Colossal

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In Colossal, the visionary new film from acclaimed director Nacho Vigalondo, Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a recovering alcoholic who moves back to her hometown and reconnects with her childhood friend Oscar, played by Jason Sudeikis. This well-constructed character drama operates on multiple levels, tackling alcoholism, peer pressure, and gender roles, while offering an insightful commentary on the dynamics of abusive relationships. Oh, and Gloria can manipulate a giant lizard monster that rampages through Korea. That happens too.

My journey on this film begins a year ago. I was in the middle of scoring Revolt, a science-fiction-action film for Voltage Pictures, a project that put me on the studio’s radar for their next film. I was sent a cut of Colossal, because the producers were looking for a composer. The movie’s ambitious storytelling shocked me. I was amazed that a movie so daring could exist at all, and especially intrigued by the film’s inherent musical potential. I had never seen anything remotely like it.

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I met with producer Zev Foreman at Voltage, and Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo. Today, I know Nacho as one of the most vivid, brilliant creative minds I’ve encountered, and one of the most like-minded friends I have ever met. But for some reason, Nacho and I didn’t really click at our first meeting. A few days later, my agent Richard Kraft called, and told me that Nacho and Voltage were going to go a different direction on Colossal. My disappointment sank in. This was exactly the type of film I had been searching for, and I felt I was the perfect fit for it. But, it was time to let it go and move on.

Weeks went by, and I kept thinking about Colossal, almost obsessively. I couldn’t shake certain elements of the story. Memories of Anne Hathaway’s distinct take on Gloria, Jason Sudeikis’ dramatic performance, and that monster, flooded my mind. The more the film simmered on the back-burner of my brain, the more its internal form took shape. I began to hear music. Fully aware there was no job to be had, I still tinkered with a melody at the piano. And I liked it.

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About a month later, my agent Richard once again mentioned Colossal. Now, he told me the producers and director were circling back for composer options, and my name was still on the table. Richard asked if I’d be willing to write a few minutes of music as a demo, to convince them I had a grasp on the material. I laughed when I told him I’d already been writing it! I enthusiastically agreed to write a demo, and Voltage Pictures sent over some footage to inspire me. The footage the producers chose was the entire final reel, a sprawling culmination of character drama and monster action that completes the major character arcs and drives home the themes of the film. I knew there was no expectation from them that I score the entire reel, but I had an idea that I had to get out of my brain. I wanted to tackle the entire sequence.

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A good demo, like a good trailer or commercial, is best when its short. When I prepare material to convince someone to hire me, I like to put the absolute best material into the absolute shortest timeframe. So, I recognized that scoring the entire final reel was a risky move. If the filmmakers liked my material, I was good. But, if they didn’t like what they heard in the first thirty seconds, they would just become increasingly annoyed and disappointed as those same ideas developed for another eleven and a half minutes! It would be a safer move to write them a couple minutes of music and call it a day. At this point, though, I had the theme I thought could represent Gloria, and I was excited to develop it. Besides, I felt that the musical challenge with Colossal would be in merging together disparate styles. There was no way to effectively showcase the emotional range of this film in just a few minutes.

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I had a couple days to write, so I was fortunate that the Gloria Theme was already in my brain. I quickly sketched out a theme for Oscar, and wove both musical identities together. My cue stretched out across the entire emotional and dynamic range of the film, featuring soaring orchestral fanfares, massive synth pulses, indie-alt-rock strumming guitars, and intimate solo cello. I completed the twelve-minute demo in two days, and recorded it with live instruments on the third day. On the fourth day, I submitted the demo back to Voltage.

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I heard back from Nacho almost immediately, raving about the music. I was hired to score Colossal. Once we spotted the film, I laughed when I realized the entire duration of the film’s score is only forty-four minutes. I scored a quarter of the movie on spec, just because I had an idea that was itching to get out. As it turned out, that idea went to good use. All of the musical material I developed for the demo remained intact for the final film. In fact, the vast majority of the final reel’s score, including the heart-wrenching cello solo, come from the demo I wrote a year ago. (Check out the music video above to hear a selection from this cue.)

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LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD: The creative challenge of Colossal was… well, it lived up to the title. To find a musical voice to match the film’s unique narrative required many conversations with Nacho, who had returned to Spain. We collaborated for several months via Skype, chatting for long spells about the mock-ups and sketches I sent.

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Themes of abuse, both in substances and relationships, run deep in this story, and those themes inspired me to give the score an emotional weight. To highlight the film’s commentary on gender roles in abusive relationships, I decided that Gloria and Oscar would each require distinct musical identities. Yes, I wrote each of them a melodic theme, but I went further by assigning each feminine and masculine musical textures. The actual color of the score, the instrumental style itself, changes to represent each character, highlighting how distant they are as their conflict grows. It almost sounds like Gloria and Oscar’s themes are pulled from entirely different scores, as I pitted families of sounds against each other. Gloria’s feminine voice is represented by acoustic instruments, especially guitars and cello, while Oscar’s masculine voice is represented by cold, pulsing synthesizers, and low orchestral brass.

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Colossal both embraces and defies multiple genres. It is simultaneously an intelligent character drama with an indie-spirit, and a love letter to the giant monster kaiju genre. I knew from the very beginning that the score would have to expertly thread many needles to tie together these disparate elements into a cohesive experience for the audience. The score needed to be intimate and cinematic, evoking both indie-arthouse and blockbuster-tentpole musical styles. The biggest challenge for every cue in this film was in finding the balance between these intimate and epic sounds in my palette. My goal was to make musical reference to these two genres, while tying them together closely enough that the movie doesn’t feel unintentionally bipolar.

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The indie-drama aspects of the film, in particular Gloria’s character, are represented by strumming electric guitars, most frequently performing a simple riff I call the Gloria Ostinato:

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The guitars give the score a rural American sound, and an indie sensibility. However, they alone do not provide enough emotional expression to support the full range of the film. So, I added to them the solo cello, playing that melody that had gnawed on my brain for weeks after first seeing the film, Gloria’s Theme:

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The cello and guitars perfectly encapsulate the film’s indie-drama aesthetic, but it was clear to me the score would need to reach further in scope. For that, I relied on the cinematic weight provided by a full orchestra. The orchestra represents the epic scale of the movie. I do not mean to say that the orchestra represents the big monster. Instead, I used the ensemble to hint that the story is bigger than it appears at first. The orchestra provides a sense of mystery for the first third of the film, increases the tension for the middle act, and brings soaring emotion to the finale.

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One can hear the polarity in the score at work right in the opening minutes of the film. Over the logos, we hear distinctly orchestral writing: polytonal brass clusters, unison string ensemble lines, and increasingly urgent ostinatos evoking classic science fiction scoring. This texture builds energy over the title credits, reaching a fever pitch right before we reveal Gloria. That opening cue features an orchestral intensity that won’t return for about 45 minutes. For the first half of the film, I feature the guitars and cello prominently, and gradually reintroduce the massive orchestral presence as the story builds momentum. At a certain point in the story, I introduce the masculine, bass-heavy synthesizers to the mix, until all the musical layers unite at the film’s climax.

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I was fortunate to attend the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Colossal a few months ago, and the experience was transcendent. Even though I had worked on the film for months, and knew every scene inside and out, I still felt like I learned something new about the film seeing it with an audience. There is an event in the story that takes place about halfway through the film that seemed to send palpable shockwaves through the audience, a sensation I felt again when I attended the film’s Los Angeles premiere last week. I sensed the audience being pulled into the story, and yes, this moment has a pretty cool musical cue supporting it! Watching the film’s finale with a crowd was an even more powerful experience. Nacho and the mixing team knew exactly when to pull back on the film’s brilliant sound design to make room for the emotional impact offered by the score. Every time I see the end of the film, I am overwhelmed with emotion, and feel intense gratitude that I got to work on something this unique.

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I am thrilled to partner with my friends at Lakeshore Records, Mondo, and Sparks & Shadows to release my original score for Colossal. The digital album is already available now, at iTunesAmazon and other retailers.  For you collectors out there, the physical CD is coming out May 12th. For you hardcore collectors, Mondo will release a limited edition 180-gram vinyl version of the soundtrack, featuring intensely cool original artwork by We Buy Your Kids.

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(As tradition goes, Nacho and I pose for photos imagining we’re the hottest new synth-pop duo. One of these days we’re gonna actually have to make an album.)

A score like this is only possible because of massive contributions from dozens of people, and I must take a moment to give a few shout-outs. Huge thanks are due to Nacho Vigalondo, Zev Foreman, Nicolas Chartier, Dominic Rustam and everyone at Voltage Pictures, for entrusting me with this daring movie. I’m also grateful to have Richard Kraft and Laura Engel in my corner. I could not have done this without the loving support from everyone on my scoring team at Sparks & Shadows, in particular Joanna Pane, Kaiyun Wong, Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, Sam Ewing and Kyle Marie Colucci. These mixes sound amazing thanks to my tireless co-producer Steve Kaplan and his crew, and recording engineer Nick Spezia at Ocean Way studio in Nashville. Alan Umstead brought together a great group of musicians for us. The music video was shot by John Martinez and edited by Alec Siegel. The soundtrack album would never have come out without the combined efforts of Joe Augustine at Sparks & Shadows, Brian McNelis at Lakeshore, and Mo Shafeek and Spencer Hickman at Mondo.

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At last, Colossal is being unleashed upon audiences around the country. I was excited this week to see reviews and articles pop up all over the internet in response. If nothing else, this movie provokes reactions, and those reactions seem to be overwhelmingly positive, as audiences connect with the themes that Nacho has woven into the subtext of this genre-defying movie. I am especially proud of this score, because I think it helps support those narrative themes. The score needed to know when to stay in the background, and when to stomp into the foreground, with exactly the right balance. I believe Nacho’s clear vision and directorial guidance made that possible. Working with him on Colossal allowed me to explore a new musical voice for myself as an artist.

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The first time I saw Colossal, the film stuck with me for weeks. It almost drove me nuts, to the point where I sketched a theme for it even when I thought I didn’t have the job. I smile to think that audiences may now experience a similar reaction. This is a film I suspect will resonate with viewers long after they walk out of the theater. That’s what art is supposed to do. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Colossal.

-Bear