. It was definitely a fun scene to score.

AF: The film, in general, has a feeling of remorse and loss hanging over it. What did you do to bring that theme into your work? 

MB: So we had some traditional music as well, and not everything was processed or treated. I love those moments of the traditional sound. Structurally and harmonically, it’s very simple. You can see the family moments like when John on top of the silo or the kid in the truck, and I wanted to come up with simple for them was one of the challenges. Almost every movie is like a puzzle, and you’re trying to find the emotional backdrop to the film.

AF:  You also scored “Free Solo” this year, which is one my personal favorite documentaries of the year. How did you get involved with that project? 

MB: I’ve been a fan of Jimmy [Chin] and Chai [Vaserhelyi] since they made “Meru,” which to me was the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I had my eye on them, and when I heard about “Free Solo,” I asked my agent to pursue it. For one thing, I just wanted to meet Jimmy because I’m in awe of what he does. They heard some music of mine, responded, and I met with them in New York. It was dream project, and I love the movie we made. I’m really happy with “Free Solo.”

AF: I have to say as Alex [Honnald] makes the final turn and finishes climbing up the mountain, it was like a weight had been lifted off my chest. 

MB: Yeah even though you know he survives! “Free Solo” is the scariest movie I’ve ever scored, and last night I saw it again on IMAX. It was sort of mind-blowing. During that ten-minute-long sequence, there are challenges and little hurdles. It was having a sense that he was going to make it through it, but the bigger picture was still looming. We had a sense of direction with the music, and pulled the audience along. That was the challenge of that sequence there.

AF: So last question, and I want to turn back to “A Quiet Place” for it. What is the one thing you hope that people take away from the movie when they listen to your work? 

MB: I’m really proud of how the music and sound work in tandem. A lot of times in a movie you have the score and sound sort of fight each other. I think this is a perfect example of how they work together. I think for other filmmakers, the importance of having the sound and music teams work together to create a score that functions as one cohesive thing should be something people take away from the film.

What do you think of “A Quiet Place” and Marco Beltrami’s Score? Do you think it will get a nomination at Oscar? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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