Exclusive Interview with composer Brian McOmber on ‘Krisha’

Brian McOmber photo

Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” swept through the festival circuit and gained critical acclaim for its brilliant direction and tremendous performances from the cast. But among the many things “Krisha” deserves to be acknowledged is the film score that was composed by Brian McOmber. A former member of the popular band Dirty Projectors, McOmber’s score proves to be a pivotal part of this movie as it succeeds in taking us right into the fragile mental state of its main character. I got to talk with McOmber about his music for “Krisha,” and I invite you to read my interview with him below.

Krisha movie poster

Ben Kenber: Your score for “Krisha” is brilliant and fits perfectly with a movie I would describe as emotionally pulverizing. When it came to creating music for the movie, did you know right away if you wanted it to be an electronic score or an orchestral score or a bit of both?

Brian McOmber: I think we did want it to be a combination of both. The first time I had worked with Trey was on the short version of the film, and with that one you didn’t want something more orchestral. He wanted something that just immediately grabbed our attention because to try to re-create the arc of the feature version in the short, we really just went all out with the music right away. So with that one we had orchestral, percussion, strings, electronics, the whole bag right off the bat, whereas with the feature we wanted to break apart the individual components and try to figure out how they could all work independently and also together because there was so much more music to be made, and the arc needed to be more of a slow burn in the feature. Actually, when Trey made the short version of the movie that was supposed to have been a feature. He tried to make a feature version of the film, and a few days and $7000 later… Trey is obviously a brilliant director, but he was just being a little too ambitious so it became a short film. With the feature version of “Krisha” that’s out there now, that was him going back trying to make the film he always wanted to make.

BK: When it came to going from the short film to the feature version, how would you say the music evolved?

BM: I think that the main order was just unraveling those components, the electronic components and the new orchestral components, and figuring out how we could use those textures and instrumentation and spread it out over the course of 12 cues because it was 12 cues we ended up doing in the end. I think that was the main approach to the feature.

BK: I read in an article that you said that you and Trey tried not to get carried away by ambition. How did you manage to keep that from happening?

BM: The entire film was made for under $100,000 and Trey is a young, really smart and really ambitious director, and he wanted the music to be that way too with the little amount of money that we had. So there’s a few instances where we had to chisel and tone down our expectations of what we wanted to get from the music just because we didn’t have the resources, but I think we did a good job. We were very ambitious with what we had to work with, but hopefully being that ambitious with such a small film didn’t work against us. I think we did a good job trying to balance all of our hopes and dreams for the music and the reality of what we were working with. It was a challenge with this film, more so than maybe any other film that I have worked on.

BK: What’s great about the “Krisha” score is while you might know where the movie is heading, the music itself is unpredictable in that you are not sure which instruments are going to be used to capture the emotions. Did you start with one instrument and then decide to go with another while composing the score?

BM: Yeah, I think that coming from this sort of film again we all knew we wanted to use things like wooden blocks or these kind of natural instruments. I didn’t think about the unpredictable component. That’s an interesting point. The film plays into a lot of archetypes of what film music should be and that’s like the orchestral stuff. The electronic component was more of me bringing these ideas to Trey because I felt like having these glitched electronics or at least taking organic instruments like a prepared piano and running them through electronics and making them glitch out or making errors or things like that. That was part of my effort to try to capture, especially early on in the film, Krisha’s slow unraveling, and especially to help capture that anxiety she’s feeling early on that slowly becomes overwhelming. I thought electronic sounds would do a better job of that. Not that we couldn’t have used orchestral sounds, and maybe we would have if we had more resources and time to work with classical musicians but they get expensive. So a lot of times I would just take a prepared piano and run that through electronics or these other programs where you can make it mess up kind of. In general, we never had a rule of what instruments to use and not to use, but we wanted to have some instruments sort of carryover from cue to cue as the film went on. We wanted all the cues to be different and we wanted different instrumentations to keep you on your toes, but at the same time we wanted to have some sort of thread running through that felt like there was some continuity there. So from one cue to the next you might hear an instrument that was used on a previous cue on the current cue, but we never had a rule about what we couldn’t use. It was more about seeing what works.

BK: The score, like the movie, is a ticking time bomb. Did you ever have to make a list of when things in the movie get more and more intense or do you put a level at which the music should build?

BM: Yeah, for sure. That was one thing we started with of what the music should tell and where it should bring us to and how it should support the scene. Even before we started making sounds we start talking about how music would support individual scenes and where it should go. Where the music brings us to is pretty much in her head almost all the time except maybe for the end. So it was about what Krisha was feeling inside from the beginning, middle and end, and that’s how the music helped out.

BK: Were there any film composers or specific scores that served as an influence on your work on “Krisha?”

BM: Sure. I think it was that prepared piano and the glitched electronics, that was certainly what I first thought of. The prepared piano was kind of a John Cage thing, and even though I’m not a big fan of Cage’s music I do find a lot of inspiration towards his approach to music. In a few instances I worked with particular musicians that I knew had a very unique voice and style and had them improvise quite a lot in the very early process of making “Krisha.” With that raw material they gave me, I would do a lot of heavy editing of their parts and flesh out pieces of music that were largely built around improvisations from key players. So that’s nothing new, but I think Cage definitely inspired me. Trey is a huge film music buff and he’s a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and he was referencing “Punch Drunk Love” and “The Master” and some of these other movies. He’s a big Jonny Greenwood fan as am I.

BK: It’s great that you brought up Jon Brion’s and Jonny Greenwood’s scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies because your score for “Krisha” reminded me of them in that they sound so unique compared to so many other film scores that are out there. Was it your intention to make the score sound unique or was that just something that happened?

BM: Well yeah, of course you wanted it to be unique but I don’t think that was the main goal. The main goal was to simply make music that was in service to the picture and in supporting Krisha’s emotional mindset as she goes through this journey. One thing I thought was interesting, thinking about Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, is that maybe we come from similar backgrounds in that we’re not classical composers. My entire background is playing with rock bands and maybe that brings a unique perspective to scoring films. In the past a lot of film composers came more from the classical world whereas I don’t, and I know that Jonny Greenwood doesn’t and I know John Brion doesn’t. But also I have a feeling that Paul Thomas Anderson is to blame for a lot of that music too because in choosing his music collaborators and also just the way he makes films and uses music is, for Trey anyway, absolutely an inspiration. I never really studied them the way Trey has.

BK: Like Brion and Greenwood, you do come from the rock and roll world as well having been a member of the indie band Dirty Projectors. The same also goes for Danny Elfman who was with Oingo Boingo before he began scoring movies for directors like Tim Burton.

BM: Yeah, there’s quite a few. I think when I started doing this I was a little intimidated. I started helping my friends with their movies, and more and more people started to hear of my film score work and I just started to fall into it a few years back. I don’t have any musical training and I can’t really read music, so how am I going to do this? I don’t write notes to the page almost ever. For the most part, I think your musical background influences your approach to making things. Maybe there is a similar thread running through all these film music composers who got their start in a different kind of music making.

BK: Now that “Krisha” has been released and is a huge critical success, has that opened the floodgates for you in terms of offers to score other films?

BM: I don’t quite know yet actually. People are just starting to see it now because it did a lot of festival runs. A lot of my film maker friends have seen it, but so far I’m very busy and I don’t know if that’s because of “Krisha” or not. At the moment I am working on a new film, and the music I am making for it has nothing to do with “Krisha.” In fact, the music is more like genre music in that there is a metal song and there’s a couple of slow songs. It’s more songwriting whereas with “Krisha” it was a score. I hope more people see it. “Krisha” is the kind of film that I would love to score more. It’s not that I don’t like doing other kinds of films, but I really enjoyed the challenge making music for a film where music is so much a part of the film. So I hope to do more films like “Krisha” in the future.

I want to thank Brian McOmber for taking the time to talk with me about his score for “Krisha.” It is now available to download on iTunes.

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