Oscar-nominated William Butler’s first-time experience composing the wistful score for Spike Jonze’s “Her” with his Arcade Fire partner Owen Pallett was a bit of a romance as well as a crash course in moviemaking. And yet the experience opened him up more intuitively to the collaborative process, which also paid off on their latest album, “Reflektor.”
“Because we’re very much our own bosses and working on something where you had to defer to the director and see it through his eyes was a great musical challenge that you could apply to everything else,” Butler admits. “Now I can see an album through my band mate’s eyes instead of just solely focusing on me. And the same with the film: What do these characters need? It expands you and makes you more open as a musician.”
The Montreal-based Arcade Fire duo spent more than a year crafting their score to get more intimately wrapped around the off-beat romance between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s computer operating system, Samantha. “We were trying to reshape the world and the relationship, and the world around them just got cut away. And the music went through a similar arc where it was slightly more epic and then it became more and more intimate and warmer and personal the longer we worked on it.
When you see something based in the future, you always say, ‘What’s the catch?’ I think the score was trying to do that as well — something warm and human yet walking the line with an unsettling drone element,” Butler explains about working with his long-time buddy Jonze.
The music is structured around the two solo piano pieces that are ostensibly written and performed by Samantha. “These solo pieces have their own particular challenges and flavors and then there’s the rest of the score, of which there are a couple of different moods and elements. The two main elements are really warm, natural instruments: we used three or four different pianos and pump organs, a string quartet, acoustic upright bass. Then there were electronic elements that are more warm, electric, than electronic. And then there was also the combination where we would take an old pump organ and process it through various analog electronics to create something orchestral and warm but still very synthetic.”
Butler found movie scoring such a specific technical world where the timing of the music with the editing and the dialog was totally foreign, but he believes that only strengthened the music because they couldn’t consciously manipulate it as easily as their albums. It had to be worked out through a lot more trial and error and be even more intuitive.
They observed how a subtle change in the music or the cut or in the length of the scene altered the focus. The cue that took the longest to compose was “Song on the Beach” that Samantha writes. “Spike wrote a note explaining that it’s a 30-second scene and requested ideas of songs that she might write. We created a bunch of demos and he selected one and over the course of the film this 30-second scene became a three and a half-minute montage into a heavy conversation about the purpose of marriage. So then a year later we got to take this light romantic interlude followed by a conversation about his ex-wife with this girl that he’s falling in love with. Figuring out how to get there was part of the journey.”
Butler is especially proud of the end piece, “Dimensions” (a 34-minute cue on the soundtrack). “That walked the line tonally. We go up to the roof, and, depending on the mood, if it was subtly darker, people would think Theodore was suddenly going to jump off the roof. And if it was too triumphant, people would think that we were ignoring his heartbreak.
“The way we did it was we projected the scene for Spike up on the wall and played different songs to it, and when we played ‘Dimensions,’ the hairs stood up on the back of your neck and we knew there was something there.”
Which you can say about the movie as a whole and why “Her” has caught on as the best picture dark horse that many Academy members will tell you privately is their favorite.