Composer Jay Wadley on Scoring Charlie Kaufman’s Bittersweet New Film
When you think of a Charlie Kaufman film, you start with his scripts. Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) made Kaufman that rare thing; the star screenwriter. Each of these films was fearlessly weird, often unsettling, and always bittersweet. They were funny, too. Then we started to get to know Kaufman the writer/director, beginning with Synecdoche, New York (2008), and onto 2015’s animated Anomalisa. Now at the helm of his own Kaufman-verse, his characters were free-falling even deeper into their own psyches. In Synecdoche, a theater director (played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) struggles so mightily with his work and his relationships that he attempts to recreate a life-sized replica of New York City inside a warehouse. In Anomalisa, a man is so crippled by ennui that he starts to see himself, literally, in every person he meets.
Which brings us to Kaufman’s latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, now streaming on Netflix. Based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, Kaufman’s film is centered on a young coupled, played by Jesse Plemmons’ Jake and Jessie Buckley’s young woman (her name changes throughout), are headed to Jake’s parents’ house for dinner (his parents are played by Toni Collette and Anomalisa star David Thewlis). This being a Kaufman movie, you know this simple set-up is just that, a set-up. The hints that something is amiss begin immediately. Their banter during their drive has a weirdly circular, insular quality. Her stated profession keeps changing. When she recites a spoken word poem, Jake says feels as if she ripped it from his own mind. Yup, we’re entering the Kaufman-verse, where the self devours everything, and everyone, in its path. (Even Plemmons himself said in this New York Times profile he wasn’t sure what the movie was about two days before the shoot).
For composer Jay Wadley, entering Kaufman’s world came with a little more direction. As the film unfolds, Kaufman’s Byzantine script culminates in a surprisingly lovely (yet blissfully bizarre) 20-minute sequence that’s wall-to-wall music, including a bravura 7-minute dream ballet sequence. Wadley was the man brought in to pull this off.
We spoke to Wadley about what it was like working on a Kaufman film, and one that might be his most gnomic, and most beautiful, to date. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with how you first got involved…
The way I initially got involved was [producer] Anthony Bregman reached out to me out of the blue and said, ‘Can I interest you in a Charlie Kaufman movie?’ I was completely blown away. Charlie’s been a favorite filmmaker of mine for my entire involvement of film, I admire his work so much and I admire the composers who have done scores for the films he’s written or directed. Anthony and I had worked together on James Schamus‘s Indignation, and Anthony had this interesting list of things I would have to do for this film. This included producing a couple of songs from the musical “Oklahoma,” or possibly writing a new musical, or potentially writing a ballet, and doing a 1950’s jingle, and doing a score for a movie-within-the-movie, and then doing some rom-com pastiche stuff. Then any other potential score needs they’d have. It was an interesting combination of various genres and styles I’d have to juggle, but they were weirdly suited to my skillset in a lot of ways.
I was a double major in music theater, and I’m from Oklahoma, so I actually know the musical better than I’d like to admit—they perform it pretty much every year. I studied classical music composition, so the ballet stuff was in my wheelhouse. And then doing the vintage 1950s style jingle, I own a music production company that works in advertising, so I’m familiar with jingles, I’ve also done a lot of vintage-sounding stuff.
How did you begin this laundry list of things you had to do?
The first thing I had to address was on the musical aspect, the ballet, and the jingle [the film contains a jingle for an Ice Cream parlor that Wadley created] because those were all things that actually appeared in the film. They brought me in around February or March of last year, and they started shooting in April, so I had to write the 50s style jingle so that Jesse Plemmons and Jessie Buckley could learn it and sing it on camera. For the musical stuff, I brought in Jesse Plemmons and Hadley Robinson, who plays the high school singer, and recorded them with a scratch track on the piano that I later replaced with the orchestra.
How difficult was it to write a ballet in such a compressed amount of time?
That one was a really big challenge. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to write a ballet for film, let alone a Charlie Kaufman movie, so I was just thrilled with it. Everything in the ballet is based on Charlie’s initial script notes and scene descriptions. I had to time that out and suss out what that structure would look like. Then I filled in the music. It was cool to be able to construct those things purely in musical form before going into choreography.
The movie is playfully meta, with the characters’ lives meshing so much their stories become hard to tell apart. How did you translate that to the music?
That’s how I constructed the sound of the ballet, I really wanted it to sound somewhat familiar, to feel like, ‘Is this Debussy? Is this Ravel?’ Wait, now it seems like Stravinsky maybe?’ It’s kind of this synthesis of multiple different classical composers as if Jake had listened to these pieces a million times, and then when fabricating the narrative of his life and representing that in a ballet, this is what he’d come up with.
The ballet sequence is beautiful and quite complicated. Can you give us an example of how you tackled the actual composition?
I had the scene description in front of me, but the process I built out for it required that I just had to imagine it in my mind. To figure out how long it would take for the characters to get from point A to point B. How much breathing room do I have to give the choreographer to execute all of these things? I sent a rough time estimate to Charlie. ‘These moments here will take about 30-seconds. This part right here will take about a minute. This part I really want to focus on the love theme. Then the wedding sequence, we want it to feel like a processional, and that will take 45-seconds. Then the janitor comes in and grabs the girlfriend, what does that feel like? How long does it take for them to run down the hall and break into the gym? Once they break into the gym, there’s a blizzard, what does that sound like?
What does a musical blizzard sound like?
The harp is going everywhere, there are woodwinds doing crazy aleatoric textures, there are all sorts of improvisatory textural things.
This being a Charlie Kaufman film, it’s pretty sad, but it’s not devastating. Do you think the musical ending helps soften the blow? (SPOILER ALERT)
It’s still tragic in a way, but Jake is trying to paint a better picture of his own life. As he’s decided to end his own life, essentially by freezing to death in his truck, he’s imagining all of these things about the way his life could have or should have been. The ballet is this dream sequence that leads into this whole ending, so how can you be too devastated when you end up in a musical number from “Oklahoma”? Jake’s imagining this better life for himself, seeing his friends and family in the audience as he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, it’s tragic in that there’s such disappointment in his own life, that he felt he had a lot more potential, but that’s why he’s choosing to believe this ballet was his life.
Featured image: Im Thinking Of Ending Things. David Thewlis as Father, Jessie Buckley as Young Woman, Toni Collette as Mother, Jesse Plemons as Jake in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020