It’s April 2019, and award-wining composer Michael Abels has done it again – created an eerie, empathetic, and compelling film score for Oscar winning-director Jordan Peele’s second record-breaking film “Us.”
Released back in March, “Us” premiered at SXSW to strong critical reviews. In its national release, it shattered box-office records raking in over $70 million in its opening weekend – a first for an original horror movie. “US” — Abels’ second collaboration with Peele — followed-up their 2017 critically acclaimed debut “Get Out” (2017) – a movie that changed the landscape of the American horror and suspense genres.
Abel’s film scores have garnered their own critical attention. “Get Out” was Abels’ first commercial score and was called “a chilling array of orchestral pieces that conjure up some seriously sinister sonic atmospheres.” Abels’ music for “US” was heralded as “[a] relentless, smartly inventive thrill-ride score….” Abels was also recently featured on NPR and talked about the kind of music that “terrifies” him.
Q & A with Michael Abels
S: Michael, congratulations on the success of “US,” your second film score. How does it feel?
Abels: It’s very gratifying. “Us” is a very scary and thought-provoking film, and I wasn’t sure how audiences would react. But the response has been tremendous, and I’m blown away by that.
S: “Us” centers on an American, upper middle-class Black family and the dark, emotional exploration of doppelgängers. How did the story affect the way you approached this score?
Abels: I look at composing [and] writing music as storytelling, regardless of the medium. You’re trying to take listeners on some kind of journey, and it’s also very much a pure emotional expression. The film is about individual characters confronting their own mirror images, so it’s a very intimate, personal story. The score needed to feel like it was right with you, and not about invaders from another universe or something.
S: Critics have all commented on your score which aptly portrays varying emotions and atmospheres, along with your use of musical elements from the 60’s, 80’s, 90’s hip-hop as well as commentary on classical music. Is it true that you began working on the score before filming began? Where did the story lead you?
Abels: Yes, Jordan had me read the script before he had shot any of the film. This was a similar process to “Get Out” in that respect. He’s always challenging me to find different ways to scare the pants off people. The “Us” score is a lot scarier than the “Get Out” score, with more moments of real intensity. [Jordan] is very conscious of the power of music and film, and particularly in suspense and horror. So, he’ll tell me the type of music that he’s thinking of, and, in the case of “Us,” he said, ‘Clearly, the whole story is about duality…so why don’t you try experimenting with some sounds and instruments that don’t go together, a couple of deliberately unconventional choices [like] duets between surprising pairs, and see what happens.?’ I did that and I came up with some demos, some examples of me just experimenting with things that I wouldn’t have otherwise experimented with if he hadn’t told me to go and play in that sandbox.”
S: Now that the movie is out and you’ve done the press junkets, any plans for some downtime?
Abels: I did plan for it, but it hasn’t happened yet. I scored a Netflix movie, “See You Yesterday,” that is out May 17th. It’s a family drama-adventure in a completely different style from a Jordan Peele movie. There are new concert pieces in the works too, but the premieres are far off at the moment.
Remember: check-out NPR’s Abels feature, and we’ll all keep an eye out and ear open for more Michael Abels news.