I’ve said it countless times, but 2022 is the year where maximalist movies have made a significant comeback on the big screen: S.S. Rajamouli‘s RRR, Michael Bay‘s Ambulance, Baz Luhrmann‘s Elvis, Joseph Kosinski‘s Top Gun: Maverick, the list goes on and on. But the most popular maximalist picture this year seems to be Everything Everywhere All At Once, and it’s impressive to see just how wild it can get as the main character, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), jumps through the multiverse. But it also never forgets its emotional weight and has an impressive core throughout Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu‘s performances.
I’ve asked cinematographer Larkin Seiple and the sound team behind the movie the same million-dollar question, but approaching a movie like this seems daunting, especially with how it’s structured. When I got to talk to Son Lux about the film’s score, one definitely wondered how they approached the music.
Ryan Lott explained that the specific way they approached the score was a bit absurd:
“We had one piece of music we had to write before shooting which was the hot dog musical song because the characters had to sing it on camera. One wonders, philosophically, how do we begin? But there’s also a practical question: where to begin? And that was the most bizarre way to begin working on what became the most massive creative endeavor ever spent over two years. And to think that we began that way is just completely ridiculous, but consistent with a movie that is also quite ridiculous.”
Ian Chang talked about how the Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan) were able to guide them in composing the score by breaking down a few crucial scenes for the film:
“The Daniels are pretty good at guiding us because, without that, it would have been really hard to figure out a good plan of attack. They essentially broke down several scenes that they felt were key musically, influenced other parts of the score, and had bigger lengths of time. Once we found those identities and sounds for those scenes and established a language that we’d be able to put elsewhere. With this film, there was so much language to come up with it, it was kind of an ongoing journey for a long time. But the best way to approach it was to crack the tough nuts first and then go from there.”
One of the biggest challenges in scoring the film was to find the perfect accompaniment to the incredible acting on display, as explained by Rafiq Bhatia:
“Given how early we started working on this, it was so apparent how well-acted this film was and how high the stakes were to just not mess things up with music. It was so good, just on its own. To be able to find a way to thread the needle in such a way that would support the existing performances was a big part of it. The original directive that the Daniels gave us was that there are all these different universes, and we will switch between them, like flipping channels with a remote or something. And they each need to be established with their distinct sound that almost feels unrelated to the others. However, over time, they need to all cohere into something as the story coheres, and we should get a sense in the score of the fact that all of these disparate universes are being reconciled and that it is done so in a way that communicates emotionality. It’s definitely a tall order, but also a lot of fun.”
Chang added that “music played a role in making things feel like one story, even though there are many different universes. The Daniels were curious about exploring and having pretty strong melodic themes that are recognizable within a short period of time. A lot of times, with so many quick changes in this movie, we want to have been armed with something that can communicate a certain family relationship. It wasn’t prescribed that certain characters would have certain themes, but there were generally three or four themes that helped be able to dress it differently for different universes, but the melodies help create that sort of relation between some pretty different sonic universes. You’re going from a Randy Newman-style song in one second to something that sounds like it comes from like a sci-fi movie in the next.”
Scoring a film like Everything Everywhere All At Once did require lots of experimentation from Son Lux, or, as Ryan Lott would put it, “a healthy amount of investigating, which is always a really fun part of the process for us. Because there was so much ahead of us, we had some key themes in place right out of the gate. The Daniels were really good at beginning from a place of trust with us. They were themselves discovering their movie, in the edit, and they were able to do so probably more extensively because the production was shut down due to COVID a day before shooting was done.
So there was a whole period where they could take what they did have and begin to tease out their story and investigate different ways of telling it with what they had captured. The Daniels didn’t have a strong concept in place with temp music, which is often the enemy of our best friend and our worst enemy as film composers. They had no time to acclimate to other kinds of music. We were there right out of the gate, developing the sound as they were developing the picture. And that’s a rare privilege. It was also one that wouldn’t work unless they expressed a huge amount of trust in us. I think that their trust in us was very empowering and inspiring, and all too rare in the world of composing a picture.”
In balancing out laugh-out-loud comedy and a human drama, Rafia Bhatia explained that, “when the Daniels first approached us about the movie, we wondered if we are really that funny as combos, and as a band, especially before we worked on this movie, we didn’t really see making something musically funny. Squaring very well with our wheelhouse, it feels like there are many different things we could bring to the project. But the Daniels were like, “No, that’s why we’re calling you guys. If the music is serious, and we believe in what’s happening on screen, even if that thing is super ridiculous, then it’ll sell the job better than if you guys try to make the music funny or something like that.” So a lot of the time, the music tries to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, which helped us not be pulled in diametrically opposite directions where even the music that was helping the jokes land was as serious as the music that was underscoring the trauma.”
You can listen to our full conversation below and watch Everything Everywhere All At Once on video-on-demand and physical media today
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity. Parts of the audio interview have also been edited for length and clarity].