“A Most Violent Year” marks musician Alex Ebert's second feature experience with film scoring. And he's having a blast. The Magnetic Zeros frontman's work represents a different hue and shade of identity for Chandor's films, a lurking, subtextual element that is less about dressing the films than speaking to their thematic undercurrent.
And like “All is Lost,” which came with the closing track “Amen” (and earned Ebert a Golden Globe for Best Original Score), “A Most Violent Year” also boasts an original song. “America For Me” closes out the film as a wearied testament spoken from the point of view of one of the secondary characters in the film. It's bold and unique and almost at odds with the tidiness of the film otherwise, but that very conflict is also thematically relevant.
Ebert and I talked about that and a bit more, including the influence of artists like Popol Vuh, Vangelis and the rolling American landscape on his musical awakening. Read through the back and forth below.
“A Most Violent Year” opens Dec. 31.
HitFix: Let me actually start a little broadly. How are you liking film scoring in general after these two films with J.C.?
I'm loving it, man. I had the pleasure to do another one, too. It was a Disney short. It's out right now. It plays before “Big Hero 6.”
Yeah. And that was really cool, too. That was different. And the song “America For Me,” which I did for “A Most Violent Year” – I don't know if I reached my 10,000 hours or something but that culminated in a bit of a transformative experience for me as far as how I feel about songwriting. I feel like there's sort of a new landscape for me to explore now. Whereas just previous to that I was really just – man, pop music is just so boring to work on because I know exactly where I'm supposed to go for. Every song wants to go the same place. You want the verse, the chorus, the verse, the bridge – it's apparent. But obviously with scoring you get to go wherever you're supposed to go, wherever you need to go. And I think that's a major, major difference and sort of a liberating one. And even if they don't use it in the movie, which almost never happens – because when I write a piece I want it to be an entire piece. I don't really want to write a piece that's just for a scene and then you wouldn't listen to it on your own. So for the album sometimes it's the full version as opposed to what you hear in the theater. But yeah, in general it's just I feel like scoring is sort of liberating in that sense because this is always going to be blank, you know? As opposed to, you know, this sort of template.
Yeah, I've heard that before from those who have transitioned from being rockers or musicians in popular music to film scoring.
I imagine. I imagine it cannot be unique to me. It's such an obvious – it just hit me right over the head as soon as I was doing all these. Like, “Wow, this is just awesome.”
So I imagine you're interested in working with some other filmmakers as well?
Yeah, yeah, sure. I mean the thing about film, as you know, is it's such a collaborative effort. It's a gamble. You read the script but you have no idea because it comes down to so many people. So I guess the real key is working with directors that you sort of trust and who trust you. In that sense I got really lucky starting off with J.C. because he's just great to work with. He gives you all the rope you need, sometimes enough to hang yourself on. But I think I probably lucked out beginning this way.
What were some of his first references when he came to you to describe what he wanted out of the music for this?
You know at first he said, “You're not going to score this one because this one's the needle drop. This one's just going to be, you know, songs from that era – preexisting songs.” I believe he only ended up using one but then, you know, the shooting process or maybe it was even the editing process, he reached back out and was like, “No, it needs a score.” And that's sort of the only preliminary talk we had. I started making stuff and then I would bounce it off him and then we'd sort of refine from there. It was a bit more ramshackle this time. It was more me like sort of throwing spaghetti on the wall. I kind of wanted to do some far-out type stuff and we would sort of have conversations after that about what was working and what wasn't for him.
What was elemental about that material for you? What were you taking from the movie and putting into that early music that you were cooking up for it?
Well, you know, the time period. It's a really cool time period musically. '81 is this amazing transitional period between sort of the organic sounds and the synthesized sounds that were incoming and the new instruments and whatnot. Of course burgeoning hip-hop, burgeoning punk rock, a lot of music was sort of being invented then. This band called Suicide came to mind, and not from watching the movie but just from sort of breathing in the text. I don't think I had seen it yet. And then mixing that and sort of somehow incorporating synthesizers and cold war era angst into the fuel that sort of fired a lot of that punk rock and hip-hop and the general violence and sort of hyperbolic capitalist drive of that era. So, yeah, a bit steely, a bit angsty, and then, of course, I also just wanted it to be beautiful. But I think they're somewhere in the DNA.
The synth stuff is interesting. I was just listening to it again a moment ago and I was kind of reminded of Popol Vuh a little bit. I don't know if that's something you had in mind but…
Sorry, what's the name?
Oh, wait. Did they do…
Did they do fucking Herzog's “Aguirre?”
Oh, how did you know? That is – shit. That score is fucking amazing. That's one of my references. That was one of my references.
Well actually, I must that was not a reference for the film. That was a reference of mine that I think I brought forth for “All is Lost.” But I probably had moved on from that reference. But that's brilliant. So is that the only movie they scored?
I believe they did some other stuff with him but I don't know how much they worked with other filmmakers. I mean that's one of my favorite movies of all time and that score is so good.
Oh my God. You're preaching to the choir. He's – yeah that's up there. “Aguirre” may be in my top three or something. I mean it's unreal. It's so good.
Just as an aside, last year they screened a beautiful new DCP at the 40th anniversary Telluride Film Festival. So cool.
Wow. Oh amazing. My dad lives just outside of Telluride in a little town called Rico. I think I was at the Telluride screening of “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” or something like that.
Right, right. Herzog is always up there for the fest.
I think my pop actually met Herzog. He's awesome. I mean especially those old films. And the thing about the Popol Vuh stuff is that it's not unlike – there's another festival they have there called the Mountainfilm Festival and it's really, really, really awesome. My pop was going to Telluride since '72 or something. And they would go to this Mountainfilm Festival and it was all of these shots, you know – it was like the '80s, so it's like these beautiful panoramas of scenery mixed with synth. And I thought that that combination was so great. It also coincided with one of the most profound influences on me musically, which would be when my dad would take us on these trips, like month-long, two-week trips through the Southwest up into Colorado. We'd take these van trips, end up in Telluride a lot, but going through Yellowstone or whatever it is or going through Navajo country and my dad was so into Vangelis. He would blast Vangelis so loud while we were going through, like, Monument Valley.
Oh, that's awesome.
It would be like sunset in Monument Valley and my little 8-year-old face would be looking out the window and he'd be blasting Vangelis. So that combination of cinema, you know, moving landscape and this giant booming synthetic music. Anyway, that's what I found with Popol Vuh, and in the Mountainfilm Festival a lot of that stuff was mountains with sort of twinkling synths. And for some reason that combination of natural beauty and synthetic music really goes hand in hand. So anyway, it's interesting. I thought of it for “All is Lost” but I don't think of that as a reference for this one.
Maybe it was still sticking around in the residue.
It probably was yeah.
Well let's talk about the song a little bit. Really interesting and just a unique piece of work. I understand it's kind of from the POV of Julian character [an immigrant who is hired to work for Oscar Isaac's entrepreneur in the film]. How did that evolve?
I guess because I'm a musician it's always in the air. “Look, if you do a song for the movie that would be cool.” But I was running and gunning and I was working on a couple of albums. Anyway I just didn't make one. We were trying to find a piece of music for the end of the movie and I don't know what happened but suddenly I just had this sort of inspiration and, you know, I mean for me the movie was always so fascinating. You've got this character who is very unlike a lot of characters that you see in movies these days. I mean he's not Tony Montana. He acts like Tony Montana. He's almost as unlikable as Tony Montana and yet he's got this odd quirk where he's really, really, really moralistic and sort of ethically bombastic with his presentation of himself and how nonviolent he is and the American Dream and what's right and blah, blah, blah. He ends the fucking movie with this speech and it's a spectacular note of selfishness that I really just thought it was kind of an amazing thing, to have that kind of selfishness combined with, you know, ethical staunchness all wrapped up in the same character. It's a speech about how right it is and every path he's taken has been the right one and this is the right thing and the DA finally says, “I hope so.” And that's the last line of the movie. I think that's a brilliant, and what we did sort was I had score going in there, but just before he said that “I hope so” we drop out the music, so that you really get the weight of it. It's sort of summing up the movie and then right away the beat comes in.
Finally I got the sort of Suicide beat machine sort of thing coming in and sort of blasting us with what was coming, the angst that was coming in the music, the reaction to that sort of self-involved capitalist drive that would express itself in punk rock and in hip-hop to a degree, for a little while. The lyrics express my point of view as well on a certain level but they are really from Julian's point of view as sort of the immigrant who comes here who doesn't get to have a Abel's story. You know the scene where Abel's wife says, “How did you do this, this success?” As far as he's concerned it's just hard work and whatnot. But the other side of the immigrant story, and any story, is just like there's languishing in really working really hard for the American Dream and doing your thing. It's the sort of flip side, harrowing reality of the American Dream. You get to experience such a degree of comfort here but you really don't understand until you leave this country. It gives you an appreciation for what you have here, and yet at the same time, there's a price to be paid for that degree of comfort that goes largely unseen, with a lot of just heinous stuff going on overseas and different protocols within urban areas and, you know, it's just an interesting dichotomy that I personally live with and that I saw an opportunity to speak about from Julian's perspective at the end of the movie. And I didn't want to lose that.
Very interesting. Well it's great work all around and congratulations. And thanks again for talking today. I'm always happy to find another fellow “Aguirre” fan.
It's funny because I talked to one guy and he's like, “Oh, well, you know, that's the movie that put him on the map.” But most people I talk to really don't know that movie. I mean they know “Fitzcarraldo” but as far as his older movies, I don't know. I guess “Aguirre” was popular with someone back in the day, but…
Definitely with the Telluride guys.
Yeah with the Telluride guys. It's just so brilliant.
I think they even screened it at one of the early Telluride fests, because it opened in Germany in '72 and Telluride started at '74 and the movie didn't even come over here until like '77. It was a good four- or five-year stretch.
Oh wow. Cool. I've tried to get to score for him but apparently he scores his own movies or something. I don't know what goes on but I know he's got a new movie that he's working on and I told someone let me know if he needs to score that.
Maybe one of these days.
Yeah! Well cool, man. It was good to talk to you.
You too. I'll see you around.