Rim of the World
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD: In the new Netflix film Rim of the World, four kids meet at the titular summer camp before an alien invasion plunges the world into chaos. They must overcome their differences and embark on a journey to transport a vital cryptokey to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with the fate of humanity in the balance. The film combines action, comedy, science fiction, and horror, with a coming-of-age story, and serves as an homage to the kid-centered adventure films popularized in the 1980s. I set out to compose an energetic, orchestral score in the style of my childhood heroes who were the masters of the genre, including Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, Alan Silvestri, and James Horner.
Screenwriter Zack Stentz and I have been friends ever since we worked together on the short-lived yet beloved series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Zack sent me the script for Rim of the World in an early stage, and I was charmed by its adventurous spirit. My imagination went into overdrive and I immediately heard soaring French horns and swirling string orchestra textures! Acclaimed director McG eventually came on board the film and invited me to join his crew as composer for Rim of the World.
McG and I spent a great deal of our early conversations discussing the tone and scale of the film, along with how to directly reference the film’s 1980s influences. Scores like Stranger Things and John Carpenter’s Halloween have embedded 1980s synths into our public subconscious once again. A synth score would have been an obvious and relatively budget-friendly sound for Rim of the World. We felt, however, synths would undercut the film’s wild ambitions of big adventure, massive scope, and heartfelt emotions. Rim of the World was calling out for an orchestral score, in the style of my favorite scores of my youth.
I grew up during the best time for film scores in history. Every weekend at my local multiplex I stepped into a darkened theater and heard amazing music with memorable themes, masterful orchestral craft, and confident character. Brilliant composers pushed narrative tones boldly to their limits, showcasing how comedy, adventure, romance, tension, and horror could all coexist in the same film. “Barry’s Kidnapping” in John Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind nudged the science fiction drama into full-fledged horror. After genuinely terrifying sequences, Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Gremlin Rag” established Gremlins as a bonkers comedy. The lush orchestral lyricism in James Horner’s The Land Before Time, the slyly winking heroism in the brass writing in Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future, and the gothic bombast of Elmer Bernstein’s Ghostbusters, all deftly pulled audiences in to these fictional worlds. I listened to these scores every day as a kid, and from them I learned the musical philosophy I wanted to apply to Rim of the World.
FOUR THEMES FOR FOUR KIDS
The most essential component of any score, especially an orchestral adventure score, is a memorable theme. Looking at classic 1980s “team up” movies, such as Stand By Me, Goonies, and Ghostbusters, I set out to compose a single musical theme to represent the ensemble cast. However, I struggled to make a single theme work because each kid overcomes their own distinct personal weakness, in their own three-act story arc. I came to realize a mono-thematic musical approach would not work for Rim of the World, and set out instead to compose each of the four kids their own unique musical theme. I needed four themes.
The film’s protagonist, Alex, is a socially awkward nerd whose only friends reside in chat rooms. Over the course of the film, he must face his fears and become a hero. Alex’s Theme is introduced early in the film, featured on a mandolin:
The film’s first act takes place almost entirely at the summer camp, introducing the kids and their comedic hijinks. Here, I used Alex’s small and unimposing mandolin, along with arpeggiated guitars and upright piano, to evoke the nostalgic and innocent feelings of summer camp and childhood innocence. (On the soundtrack album, check out “Alex” and “Welcome to Camp.”)
The first quarter of the score feels like a quirky Wes Anderson film by design. I wanted to help lull the audience into a false sense of security, to trick them into thinking they’re watching a summer camp comedy like Meatballs or Wet Hot American Summer.
When the aliens invade, the film and score make a wild leap in tone, and the Alex Theme undergoes a transformation. As Alex gradually overcomes his fears, I feature his theme in increasingly muscular brass and string arrangements, underlining his character growth. The upward intervallic leaps in his delicate mandolin melody are reborn as fully orchestral, heroic fanfares. (Check out the opening of “Four Heroes” and the middle of “Cryptokey.”)
Beginning the score with an intimate mandolin theme gave me a useful musical tool to use later to remind audiences there are still four kids at the center of this sprawling adventure. For comedic or intimate scenes, I often used the mandolin in contrast against the orchestra, making a callback to the film’s first act at the summer camp, and giving the score an extremely wide emotional and dynamic range. (Check out “Zhen Zhen and Alex” and “Four Heroes.”)
This range is on full display in my favorite cue, “Riding Bikes.” This scene was pivotal to both the film’s story and my creative process. In it, the four kids have bonded around a common goal and have decided to head into harm’s way with the goal of saving the world. (In fantasy cinematic terms, the newly formed fellowship embarks on the journey to Mordor.) McG had originally placed a fun rock song over this scene. At our first creative meeting, I agreed the song did provide an infectious energy, but I still felt a score variation of Alex’s Theme would ultimately serve the film better. I asked McG to indulge me and let me write a cue so we could at least discuss it.
My cue starts off with a gently comedic mandolin statement of Alex’s Theme, underscoring his awkward struggle to stay on the bike. As he realizes he’s figured out how to ride the bike, the orchestra blasts off with French horns carrying his tune. The passage is joyous, soaring, and narratively satisfying because it represents an evolution for both Alex and his musical theme. When McG heard this mock-up for the first time, he laughed, and confessed he had truly wanted to keep the song here, but the emotional impact of the orchestral theme was simply too exhilarating to ignore.
Zhen Zhen Theme
In the film’s first act, Zhen Zhen arrives at the camp having run away from her home in China, drawn to the promise of a better life in America. She becomes the group’s de facto leader and forms an important bond with Alex. For her, I wrote the Zhen Zhen Theme, featured most often on solo flute.
Zhen Zhen’s Theme was among my final creative discoveries while scoring Rim of the World. I had completed nearly the entire score, using Alex’s Theme as a “hero theme” for both him and Zhen Zhen. With mere days left, I realized my mistake in giving only three of the four kids a primary theme. I brought my entire orchestration and copying team to a screeching halt while I wrote a Zhen Zhen theme, and quickly revised nearly every cue in the film to feature it in all her scenes.
Because Zhen Zhen chooses not to speak for the first chunk of the film, her theme does a lot of the heavy lifting for her character early on. Her plaintive flute solo adds intrigue and mystery as Alex first introduces himself at camp, encounters her on the bridge at twilight, and follows her into the woods. (Check out “Welcome to Camp” and “Alex Meets Zhen Zhen” on the soundtrack album.)
Ostensibly the tough kid of the group (his first on screen action is punching Dariush in the face), Gabriel hides a learning disability in which he struggles with numbers. To support this internal conflict, I made a counterintuitive decision to underscore this “tough kid” with a delicate orchestral harp.
Inspired by some of my favorite James Horner textures, I kept Gabriel’s Theme relatively simple compared to his peers. I frequently used only a few notes at a time, to hint there is more going on with Gabriel than he lets on.
Gabriel’s Theme isn’t limited to the solo harp, however. In the middle of the film, he devises a solution to save his friends, putting himself at great personal risk. Here, I set the low brass and strings in motion with a punchy, heroic 6/8 ostinato and, in a glorious transformation, state his theme with triumphant French horns and trumpets. Suddenly, his introspective harp notes evoke Michael Kamen’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (Check out “Men in Masks.”)
As the most dynamic character, Dariush was the most challenging to score. I struggled to find a single idea to underscore his broad comedy beats as well as his heartfelt emotional revelations. Ultimately, I wrote him two themes that work together. To support Dariush’s comedic, cocky confidence I wrote the Dariush Ostinato.
This playful bass line is featured in low strings, combined with a bendy hip-hop synth bass and electronic drums. Like Alex’s mandolin, these non-orchestral sounds pop out immediately and provide an instant connection to Dariush’s hip-hop-derived swagger. Woven into an orchestral cue, this unexpectedly funky, awkward bassline adds bursts of comedy. (Check out “Welcome to Camp” and “The Dragon Capsule.”)
For Dariush’s emotional scenes, I wrote him a melody, the Dariush Theme.
I always featured this introspective, plaintive tune on a single bassoon in its upper register. This fragile solo endears us to Dariush as he reveals himself to be a vulnerable person of true character. There is no swagger here, only emotion. (Check out “The Truth from Dariush” and “Dariush the Great.”)
A handful of other themes form the foundation of the score.
The worldwide invading alien force is personified by the film’s central antagonist – an alien hunter who stalks our protagonists. To represent this unstoppable killing machine, I composed the Alien Theme.
Set in a menacing 7/8 groove, propelled forward with large hide percussion, this theme stands apart from the more melodic themes associated with our heroes – tribal, pounding, and merciless. Atop heavy drums, an aggressive low brass line snarls in descending tritones, which signify the creature’s evil resilience.
In the middle of the film, the four kids encounter a military platoon led by a broad-shouldered soldier, Captain Hawking. To underscore this scene, I wrote the Military Theme.
By passing the cryptokey off to Hawking, the kids (and the audience) feel like they’ve succeeded. To support this idea, I scored his scene as if he were a main character, with a bold and prominent melody. Above a staccato snare drum march, upward ascending leaps in the French horns strengthen his theme with military machismo overtones. (Check out “Military Evacuation.”)
The kids’ victory is short-lived, as aliens swoop in and wipe the military out. In an instant, the kids are back on their own. Like the soldier himself, The Military Theme dies a quick death, and is never heard from again. This was my version of a musical joke – introducing a strong, heroic theme only to erase it from the score a minute later!
The Journey Ostinato
The musical engine for Rim of the World is a catchy repeating riff in the low strings, brass and synths I call the Journey Ostinato.
This ostinato is introduced as the quartet takes their first steps together, underscoring Zhen Zhen as she leads them with determination towards their goal (“Riding Bikes“). From there, it comes to the forefront as they gather their bikes and head down the mountain. For the rest of the film, the Journey Ostinato propels the kids forward, motoring across transitions to sell the passage of time and miles, adding urgency to their mission.
The Journey Ostinato is heard most triumphantly at the top of the end credits title sequence, the track “Rim of the World” that opens in the soundtrack album.
I composed Rim of the World over the course of about six weeks, during which I frequently hung out with McG for lengthy, energetic conversations about music, story, and character. He and his team fine-tuned the picture edit as I wrote, and our creative processes began to affect one another. In my early cues, I pushed the film’s inherent sweetness, leaning into the childhood “coming of age” tone and away from hard-edged comedy. Over weeks, influenced in part by the warmth in the score, some comedy was gradually toned down in editorial. Conversely, picture editorial amped up the action and horror, inspiring me to increase the urgency in my music.
Music review sessions with McG evolved into collaborations with the rest of the creative team, during which we massaged the true tone for the film. We strove for an ideal balance of comedy, heart, adventure, action, and horror.
Our wild musical ambitions for Rim of the World would clearly require lengthy recording sessions with an amazing orchestra, and I was fortunate to collaborate once again with the world-class musicians of the Synchron Stage Orchestra at one of Europe’s finest scoring studio facilities. I had worked remotely with this ensemble twice before, on two horror films, Hell Fest and Happy Death Day 2U. Rather than remote-producing the session from Los Angeles, this time I flew across the Atlantic to conduct them myself.
I arrived in Vienna and could sense the love of classical music in the crisp winter air. (On a tour of the Schönbrunn Palace, I stood in the very room where a six-year-old Mozart first played harpsichord for the Empress!) Unsurprisingly, the city’s musical history and appreciation translated to an extremely skilled studio orchestra that closely rivals the professionalism found in Los Angeles and London.
Conducting the ensemble was a joy. Over the course of four long days, the musicians were tireless, responsive and enthusiastic. I was especially excited that McG was able to join us personally in Vienna and hear our score in person, since no recording can compete with the experience of being in the room. I am grateful to all the orchestral musicians who performed, but I would like to give an extra round of applause to concertmaster Marian Svetlik, bassoonist Mihajlo Radovojevic, first trumpet Dominik Fuss, and Johannes Vogel for conducting the percussion session, after having already conducted beautifully the two remote scores I had done there earlier.
I left Vienna with a newfound appreciation of the city and its musicians. I also love any city with good coffee, chocolate and a fondness for delicious, breaded meat! I returned to Los Angeles exhausted, but excited to dive into the mix with Jason LaRocca.
The mixes came together beautifully, combining that classic Hollywood sound I grew up on with the contemporary, punchy orchestral sound I love to produce. My music for Rim of the World feels both old and new, and I’m thrilled the score can now be found on the soundtrack album, available exclusively in a digital format from BMG. (As of this writing, there are no plans for a physical release.)
1. Rim of the World
2. ISS SOS
4. Welcome To the Camp
5. Alex Meets Zhen Zhen
6. Explosions In The Atmosphere
7. The Dragon Capsule
8. Follow The Leader
9. Riding Bikes
10. Into the Wasteland
11. Military Evacuation
12. Gabriel’s New Family
13. Men In Masks
14. The Truth From Dariush
15. Zhen Zhen and Alex
16. Car Attack
17. Dariush The Great
19. Four Heroes
21. Firing Excalibur
22. Pretty Brave After All
Scoring Rim of the World was a massive team effort. I want to especially thank McG for his enthusiastic, passionate leadership, and for affording me a liberating amount of creative freedom. Special thanks are also owed to Mary Viola and everyone at Wonderland Sound and Vision, as well as screenwriter Zack Stentz for his delightful script, music editor Michael Baber, picture editor Vincent Tabaillon, music supervisor Tracy McKnight, and producer Max King. I’d like to thank everyone on my team at Sparks & Shadows, especially Joe Augustine, Marisa Gunzenhauser, and Kaiyun Wong. I appreciate all the musicians, orchestrators, copyists, engineers, and the Synchron Stage crew in Vienna, as well as orchestral engineers Bernd Mazagg and Martin Weismayr, score mixer Jason LaRocca, and album mastering engineer Patricia Sullivan. Thank you all for making my music sound so good!
A few months after the score mix and film dub, I found myself at the Rim of the World premiere in Hollywood. When the “Riding Bikes” cue fired up, I could sense the audience bristle with anticipation as my Goldsmith-inspired bassline kicked in. I sensed the audience could feel a fun adventure was about to unfold, and felt in that moment I had accomplished my goal of writing a boisterous, orchestral adventure score.
Writing a score that harkens back to the scores of my youth was a joyous experience. I got to write bold character themes and weave them into an unapologetically orchestral texture. I am grateful for this opportunity to compose a score that made me feel like a kid again!
Rim of the World is a summer camp I would love to revisit one day.