Interview: Michael Abels Discusses His Terrific Score for Nightbooks

Nightbooks, the terrific horror-fantasy film from director David Yarovesky and producer Sam Raimi, is currently streaming on Netflix and boasts an incredible score by Get Out and Us composer Michael Abels. The movie follows Alex (Winslow Fegley), a boy obsessed with scary stories, who ends up trapped in a magical apartment where he must tell a story to an evil witch (Krysten Ritter) to stay alive. During his stay, Alex teams up with another prisoner, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), to find a way to escape.

ComingSoon was given the chance to discuss the score with Abels, who shed some light on his scoring process and the fine line a composer must walk when composing a horror film.

A two-time Emmy-nominated composer Michael Abels is best-known for his scores for the Oscar-winning film Get Out, and for Jordan Peele’s Us, for which Abels won the World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, an Image Award nomination, and multiple critics awards.

What led you to a career in film scoring?

My earliest memories are as a toddler who was just very emotionally affected by music. I started piano at age four and I was a singer as a kid. Music was just a part of my soul. I always had one of those minds for puzzles. Music always struck me as this interesting puzzle and I was always asking, How did they do that? Who thought that up? I thought music would be a wonderful challenge.

So, I started writing music and finally finished something around age 13. Part of the fascination was always wondering what made one genre sound different than the other, and I thought there was no better way to figure that out than to write in that style – whatever it was. So, as I encountered different styles of music I would try to write something that sounded like that style. Writing for media was kind of natural for me.

Were there specific artists or soundtracks that informed your sound?

It was always about hearing the next thing and learning what I got from that. As a singer, when I was a kid, it was quite literally The Sound of Music. I was walking around singing that every day. As a kid you obsess over something for a period of time and then it’s onto the next thing. But, of course, in film scoring, John Williams was a big influence, but also I was always listening to Quincy Jones’ incredible productions — he was a film composer, but also a producer.

Anytime I came upon an artist, I just had this time where I had to figure out what it was that made their music sound the way it did.

So, your music for Get Out and Us, what did you learn on those particular projects that helped you with some of your later projects, including Nightbooks?

Prior to Get Out, I wouldn’t have described myself as a horror fan more than any other genre. I always had a hunch that I would have an opportunity to score a horror film. I had seen one or two, but I certainly wasn’t the first one in line at the theater. [Laughs] It’s not like I know all the horror scores. But the very first talk I had with Jordan Peele we asked, “What is scary in music and sonically?” I learned a lot from him about that. So much of it is timing and playing with the expectation of what you think is going to happen versus what does happen. Also, music is foreshadowing that something bad is going to happen and how much you’re absolutely not letting anyone know anything bad is going to happen at all. Between those two opposites, the scariest point is very subtle.

Also, silence is scary. It’s important to know when to use silence as part of the score. So, I took all of those elements into consideration when I wrote Nightbooks.

Was Nightbooks easier to score knowing what you knew?

It wasn’t easier because first of all you’re always writing for the approval of your director. It was my first time working with Dave. It took some time to figure out what he liked and that required experimenting and figuring out what worked. Also, there’s an element of fantasy to Nightbooks and that makes it a very different score from Get Out and Us, which certainly involves some supernatural elements. But the Jordan Peele films need to feel real; and in Nightbooks, there’s witches and an element of fantasy; and that has a musical language different from those other films. So, I was balancing the horror and fantasy aspects and finding the sweet spot between the two.

That’s what I love about your score. The film features some goofy elements — an invisible cat and bits of comedy — but you play it completely straight with your music.

Well, that was Dave’s vision from the beginning. He really wanted to push the boundaries of the family film, and push the boundaries in a way that allowed it to be frightening and go for legit scares. That’s what he always wanted. If in moments I had wanted to play it a little warmer, the note from him was, “It needs to be scarier!” [Laughs]

In my earliest tries at the score, that was one of the main notes. So, I learned we needed to play this as legit as we can. Once I figured out what he wanted, we went from there.

Were there moments where you had to hold back to keep it from being too scary?

There were a couple, yeah. There’s a moment where Yazmin becomes intoxicated with candy and you see that in her eyes. I scored that moment and it was pretty scary. I was told that a test audience found that moment really disturbing, and I was like, “Yes!” But I guess it was so scary it was pulling people out of the larger moment of that scene.

See, I love this style of film. Typically, we usually get watered down Disney flicks, but this film absolutely goes for it. Why don’t we see more of this type of film in your opinion?

Well, I love that you get what this film was trying to do and you’re down for it. I think that’s great. I was a very sensitive little kid and this movie would’ve given me fits! I just know that there are people with different temperaments out there, but it’s great that there are kids that want to watch this. I’ve heard from parents whose kids promise them they’re not going to be scared when they watch Nightbooks like it’s a dare! That’s who this movie is made for. But, boy, I would’ve been on the ceiling all night as a kid.

I know you’re teaming up with Jordan Peele again with Nope. Can you tell us anything about the film or the score?

No, I cannot. The answer to Nope questions is, “Nope.” [Laughs]

How has Nightbooks prepared you for the next step?

Every film — no matter what genre you’re in — has its own sonic world. That’s the joy of storytelling, whether you’re a director, writer, or composer, you want a film to have its own identity. As an artist, there are things you know you do well and that becomes your brand, but at the same time, you want to push yourself because that’s what creates good artists. So, for me, I’m always trying to push the bar and figure out what that means for me, both in the things I do well and also in the things I’m uncomfortable with. And that goes back to the questions of, “What is scary?” Scary is the unexpected, so you have to go and do things you are uncomfortable with in order to create that feeling in others.



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