Interview: Discussing the Intricate Score of Jordan Peele’s ‘NOPE’ with Composer Michael Abels

With NOPE, composer Michael Abels is now at his third collaboration with director Jordan Peele, after previously working with him on Get Out and Us. For this movie, “it was clear from the start that the score had to come from many different places. That had to do with the genres that Jordan was interested in, to honor and perhaps satirize a little bit. There had to be scary western elements and parts because the film was about an alien encounter.

But there is also a warm family love between the Haywoods and their legacy, which leads to the more action/adventure-oriented climax. There was a need for all of this music to work for all of these moments and all come together. He talked with me clearly about that. I developed music for each moment and then figured out where they lived together.”

Abels praised Peele as “an extraordinary child of culture. That’s a part of what makes his movies so great. There are references between different genres or cultural touchstones that we wouldn’t see if he didn’t make us look at them like he does. We’re all raised on all these different cultural references. He also pays attention to how he wants to shape the music. So when he says, “It’s a Western,” there are a couple of different genres of Western that he would want for this particular film. The chance of doing each of those, along with the other types of genres in the film, are things I am well versed in, even though we may not have heard it coming from me in a Jordan Peele film before.”

In trying to find the right balance between creating a sense of wonder for the audience and establishing a form of dread of suspense throughout the score, Abels explained that this process happens “from moment to moment and measure by measure. That was probably the single biggest subject that Jordan and I talked about throughout the score because there’s a natural dichotomy in the whole story between our attraction to spectacle, as Jordan talks about, and also the sense of a bad miracle, something that you want to run away from, but is so incredible that you can’t help but look at.

I talked to Jordan a lot about when one of those feelings is more present than the other and how we balance those out throughout the movie. Sometimes, different music styles or techniques go into creating those things. It’s a primarily orchestral score with some interesting percussions, and it gives every genre I work on a single palette to come from. It has the same ambiance, even if it may be stylistically different. But that’s the key to making it all work together.”

In creating pieces of music that accentuate the rhythm of the action on screen, Abels mentioned that “you have to come from the excitement that the characters are feeling. There’s the action, or a kind of tension, waiting for something you’re either hoping for or afraid could happen. In the movie, there’s a long section in which they’re waiting to spring the trap on Jean Jacket, and the motorcycle rider shows up. The tension in that scene is palpable, and there’s a lot of music there that adds some suspense, where the audience member waits impatiently. There’s both a nervous energy and an absence of something happening simultaneously.

Music like that is sparse, but it’s also tricky because it needs energy and yet feels like it’s waiting. But when things roll, there are times that it goes down in a way that’s exciting and scary and times when it’s purely exhilarating. When OJ [Daniel Kaluuya] goes running down the valley with Jean Jacket in pursuit, we use a piece of music called “The Run.” That music bursts with the most exciting energy. It’s one part galloping, but it’s also a bit EDM because it’s a celebration. It’s like skydiving. It’s just so exhilarating, even though it’s really dangerous. In a moment like that, you hear and experience the joy of risking your life that OJ is experiencing in the movie.”

In having the film’s needle drops complement its score, Abels stated that Jordan Peele “has a real sense of musical curation and his vibe of music that he likes and artists that he’s helped other people take a second look at. “Exuma, The Obeah Man” comes to mind. That’s an artist I had heard from Jordan earlier; he always loved that track. Finding a place for it was fantastic. Jordan’s production orbit is all people who are culturally aware and all love music. I do not doubt that he’s pitched music to everyone he meets. There’s a whole group of us at his disposal, not to mention, you know, music supervisors whose actual expertise is in that. I would wait to see the latest version of the cut and marvel at what the latest track is being considered. If I know that’s the song that will stay, sometimes there’s an opportunity to have a little fun.”

Abels’ next project, Landscape with Invisible Hand, premieres at the Sundance International Film Festival on January 23. The film is also about an alien invasion, but the composer promises that “it’s as different a take on aliens as NOPE was distinct from any other film you’ve seen with aliens. I’m very proud of it because it’s a dark comedy by Corey Finley, who I worked with on Bad Education a couple years back that starred Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. It was tons of fun, and I’m really glad it’s premiering at Sundance.”

NOPE is now available to rent or buy on video-on-demand.


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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