Exclusive Interview with Chris Hajian about his score for ‘The Infiltrator’

Chris Hajian

With “The Infiltrator,” Brad Furman’s movie about U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur (played by Bryan Cranston) and his attempt to bust Pablo Escobar’s money-laundering operation back in 1985, I couldn’t help but expect a film score that was inspired by Jan Hammer’s music from “Miami Vice” or a variety of electronic scores that were very popular at the time. But the film’s composer, Chris Hajian, ended up creating something much more modern, and it acts as Robert’s conscience as he sinks deeper into a world of crime he may not get out of alive.

Hajian was born and raised in Queens, New York, and his love of music began at the age of five when he started playing the trumpet. He went on to get formal training at New York’s High School of the Arts, and he later studied classical composition at the Manhattan School of Music. His credits include “Mr. Vincent,” “Inspector Gadget 2,” “Jingle All The Way 2” and the documentary “Unraveled.” “The Infiltrator” marks his latest collaboration with Furman who he worked with previously on a number of short films and “The Take.”

I spoke with Hajian over the phone recently about his music for “The Infiltrator,” and I was interested to learn how he managed to make it sound like much more than a typical 80’s synth score. It was also fascinating to hear him talk about his approach to this material and of the different elements he used to get into the psychology of the main character.

The Infiltrator poster

Chris Hajian: Thank you so much for making time for me and getting to know me and my music. I really appreciate that.

Ben Kenber: You’re welcome. I was really surprised with your score because the fact that the movie takes place in the 1980’s made me expect an 80’s score, but what you manage to do was take a lot of synth elements and orchestral ones to create something that’s surprisingly modern. Was that always your intent?

CH: Thank you for noticing that. When Brad Furman and I set out to talk about this in the initial phases, we always wanted the score to have a relevance to the 80’s as the film was shot in a way that’s relevant to that decade. We focused on that sound with the textures and the synth stuff, but we never wanted it to feel like a clichéd or tongue-in-cheek or cheesy reference. I also wanted to combine it with my aesthetic of the lyricism of the strings and the kind of very ambient textures that I use to create a lot of the emotional and internal conflicts, so that was my intention. The other thing was when I studied a lot of those classic 80’s synth scores, the “Blade Runner” and Vangelis stuff and Giorgio Moroder, I started noticing how those scores used a lot less music and thank God. I think the trend now to put music everywhere is not good for storytelling personally, and I tried to capture that and use that in the film because the film is so well acted, and when you have Bryan Cranston and the level of actors on there I didn’t want to clutter it with music or overcompensate. So we tried to look at that and use music in a way they did in the 80’s as well in smaller bursts. There’s a lot of music in the film, but there’s also a lot of moments where the film breathes without score so that’s the approach we took.

BK: There are a number of intense moments throughout this movie like when Bryan Cranston’s character auditions for a meeting with a certain drug dealer, and that’s a scene which almost doesn’t need music. But the way you added music in was quite subtle. How tricky was it for you to score that moment?

CH: It went through a lot of different iterations, but Brad wanted that moment to be the most abstract and surreal. This guy is diving into this crazy world, but now he’s taken down to a foreign place and put through this ceremony or an audition. There are some synth elements but there’s much more music score design elements that are working together. We wanted to avoid a lot of the horror clichés that you could do in that scene with the high strings and all that stuff that is so easy to go to. We always tried to counter ourselves and say let’s go to something more nuanced and internal. My whole goal with this whole score was to get into the mind of Robert Mazur and how he is going to pull this off and living with the impression that at any given time he gets discovered, he and his family are dead.

BK: We really do get into the mind of Bob Mazur and the danger he is constantly under. What was the challenge of getting into that character’s mindset?

CH: Just living the double life. As a composer I am a storyteller first and foremost, but I am also always trying to check and watch from the perspective of an audience and understand what can I use to deepen a character from a storytelling or an audience point of view. So for me it was about what’s the essence of a character that is living these two lives and is constantly one move away from getting exposed. To me that all just kept pointing back to keeping the score internal and pushing into his mind, and a good moment that I think illustrates that is after that car accident where he almost dies. He climbs out of the car and the score gets super, super into his mind and almost to the point where you can just see him processing all this. To me it’s all about him having to tie up his own fears and come to grips with his own fears and mortality, so that moment has a very, very surreal quality to it. That’s a sound that I used a couple of times in the film where I felt like it was appropriate to get into the world of what he was doing and the pressures he was feeling.

BK: I’m glad you brought up the car crash scene because that just came out of nowhere, and it’s like everything else goes silent when it happens.

CH: That was the idea. I love that technique when directors will pull out the ambience and the score can have a moment. From the point that the car stops and you’re just kind of wondering if he’s alive or if he’s dead, all the ambience comes out and all you hear is the score. You can’t write too over the top. To me it does a disservice to the story and it takes you out of the moment. I just wanted this thing to evolve. How is he going to reconcile all that just happened in his mind?

BK: What specific clichés from 80s synth scores you were looking to avoid the most when composing this score?

CH: You probably noticed by listening to the score that there’s very little use of drums or percussion in the entire score. Brad and I both talked about how when you deal with thrillers on some level and action and stuff like that, it’s very easy to go to the percussion bank and a lot of composers use it and it always works, there’s no doubt about that, but we felt that would’ve taken away from the film. So all the motion and the stuff that I’m generating were emotions by and large, and there’s a few moments with some drums but very sparingly were created by synth pulses and the ambiences and reverse sounds that I have created and created loops on, and that’s really what gave it a lot of propulsion.

BK: That’s what is fascinating about this score of how you use little in the way of drums or percussion. I don’t think I even realized that as I was watching the movie.

CH: Yeah, it worked. It just felt right and it became a really good challenge. As a composer you always want to get challenged by the director in a really wonderful way, and when Brad said I just don’t hear that sound, that made me say okay, cool, now what can I do or dig into to find something that’s maybe a different take on those kind of scenes. The other thing with the clichés too is I incorporated the kind of 80’s synth with the ambient textures and the strings that created that emotional warmth. That was my goal, to have those three things all work. I didn’t want you to identify one or the other like that, and I don’t ever want the audience to feel oh here’s synth, now here’s strings, now here’s ambient textures. I had to find a way to merge them so that it’s seamless and you don’t realize that. I wanted it to feel like it’s just a wave of these different sounds and textures. One of them becomes a priority at different times depending on what the narrative is.

BK: That’s a great point because this is a score that could’ve called too much attention to itself with the 80’s synth sound. But all of them, the synth, the ambient textures and the orchestral elements, do come together in a seamless way. You could have just composed the score electronically, but an emotional component to the story could have been lost in the process.

CH: You’re totally right. You can look at the film and think this is going to be a film about a drug cartel or it’s going to be like “Narcos,” but cocaine is really the least important aspect of the film. Yes, it’s in that world and the cartel is dealt with, but it’s really about this man’s journey and his emotional connection to his family, to his own self-doubts and ultimately to that bonding he makes with Alcaino played by Benjamin Bratt and his family and the immense amount of conflict he has knowing that he’s going to ruin this guy’s life and his family after he becomes friends with him.

BK: You worked with Brad Furman previously on a number of projects including “The Take.” How has your working relationship with him evolved from “The Take” to “The Infiltrator?”

CH: I have known Brad for 21 years. He is the most generous, trusting collaborator and I think the world of his talent. We have become amazing friends and have become better collaborators the more we work. We start with a really big sense of trust, and I think for a composer that’s what you need, to really see yourself and reach for something more interesting. To work in a situation where you’re afraid you’re going to fail or you’re going to try something different and it’s going to be looked down on as you can’t do the job, then it’s going to feel like a straitjacket. To me it’s not enough to just get a score done or get the cues down. I need to put my own mark and personality on it in a way that the director wants. I really know what makes Brad tick. I know his sensibilities, I know his inherent likes and dislikes in what a score represents. I have invested a lot in this relationship and I will go to the ends of the earth for him and to stop at nothing to make him feel that I was the only person who should be scoring his films and telling the story with him. That’s what it’s about; to have somebody that really gets you and understands you creatively.

BK: I read that one of the film scores that really influenced your work on “The Infiltrator” was Giorgio Moroder’s for “Midnight Express.” What was it specifically about that score which influenced you the most?

CH: I think that was one the most landmark synth scores. Nobody really did that before Moroder, and he did it in a very serious film with a lot of intensity. You listen back on some of those synth sounds now and some of the sounds are teeny or small, but at the time that put such an incredible uniqueness onto that score and really tapped into what was relevant in its pop culture in a positive way. I just think it was highly unique and I think it opened up the door for Tangerine Dream and Vangelis and all those things that followed it.

BK: When it comes to composing the score for any project, do you find yourself running music before you watch the movie or do you have to watch the movie before you can start writing any music for it?

CH: Usually a composer is hired relatively late in the process. In this case I was on very early because of my relationship with Brad, and it was so important that we define the tone of this thing so we spent as much time as possible on it. I was writing these really global themes and even just putting sounds together just to see if Brad connected with it. Even while they were shooting I was sending Brad some ideas. It just made him think about this film sonically.

BK: Did you ever get to talk with the actors or get any ideas from them that you put into the score?

CH: Yeah. Bryan Cranston is an amazing guy and of course an incredible actor, and I was down on the set for a couple days in Tampa and he’s saying that he’s really an aficionado. So we start talking about so many electronic scores and we kind of connected with what my concept was, and he was very generous and excited about what it would sound like. I saw a lot of them at the premiere and I am very friendly with John Leguizamo who is in Brad’s circle as well. It’s been nothing but the most encouraging, really wonderful experience and I wish they could all be like this. I hope everyone is going to experience something where there is just a really big coming together of people for the right reasons. That’s a real tribute to Brad. We were in the foxhole with him.

I want to thank Chris Hajian for taking the time to talk with me about his score to “The Infiltrator.” Please feel free to visit his website at www.chrishajian.com.

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The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator poster

It’s very tempting to call this movie “Breaking Bad” meets “Donnie Brasco” especially with Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston starring in it. “The Infiltrator” is about a U.S. Customs Service special agent, Robert Mazur, who goes, as Eddie Murphy put it in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “deep, deep, deep, deep undercover” to infiltrate one of the world’s largest drug cartels. But more importantly, getting inside this particular drug cartel leads him to the money laundering operation run by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was once called “the king of cocaine.” Yes, this movie is “based on a true story,” but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

“The Infiltrator” takes us back to the year 1985 when the internet didn’t exist, “Miami Vice” was on the air and the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was the subject of every other commercial we watched on television. Mazur has just come off a mission where he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, but he’s invited to participate in one more mission before retiring for good. Of course, we all know that the last mission will always be the most dangerous one that will test him more than ever before, and we do get the obligatory scene of the hero washing his face and staring at himself in the mirror as he silently questions himself. Also complicating issues is the fact that Mazur has his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids waiting for him back at home, and his wife can take only so much more of her husband’s work as every time he walks out the door might be the last time she sees him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Donnie Brasco” as I watched “The Infiltrator” as both films deal with undercover officers with families of their own who get so deep into their work that they cannot help but feel for the criminals they are trying to take down as they get too close to them in the process. This movie never comes across as the kind of undercover movie we haven’t seen a number of times before, but director Brad Furman still manages to keep the intensity strong and tight as Mazur and his colleagues face life or death situations more often than not.

Furman has previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney of many Michael Connelly novels, Mickey Haller. Now that movie managed to be a very entertaining legal thriller while bringing nothing new to genre, and Furman does the same thing here with “The Infiltrator.” There are scenes which remind us of many other movies we have seen before, but Furman manages to tweak those familiar situations to where we are forced to expect the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen everything an undercover movie has to offer, along comes this one which really fries your nerves at certain moments.

It also helps that Furman has quite the cast to work with here. Cranston has been on a roll ever since playing Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and it is fascinating to see him play the kind of character whose mission it is to take down the Walter Whites of the world. It’s a complicated character as Mazur is dedicated to his job and his family, but not always in the same order. Cranston makes us empathize with a man whose priorities get tangled up as he descends deeper into the drug cartel world. Just watch him in the scene where he has to “audition” to meet one of the cartel’s leaders. Cranston makes you feel the frightening predicament of a man who may have gone one step too far, and he imbues the role with an integrity few other actors are capable of doing.

Cranston is also surrounded by a terrific cast of actors like John Leguizamo who brings his uncontainable energy to the role of Emir Abreu, Mazur’s partner. Leguizamo has one of the movie’s most unnerving scenes as he is forced to defend himself against another person who attempts to blow his cover, and watching the actor play it cool under such intense circumstances is thrilling to watch.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt who plays Roberto Alcanio, Mazur’s contact and Escobar’s top lieutenant. Bratt makes Roberto into a man as charming as he is ruthless as well as someone far more interesting than the usual clichéd drug dealer we see in movies like these. You want to hate Roberto, but Bratt keeps you from doing that as you become as deeply involved in his family’s plight as he makes this character seem like a cool, down to earth dude even though he is also a vicious drug dealer.

There’s also Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) who plays Mazur’s chief officer, Bonni Tischler. She’s a real fireball from start to finish as she barks out orders at her colleagues and has no interest in wasting time on frivolous matters. Ryan makes Bonni into a no-nonsense character who you do not want to mess with as she is not about to let those who work for her take advantage of a situation unless it is for a really, really, really good reason.

Also terrific is Diane Kruger who plays Mazur’s partner and undercover fiancée, and she really hold her own opposite Cranston as her character of Kathy plunges headlong into an assignment she initially seems fully unprepared for. Much like the German actress she played in “Inglorious Basterds,” Kruger (no relation to Freddy) shows a fearlessness as she unveils the many talents Kathy has to get close to the criminals, and she also portrays the perils of undercover work as her emotions threaten to get in the way.

“The Infiltrator” is nothing new or groundbreaking in movies, but it does get the job done thanks to terrific performances and some truly intense scenes that really leave you guessing as to what will happen. It also provides us with a main character who is as interested in taking down bankers who launder drug money as he is in going after drug dealers. With the “War on Drugs” continuing to be fought in a futile manner, watching this movie made me think of something George Carlin once said:

“Drug dealers aren’t afraid to die. They’re already killing each other every day on the streets by the hundreds. Drive-bys, gang shootings, they’re not afraid to die. Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… THE BANKERS WHO LAUNDER THE DRUG MONEY!”

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.