A Most Violent Year Composer Alex Ebert

Singer-songwriter and composer Alex Ebert might still be best known as the front man for the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but his skill as a film composer is becoming more evident with each new J.C. Chandor movie. The director and the composer recently worked on their second film together, A Most Violent Year, which has already earned rave reviews and looks poised to cement Chandor’s status as one of the most ambitious young directors of his generation. The film also should help solidify Ebert’s status as well, putting him in a league with other composers who have parlayed their successful careers as musicians into composing for film, creating challenging, intriguing soundscapes for a specific director whose work they compliment. Like Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor has done for David Fincher, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has done for Paul Anderson, Ebert has now put his mark on two Chandor films and might just become the director’s right-hand man for his future scores.

Having already won a Golden Globe for his outstanding score to Chandor’s All is Lost, which was a practically dialogue-free film in which Robert Redford fought, and perpetually lost, battle after battle with the elements while marooned at sea, A Most Violent Year offered the gifted musician the chance to apply his talents to a film set in, and largely about, New York City in 1981, the most violent year in the city’s history. The story centers on ambitious immigrant Abel Morals (Oscar Isasc) as he fights to protect his business and keep his family safe during the city’s brutal year. We spoke to Ebert about how he got connected with Chandor, his

How did you and J.C. Chandor first get connected?

I just got a call one day. It was just, ‘Hey, do you want to meet a guy about doing a film with Robert Redford, no dialogue, out on the ocean?’ He was going over it with an agent, who ended up becoming my agent, at William Morris. The agent asked him, ‘What about using a guy who is more just a musician?’ They gave him a few people’s music, and somehow J.C. sort of saw through, or into, my music, enough so that he thought I could do it. To me that’s sort of amazing that he was able to see that.

How did you approach All Is Lost?

It happened so quickly that my girlfriend read the script to me on a drive back to LA, it was only a thirty page screenplay. What came to me right away was The Mission for some reason. I mentioned that to J.C., and he told me to shut up, because that was his favorite score, and we just started off from there. My instinct was pretty much on the mark with the pastoral, almost choral, subdued development that happened in that movie. I sent him a few different things, I found a clip someone wading out into the ocean on YouTube, and I put John Lennon’s “Imagine” over this clip, just to get his feedback. Believe me, there was a lot of spaghetti on the wall before I got it right.

Did you use a specific instrument or return to a specific sound to signal Redford’s unnamed character’s waning hope?

I did something a little different. I developed a second character, and that character had a theme, but this wasn’t a character you saw. I called him Surrender. So Surrender had a theme, and it kept iterating itself and repeating itself through the movie, and that was the alto flute. When he writes the letter and tosses it over the raft, then the Surrender theme really repeats itself again, and as he finally does surrender, you never hear the flute again.

How different was your approach for A Most Violent Year, which really couldn’t be further in tone or texture to All is Lost?

That era was a really, really important part of the score. It was, culturally, a transitional period, for the United States and the Western world in general. I wanted to capture some of the Cold War iciness, that hyperbolic, capitalistic intrigue of that time. Also, we wanted to try and capture the reaction to this. The punk rock movement, the hip hop movement, these sorts of things. I didn’t get to put in as much as I thought I’d be able to, but you can hear it in the song at the end of the movie, the urgent, youthful response to all that.

You mentioned using some subliminal messaging in this score…

Yeah, accidentally, actually. The bell we use in the film is similar to that classic Dracula theme, I realized it was derivative of the Dracula theme sort of in the midst of doing it. I kept thinking, ‘What is this theme?’ Then it hit me, but then I thought it was pretty perfect, because everything Dracula represents was represented in the film. This idea of always needing to get bigger, playing the capitalist game to your upmost. every time anything really spectacular happens, we incorporated that theme into it.

Did you give any of the characters musical themes?

The two characters I focused on were Abel and Anna (Jessica Chastain), other than that it was really about the overall mood of being madly driven, and being in this hyper-ambitious world. I think of it almost like a trance, if you look you’ll notice throughout the movie Abel’s eyes are half closed, he’s really sort of in a trance and completely determined, so I wanted to build an atmospheric world with the music, one as focused as he was.

Do you have players you work with?

I don’t have really have an MO, the only constant so far is I do a lot of work in my apartment (laughs). For All is Lost, I brought in players one at a time, for A Most Violent Year, we had the Bulgarian philharmonic play the strings and horns over some of the stuff I’d done. I worked with an orchestrator to take all of my pieces and transcribe them and get them prepped for the orchestra.

How long is your process

I was given plenty of time, but it never seems to matter, because it always seems like everything starts over about 60 days before deadline. I was given a lot of free reign with this. I was playing around with a jazz score to begin with before landing on what we landed on.

How’d you decide what was right for the score?

The most important thing to me, after playing around with the music and looking at the images, the most powerful thing, was creating that driven, meditative atmosphere for Abel, so we could get into his mind space and understand his character. To me, this film is really a character study, and knowing that became the most important thing, everything else really dropped away.

Do you have a preference between composing for film and performing in a band?

Well my first love was music, but my second love, and the thing I really thought I wanted to do with my life, is to make movies. I’ve written a bunch of screenplays, and I want to direct movies, and that’s sort of the thing that saved me in my parents eyes, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, he likes Charlie Chaplin so he’s going to be all right.’ Then I got into music and that took over, so I put movies down. On the flip side, the music I always had running in my head in my teenage years wasn’t pop music, it was classical music. That’s what I was composing in my brain. I always wanted to do that, I always lamented that there was no real venue for that these days, and I hadn’t thought about film school, and then suddenly there it was. That was the most fulfilling aspect, to make music not bound by ridiculously formatted structure, verse chorus verse chorus, that sort of thing.

Are there any current or former composers whose work inspires or informs you?

I generally have my head up my own ass most of the time [laughs]. I’m generally unaware of current music, period. I catch it here and there, and once in a while I’ll be impressed, I’m certainly impressed with Jonny Greenwood, especially his score for There Will Be Blood. But I also certainly couldn’t rattle off any names. My favorite composer by heads and shoulders is Ennio Morricone. For me what’s really exciting is when I watch 70s movies, those are the scores I always took notice of. It’s usually a daring and bold score, something that maybe even is juxtapositional, or something you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I really liked the score for Birdman, that jazz drumming. Stuff that takes chances melodically, I feel like what’s asked of composers lately is more or less to stay the f**k out of the way, provide us with some drums and electric tracking and move on. And I think drums are great and serve a purpose, but I like the idea of taking chances and creating art that does something new. So far I’ve been really lucky.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.