If there would be one word to describe the musical essence of Please Baby Please, the latest from director Amanda Kramer (Ladyworld), it would be “saxophones.” That is, of course, according to composers Bryan Scary and Giulio Carmassi.
“Saxophone was not only allowed but center stage,” insists Carmassi. “I am a jazz guy that has done jazz all his life. [Bryan] loves melodies and loves writing the theme. He might just be like, ‘Yeah, alright, my work is done. You have the melody, now go for six hours and record saxophones.’”
Despite the instrument’s iconic, sultry sound, you don’t often hear it pronounced in modern film scores. Thankfully, Kramer was looking for something that “didn’t feel particularly modern,” according to Scary. Her second collaboration with the composers (third if you count Kramer’s second festival hit this year, Give Me Pity!) is set against a neon-lit noir aesthetic, throwing numerous tropes from 50s cinema into a seductive melting pot of queer phantasmagoria.
“Early on, Amanda was always talking about jazz–just the word ‘jazz’ without being too much more specific than that,” continues Scary. “We were able to access these big, melodramatic places that a lot of movies don’t shoot for anymore. I feel like a lot of contemporary scoring is a little bit tight to the chest. The filmmakers we’re working with are game for huge, bold choices.”
“We were in the very lucky position to just be told, ‘You have carte blanche, just go nuts,’” recounts Carmassi. “It was one of those rare situations where, when we thought we did as much as we wanted, it was like, ‘Yeah, but like, how about more explosives here?’ It was like, ‘Alright, great!’”
Please Baby Please follows a couple in the 1950s who, after encountering a street gang, begin to explore the fluidity of their own sexual and gender identities. Inspired by the singular if limited catalog of improvisational film scores from legends like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, the score features richly layered sound that creates something similarly expressive and fluid. Carmassi and Scary, often credited under the name “Hummingbirds,” combine atmospheric jazz with classic film scoring techniques to create something entirely their own.
“I think a great thing about Amanda is that she casts people for who they are, which is, I think, the sign of a great director,” says Scary. “Amanda was just like, ‘I don’t even want to tell you guys what to do. You’re going to do the awesome thing and I’m going to like it.’ We never felt constricted, which is rare when we’re working on films.”
“We are very set on our areas of expertise,” explains Carmassi, “which allows us to be very complementary. I’m very about the [general] vibe and the arrangement and he loves melodies and loves writing the theme just right. He can go crazy on one thing, I can go crazy on another thing, and we become this machine.”
In anticipation of the film’s wide release beginning October 28th, we sat down with Carmassi and Scary to discuss working with Kramer, what inspired their deeply-layered sound, and their collaborative process.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Larry Fried: First of all, I just want to start off by saying that I got a chance to see the film as part of NewFest this year and the score was something that immediately caught my attention while watching it. It seems like a very obvious thing to ask about, but I’m just so curious about the inspirations behind the score. While you’re watching the film, it is so very clearly a high genre exercise and there are a lot of different references being made throughout. From a musical perspective, where were you first drawing inspiration from and were there other inspirations that came into your process as the composition evolved?
Giulio Carmassi: We love old movies, so there’s definitely this flair. Whatever is out of the box within the context of a 2020 movie, it’s less out of the box if we were in 1945, so the first step is “okay, let’s put our head into this classic noir.” I think noir and expressionism and that darker, vintage filmmaking was definitely the first inspiration. There’s definitely a pretty open nod to exotica, the 1950s and 60s, and Les Baxter. Then, from there, it’s just about having as much fun as possible because we were in the very lucky position to just be told, “You have carte blanche, just go nuts.” It was one of those rare situations where, when we thought we did as much as we wanted, it was like, “Yeah, but like, how about more explosives here?” It was like, “Alright, great!”
Bryan Scary: Early on, Amanda [Kramer] was always talking about jazz–just the word “jazz” without being too much more specific than that. We knew that she wanted something that didn’t feel particularly modern and that we were able to access, like Giulio was saying, these big, melodramatic places that a lot of movies don’t shoot for anymore.
Carmassi: And saxophones.
Fried: So much saxophone.
Carmassi: Saxophone was not only allowed but center stage.
Scary: And musicals, too. Obviously, there’s a musical theater and classical theater element to the movie, so that was part of it too.
Fried: So, so much to dive into. I would love to start with the jazz influences. Were there any particular composers or albums or even film scores that were in your minds while you were deciding how the film was going to sound?
Scary: Definitely. We worked a lot with Ben Shearn, the editor, and Amanda on just picking different temp music and references. Les Baxter was a very huge influence on the whole score.
Carmassi: Mingus, I guess.
Scary: Mingus was talked about. There were 50s pop tracks that Amanda really loved, so we sort of used them as a template for elements of the keys.
Carmassi: And the Miles [Davis]—I know the Italian name, Ascensore per il patibolo. I think something Gallows—
Scary: Oh, Elevator to the Gallows.
Carmassi: Elevator to the Gallows. Yeah. I just know the Italian name because that’s where I watched it. The few times that jazz people have done movie scores, there’s this element of…it’s not free, but there’s a lot of improvisation in the movie. There’s a lot of just looking at the images and feeling the scene and going at it. A lot of the time, that kind of stuff stays in the movie. Not, obviously, in the more written song structures, but there’s definitely a lot of improvisation.
Fried: How much of the film was shot before you guys started composing?
Scary: We made one cue for them, the opening cue, which is a song. We made that for them for set because they had to choreograph to it. We wrote that in a slightly different form that got a little changed, but that piece of music was pretty much solidified before they shot. And then everything else we did after they shot.
Fried: It’s different for every film but, for this film, how did the score and the edit communicate with each other?
Carmassi: By the time that we got on board, the movie was basically locked. The editing was done and it was edited to source music, or in some cases, music that was maybe of ours from other movies, but there were placeholders. It was already edited to a groove and then we kind of had to step in and do our version of it, or something completely different, but that would fit the edit that was already locked.
Scary: There was still, even at that point, a little back and forth, because Ben is very active with music. It definitely continued to be a collaboration but, mostly like Giulio was saying, we kind of just scored the whole movie once they had a lock.
Carmassi: It would be more about Ben or Amanda just telling us, “Yeah, but there’s that little detail you’re not hitting. Can we have a cymbal thing there?” or “This thing, can it come down in energy here?” And maybe we had not noticed it, or we had not interpreted that scene quite identically. It was more like those kinds of notes to an edit that was already set.
Fried: There are certain sequences with the character of Suze that are these heightened, dreamlike sequences where she’s discovering her own fluidity. Musically, that’s really where your score shines through. Was there a particular intention behind those sequences and the score?
Carmassi: They’re definitely connected. We called them the different “fantasy” sequences. They definitely have their own voice and they’re definitely also more free, in a way. The whole point of those sequences is that she’s freeing herself. She’s going beyond what she thinks is allowed, so the music is trying to do that a little bit. There’s as free an expression as we could do in a musical context. And yet, it also has to be sexy because there’s an element of sensuality. So, it’s freedom, but it’s sensual, and it has to be big and bold. They are sequences where there’s no dialogue, and so the music is the dialogue. The music is saying what the character is going through. It’s more rare than movies that tend to be more like dialogue wall-to-wall.
Scary: We’re really lucky that the filmmakers we’re working with are game for huge, bold choices, which we don’t get to do a lot because I feel like a lot of contemporary scoring is a little bit tight to the chest.
Fried: I’d also love to hear some insight into the musical theater elements of the film. West Side Story is a very obvious corollary literally from the first frame, but there’s also a wonderful dance sequence at the end of the film that reminded me of Gene Kelly. Musical theater storytelling is so different from traditional storytelling. Did you have that in mind while scoring certain parts of this movie?
Scary: Amanda’s definitely using all these tropes and genres and elements of 50s movies, very straight genres in particular, and recontextualizing them for what she’s doing in Please Baby Please. Musical theater was obviously a huge part of the original script and also part of why she wanted me and Giulio to work on the movie, because we’re both very connected to that kind of music and that form. I think that the movie’s not a musical but more of a hybrid and it’s using those elements to talk about other themes. We could never go fully into that world, but I think it dips in enough that you feel that genre, for sure. I mean, we started by writing a song. The first cue is the title song, which is this dance sequence. The last cue is a full dance that we composed. There’s a huge musical theater element in it, but we were never directly thinking that we were making a musical.
Fried: I love that intersectionality. You’ve already spoken a little bit about it, but I would love to hear a little bit more about working with Amanda. At the Q&A for the film following its screening at NewFest, there were some members of the cast and crew present, including Ben. They all spoke a lot about Amanda giving them the freedom to make, as you said, Bryan, bold choices. How did she approach you with the project and what is it like to work with somebody, like Amanda, who gives you so much freedom?
Carmassi: It’s great, first of all. Flat out, can we have more of that please? We had done the sound designing and part of the score for her prior movie, Ladyworld, so we knew her. Bryan has a relationship with her that goes even earlier than that. When she had the idea for this movie, she knew she wanted jazz and she knew she wanted musical theater. She also knew that Bryan is a musical theater genius that lives and breathes that, and I am a jazz guy that has done jazz all his life. It was like, “You guys, go nuts. Do whatever you think is unbelievable. Give it to me.” It was very, “I trust that you guys know what to do here. Just go, do it, and don’t be fearful.”
Scary: We work on a lot of jobs where people are hiring us for what we can do just as professional composers, but Amanda’s one of the few people who’s hired us to be like—you know, I think a great thing about Amanda is that she casts people for who they are, which is I think the sign of a great director. I think that’s definitely what was happening here, because Amanda was just like, “I don’t even want to tell you guys what to do. You’re going to do the awesome thing and I’m going to like it,” which is basically how it was. We never felt constricted, in that sense, which is rare when we’re working on films.
Fried: It’s worth noting that having two composers on any film is kind of a rare breed. Most of the time there’s one name and that’s the credit. Giulio, you’re coming from a jazz perspective, Bryan’s coming from a musical theater perspective. What is it like having those two voices both being at the forefront of the film’s musical identity and what is the collaboration process like for any piece that you guys start to work on?
Carmassi: We are very set on our areas of not only expertise, which is one side, but also just what we like to do. We have very different personalities, which allows us to be very complementary. I always say we can be each other’s rear-view mirrors because we come at it from such different [places]. I’m very about the vibe and the arrangement and he’s very deliberate and specific. He loves melodies and loves writing the theme just right, and I’m like, “Yeah, but like, here the drum feel and the vibe…” and I’ll be losing sight of maybe how the theme needs to be focused, or he might just be like, “Yeah, alright, my work is done. You have the melody, now go for six hours and record saxophones.” [laughs] I like taking elements and arranging them and making them have a certain vibe. He likes to create those elements, but then he just doesn’t care as much where the trombones go, or how the pocket of the groove works. He cares, but it’s not the thing where he’s going to go crazy. He can go crazy on one thing, I can go crazy on another thing, and we become this machine that organically does different things without stepping on each other’s toes too much.
Scary: I just think there are places where it’s obvious that Giulio’s going to do an incredible job, like with some of the pure jazz cues or the pure instrumental big band things in this movie. Then there’s things that are my forte, like the actual song craft elements.
Carmassi: Yeah. The lyrics, if they’re sung, I’m not going to touch them. Bryan’s obviously going to—there’s no reason for me to waste time slowing him down. If there’s a sax solo or a big band, obviously I’m going to do whatever I think is great. We don’t need to slow each other down in those situations. We respect each other enough to trust that the other is going to take care of what he’s good at.
Scary: And we rip on each other endlessly. There’s no ego issues whatsoever. We’ve beaten each other down to a bloody pulp. [chuckles]
Fried: A sign of true, wonderful collaborators. [laughs]
Fried: Last question: I’m always fascinated by what the people I’m interviewing are currently watching or listening to or are interested in. As composers, I just have to pick your brain for a film or an album or something that has really been inspiring you or piquing your musical curiosity lately.
Scary: Giulio’s got one.
Carmassi: Anything before 1983, I’m in love with and adore and listen to daily. Everything past 1983, it gets trickier.
Scary: I’m trying to think. I have to look at my Letterboxd.
Fried: Can you drop that username right now for our readers?
Fried: Oh, yeah. Did you have some tissues on hand for that one?
Scary: I did, it was great. I loved that.
Carmassi: I was obsessed with Cold War, for obvious reasons. It’s a jazz score and it’s Europe. It definitely touches upon a lot of my ethos.
Fried: Great picks! Guys, again, your work on this film is phenomenal. Congratulations on the film and I look forward to what you guys have in the pipeline next. Thank you very much for your work on the film.
Scary: Thanks for your time.
Carmassi: Thank you very much.
You can see “Please Baby Please” in theaters nationwide beginning October 28th, 2022, courtesy of Music Box Films.
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.