Scoring movies was a dream deferred for composer Michael Abels. Although his varied musical background included opera, hip hop, bluegrass, jazz, and an ear for percussion he honed at the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music, Abels could not break into the industry when he graduated. Instead, he carved his own path with each composition and concerto. Then, comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele approached him to work on the score for his feature debut, Get Out and both men’s careers changed. The movie was a record-breaking success, and the two have reunited once again for Peele’s next project, Us. Peele told Morning Edition that even Steven Speilberg was enamored with Abels’ work on Get Out. "It's like me and John Williams," he told Peele.
This surprising career trajectory has earned him a wave of news listeners. Abels spoke with No Film School about how slowing sound down makes it seem scary, what Peele told him (or didn’t tell him) in preparation for the score, and what other musical Easter eggs to keep an ear out for when watching (or re-watching) Us.
The soundtrack is now available on all major platforms for streaming and purchase here.
No Film School: Since the success of Us, have many people told you how your remix of I Got Five on It has stuck with them or how it creeped them out?
Michael Abels: I guess what I'm amazed by is that people will say it freaked them out and they can't stop listening to it.
Jordan Peele said to me from the first time we met was how important silence was in music and creating tension. One of the first things I do is I take that sample, which is actually from Club Nouveau’s Why You Treat Me So Bad. That's where that music comes from. In I Got 5 on It, Luniz sampled that to create their track and “Why You Treat Me So Bad” is a song from the 70s. What I did at the beginning of that is I add more space between the baseline. Just that knowing what's coming but not knowing when, that's one of the essential techniques of creating tension in film and music. And then after that, it's a distortion of the harmony and the ambiance of this. You know, there's a very creepy background ambiance. It sounds like you're in a nightmare.
"Directors, by nature, are people who see the big picture."
NFS: How did Peele approach you to first work with him on Get Out?
Abels: He saw some of my concert orchestral music on YouTube. Most of the music I had written had been performed in concert halls. So, he saw some of that on YouTube, and he had the producers of Get Out hunt me down and call me up.
Directors, by nature, are people who see the big picture. They can envision every aspect of a giant project that a film represents. To trust someone with the musical voice of your big project is a huge leap of faith for any director. I think he felt that we worked well with Get Out, and he could trust me to do that with the new story that he wanted to tell. He told me the idea even before he had written the script and of course, just from saying people are attacked by their doppelgängers, I knew it was just rich for exploration.
Eventually, there was a script, and then I read that. Like with Get Out, he had me read the script and told me some very specific ideas and things you wanted to hear. Then, he just sent me away to make good on that and show him what I could come up with. So, it was very much the same with Us. We talked about duality and how that might be expressed in music. He wanted me to try instruments that didn't normally go together, something conventional and something unconventional. That was the initial inspiration. I went out, and I did all that and tried different techniques to just show him some possibilities.
I wrote the anthem, which is the main title from Us where you start out by hearing a children's choir singing this kind of evil march and you can't understand what, can't understand what they're saying, but they're clearly up to no good. The children's choir was suggested by Jordan, he thought it would be something people think of as sweet but could be used to really creepy effect. Once again, he was right. Even before the film was shot, I had written that. He knew that it was a piece he wanted to use somewhere. That's kind of our process where he's providing me with musical inspiration, and I'm providing him with music that he can then use to be inspired and use, possibly, on other aspects of the film.
Jordan Peele's 'Us.'
NFS: What were some of the unconventional instruments you used?
Abels: There's a thing called a cimbalom, which is kind of like a piano in some ways, but it's played with little hammers. It does this twangy sound. You hear a lot of solo violin and there's a virtual instrument called a Propanium drum, which kind of sounds like if you could turn an oil can into an instrument. It's like someone banging on trash cans, but it's tuned and you can hear higher and lower sounds. It's your job as a film composer to really channel the emotion, the characters, experiencing it through your art. I'm watching the picture, and I know the type of sounds that Jordan likes. He really likes the unconventional. And with those two principals at hand, I'm just trying to channel the emotion that the characters experience in a way that Jordan finds appropriate to his style.
NFS: Peele’s movies reference a lot of other movies that inspired him. Do those kinds of references also show up in the music?
Abels: I mean, obviously, I'm using I Got 5 on It. Yeah, that's a big one. At the very end of the film, there's a little riff on that. I like letting that [song] bleed over a little in the music that's at the end of the movie. And then there's another musical reference at the end. The ending song that takes us into the credits in Us is a Minnie Riperton song called Les Fleur. I don't know the significance of it for Jordan, but he had picked that song from the beginning. He heard that song as being really important, just as I Got 5 on It is important in the story.
At the beginning of the movie, it starts with this little commercial for Hands Across America, which was this fundraiser in 1986, and it's playing out of a television. Jordan had me do the score for that little television commercial, and the score is a little cheesy 1980s arrangement of Les Fleurs, which you would only catch if you were paying incredibly close attention.
"Peele said that he wants people to have something to talk about in the car on the way home. He deliberately doesn't spell it all out."
NFS: There have been a lot of discussions about what Us really means. Did Peele ever just straight out and tell you or was it already kind of implicit when you read the script?
Abels: He said that he wants people to have something to talk about in the car on the way home. He deliberately doesn't spell it all out. He wants the audience to participate in deciding what things in the film resonate with them, what it brings up for them and what they think it means. Now, in order to score the film, I had to think about what I thought it meant. There were details that I asked him about, but they related to me scoring the film. You're meant to be conflicted about how you feel about the tethered characters. They're clearly terrifying, especially when you first meet them, but there are things about them in which you can empathize with them and understand why they're angry. I found myself empathizing with them.
What that means is if I'm writing for my own emotion, I might not write music that's scary enough because I'm feeling empathy. There was one particular scene where Jordan said, “No, you can't empathize here. This is scary.” I would ask him, what do you know? What emotion are you wanting me to come from in this scene? If he leaves it up to my interpretation, he may not get what he wants, but I never sat down and said, so what's this all about? That's wasn't necessary for me to appreciate the mind, the emotions that were on the screen. That’s a full explanation. The characters don't get an explanation and that's why it's so scary.