How The 'Us' Composer Used Silence, Children's Voices And Gibberish To Terrify You
When Jordan Peele asked Michael Abels to compose the score for his film Get Out, Abels had never scored a feature film before. But he didn't hesitate.
"I've regarded myself as someone who has this capability, who has not had the opportunity to do it," Abels told KPCC's The Frame. "So I didn't feel unqualified. I felt like I was really raw, but I honestly felt I was up to the challenge."
Abels had been composing music since he was a kid and wanted to be a film composer right out of college (he graduated from USC in 1984). He scored some commercials, and although the opportunities for film work never came, he kept composing -- for orchestras, smaller ensembles and choirs -- and became the director of music at New Roads, a private K-12 school in Santa Monica.
That's where Abels was working when Peele came across a YouTube video of "Urban Legends," a piece that Abels had composed for string quartet and orchestra.
"It's in no way music for a horror or suspense film," Abels says. "But it really spoke to Jordan, so that made me feel confident that I could really stretch myself creatively and find an open ear in him. That he would be interested in me trying to explore my own art as well as help him tell his story."
When it came to telling the story of Us, about a family that's terrorized by their doppelgangers, Peele had some ideas for Abels to use as a jumping-off point. For "Anthem," the main title track, Peele asked him to start with children's voices.
While the words you hear in "Anthem" may sound vaguely like Latin, Abels says they're really just gibberish. That's partially because Peele didn't want the music in Us to sound like it was from any one culture-- and also because the children's voices helped to create a sense of unease.
"What's scary is the unknown," Abels says. "In music, if there's a sound you can't place, but it just sounds unsettling, then that's what's going to strike fear and terror into you."
Another track that Abels says he had a lot of fun creating was "Femme Fatale."
Without giving too much away about the scene, Abels says, "there is a character who's making herself beautiful, in a way only Jordan Peele could dream up."
The music starts off sounding like it's from an old Hollywood melodrama or an Audrey Hepburn film, but quickly turns into what Abels describes as a "twisted, rotting, hopeless take on the same idea."
In a later scene, involving Lupita Nyong'o's dual characters -- Adelaide and Red -- Abels gets to put his own spin on a song we hear early in the film, Luniz's "I Got 5 On It." You can see how the track first appears in the trailer:
In Abels' version, called "Pas De Deux," the silent pauses between the baseline and the melody are drawn out to create a sort of chilling effect.
"The fact that you know it's coming but you don't know when," Abels says, "that's what makes it scary."
Abels' next film, See You Yesterday (directed by Stefon Bristol), has given him a bit of a break from scoring horror. Abels describes it as Do the Right Thing meets Back to the Future.
And although he's stepped away from teaching, the success of "Get Out" has helped Abels to see himself as a mentor for the first time. After getting contacted by several young composers of color who were looking to him for advice, Abels co-founded the Composers Diversity Collective, a networking group for minority composers.
As for whether or not he'll work with Jordan Peele again, Abels says, "I'll do anything he asks."
Listen to the "Us" score here:
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's The Frame.