Interview: Daniel Lopatin Discusses Scoring the Tense ‘Uncut Gems’

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Daniel Lopatin didn’t set out to become a film composer. And yet, as if meant to be, that’s exactly where he landed.

He started college with one plan in mind, but Lopatin soon found himself scoring small projects that led to an opportunity to work on Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film, “The Bling Ring.” That project put him on a trajectory that eventually led him to team up with Josh and Benny Safdie for the film “Good Time” in 2017. And this year, they reunited for a follow up film.

Uncut Gems” stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a jeweler from New York who constantly finds himself in over his head. Everything about Ratner’s life is in self-inflicted disarray, and the central story examines some of the chaos in a tense, ever-moving drama.

I recently spoke with composer Daniel Lopatin about his work with the Safdie brothers, and on this film.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How did you get started with “Uncut Gems?”

Daniel Lopatin: I think it was kind of an organic continuation of “Good Time.” We never really stopped after “Good Time.” We just kept kind of spitballing, talking about stuff. Curious about each other’s projects, schedules and stuff like that. Sometime last winter we just started hashing it out and I remember some really, really cursory conversations where I was sending Josh [Safdie] examples of really weird Jerry Goldsmith scores from the 80s that had this mixed orchestra and synth. There was a rejected “Alien Nation” score, something like that. And I think that was really the first time we were kind of like, “All right, what are we doing here?” But we never really formally were like, “So, would you like to…?” We just kept going.

KP: How did you settle on the sound you wanted for “Uncut Gems?”

DL: It was really kind of coming a lot from the Safdie brothers. Especially Josh… He really thinks about this stuff with a fine-toothed comb. And so he already had a sense that the score would have this kind of new agey functionality to it. And then it was my job to see what else we could do with that or how we could deepen that or broaden that.

There was also a kind of built-in thing where they’re really, really good about the way they used temp, which, I don’t find to be that scandalous. I’m kind of into it because it really helps me understand what, if anything, is absolutely required. The most basic requirements are usually there in a temp. Stylistically, because they’re pulling from records and not other scores, and editing records, stitching different pieces of different songs together, it’s really wild and really interesting.

So that actually kind of does some of the collage work or alchemy work that happens as we proceed through a project anyway. He’s throwing evangelist records and new age flute records and all this stuff, so we were piecing it together right then and there.

KP: What were some of the early ideas you had that fell by the wayside?

DL: We knew we wanted a bigger score… I was really curious about expanding it to a bigger ensemble so it doesn’t really feel like it’s one person and their synth type score. And we ended up doing that in our own way anyway. But the initial impulse was to do a 70s style orchestral score with all these other accouterments. And so I guess I kind of had that in a way, but I was really about the Jerry Goldsmith because that’s where we started, which I think was more just a helpful exercise to get warmed up and to think about what’s possible.

There was never any wild deviation. I think we always knew that this was going to have to sound this way.

KP: What were some instruments you got to play with that you haven’t used before?

DL: There was a very timely partnership with Moog, which makes synthesizers out of North Carolina. These guys are really legendary, totally homespun synth makers. They have never made a polysynthesizer, which is essentially a synth where you can hear more than one key playing in tandem at the same time with other keys. That might sound totally bizarre, what is a piano if not something where you can hit a bunch of notes and hear them all at the same time. They really mastered this other kind of synthesizer where you essentially just hear a single note at a time and that’s actually a really helpful and interesting thing that was used by tons of musicians in the 70s to take crazy solos. So like Stevie Wonder, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, all these 70s acts loved that quality about it.

My thing with synthesizers is more like my dad was in these Russian restaurant bands in the 80s and he had this Japanese synth called the Roland Juno 60 that I learned all my tricks on. And I played it sort of in this hybridized manner, half learning from my dad these weird little rock songs, and half using the keyboard to make crazy textures. So I always preferred a polysynthesizer.

And then Moog, through Wayuti Sakimoto, absolutely wonderful, the most generous person I’ve ever met in music said, “Hey, Dan, you should hook up with Moog because they finally made a polysynth. This is totally for you.” I did. They were like, “Hey, we’re gonna send you one.” Eventually they made this documentary about making a score which will eventually come out. But anyway, long story short, we had this beautiful instrument that no one had really heard on record yet. And that was really, really special. And Josh really fell in love with that instrument and actually was really suited toward the textural ideas we had anyway, so it really worked out.

KP: I would like to back up just a little bit. How did you first get involved in film composition, and what was it that drew you to that work?

DL: When I look back, I really wanted to make films, or at least write them. My whole plan from middle school until I went to college in Western Mass at Hampshire College and deviating from this path, I really wanted to be a screenwriter. I was obsessed with films. I was a tape head. I was in bands but really, film was much more of a passion for me and being in bands was just like, well, I can play keyboards so I’ll just do it. And I was okay. I was an all right writer, but I wasn’t great.

And once I figured that out, I had to shift focus. But the fact of the matter is I’m still pretty much, to this day, somehow still chasing that or still obsessed with film. So it was always sort of in the back of my mind. When I met Brian Weitzel, I think it was around 2011, a terrific guy kind of mentored me, showed me the ropes. I’d go out to the studio a lot and talk a lot about what’s involved in scoring. Sofia Coppola needed some music for “The Bling Ring,” so we experimented with that, she liked it, she used it. That became my crash course.

And from there just kept pursuing it methodically. I just really wanted to be sensitive to the fact that when I’m indulging in my own, whatever I find musically titillating… that sort of headspace really has very little to do with working in tandem with other creative people who are looking for music. All these projects are different. I’m really lucky that with Josh, he likes me to be bombastic and indulge in the stuff because he loves records. He’s gonna be listening to music that wasn’t made for a film that he hears as score. Versus a whole bunch of scores and saying, “That’s a great example of a score!” So I think that drew him to me. On other film projects, that might not be the case at all.

I think a long-winded way of saying I’m still learning and I’m still early on in the process of it and trying to respect the craft, in a sense, and respect the idea that when you work on a film, you’re really listening more than you are indulging in your own ideas about music. Although there is always that opportunity at some point. It has to happen or else you’re just being totally passive. So I’m still finding my way through it.

KP: With “Uncut Gems,” where did the sound start for you? Was it the theme, was it Adam Sandler’s character? Was it the tone?

DL: It probably started with tone and then immediately got real when you start in on the character. In that way it’s similar to “Good Time.” The score mostly is tethered to Howard Ratner the way the score in “Good Time” was tied to Connie and his internal ambitions and drives and thoughts that we may not be privy to or understand completely, but he’s feeling. So that’s kind of the same thing here. Except they’re wildly different characters.

It’s usually me looking at a cue as a way to navigate an audience through Howard’s confusion and his weird, naive optimism and his weird, accidental connection to this cosmic unknown that he senses but can’t quite put a finger on through the opal. So in the film, we kind of quickly figured out there would be this kind of cosmic music that references that ineffable inside the gem world, and then there would be a material reality of the midtown diamond district that Ratner embodied and like a human being who’s sort of conniving but really funny and sweet and means well but is also a mess. And the inner play of that inside world and that outside world explains a lot to me about certain decisions going from something that sounded more jazzy like the opening of the first six to eight minutes of the film is a microcosm for the entire score. It’s an overture that introduces all the instruments you’re gonna hear throughout the entire thing.

The instruments in a sense are characters. There’s male and female voices shouting and those typically tend to take on the dynamic of Howard and Julia’s argumentative but very passionate relationship, so it has this operatic thing. There’s saxophone, and flute. The sax, to me, is this total New York City instrument, in a weird way, that’s just how I hear it. And this idea of this soloistic voice, there’s a lot of lyrical play. It’s very much tethered to Howard as a salesman, right? In the world he’s in where everyone’s pitching all the time their wares. So we thought there’s all these bizarre connections, some of which are made after the fact. I think in retrospect it does start making sense. I don’t know how much of that was actually planned, but it does feel like the instruments are almost like a cartoon world that play with some of the themes and some of the dynamics of the movie.

KP: What did working on “Uncut Gems” mean for you personally?

DL: On a number of levels, I absolutely couldn’t believe how personally referential to things in my life this was. That year, 2012, was the tail end of the dynasty for my team, the Celtics, which obviously Kevin Garnett’s in the film, the Celtics are shown triumphantly in this battle with the 6ers, but they go on to lose and that’s not shown in the film. So in a way,  I have this sentimental film to Kevin, to the Celtics, the end of this era of basketball that I witnessed and was really dedicated to at the time.

Adam Sandler, growing up in New England and being exactly the age, I’m in middle school when he’s putting out his records. All of that stuff is just wildly embedded in my personal history. And the Jewish aspect too, for sure. It just made it really easy to connect and to love the experiences of this character and to experience it and embrace it and really give it my all and give it a personal touch because I just really love the world they created. it’s weirdly a lot of stuff like that.

KP: Where can people find more of your work?

DL: I make my own recordings at Oneohtrix Point Never (pointnever.com). I’m around. I’ve put music out pretty routinely for the last ten years pseudonym.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Daniel Lopatin for speaking with us.

“Uncut Gems” is distributed by A24 and will be in theaters December 25.