Trey Edward Shults’ award-winning, anxiety inducing debut film, Krisha, was a force to be reckoned with on the 2015 festival circuit. It was described by our own Chris Evangelista as a “cinematic panic attack.” Much of the films unerring tension is enhanced by the haunting, kinetic score from former Dirty Projectors member, Brian McOmber. Blending unusual instrumentation and arrangements, McOmber’s music drives Krisha thru its ominous beginnings to its calamitous finale with nary a nerve left intact. The gifted musician and sometimes biologist recently took some time to speak with CutPrintFilm about scoring Krisha, finding inspiration in his roots and the occasional need to leave music out of a scene.
this interview has been edited and condensed
CUT PRINT FILM: Congratulations on Krisha. It’s a fantastic little film.
Brian McOmber: Thank you. It was a lot of fun to make.
CUT PRINT FILM: It’s a fairly devastating piece of work. Your music had a lot do to with the film’s overall impact. I know you’ve had a lot of experience making rock/pop music over the years, what led you to film?
Brian McOmber: I had a friend who’s a filmmaker, her name is Hannah Fidell …
CUT PRINT FILM: She directed A Teacher (2013), right?
Brian McOmber: Yeah. And that was the first film I scored. She was just making an incredibly small film with friends, and she asked me to do the music for it. So we came up with a really simple idea and I scored the film. That’s kind of how I got started. A Teacher went to Sundance and I met a director there named Anurag Kashyap. He saw the film, came up to me after the screening and said he wanted me to come to India and score his film. So, like a month later I flew to Mumbai and I locked myself in a hotel room to do the music for Ugly (2013). That film got into Cannes. From there, I just kept getting work.
CUT PRINT FILM: So how did you and Trey get together for Krisha?
Brian McOmber: Trey saw Hannah’s film and heard some of my music on SoundCloud. Then he just cold-called me. So when he started Krisha, he was thinking about the psychological drama of A Teacher and how the music is sort of coming from the main character’s perspective. We’re kind of in her head like we are with Krisha. It was the short film version of Krisha that we did first – with the same Cinematographer (Drew Daniels), the same cast and it was the same set too. And from the first shot I saw, you know that close-up of Krisha’s face, it took about 10 seconds for me to say “oh my god. I already love this film.”
CUT PRINT FILM: It’s a breathtaking opening, ‘cause you have no idea what’s going on but you’re immediately invested in it.
Brian McOmber: Yeah, and Krisha’s such a striking woman. Trey knew how to use that.
CUT PRINT FILM: I appreciated that there was some music from that short film on the soundtrack release. Was that something you were pushing for when there was talk of releasing the feature film’s score?
Brian McOmber: Yeah. That track was in the spirit of the feature film even though I made it for the short. It seemed like a nice little bonus feature for the soundtrack. Plus I’m really proud of the music we did for that short.
CUT PRINT FILM: I noticed that the piece from the short was more percussion driven than the music in the feature. Was that something you were trying to get away from with the feature-length?
Brian McOmber: We did. And we actually tried to include some more orchestral stuff with the short film. But with the short film we wanted to accomplish all those crazy ebbs & flows of the feature in that 15 minutes, so we had to shore the music up. With the feature we tried to pace ourselves a bit more. Maybe because there was so much music with the feature – and it’s kind of a slow-burn – I think we felt we had to use a little more restraint. But we also didn’t want to be just orchestral. We did have one cue that had that sort-of same percussion as the short, but we ended up scrapping it.
CUT PRINT FILM: When it came time to do the feature, did you find it challenging to raise the emotion of the music to meet the added emotion of a feature film?
Brian McOmber: That was a challenge. There’s a lot of different kinds of instruments and composition. For the most part we’re just dealing with a lot of anxiety and dread and I think the difficulty in capturing that emotion was in the pacing of the film … and in grabbing the right textures. As far as the emotion goes, the most difficult scene was that last scene that featured this extensive, seven-minute synth piece.
CUT PRINT FILM: That is ‘Ends’ on the soundtrack?
Brian McOmber: Yeah, it’s called ‘Ends’. That was tough to capture ‘cause we were trying to find this balance of feeling sincere and sad. And the first part of the scene is one of the only parts of the movie where we step out of Krisha’s head. And we’re hearing what Rob and her sister are telling her, and the music starts out in a much different form. But then there’s a break and we start to hear what Krisha is hearing again, so we almost get to rewind the scene. Time isn’t linear there so much. And at that point the music changes, but within the same synth-patch we have this break in emotion and the change has to feel natural. But we also didn’t want to push the emotion too much and feel sappy because the performance is so strong. The scene just needed a little help.
CUT PRINT FILM: I found that listening to ‘Ends’ on its own is a lot more peaceful than when it plays in the film. I thought it was interesting that it could be this peaceful thing in one context and something completely unnerving in this other context.
Brian McOmber: It really does sound peaceful … in the beginning anyway.
CUT PRINT FILM: And then – like much of the film – it changes. With the film’s constant tonal shifts, there’s a lot happening on screen emotionally. Was it daunting to look at this story and know that your music was going to have to keep changing with it?
Brian McOmber: That was the most difficult part. There’s a small cast and the film takes place in a single place on a single day. To have all these drastic changes in tone, it was difficult to find how each scene would work musically. So the music doesn’t have an overall vibe, but the closest thing to an emotional string running through it is just extreme anxiety.
CUT PRINT FILM: How involved was Trey in that process? Were there specific things he wanted to hear at specific moments? Or did he leave that up to you?
Brian McOmber: It was both. We knew where we wanted the music so the spotting was pretty locked in. Trey edited the film and I didn’t really start working on the music until the cut was finished. There’s a couple of moments where there’s music and Trey hadn’t thought of it there and also some moments that we took music out. But we’d talked a lot about where the music would go and what instrumentation we wanted or didn’t want. It was difficult to figure out where those emotional shifts would happen and how.
CUT PRINT FILM: Did you have access to the script before shooting started? Or did you just wait for a cut of the film to be done and then go at it?
Brian McOmber: With Krisha I’ve actually never read the script. I was talking about this with Bill Wise who plays Uncle Doyle in the film. Somebody asked him about the script – there’s entire scenes in the film that he improvised – and he just said, “Didn’t see the script. Heard it was good, though.” (laughs). That’s where I was too. But I do like working with scripts. Some of the films I’ve worked on, the music was done before the film was even shot. With Trey, he’s such a visual filmmaker that there’s entire scenes where the story will develop with no words, so you sometimes need the script. In the case of the feature version of Krisha, having done the short too, I knew once I saw some of the images that reading the script wasn’t that important to me. I knew what the film would look like. I knew the characters and I knew the arc of the narrative, so Trey just sent me a cut and I started making sounds.
CUT PRINT FILM: One of the things that I responded to about the music in Krisha is how it fits into the overall sound-design. It’s often a quiet film and I liked that the music almost carries over into the quieter moments. You can sort of feel it even when it’s not playing. Was that effect planned? Or did you guys find that when you were incorporating the music into the cut?
Brian McOmber: This film is very music heavy. That was something I talked about with Trey and something we disagreed on a few times in terms of spotting ideas and how much music should be playing where. I never would have expected that there would be this much music in the film and I think it worked just because of Trey’s style … I hope that doesn’t mean that there’s too much music?
CUT PRINT FILM: Oh, absolutely not. Even when the music is playing, I never felt like it was the feature in a scene. It’s like a puzzle piece. And I think that’s kind of what making movies is – just putting pieces together and making sure that no one thing is overwhelming to another thing.
Brian McOmber: Right, and one of the things I’m most interested in going forward is figuring out how we can not have music. There’s this one scene in Krisha where we pulled the music out and the scene fell apart. It needed this epic music to work, and for me that’s a warning sign. And I said, “I think we need to re-edit this.” Because Trey edited the film, I knew we had that ability so we were able to add a frame or two so it would work with the music and now it works. But when I look through a film, I’m very interested in points where there is music and you don’t need it … and I try as hard as I can to take it out. So the music can simply enhance the situation.
CUT PRINT FILM: And not be the situation.
Brian McOmber: Yeah.
CUT PRINT FILM: With Trey doing a lot of the work on Krisha himself and shooting at his parent’s house and even casting members of his family, the film has a homegrown feel. Did you take a similar approach to the music?
Brian McOmber: It’s funny you say that, because that was my instinct when we were doing the short. I actually went back to my high school and talked to my old band teacher who taught me how to read marching music when I was in sixth grade. And we went to the band room, set up a stereo mic and I played these snare drums and overdubbed them with orchestral bass drums, wood blocks and all this orchestral percussion stuff that I learned how to play in middle school. As we went on to the feature, that idea wasn’t as important. It was about making music that was in service of the film and I got some great musicians to lend their talents to the score.
CUT PRINT FILM: When I listen to film music I try to pick out influences and see where composers are coming from. I found that difficult with Krisha. I felt like there was some Jon Brion style Punch Drunk Love in there and some Vangelis type synth stuff in the background, but I couldn’t really pin one thing down. Was there a film or even a composer that you drew inspiration from?
Brian McOmber: One in particular was John Cage, especially for the first part of the film. One of the things that Trey wanted at the beginning of the film was this rhythmic, tense, driving music. So, immediately I thought about a prepared piano [Editor’s note: A prepared piano has its sound altered by placing objects between the strings] and percussive instruments that would accomplish that. So with the prepared piano and specifically John Cage and his approach to the instrument and to composing music, that influenced the beginning of the film. But also more classic, modern string arrangements too. Trey is a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, so he was sending me tons of Jonny Greenwood’s stuff.
CUT PRINT FILM: That would tie into the Jon Brion I was hearing.
Brian McOmber: Yeah, Trey played me that too. That was a reference point for the piece I mentioned earlier. I was sort of taking Trey’s idea from something in Punch Drunk Love and sort of thinking, “what if John Cage did a version of that?” But mixing it with glitched, circuit bent electronics. But I think with Krisha, I made the music so fast that I didn’t overthink things. There were references like that Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, but once I started digging in, I never went back to those scores to listen to them again. It was like the second Trey sent me those references, I said, “Ok. I get what you’re going for as far as tones or rhythms and that general emotional vibe of being scattered and riddled with anxiety.” So I started making sounds that way.
CUT PRINT FILM: However you were doing it, it sounds amazing. So, what are you working on now?
Brian McOmber: Thanks. I’m actually working a film starring Micheal Cera, Abby Jacobson, Isiah Whitlock and Philip Baker Hall. It’s really fun. I get to make some classic, ‘60s soul music and some modern metal music. It’s a completely different thing from Krisha.
CUT PRINT FILM: You mentioned you were working on Trey’s new film – It Comes At Night (2017) – too. What’s that looking like?
Brian McOmber: A24 is gonna make it. So right now he’s got a team of producers together and I believe it’s going to be a lot of the same cast & crew involved in Krisha, with the addition of many, many more. It’s going to be a bigger production. I read the script and I love it. It will be a very different film than Krisha and I’m really excited to start working on it.
CUT PRINT FILM: And outside of film?
Brian McOmber: Ya know, I’m actually trained as a biologist, so I have a lot of interests outside of film. Every once in a while, I get the itch to go do something else. The last time I was in a lab, was like 2012. While I was in the band The Dirty Projectors, most of the time I was also doing lab work. But I haven’t really been doing bands or science lately. Right now, I’m just doing a lot of film work.
CUT PRINT FILM: We’ll have something to look forward to then.
Krisha is currently playing in select theaters. Brian McOmber’s original music from the film Krisha is currently available to download thru iTunes and will receive a physical release later this year from Lakeshore Records. Here’s a little taste of the madness.