Unrest marks my first score for a documentary feature. Scoring this film for Jennifer Brea was a completely new experience, and expanded my perspective on the vital relationship between composer and filmmaker.
A young Harvard PhD student with her whole life before her, Jennifer Brea, was suddenly struck with a fever that left her bedridden. Medical tests proved unsatisfying and inadequate. When doctors finally told her it was “all in her head,” Jennifer began documenting her experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.). This affliction, misleadingly called “chronic fatigue syndrome,” affects millions of people around the world, disproportionally women, and yet research pertaining to it is tragically underfunded. Unrest expanded beyond Jennifer’s own experience to include stories like hers from around the globe. It heralds the growing movement to have this condition recognized and properly funded and studied. Unrest debuted at Sundance, where it won a Special Jury Prize for editing.
My journey with this intimate film began a year ago in the unlikeliest of circumstances, with a phone call from J.J. Abrams, asking if I ever wanted to score a documentary. I had never considered documentary films, and understandably no documentary filmmaker had ever reached out to me before. However, I crave new experiences, working in new mediums, and telling new stories, so my curiosity piqued instantly.
J.J. told me about a filmmaker he knew, Jennifer Brea. He had just watched a work-in-progress cut of her documentary, and offered her creative guidance. J.J. suggested she find a composer who could help support her emotional story, and mentioned that he knew me. I could hear J.J. laughing as he told his tale. “She gasped. It was like I said I knew the Beatles!” he said.
Jennifer told J.J. she discovered Battlestar Galactica shortly after she first fell sick, and that binge-watching the show was one of the coping mechanisms she used to survive her ordeal. She was intimately familiar with my music, but it had never occurred to her I might score her film. The next day, I watched a rough cut of Unrest and was stunned by what I saw.
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I realized early in the collaborative process I would need to rethink my approach for Unrest. Jennifer was not merely the director, she was also the film’s subject. I couldn’t simply apply music without understanding how every scene impacted her life. Jennifer had a deeper emotional connection to every scene, to every shot, than a typical filmmaker. In order to fully understand her vision, I stopped thinking of myself as a composer for a film, and instead imagined I was hired to write music for her life.
Unrest was our first experience making a documentary film for both Jennifer and myself. Thankfully, we collaborated closely with a seasoned veteran of the genre, editor Kim Roberts. Kim and Jennifer were still honing in on the film’s structure when I started composing, which gave me the opportunity to act as a sounding board for some editorial decisions. The three of us worked together over the course of several months, with the score evolving in tandem along with the film’s structure. Both the score and the picture went through tremendous changes during this period. Some musical ideas were abandoned as the edit tightened, and some scenes were abandoned as we went through cue reviews. Every time I met with Jennifer and Kim in my studio, I felt I was being given a valuable crash course in documentary filmmaking.
Jennifer would spend hours at a time in my studio so often that I frequently forgot she was still struggling with the affliction depicted on screen. Sometimes, I would only realize how long we had been working when my own exhaustion and hunger kicked in, and I would suggest we stop for the day. Jennifer consistently insisted we keep going until our work was done. I suspected she had grown tired of everyone always asking if she needed a break. So, I quit asking, and knew that if she couldn’t go on, she would let us all know. I was, and remain, in awe of her focus, attention to detail, and dedication to her filmmaking.
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About two months after recording was completed, I found myself scuffing snow off my boots in the green room at a movie theater in Park City, Utah. I was attending the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Unrest, and had joined the producers, documentary crew, and a handful of the people showcased in the film. Chatting with one of these people, Randy, I remarked, “I wrote a theme for you” before I realized how surreal that statement was. With any other film, talking to an actor, I might say, “I wrote a theme for you,” but that is mere shorthand for “I wrote a theme for your character.” In this case, the sentence was meant literally: “I wrote a theme for you!”
In contrast to our shared excitement in that green room, we all spoke in hushed voices to keep the volume down. The rigors of promoting the film had seriously eroded Jen’s strength. Everyone was aware of how difficult it would be for her to get through the event. That night was the first time I had ever personally witnessed her truly running on reserves, and reaching the point of near collapse. I wasn’t sure she would be able to stay through the world premiere of her own film. However, she gathered strength from some deep inner well, and transformed herself back into the unstoppable Jennifer Brea I knew, and presented her documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
After the film, there was a Q&A with the audience. The last question was from a young woman who struggled to speak as she choked back tears. She told Jennifer she had come to the film randomly, having no idea what it was about, but realized while watching it she must be afflicted with M.E. as well. She suffered the same symptoms, and had been told similarly useless information from her doctors. She said this film offered her a new glimmer of hope. At that moment I realized I had taken part in something very special.
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Unrest is structured in chapters, opening with Jennifer and her husband, Omar, and expanding to include a larger cast of characters. The score mirrors this structure, introducing and developing distinct character themes for each story arc. This thematically-driven approach is borrowed from my experience in narrative fiction scoring, and is a useful method for helping the audience keep track of different story arcs.
The first theme heard in the film represents Jennifer and Omar. Introduced by a pizzicato string ensemble, the theme has a playful quality, matching the jubilant imagery of Jennifer’s young life. The primary melody is featured throughout the film.
Perfecting this theme was the film’s central challenge. Initially, the film opened with a more upbeat tone, and I sketched a variation of this theme to match. Ultimately, the needs of the picture moved us away from that concept. Too fond of that particular variation to let it go, I reworked it into a song for the soundtrack album: “And After All,” co-written and performed by my brother McKian.
After this first chapter, we meet dozens of other people suffering with M.E., focusing on a select few. One of them, Jessica, a young woman in England, valiantly struggles to play upright piano in a scene that instantly touched my heart. I wrote her theme on an upright piano that sounds exactly like the one in her living room. In fact, Jennifer and I decided to introduce her theme over that footage of her playing piano. I lined up my piano notes with her finger movements, and created a sequence where she performs her own musical theme!
We meet Lee-Ray and Randy, a family from Georgia torn apart by Lee-Ray’s illness. I wanted to musically represent their rural Georgian setting, so I wrote for electric guitars. The guitars have a slight blues twang, but they’ve also been subtly electronically manipulated, creating distinct echoing loops that feed back into ambient textures.
We meet a young man named Whitney, who spends the entire film essentially comatose. We never hear him speak. For Whitney’s theme, I wrote for delicate bells and keyboards, creating a hypnotic trance-like spell, almost as if he were asleep in a fairy tale.
One of the most shocking stories is that of Karina, a young woman in Denmark, who is removed from her family and her home by the state. Her theme is built from cold, synthetic sounds, emphasizing the clinical and cruel system that could allow this to happen. Her story arc was the most difficult to score because we literally did not know how it would end. As we finished the film, we were waiting for an update to see if the Danish government would release Karina back to her family. This was the first time I’ve scored a film where a major story arc was still unfolding in real time as the film was in post-production. When I scored her final scene in the movie, I still hoped I would have the opportunity to compose a more upbeat version of her theme. As the film came to completion, Jennifer was able to get updated footage for Karina, and we crafted fitting music for it.
The bulk of my score is written for a traditional chamber orchestra. Striving to stay behind the dialog and narration, I wrote for small string ensemble and delicate woodwinds, merging them with light acoustic guitars and bells. Some of my favorite tracks on the soundtrack album, such as “The White Board,” “Mysterious Green Stuff,” and “Conversion Disorder,” showcase these relatively traditional orchestral pieces.
Not all my instruments are traditional, however. In my first meeting with Jennifer, I was awestruck by her recollections of being in an MRI Machine, and the sounds it creates. She mentioned casually that it had an almost musical like quality, and I was utterly inspired. My team created audio recordings of the hardware in action, and we cut them up into samples, a wholly new strange soundscape. The pulsing sound of the MRI machine is mechanical, but also has an odd lop-sided swing to it. The percussive chugs emulate a steam engine, punctuated by snare-drum like clacks, and occasional bird-like chirps, unlike any collection of sounds I’d ever written with before.
I used these sounds to create one of the most sonically distinct pieces I have ever written, called “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” on the soundtrack album. It represents the medical establishment’s misguided attempts to categorize M.E. and diagnose those who suffer from M.E.. There’s a sense of hypnotic desperation to this robotic theme. This music is heartless, and evokes the feeling of being enveloped by a machine, swallowed by an uncaring establishment.
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Unrest begins a national theatrical rollout this month, and so this week feels like the right moment to release the soundtrack album, available digitally from Sparks & Shadows. While no physical version will be sold, serious collectors can get their hands on a limited edition CD as a gift when they order a signed copy of my score for Rebel in the Rye from our friends at La-La Land Records. The numbers are limited: once they’re gone, they’re gone!
Over the last few years, I have sought out new creative experiences in new mediums, and no film fit that description better than Unrest. I am grateful to everyone involved for letting me be a part of this unique and important film. I am especially indebted to Jennifer Brea for her vision and leadership, and Kim Roberts for her collaborative spirit. I also want to thank all the musicians, my co-producer Steve Kaplan, and my entire team at Sparks & Shadows for their tireless support, especially Jason Akers and Omer Ben-Zvi who contributed additional music. And special thanks, of course, go to J.J. Abrams, who was the first person to look at a documentary and believe that I could score it.
UPDATE 12/7/17: Unrest has made the Oscar short list for the highly competitive Best Documentary Feature! From a group of 170 possible films, there are now only 15. Click here for the Variety article.
UPDATE 12/30/17: From my Facebook page –
LIFE IMITATES ART. This is Jessica, one of millions of people suffering from M.E., and her heartbreaking story is featured in the documentary #Unrest. She has spent half her life bedridden. In the film, she valiantly struggles to reach up to piano keys to play a simple tune. Inspired by that moment, I wrote a theme for her on an upright piano that begins with her performance, and evolves throughout the film. That theme is featured on the soundtrack album, in a track I named after her.
I was tagged in this picture on Twitter tonight. Though she’s still suffering from the disease, Jessica looks remarkably healthier today than she did in the film. Seeing her holding the album I sent her filled me with joy. I also saw on her Twitter account a moving video she made to raise awareness for her cause that featured the theme that I wrote her. The music I wrote for her is taking on a whole new life, in real life.
Moments like this are the unexpected joys of scoring a documentary film.