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Alex Ebert talks about his 'ominous' score for 'A Most Violent Year'

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A Most Violent Year
Atsushi Nishijima

Alex Ebert, the frontman of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, won a Golden Globe for his work composing the score to last year’s Robert Redford drama All Is Lost. This year, Ebert has once again partnered with director J.C. Chandor on A Most Violent Year, which takes them off the high seas and into the gritty, crime-ridden world of 1981 New York.

The film tells the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a man working to expand his fuel oil business. Abel considers himself upstanding, but testing the limits of Abel’s ethics are his gangster’s daughter wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and a young truck driver, Julian (Elyse Gabriel), whose core is shaken after he is a victim of one of the hijackings affecting Abel’s business. Ebert’s score lends the film an almost perpetual sense of foreboding, which you can hear clearly in the moody, horn-driven “Abel’s Theme,” described by Ebert  as “almost sort of Bach, sort of like Dracula.” Listen here:

Ebert spoke to EW about building the movie’s sound and its affecting closing song “America For Me.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You worked with J.C. Chandor on All Is Lost. What were your conversations with him were like going into this project?

ALEX EBERT: The era dictated a bit. I wanted to incorporate synths and a bit of jazz and horns and even possibly get a bit aggressive percussively with beat machines and what not. Then from there we just kept the conversation going. I kept providing examples and then we’d narrowed it down. I realized right as I saw the first cut that this was a character study and a pretty profound and confused one in a sense—not the study itself, but the character, being sort of complex both intentionally selfishly ambitious and also very ethically bound. I started to realize that the stuff that really was working was the stuff that brought us into Abel’s meditative, trance-like state.

I picked up a funereal quality to some of the sounds. Can you talk about exploring that darkness?

I felt that same way. I would describe it as ominous. On top everything seems rather normal by American standards, it’s just a guy trying to make a living and avoid violence and all of these sorts of things, but there’s something unsettling about his dedication to all that. The movie is really brooding towards its end. His theme in particular ends up becoming a terribly ominous one.

There are a lot of scenes of dialogue, but then there are these heart pounding almost action-like sequences. How did you think about the sound transitioning from those elements of the film?

Action can sort of go both ways. Sometimes it’s really powerful when there’s just footsteps and breathing or just the sound of the whine of the car and the truck that he’s chasing. I played around with a lot of it. I played around with more or less silence and just some variations. In the end though it seemed the best call was to accompany the drama with some percussion and really be there with the action and accompany it. So what ended up coming out was this jazz, drum mélange of these big hits that were stirring. Sort of like guns going off each time the drums hit.

How did you think about bringing the time period into the story? Were there any films from the period that influenced you?

I had that era on my mind. Particularly for the song that I did for the movie, “America For Me” in which I used a beat machine and sort of the trends that were reacting to the Cold War and the American drive like punk rock and hip hop to a degree. The birth of that idea of what is ugly is beautiful really sort of came about in the late ’70s and early ’80s to my mind. You’ve got these sort of snarling rhythms and quote-unquote bad singing and beat machines with distorted synthetic material on top of it and all of that. I incorporated that into “America For Me.” I intended to incorporate that more into the film, but really the bit that made the most sense is just sort of to keep to bring us all into his atmosphere and to do that sort of the synths and the horns and the brooding, meditative stuff is what I thought of. I didn’t go back and visit any sort of stuff from that era, but I did have Scarface on my mind, the remake of Scarface. I did have Miami Vice on my mind. I just sort of had that era on my mind.

How did you settle on “Abel’s Theme”?

I first wrote it from the scene where he’s in the car after he visits Julian in the hospital and is driving to his new home. I guess the intention was really to write a theme that isn’t a fully piece, but is really just a calling card. It just sort of fit. It was this ominous creaky door opening thing to the mind of Abel’s future. I played it with a bunch of different instruments. I guess I was really set on horns because, well, to begin with, I just love them, but there’s something epic in his own mind about his plight and just something simply epic about the plight of the American dream. We’re all sort of living in our own cinematic minds and so I felt like his calling card should be not just his atmosphere but his sort of projection of the drama of his life. So that’s sort of why that theme makes sense to me in the movie. I sort of view ambition in a sense as a Pandora’s box and to me that theme is sort of like that box opening every time that came on.

Can you talk about writing “America For Me”? What was that beeping sound?

That beeping sound is actually what the call the 2-pop. It’s sort of an insider movie-making thing. So I just sampled that. It was literally from A Most Violent Year, one of the cuts. I was making the song and I was like, fuck it, I’m going to use that noise. Because I wanted to make the song at once beautiful and unpalatable, like the culture we live in and the culture that was beginning to become in the ’80s—at once constructive and destructive or self-destructive, actually. It was funny because I included that pop and J.C. said, could you take that out or could you replace it with something else because everyone sort of like flinched when they heard that. So I obliged and took it out and then he called me back, and said “put it back in.”

Why was there the flinching?

For moviemakers in particular, everyone knows what that sound is. It’s the 2-pop. But on another level, as someone tweeted me on Twitter, it’s “off putting.” I told him that’s to some degree the point—to lace in a bit of the off-putting, automatonic artifacts of our lives into what I consider to be a very beautiful melody.

The lyrics could be read in a certain way that is very proud, but then there’s that undercurrent of something off beneath the service.

You know I wrote it from Julian’s point of view. I won’t give away the ending, but for Abel to just get back to business right after what Julian does for me was really amazing and spoke even further to the concentration of his character. He was really only willing to give it about five minutes of his life. To me it was important to get the cultural reaction to people like Abel into the end of the movie. I do think that represents the unseen there, and in a certain sense helps me complete the story for myself.

What’s your relationship with J.C. like after having done two films together? Are you sort of talking with him back forth about his ideas coming in? Or does he let you experiment?

He may have had ideas coming in but he’s so good at letting me find my way and then coming to him with stuff and getting the conversation going from there. It’s sort of the way to work. At first he was considering the movie to be a needle drop movie, as he calls it. It was going to be a lot of songs. Halfway into the filming he suddenly felt that he needed a score. It wasn’t like the whole movie was a particular kind of brand of score that he had in mind. So we just started from scratch.

What did you learn working with him working on All Is Lost that translated to this film?

The best thing I learned is that I had someone there that I could pretty honestly just express myself to and there is a relationship there that allows for real, real conversation regarding not just the score, but the film and the characters and the whole thing. All of it’s important. I think that that’s the biggest thing that I learned about our relationship during the first movie is that it’s a rather honest relationship. You always want to show some deference to another artist for the work that they’re doing and be tactful. Which I can feel him doing with me and which I’ll do with him to a degree. Most artists hopefully do do with each other because art after all is rather personal. Beyond that it’s become a very honest dialogue and I appreciate that.

Are you looking to do more composing with other filmmakers going forward?

If it’s right and there’s something’s clicking there, yeah. I definitely really enjoy scoring. I actually scored Feast, the short that plays before Big Hero 6, and I had a really great time doing that as well.