Ari Aster‘s three-hour surrealist drama “Beau Is Afraid” marked a tonal shift from his nightmare-inducing films “Midsommar” and “Hereditary.”
In the feature, which tackles inherited trauma and mommy issues, Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, who finds himself on an Odyssean journey to return home after his mother’s untimely death. To score the film, Aster recruited “Midsommar” composer Bobby Krlic, but, unlike their last collaboration, creating the music of “Beau Is Afraid” was a “long and arduous process” as they worked to crack the sound of Beau’s journey.
Here, the two discuss their collaboration and how one cue, “Suburban Dream,” helped unlock the film’s sonic landscape.
How would you describe your relationship and how it has evolved since you first met?
Aster: I reached out to him because I had written “Midsommar” while listening to his music, specifically his first self-titled album as the Haxan Cloak. It put me in a space that felt inextricable. I knew I wanted him to score it if he would be up for it. We got along well, and we had the same taste in music and film. With “Midsommar,” we just began by exchanging emails, and him sending me music and thoughts back, but that didn’t elicit the fastest results as far as the two of us aligning.
Krlic: Most of it got thrown out.
Aster: I remember feeling alarmed, and the idea was to fly out to L.A. to see if we could get things on track. We started working together on that first day, and we scored a third of the film on that first day. We found we needed to be in the same room together and had a very fruitful way of just communicating in person.
Krlic: I remember Ari saying on that first day, “Let’s just both not be afraid to make fools out of ourselves or to be embarrassed or to feel anything. Just be completely open and anything goes.” I think going into that with no expectations was the best way to begin.
Aster: To be clear, the music that Bobby sent was gorgeous, it just didn’t fit. Somehow, only communicating through email was not doing the trick. But when we started working together in person, we found it useful. It tends not to be through words we communicate. It’s a lot of gesticulating.
Krlic: It’s a palpable thing. I can feel when you’re sat there, and I’m playing something, if it’s working.
What went into composing “Beau Is Afraid,” particularly in that last act with the epic scoring around his mother, played by Patti LuPone?
Krlic: It’s a difficult thing to unpack. This one threw me where I was like, “Fuck, this is not the same thing,” and it was a lot of hard work.
Aster: The film keeps changing, and you jump from world to world, and that tone change changes in each world. The rhythms change a lot, and that still needed to be cohesive. It was hard for us to find those themes. There were a lot of moments where we felt like we had found it and then we realized that we hadn’t. It was a very long and arduous process on this one. It was also just a matter of us having been spoiled on the first one [“Midsommar”], because that came together quickly.
Krlic: It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do… It made me go to places that I didn’t think I could go to, and it made me go the extra mile.
Aster: Our original ideas were smaller than where we were when we arrived. It was also the first time I ever had a music editor, Katherine Miller, and it needs to be said that we were both helped so much by her. When we were both banging our heads against the wall, she came in and was able to connect a lot of threads that were eluding us.
Krlic: When you’re so in something spending hours a day in a room, it was incredible to have someone like Katherine cast a wide eye over that material.
Aster: There were a couple of themes that she saved by placing them elsewhere because they weren’t quite working where they were. The mother’s theme is very strong and clear. But “Suburban Dream” is revelatory. And there was an epiphany late in the film that the cue should at least be experimented with for that final piece of music to bring that feeling of a melancholy suburban dream.
Krlic: We mixed it with a vocal motif that appears through every act. It felt like a siren that is a thread, unbeknownst to Beau and guiding him to the final act of the movie.
Aster: The siren was the thing we knew to bring into the ending. I loved that there’s a sense of longing that you feel with that piece.
What was the instrumentation behind that?
Krlic: It’s low cellos and violas. When Beau finds himself in that house, there’s a feeling of detachment and displacement. The idea was to not say too much, but also enough. It began a lot more melodic with a violin. It was a process of reduction. The main challenge was having things that can be definitive, but can also, much like the film, turn on a dime and take you by surprise and be able to move fluidly between different places.