The email was unexpected and short–a single sentence: “Is this you?”–with a YouTube link and a signature from a name Ryan Amon didn’t recognize: Neill Blomkamp. “It’s a little bit embarrassing,” Amon says of his first reaction to the message: “I had to Google his name!” When he did so, of course, he found the up-and-coming South African-born director who had catapulted to international acclaim with his 2009 film “District 9.” (Our “Elysium” review and roundup here.)
Amon was sure it was a joke. “I didn’t have any experience in film scoring or any connections in that world,” he says. But it wasn’t a prank, and on a Skype interview with the director soon after, Amon quickly realized Blomkamp hadn’t reached out about just another commercial, the director was calling about “Elysium,” his sci-fi actioner set in a 22nd century Earth of haves and have nots.
A classically-trained pianist who went to college for biology and art but dropped out to pursue a 2-year program at a St. Paul music school in composition and songwriting, Amon cut his teeth in Los Angeles as an assistant, ghostwriting for reality TV composers and learning to write music at hyper speed–something like 2-3 tracks a day.
Amon gravitated to trailer music, as he puts it, “to do something a little more epic and orchestral,” later marrying and moving to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where his wife–a Bolivian native–practices law. He was in Santa Cruz when he received Blomkamp’s email, complete with a YouTube link to a fan-made trailer featuring a percussive action piece Amon had composed but which never made it into a trailer.
What followed was a decidedly unusual scoring experience for a major Hollywood film, one based on mutual admiration and a healthy dose of trust. As expected, the process was very secretive–at first, Amon wasn’t even given a copy of the script–and the composer began writing without any footage, armed only with the premise of the film and some location stills.
“I felt very comfortable writing music just from imagining something going on,” Amon says, comparing the process to his work in commercials. Blomkamp’s directions were broad and impressionistic, consisting of instructions such as–in Amon’s words–“do some music that represents light.” “I didn’t know how to approach it at first,” the composer admits. “I was experimenting all over the board.”
Once Amon had finished several early compositions for “Elysium,” Blomkamp began to temp the film with the composer’s tracks. As the process went on, Blomkamp sent Amon video clips from the film, which he would use to shape the music to fit the scenes. When post-production work neared completion, Amon travelled to Blomkamp’s Vancouver studio to work with the edit team and sync the music to picture–something he essentially learned to do on the fly, having limited experience with it in his commercial and trailer work.
At Blomkamp’s behest, Amon avoided a traditional sci-fi/fantasy sound, working instead for an aural palette to match the film’s gritty verisimilitude. Amon and Blomkamp recorded the London Philharmonia at Abbey Road (“I had to pinch myself when I was over there”), and the composer challenged himself to use nontraditional instrumental techniques and organic sounds, such as a mix of de-tuned, overlapped colobus monkey and baboon cries to create an unsettling chatter that follows the film’s villain.
The most poignant musical touch in Amon’s score, by far, is its use of the unadorned human voice, which he created with Francesca Genco, a Bay Area singer (and yoga-teaching multi hyphenate), by asking asked her to improvise in the studio. The result is etherial, haunting and moving. “Elysium” throbs with masculine energy, but several women play pivotal roles in the motivation of Matt Damon’s main character, and Genco’s lullaby-like contribution smoothes out the film’s edges and borders on maternal. “Human nature, to me, is improvisation,” the composer says. “It’s a philosophical thing laid into the film as an overtone.”
This week, Amon will attend the L.A. premiere of “Elysium,” and then it’s back to work. He has a few possible feature projects lined up, which he demurs from talking about, and he says he would revisit composing for trailers if the right person approached him with a project. He yearns to score a drama, to stretch himself in a different direction from the big sounds that got him his start. “I hope I get to do a lot more films,” Amon says, “because I’m addicted to it now.”
If “Elysium” is any indicator, Amon won’t have much trouble making that dream a reality.