Elysium’s Backbone: An Interview with Ryan Amon

This week is all Elysium all the time. Ryan Amon‘s score for the film is released today in the lead up to the Friday August 9th release of the film. This is Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to District 9, which offers its own pressures, but he also rested the musical powers in the hands of someone whose first feature film is Elysium. A somewhat atypical idea, built on a leap of faith and talent exhibited online, that has allowed for the creation of something truly brilliant. Amon’s score is unlike anything you’ve heard previously, mixing a worldly sensibility with elements of science fiction and action narrative composition, and yet it’s hinged on many of the components one will recognize and identify. It’s a stunning achievement and hopefully one that will signal the beginning of a wondrous career in feature film composing. I spoke with Amon last week about his work and motivations under a unique set of circumstances.

Garrett Tiedemann: How did you get started with composing? What brought you to working on film trailers?

Ryan Amon: My professional composing career started with an assistant job for reality TV music. I had packed my car with pretty much everything I owned at the time and moved from my hometown of Elkhorn, Wisconsin to LA. After about 6 months or so of working unrelated jobs to pay the rent and sending out demos that I would work on at night, I landed an assistant job that consisted of making coffee, getting lunch, and mailing out music to networks. I eventually began ghostwriting for the company and learned how to deliver music on a very tight schedule. After a couple years I knew that I wanted to challenge myself a bit more and I felt that writing for motion picture advertising would fit more of my musical style and help me focus on orchestral writing. I started by sending out demos to trailer music libraries until I found a couple that were interested. A couple of years after that I found myself wanted to do a bit of a different style, while still remaining in the trailer music genre, so I started a personal project called “City of the Fallen”. I focused more on the blending of ethnic elements with traditional orchestra, and used stories from the Bible to be the background and inspiration of the project.

GT: How did you come to know Neill Blomkamp in order to be chosen for the job of composer? Did you actively seek this out or was it dropped on you?

RA: It was at the time I was living in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (where my wife is from originally and where I had set up a second studio), working on music for City of the Fallen that I received an email from Neill completely out of the blue. In a moment of what has now become embarrassment, I had to Google him because I didn’t recognize his name. After finding out it was the director and co-writer behind District 9, I immediately thought it was a prank. I have some pretty hilarious friends and figured one of them in particular must be messing with me. The email simply read “Is this you?” with an attached YouTube clip. I checked out the clip and it was one of my older trailer tracks I had done a few years beforehand—apparently a fan had posted it and Neill came across it. Just in the odd case it wasn’t a joke from one of my friends, I responded that yes, it was indeed one of my tracks. A few days went by—I don’t really recall how many—and I received another email, but this time it was from Neill’s assistant. She asked if I would be able to do a Skype call with Neill, and I quickly realized this wasn’t a prank. It wasn’t until a few weeks after that Skype conversation and when I was back in the US that I was offered the job, which I said I’d have to think about. Haha, just kidding—I jumped at the opportunity.

GT: Being new to film scoring, but not the act of composing for an image, can you talk about the process of scoring this film a bit and how your process evolved to suit its needs? Did you reach out to anyone for some advice as to approach or were you comfortable diving in? Was it even that different from much of what you have already done?

RA: Being new to the film scoring world, I already knew that this approach was going to be much different than between most directors and composers. One of the things we talked about in that first Skype call in Bolivia was that Neill wanted to have a lot of the musical ideas written without any picture to go from. So in a way I knew what the approach was going to be, and I started on musical ideas before filming began. After writing trailer music, this didn’t seem too daunting to me, since writing from imagination is what we have to do all the time. However, with a film, there is a story arc and character development that I wanted to be a part of for sure, and I had to trust Neill’s instinct and love of experimentation. What was different in the process for me was the length of the tracks, as I really had no idea how long the scene was going to be. This caused me to write some longer tracks with a bit of repetitiveness in order to give Neill and the editors enough material to chop if they wanted to. In my mind it was better if the track ideas were too long rather than too short. I think it was after filming had been completed that we finally agreed it would be beneficial to have me come up to Vancouver and work directly with the post-production team, which is then where I started scoring some of the more dramatic scenes to picture. Along the way, as my music was being temped into the movie from the first days of editing, I started getting to see some of the footage from the film, and realized that many of my tracks weren’t going to work. The sound I had created for some of the early tracks just didn’t fit in the world Neill had created. So I went back to the drawing board. My goal was definitely to give them what they wanted, and if something wasn’t working for them musically, I simply said, “Ok, what about this?” It was a very collaborative process.

GT: How did you get started and work through the absence of an image?

RA: When I first started writing, I think I had a sketch of Max’s exo-suit, so I had that visual. I was also given some photos of the area of Mexico City they were going to shoot at, from the location scout. Neill had described the basic ideas of future earth and Elysium, and wanted me to start from there. Light vs Darkness. Having a blank canvas that big makes you kind of hesitate a bit. I remember I started writing orchestral pieces, and quickly realized that they were going for more of a non-traditional approach. I wanted to keep orchestral elements in the film, so I worked on finding ways to use traditional instruments in more non-traditional ways. As we began to combine those with organic synthesis, we knew we were on the right track.

GT: Would you say there is a predominant instrument that is your specialty that inspires much of your work’s formation? Or, in other terms, do you have certain sounds that you gravitate toward in composition?

RA: I don’t know if I necessarily have a favorite instrument, but I really like bowed instruments for some reason. I love the western string section, and the emotion that can be drawn from it, especially the warmth and tone of the cello. Bowed string instruments from other parts of the world, what we westerners would call ‘ethnic’, also make me take notice. There is just something haunting in those sounds—something primal and human.

GT: There is a strong tribal quality, beyond the percussion, that really sets the feel of the music apart. What are some of the vocalizations and instrumentations you put to use to achieve that and how did you come to these sounds as the right energy and feel for the film?

RA: There is definitely a lot of percussion in this score. After a bit of experimenting, I decided to add Mongolian and Tuvan throat singing as well. It is just such a unique sound—almost alien in nature, which for some reason resonated with the film’s premise of transhumanism. Human, but almost not human…the line starts to become very thin. We also used a lot of metallic scraping and bowing in a low register that kind of churns and grinds away as the film progresses. Most of the ideas for these sounds came before seeing any footage, and I wasn’t sure if it would translate on screen or not. Neill instantly gravitated towards these sounds and the low drones for earth, so that became part of our sonic palette.

GT: There is also an extensive brass component, how did you work to utilize the strengths without falling into repeating the big percussion/brass sound often in trailers and films from the last few years?

RA: Yes, there is some heavy brass blasting in the score. There have always been films with big brass blasts, but in recent film scores and especially trailers, it has become quite a bit of a cliché. It is unfortunate because it is such a powerful tool in the storytelling process, especially when representing urgency. We wanted to use them sparingly as more of an alarm effect, and the brass is often doubled with a fog horn, pitched quite a bit higher. It is just this wall of sound. Also, when there are a lot of sound effects going on in films, are there are many of these today that are driven by amazingly realistic and bombastic explosions/gun fire, we are always looking for a sound that will cut through. I think brass is one of these surefire ways to be heard. It’s a very fine line to walk though, and at the end of the day, it is the entire collaboration of the filmmaking team that helps make these decisions.

GT: How difficult was it to locate the balance of electronics with the orchestral material? In addition, without seeing the film, how did you come to the balance of the really big sound that arrives in the first track as compared to the more atmospheric considerations? Were there any artists in particular who inspired the work, not only composers, but anyone/anything?

RA: Balancing the electronics and orchestral material took a bit of experimentation. I wanted to use synth elements that were very organic in nature, where they would blend together with traditional instruments in a way that it would be hard to distinguish where one ended and the other began. If I found a sound that wasn’t quite discernible as being a ‘real’ instrument or not I would see if I could utilize it. Part of the first track in the film came after I was able to see the intro footage. We tried a few approaches of the intro and we settled on a very big sound to get the audience’s attention. To immediately bring them into this future earth ridden with overpopulation and filth. Most of the inspiration for the atmospheric cues came from Neill’s initial ideas for me to write ‘dark’ cues and ‘light’ cues, almost as an exercise in the division of two polar opposite places in the film. I’ve always loved Ennio Morricone’s choral music, and I think subconsciously that may have inspired my use of ethereal vocals for a color in some of the atmospheric tracks.

GT: The score’s record release has a lot of music, which is atypical. How much music did you score overall and was there much in the film that did not make it to the record? How were those choices made?

RA: I never actually counted when it was all said and done, but I think I must have written around 200 tracks for the film. There was quite a bit that wasn’t used in the final cut, mostly because it just didn’t fit in the world of Elysium. Some was too orchestral, or too heroic, or didn’t quite represent the character the way it needed to. It was really up to Neill as to what musical ideas we decided to use. He was always open to suggestions though, and if I thought a track wasn’t working in a scene, I would try another idea and run it by him. But he always had the final say—he knew the world he created and what worked for him and what didn’t.

GT: The album also works really well as a record. Was this new territory for you? Has it had an impact on your approach for future projects? Did the presence of a future record enter your mind while composing for the film?

RA: I guess it was always in the back of my mind that there might be a soundtrack released for the film. But I realized that it was a danger to think that way, because I would want to write for myself and not the goal of serving the film. There ended being a lot of percussion in the score, which isn’t always that interesting to listen to as a concert piece or as a stand-alone piece of music. But I learned very early on that my job was to help tell Neill’s story, so that became my goal. It’s always nice when a film score can translate well as a work of art outside of the film, but it wasn’t the intention or goal for us. It was a great introduction for me and an invaluable lesson as to the roll of a composer in the storytelling process.

GT:  In composing the score, did you think of it as a science fiction score?

RA: I was starting to, but then Neill began to explain the premise and I realized that it wasn’t a typical sci-fi. Everything in the film was done so realistically, with of course the exceptions of a few things that make it a popcorn blockbuster, that I realized it could easily be overwritten musically. It was also why a lot of my early sketches of heroism for Max weren’t working. They were trying to make him something he isn’t. And I didn’t want to try to fantasize the film in any way.

GT: I assume you have now seen the film, how has that been for you?

RA: I’ve seen the final cut, as we were working on the music all the way up to the end when we headed to London to record the London Philharmonia at Abbey Road Studios. I think the film is truly visionary and I think people will leave the cinema changed in one way or another. It’s an incredible film – I’m really grateful to have had a chance to work with such brilliant and talented artists.

GT: What are some of your next steps (if you know)? Do you continue composing for film trailers predominantly or are you looking to this as a jumping off point into new waters?

RA: I think I had always viewed film trailers as a bit of a stepping stone for me. I think there is some amazing and inspiring trailer music coming from very very talented composers today, and it is an exciting medium. My love has always been in film and in telling a story. I haven’t worked on anything that has been more rewarding for me personally than collaborating with a film maker and all the great cast and crew that work so hard to bring these stories to life. I’m hooked.

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