Composer Nathan Halpern on ‘Emily The Criminal’ | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, May 30th, 2024  

Composer Nathan Halpern on ‘Emily The Criminal’

The Two Pillars

Apr 29, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Sometimes the challenge of working on a creative project can be just as hard for someone asked to help from the outside as it can be for the one with the initial vision. That’s because at least the central figure has the primary amount of sway and influence, while everyone else has to try their best to discern what the director or author is wanting. Thus it can be quite a feat for a composer like Nathan Halpern to step inside a script and help it come to life by providing the accompanying music to carry along the narrative.

If you’ve seen Emily the Criminal, a thrilling drama that released earlier this year featuring Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Rec), you’ll know that Halpern did just fine to live up to his responsibilities within a movie that remains with the viewer far longer than you’d expect. The score is such an important part of the overall package that we were keen to ask him more. We recently sat down with Halpern to hear more about his involvement with the film, what it’s like to take in a viewing of the finished work, and what’s next for him creatively.

UTR (Matt Conner): Just to begin, I’d love to start with how you got attached to Emily the Criminal in the first place?

Nathan Halpern: My agent sent me the script sometime in the very dark days of COVID—at least that’s my memory of it. I picture a dark night while I’m reading it and that’s really the feeling of that time. It was bleak and then I read it and found it to be so cathartic and so pulse-pounding and exciting. It was satisfying yet very tense on the page.

I had a serious of conversations with John Patton Ford, the writer/director. We talked both a lot about the script and about music. John is very musically inclined and has really eclectic and tremendous taste in music. We talked about a lot of music and films that we loved. As you can infer from the film, he has a very deep knowledge of cinema spanning all genres, all time periods, all nations.

This went on for a while because it took them a while to bring the film to life. There was COVID and delays to work through but he and his team worked very hard to make it happen.

UTR: Do you go in with a strong vision of your own? Or how does the collaboration work with John here?

Nathan: It’s interesting because we were talking about the film before it was shot. So when we spoke of music, it was a broader conversation—about music we loved or character point of view, or the emotional affect of the movie. So when it came down to scoring the film, there were things we’d speculated that might work or might be an approach but you never really know until you see the film.

So I’d been thinking about it for quite some time. When it came down to actually scoring it, it was a few weeks. It was a tight period of time and they’d very meticulously edited the film and I didn’t see the earlier cuts of it. They wanted me to have a clean and fresh perspective on it, because I already knew the script well. They didn’t want me to be mired in various cuts of the film.

Two things that emerged in the actual final cut of the film, one was that you had this very gritty and authentic vision of Los Angeles and her life and experience. You have more action scenes and moments of tension and these are quite realistic. They’re not overly genre-fied. They’re vivid and visceral and there’s a lot of tension there and you don’t want to break that. The music in those sequences has a lot of grit and dirt and anger and pulse.

That’s all being oriented by the character of Emily, as played in this great and enigmatic performance by Aubrey Plaza, and her interiority. We’re being true to that. We always want to stay focused on that, so if she’s feeling tense or angry, we want to stay as true as we can to that feeling as opposed to being lifted off or up on top of it floating above the surface. You want it to feel that it’s emerging from something internal.

At the same time, there’s another pillar to the score which is a more ancient or timeless kind of feeling, this spiritual journey of self-actualization and self-discovery that this character is going through. There are certain key moments, particularly later in the film, where this kind of opens up a little bit. We can feel that where we’re going to a different place musically. We can get out of the grit ands have space for these strings and warped vocal sounds. It’s still enigmatic but it’s a more spiritual and emotional journey this character is going on. It transcends the notion of story and narrative and speaks to something more archetypal.s

UTR: What’s it like to work on something all alone and then see it in a room filled with people responding to your work?

Nathan: The film premiered at Sundance back when it was virtual so that was not with an audience. But I did see it at an industry screening in Los Angeles and then a Rooftop Films screening in New York that was indoors because it was raining. That was exciting, particularly in New York.

One thing I was able to predict is that when I read the script, I knew there were so many people in the world, and so many that I knew personally, who were going to relate so strongly to this movie. It felt like the movie they’d been waiting for, the movie that would speak to their deepest feelings they’ve been wrestling with for years and it would be so revelatory for them. To be sure, there was a very wild and chaotic screening in New York City and you definitely had that in this sweltering room with terrible sound and the picture mangled, it just didn’t matter. The film was connecting. I’d always felt it would play this way for people and when it did, it was so satisfying.

Do you think this will open some doors of a different kind for you?

Well, I can’t predict what doors will open because it’s so unpredictable. You look back and can map a clear path, but at the time, it’s just one foot in front of the other.

What are you working on right now?

At the moment, I’m working on several projects including a limited series, but I’m not allowed to talk about any of this. But I’m definitely working on things that are very exciting to me and I think, without having reflected on them too much, I feel that they all represent some new developments both musically and in their relationship to the form in which they’re engaged.


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