(Welcome to the inaugural episode of “Notes on a Score,” GVN’s brand new interview series highlighting the composers and musicians behind some of the year’s most acclaimed films and television series.)
Most composers would likely be eager to write as much music as possible for whatever film they’re working on, throwing every idea they have at the wall and hoping it all sticks. However, as is evident by the restraint in his work on Causeway, Alex Somers is not like most composers.
“As a movie lover, I really like when movies use music sparsely,” says Somers. “With this film, we did write a lot of music, but the less we had, the more powerful it was as an entire watch through.”
Before signing onto the Jennifer Lawrence-led drama, Somers was sent an early cut of the film that had no temp music, a rarity in the industry. Another rarity? It had close to no dialogue for the first ten minutes.
“I just thought it was radical and so different from any film I’ve been a part of,” continues Somers. You can sense his excitement in recounting these early experiences. “It was unafraid to show restraint in all the ways you can do that. I really wanted to be a part of a film [where] there is so much happening, but so little is said.”
There is noticeably minimal scoring in Causeway (the film features just under 50 minutes of music, less than the average) and, when the score is prominent, it washes over the cinematography in long monotones. It reflects the mental and emotional instability of Lynsey, our main character, as she attempts to assimilate into civilian life following a traumatic brain injury on a tour in Afghanistan.
“By having less music, it felt closer to reality and our inner worlds,” explains Somers. “You should feel something when the music’s playing but it isn’t showcasing or glamorizing our feelings or situations or any ideas of loss or pain.”
One star instrument in Somers’ score is the cello, performed by Icelandic cellist and close collaborator Gyða Valtýsdóttir. “Lila [Neugebauer, the film’s director] kept talking about music you want to feel in your guts. Anytime I sent anything that had deep frequencies, she’d really respond to it. That led me to using cello, because I feel like it has such a beautiful lower midrange resonance.”
After recording Valtýsdóttir during studio sessions in Los Angeles, Somers would take the recordings and significantly slow them down in post. “50% is writing and recording and then the other 50% is what I do with it after it exists. Whether I’m sending it to tape delays, or effects pedals, or software plugins, or processes, or varispeed, all that stuff gives so much color and personality to the music.”
In celebration of the film’s soundtrack being released on streaming platforms today, we sat down with Somers to discuss Causeway’s score, musical ideas that were left on the cutting room floor, and how Jennifer Lawrence’s stirring performance inspired Somers’ compositional process.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Larry Fried: Despite the fact there isn’t that much score in this film, I feel like there’s so much to dive into. Where did your journey with Causeway begin and what were the initial conversations like before you decided to officially work on it?
Alex Somers: My journey began by speaking [to director Lila Neugebauer] and getting a script and an early cut of the film over a year ago. I was really taken by it. The first cut I saw didn’t have any dialogue for close to 10 minutes. I just thought it was radical and so different from any film I’ve been a part of, or most films you see. It was unafraid to show restraint in all the ways you can do that—musically, one of them. I thought that was really powerful. I was sold on that and really wanted to be a part of a film [where] there is so much happening, but so little is said. It just seemed really different and cool.
I ended up speaking a lot with Lila and started sharing music back and forth. We started with a really wide net as far as what we might try to do. I mean, there were moments when I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I make music for French horn ensembles and slow it down,’ because New Orleans, you know? All this kind of stuff. But as the months went on and as I began writing, it kind of distilled into what it became.
Fried: From what I understand, that early cut of the film had no temp music. It was just an unfinished rough cut of the film. Are you often working with films that are already picture locked before you start working on it or do you often get to see earlier versions of the film before you start composing?
Somers: It’s a mixed bag. Usually, it’s not picture locked when I’m hired. It’s in flux. I’m kind of used to that and I quite like it. It’s fun to see what we think is crucial and what isn’t and what comes back around. For some more experimental films, like Honey Boy, they did a very radical thing in the edit; it was made up of a few different linear stories, the young man character and the older man character, but then it became a cut up collage piece of switching in time. That was all done in the edit. As the music maker, I like to be involved earlier on because you have more connection to the DNA of the film and can thread music through that. You understand certain ideas get abandoned or changed and you’re a part of those decisions.
Fried: I’ve spoken to some other composers and I love when you can talk to them about how the edit of the film interacts with the score and if those two things have a relationship. Was that what it was like for you and Causeway? Were there times where you’d maybe watch the edit, make changes to a piece, and then put it back in the edit?
Somers: Precisely. We did that a lot. Lila, [music editor and score producer] Katherine Miller, and I were always just experimenting, trying things. The big, heavy dialogue scenes between the two leads, we tried scoring those too, and then it was just so cool and kind of punk to have no music there that we just decided to do that. This movie is so close to reality, I feel like. That was one of my takeaways. Nothing is sugar coated or glamorized. I think, by having less music, it just felt closer to reality and our inner worlds.
Fried: I agree with something you said earlier–when I was watching this film, I really felt like so much was being said but with so little being spoken. It was a really powerful thing. I felt that same way with the music. There isn’t that much actual score in Causeway, but the moments of score we do get really punctuate very specific moments for the character.
Somers: As a movie lover, I really like when movies use music sparsely. I haven’t gotten to do that much myself in my music career, so I was kind of like, ‘Oh, cool. I get to do that thing that I’ve enjoyed in other movies.’ It felt like a different way to approach it. Each cue has a lot more weight and meaning because it’s a whole build up. It feels impactful. I also think it supports the story. This is the way this movie wanted to be, so I think it’s cool that it turned out that way.
Fried: I do love the atmospheric sound of this film–a lot of long tones that build on each other. I know the cello was a major instrument in the composition process as well. How did you come to that soundscape and what about the cello especially spoke to you?
Somers: I didn’t start there. Lila kept talking about music you want to feel in your guts. Anytime I sent anything that had deep frequencies, she’d really respond to it. Almost didn’t matter the character of the music, it was just like she wanted to feel that. That led me to using cello, because I feel like it has such a beautiful lower midrange resonance. One of my best friends and closest collaborators for many years is a woman named Gyða Valtýsdóttir. She’s an Icelandic cellist who’s amazing. She was in Los Angeles, so I booked her a bunch and we just did a ton of stuff. After we’d record, I’d mix it, slow it down, and then send it to Lila. She just really dug that sound. It was really fun when we found it.
The spark of the whole thing was trying to find, musically, what Lila was describing with her words and with the story. She was steering the ship. As a film composer, you’re always deciphering what’s on the page or what’s on the screen and deciding if you want to support it or if you want to dance around it or exaggerate it. I also love music that’s sonic, music that isn’t doing a ton harmonically because, as you said, it’s like long tones. You can really play with soundscape because the tone is existing for a longer period of time. It’s a very textural score, I think.
Fried: Would I be correct in assuming that a lot of the score was found in your mixing and editing process?
Somers: Yeah. Everything I do is like that. 50% is writing and recording and then the other 50% is what I do with it after it exists. Whether I’m sending it to tape delays, or effects pedals, or software plugins, or processes, or varispeed–when you slow things down and speed it up–all that stuff gives so much color and personality to the music. It’s cool that some of those practices actually make their way into film music and give us what we were looking for anyway, you know? Every step of the way you have to be questioning things and challenging them, killing your darlings or fucking it up or changing it to make it more tightly woven to the story. With this film, we did write a lot of music and have additional scenes, but the less we had, the more powerful it was as an entire watch through.
Fried: I’m curious, what were some of those musical ideas that were left behind?
Somers: I did have this one idea in the beginning I was really excited about. I wrote a few pieces [using it] and I’m hoping someday, somewhere it’ll surface or I’ll figure out something to do with it. I had this idea to use really high string clusters. Like, super, super high. A cluster is when it’s not a chord or a single note, but just a bunch of tones that kind of go together. I just wrote all these clusters and had them performed by a violin friend of mine, Jake Falby. Then, I just had a really soft but huge concert bass drum, just going ‘boom.’ There’s nothing in the middle, so it was like the most tippy toe, weird, high melodic cluster with these very earthy hits. I don’t know why but, when I watched that early cut, I kept hearing that.
None of that made it in, but it led us. That led to that led to that led to that, etc. I think you just have to be excited and inspired about your work and believe in people. When ideas like that come, it’s all good, even if it doesn’t make the final thing. It’s still me being moved by the film and by Lila and searching for a sound and being unafraid to try stuff. I do remember being really disappointed when it didn’t work though. Like, ‘I thought this was it! This was it! This was the sound of the film,’ you know?
Fried: I mean, that sound, to me, is another textural sound. Hearing about your process, it sounds like the character of Lynsey [portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence] leant well to your instinct for focusing much more on the texture and the larger soundscape versus the individual melodic elements. Would you say that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance influenced the score?
Somers: Definitely. I thought her performance was amazing and really striking. I feel like she has so much behind her eyes. Like we keep saying, there’s not a ton of letting on. It is actually a testament to her performance. There was so much on her face. The film’s introduction also went on way longer, when the caretaker looks after her and she isn’t able to speak, you know? It was hardcore because it was, instead of a few minutes, it was 10 minutes. I think even that probably influenced my entire relationship to the film and wanting the music to embody and rise to the occasion of having that much to say, somehow. I wanted the music to hold that, to be able to be really weighty. You should feel something when the music’s playing but it isn’t showcasing or glamorizing our feelings or situations or any ideas of loss or pain. It’s more like what Lila wanted, [for audiences] to feel it in your guts.
Fried: Alex, I have one last question for you. We’ve talked a lot about Causeway, but I’m curious if there were any other films this year, and a score in particular, that really spoke to you or stuck out to you that you’d like to briefly spotlight?
Somers: Great question. I’m actually a super fan of Mica Levi. I think they’re amazing. When anyone asks me about film composers, I just have to say them. I think their score from Under the Skin is one of the best modern scores, maybe the best for me. I’m also friends with a composer named Aska Matsumiya. She makes amazing film music. She’s done a couple cool ones this year. One she did this year is very cool. She used AI because it was about a family that…well, you can’t really say much about it without spoiling it. I can’t think of the title of the film but the music is super cool, actually.
Fried: Are you talking about After Yang?
Somers: Yeah! After Yang. I thought it was really adventurous and pretty bold for a film soundtrack. I know Aska worked with Luke Fischbeck, who is in an experimental band called Lucky Dragons here in Los Angeles, and they do a lot of max signal processing music–kind of like nerdy, make-your-own-software music. I really like that stuff. A lot of my friends do that and I try to collaborate with my friends who do that kind of stuff. I know Aska worked closely with him in designing music that was supportive to the story. I think it was just very cerebral and interesting and one of the cooler scores I’ve heard this last year, for sure.
Fried: Alex, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I do want to commend you. Causeway was definitely one of the more powerful film experiences I’ve had this year and I think your score really had a lot to do with that. Thank you for your work on it.
Somers: Thank you so much. The album will be out on December 2nd.
Fried: I can’t wait to get a chance to immerse myself back into it. There are moments already that I’m thinking about that I want to revisit.
Somers: Cool. Thank you so much.
Causeway is available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+. Additionally, Somers’ soundtrack for Causeway is now available on all music streaming platforms.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.