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