Hey there, film score lovers! Welcome to another edition of CS Score. This time we’re taking a look at La-La Land Records’ amazing expanded scores for Michael Kamen’s X-Men and John Ottoman’s X2: X-Men United. We also spoke with American Murder: The Family Next Door composer Nainita Desai, who revealed her unique scoring process for the Netflix documentary; and Servant composer Trevor Gureckis, who revealed what it was like working alongside M. Night Shyamalan.
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X-Men: Expanded Original Soundtrack and X2: X-Men United Expanded Score
It’s weird to think that a little over 20 years ago, the superhero genre consisted of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, four Batman films, the Blade trilogy, The Crow, The Mask, Darkman, The Shadow, Dick Tracy, and a couple of Roger Corman-produced Marvel flicks. And that was it. Oh sure, popular heroes such as Spider-Man and Batman were alive and well in animated form on TV, but big-screen adaptations were few and far between. And most of them sucked.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men remains, quite frankly, a lackluster entry in the genre in terms of overall quality, but it nonetheless was popular enough to spawn five sequels and a handful of spinoff films, including James Mangold’s excellent Logan, and it didn’t take long for other studios to take note of X-Men’s broad appeal, setting the table for an entirely new brand of motion pictures revolving around tight-wearing, masked vigilantes — a successful run that continues to this day.
At the time of X-Men’s release, I had just graduated high school and was absolutely ecstatic at the notion of seeing Wolverine battle evil mutants such as Magneto and Sabertooth on the big screen. I wasn’t much of a comic reader, but I collected Marvel and DC trading cards and soaked in the animated shows from the 90s with plenty of enthusiasm. I remember seeing some of the first promotional images featuring Magneto’s helmet and Wolverine’s claws; and grew ecstatic when the first shots of Hugh Jackman appeared, even if his overall design was a far cry from his comic book counterpart.
Finally, July rolled around, prompting the release of Michael Kamen’s X-Men soundtrack, which I quickly scooped up, listened to, and … instantly felt the impact of crushing disappointment. Of course, much of my anticipation for the film and its score hailed from the animated series, which utilized a rock ‘n roll anthem for its titular characters; and while I never expected Kamen to follow suit, I did expect to hear more energetic music — or, at the very least, a main theme ala Robin Hood: Prince of Themes.
As it stands, X-Men consists of dark, brooding underscore that works well with Singer’s surprisingly dramatic approach, even if the end results are more cerebral than swashbuckling. Now, there are traces of the X-Men theme that John Ottman would ramp up in later films, most notably in tracks such as “Ambush,” “The X-Jet” and “Museum Fight (Continued),” but much of said theme is hidden beneath so many layers of electronic sounds and percussion it barely resonates. Kamen does employ some unique sounds for Mystique’s theme, which consists of wild strings, synth, and heavy piano strikes; and Magneto is given a suitably menacing theme that first appears in “Death Camp” and returns sparingly in “They Knew/Laboratory.”
Yet, there’s something oddly underwhelming about Singer’s film, from its plot about turning humans into mutants to the director’s dour approach to the material, and subsequently Kamen’s score. None of it is bad, mind you. The late composer reveals some interesting orchestral ideas, but nothing on the score, expanded or otherwise, provides much to get overly excited about and is rather generic in nature. All of which is disappointing considering Kamen’s previous ventures in the action genre.
Ottman’s score, on the other hand, sounds more in line with what I expected in the original film. The composer, who had to bow out of the first film due to scheduling conflicts, injects Kamen’s work with plenty of muscle, delivering an exciting main theme that served as the through-line for all of Singer’s X-Men films (and curiously abandoned in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class). X2 is full of bombast and energy, from the choir-infused “Nightcrawler Attack” to the percussion-heavy “Mansion Attack.” Everything about the sequel feels more on point than the previous film.
Standout action cues also include “Magneto’s Escape,” “Pyro Attack” and “Storm’s Perfect Storm.” Even quieter underscore in tracks like “Opening Cerebro” and “Fireside Chat/Flashback/Jean and Logan/You Know What I Want” offer more interest on this go-round.
For me personally, X-Men: Days of Future Past stands as the best of the X-Men scores, but X2 is a close second in the series, while Kamen’s work unfortunately lingers somewhere near the bottom of the pile.
Fans of the X-franchise will be happy to hear that La-La Land Records has released both scores in an expanded set that contains music as originally written for the film by Kamen and Ottman, along with alternate cues and bonus material. X2 was released some time ago, but is available now for $19.98 and is well worth the price. X-Men, on the other hand, may not pack the same punch as its follow-up films, but still remains a must-have for fans of Michael Kamen.
Nainita Desai Interview – American Murder: The Family Next Door
Nainita Desai is a London-based composer, who’s crafted some standout award-winning scores for acclaimed documentaries, including For Sama, The Reason I Jump, and most recently the Netflix true-crime documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door. As of last fall, the project is Netflix’s most-watched doc feature to date.
The critically acclaimed film tells the story of the 2018 Watts family murders, which took place in Frederick, Colorado. It uses archival footage including the social media posts, law enforcement recordings, text messages, and home video footage to depict the events that occurred.
Nainita and director Jenny Popplewell decided early on that the film was about giving murder victim Shannan Watts a voice while handling the film with sensitivity. Despite the delicate subject matter, Nainita wanted the score to have a strong bold character and drive the story forward.
The score is largely built around a string quintet surrounded by electronic elements. Since the story is mainly told from Shannan’s social media documentation and text messages, Nainita decided to use found sounds to demonstrate authenticity. She brought in a percussionist to play various bits of handmade percussions and phone tapping on mobile phones with fingers, which she used to create percussion tension rhythms. They can be heard combined with strings in “The Letter” scene and moments you see text messages on screen. The music in these chilling scenes makes it all the more real.
Ames: American Murder was a really tough documentary to watch.
Nainita Desai: It is isn’t it? Oh gosh. It was, it was doubly tough to work on as well — a real challenge.
Ames: I would imagine so because you don’t want to over-score the film or manipulate audiences, but at the same time you want to pay due respect to the real people that this tragedy happened to, right?
Yes, absolutely! And you know, that’s one of the most satisfying things about writing music for documentaries is that you have to be even more sensitive to the subject matter because whether the protagonists are alive — because some subjects are very controversial, especially with the films I’ve worked on — or they’re dead. They passed away in this instance and I’m trying to be true to the story and as authentic as possible and to treat the story with respect and sensitivity. And actually, it was one of the most wonderful moments when, at the end of the film, Shanann’s family said how much they loved the film and felt that it honored and did justice to Shanann’s legacy.
That was actually the brief from the director [Jenny Popplewell], who wanted me to create a score that initially sounded like a fairy tale marriage; and as the film develops [she wanted] the music to get darker and darker. But we didn’t want to portray Chris Watts as a monster. We wanted to be neutral and understated with him and still have character, but we wanted to give Shanann a voice because all the press and media over the last few years has focused on Chris Watts and what a monster he was. And, you know, glamorizing the serial killer approach. And here we wanted to focus on Shanann’s story and tell the truth behind what really happened and how she was affected. It was almost as though Shanann had come back to tell her story because the whole film is told through her social media posts — the text messages and the home videos — and the family trusted the filmmakers and gave a whole hard drive of a huge amount of material and said, “Go away and do what you want with all this material. Just tell the truth.”
The weight on our shoulders was having to tell this story with truth and sensitivity. And so, as I said, the brief was to write this emotive score that took you on an emotional journey from the beginning. It’s not a true crime in the sense that it’s a whodunnit. We knew who committed the murders from the beginning. So it was unraveling the details and seeing everything from every different perspective and it was remarkable to have such incredible access to the material as well. I think my goodness, we can create an incredible story around this without having a voiceover. You just hear Shanann telling you the story step-by-step as it happened over the course of seven years, going back to their whole relationship.
So, musically, for me, I love to do research and it was all there in front of me, all the material and all the documentaries that have been made about them. I wanted to use sounds from the footage itself. So for example, there are, sound FX of oil drums — the very same oil drums where the bodies were found from the location in the desert. And I used those sound effects and created almost eight total dark textures out of those sounds of the oil drums, which was really quite disturbing.
When I score I’m almost like a method actor. I get into the minds of the characters. This was challenging emotionally for me to write, having experience with a family and children. It’s not an easy one.
The other thing I did was — based on social media and phone texts and home video footage — I played the cell phone as an instrument, as a musical instrument, creating percussion by tapping on the phone with my fingers; and you can hear these kinds of sounds when you see texts coming up on the screen in the film. I’m creating these rhythms, using the cellphones, using my fingers, and then building strings around them.
One of the other big challenges was I got the commission from Netflix two days after the first lockdown last year. All the musicians I know are out of work and all the recording studios have closed down. And Netflix said to me, “We would love a score with a live orchestra,” and I said, “That’s not gonna happen. You’re not going to get musicians together because everything’s shut down.” And then four months later at the end of the job, when we were ready to record, what we ended up doing was instead of a big sound, or big orchestral score, the film naturally gravitated — because it’s an intimate story — it gravitated towards a smaller chamber sound. And so I ended up using five musicians, a string quintet from the London Contemporary Orchestra, who were incredible to work with, and we recorded the score remotely during lockdown. Normally, I’d bring all the musicians together in one recording session and do each one in one day. We couldn’t do that so we had to record all the musicians one by one and then layer them like a take. And I said to Netflix, “You know, I’m going to need a week to record the musicians as opposed to a day.” And they were really supportive and said, “Sure, of course, we’ll extend the schedule” to enable us to do that because it was so important to get live players. And so I’d be in my studio, my engineer would be in his home studio and the musicians would be in their homes and we’d record the musicians one by one. So, we did the double bass and the cellos on Monday, then our recordings would be sent to the viola players on Tuesday and the Wednesday, so the musicians could hear what previous musicians had actually played, because then you get everyone working and playing together, feeding off the recordings, as opposed to people just doing bits one by one and then trying to piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle where it’s not really cohesive. Then, on Friday, we did the violins; and they could hear what the cellos of the violas had done.
So it was like a cake that we layered together. And thank goodness for technology! We were using all sorts of software and apps and things to get really high-quality recordings. So, the engineer would be controlling the musicians’ computers remotely. It was really bizarre. I spent a long time piecing it together, mixing and editing, because you have different acoustics — you know, the sounds from people sitting in their kitchen to people sitting in their living rooms have a different sound. So, we had to work harder at making it work together, but it produced a unique, intimate sound that we could never have achieved any other way. So, in the end it worked out really well.
Ames: Are you surprised by the film’s success?
I mean it’s been entered for a BAFTA as well, I think, which has been really wonderful in the last couple of weeks. When we finished the film, we were hoping to get an audience, but also hoping that it would connect with the audience and that it would reach people emotionally. I really had no idea that it would connect with people the way it has. I mean, we knew that it was a well-documented case and people knew about it. We told the story from a different perspective here from everything that had been documented before, but it was a big surprise and just wonderful to hear the reaction because we thought it would be very controversial as well. We thought people may really turn against it and not respond to it in a positive way. And ultimately, you know, we wanted to do Shanann’s story justice and tell the truth in the most honest way. That was the main objective of what we were trying to achieve. So yeah, it was quite the shock when we found out how much it resonated with people.
Trevor Gureckis Interview – Servant
The Apple TV+ psychological thriller Servant (executive produced by M. Night Shymalan) returned earlier this year with its second season. Composer Trevor Gureckis returned to score season 2—this time tackling the score under different working conditions. He created the music in quarantine from his bedroom in NYC with a set of headphones, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the new season, M. Night encouraged Trevor to approach the music with a fresh take. The overall intensity increased significantly in the second installment, so the music needed to follow suit, while still living in the same sonic world as the first season of Servant. It was especially important to Trevor to avoid falling into the expected horror tropes. He honed in on the suspense and thriller elements and effectively translated them through the score. He explored a whole host of new instrumental, electronic, and vocal sounds to capture the build-up in each episode.
Jeff Ames: What drew you to this project?
Trevor Gureckis: I first worked with Susan Jacobs on a movie called Goldfinch, and she had actually worked with [M. Night Shyamalan] on Unbreakable and all of his movies. We got along well and she liked my music and Servant came up as Night’s new TV show for Apple and she recommended me to Night and write some music. I live in New York and I went down to Philly to see him. We met, I wrote some stuff and we connected. I pitched some ideas of what I thought the sound should be – this was back before Season 1 – and slowly we settled into that strange, unsettling sound that Servant Season 1 would be.
Then we got to Season 2 and kind of redid that whole process because Night wanted to take another shot at rethinking what it was going to be. So, we did it and the sound just grew, it got a lot bigger, more intense because he envisioned this season being much larger than the first season. So, we had this big string section, electronics were much more in-your-face. So, that’s where we started with Season 2 and it just got crazier and crazier as we went.
How did you make sure your score for Servant wouldn’t fall into classic horror tropes?
There’s a lot of chamber sounds, and some weird instruments, which, I guess, is horror stuff, right? But nothing like scary strings or that are moving or stuff like that. There’s kind of a gut reaction quality to things where you feel like you’ve heard it before, and Night is pretty good at calling it out or seeing what it is. But I was acutely aware of the kinds of sounds and even the kinds of composers I was thinking of when I was making Season 1, imagining very classical composers and modern composers who aren’t even in the shining light, but very austere, unsettling, and strange. But there was always going to be this little bit of a family that’s struggling with loss, so there’s an element of humanity that always has to be there than like straight-up horror elements. So that might be something that plays against that element. So, it’s a lot of instrumental choices, where and when its place in the picture. Not getting ahead of anything so people are surprised.
And while we still have the thriller and horror elements as the north star of the show, this family is the one dealing with all of this stuff. They’re not dealing with the loss and they’re being kind of surrounded by all of this crazy cult stuff. Things get crazier and crazier, but that’s where they sit. They sit with a lot of drama in their life.
Did Season 2 present any opportunities to step outside your comfort zone and explore some new ideas?
Yeah, I definitely learned a lot more about electronics and some programming. What’s funny is that Season 2 started out right when the lockdown happened in New York. So, I had to move a lot of my stuff – or enough stuff to fit in my apartment. I worked on my headphones because I didn’t have any speakers. So, I just brought what I could and had my violin and clarinet (among other instruments) and just tried to come up with some unique things that were a little more out of the box and try to find sounds and combinations. And it works together. I wanted the sound to have a vivid quality to it that required multiple things happening at the same time. A lot of sounds have multiple attacks. So, if there’s a hit or a little motion, often there would be two or three or four things creating that. And being in the COVID lockdown in New York that was more of a challenge than just pulling out my piano and scraping stuff out or getting my analog synths out – I didn’t have my analog synths, so I had to go into the software version! Woe is me, right? I’m working and I was very happy to be working at that time because I know composers were struggling to get work done because everything was on pause. So, I was very lucky to be in that situation.
I think it’d be fun for all of us composers to sit down and find out who had the COVID score and who could tell! (Laughs)
Who had the best COVID score, right?
Yeah, there should be an award for best score produced during COVID.
You’re working with so many directors on a series like this. Does that complicate the process at all?
I never worked n a TV show before. All I know is this experience. But Night really controlled the whole thing. He didn’t call himself showrunner. He was the executive producer. But as I understand it a showrunner is essentially that kind of person, and I would only interact with him. I wouldn’t even see a director’s cut.
So, directors would make a cut and then he would swoop in and make his own cut of that. Eventually, I would come in at the end and he and I would go through (along with Sue Jacobs and our music editor) and have spotting sessions. It was just the music team interacting with Night.
By the time I got involved, it was in a place that was music-ready. He never used temp music, so I think he challenged his editors to do their jobs without it. Because every episode needs to be by itself and only get better with music. I think that’s his concept. That’s a tough challenge for editors, I think, having to corroborate that! (Laughs) And figure out the pacing with the edit itself.
So, I never had to deal with multiple people. I didn’t ever really have to deal with Apple. Night really kept a tight ship. Even though he didn’t write any episodes and only directed a few episodes, he was still in charge of what was sent out the door.
Sending it to Apple, they were always surprised they were getting final music for their network cuts. They were used to hearing temp music, but Night was like, “No, this has to be the final product.” And if Apple gave us notes he would be like, “Yeah whatever.” (Laughs)
Are you surprised by the show’s success?
I think it’s a good show. The first season had a little bit of a slower catch on probably because Apple was a new streaming service, but then it grew with Season 2. I think Night has said publicly that he sees this as a four-season series. I don’t know where it’s going, that’s all with the writers, but Night has this whole thing figured out. Though, I do love to go on Reddit and read people’s reactions and watch people guess what’s happening; and I’m always like, “Wow, that’s completely accurate,” or, “That’s completely crazy, why do you think that?”
I think it’s going to keep increasing. I think people are really excited about the season. I haven’t seen any of the stuff he’s working on for Season 3 – I’m too busy working on Old – but I’m sure it’s crazy.
Are you allowed to tell us anything about Old?
Right now I’m recording the score. We’re doing it in Budapest – we’re doing a remote recording over multiple dates. So that’s been really cool. In comparison to Servant, it’s a lot bigger. We’re going full orchestra and going huge everything. We’re going for a much different sound, a different world – it has nothing to do with Servant. It’s exciting to take part in that and work on a feature, which I’ve never done.
On a Servant episode, we work quickly and have lots of changes. Now, imagine that over the course of two hours or however long the film ends up at. All the changes are now impactful on a huge scale – this change impacts that and this part. It’s been really great!
It’s crazy because I’m working with Night – I watched all his movies in high school. Now I’m working on a movie. Signs, The Village … I have a lot to live up to.
You’re like his new James Newton Howard!
Oh no! People are going to be like, “You’re not like James Newton Howard” at all! (Laughs)