Composer Nathan Halpern has scored dozens of the best documentaries of the last four years, including Sundance winner “Rich Hill” and the upcoming Netflix release “Joan Didion: The Center Will not Hold.” Halpern’s latest film, director Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” drew upon his experiences working in both nonfiction and narrative films. The Cannes breakout – one of the best reviewed film of 2018 – “The Rider” tells the real-life story of rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau (the film stars Jandreau and his real-life family and friends) who finds new purpose in his life after suffering a massive brain injury.
IndieWire asked Halpern to take us through his collaboration with Zhao in creating a subtle, but deeply moving score that bridges the film’s mix of cinema vérité and a modern western.
In creating the musical score for “The Rider,” our primary intent was to help bring the audience into the emotional point of view of the film’s protagonist. I spoke extensively with director Chloé Zhao about the nuances of Brady’s physical and emotional experiences, and she guided me through her vision of Brady’s experience in great detail.
Working from this framework of the character’s inner life – itself based in part on Brady’s real-life experiences – we developed a palette of sounds and musical motifs from which to score the film. The film is very sparing in its use of the musical score, an approach that Chloé was quite clear on from the outset. Musical scoring generally occurs only in the more explicitly impressionistic and subjective sequences of the film, in which the cinematography (Joshua James Richards) and editing rhythms (Alex O’ Flinn) are more stylized. So in the beautiful sequence of Brady successfully training his new horse Apollo, the sequence plays out as realist vérité, sans music. It is only in the aftermath of this sequence, as Brady rides off and reflects on what this moment means for his identity and future, that the musical score gradually enters, drawing us into his subjectivity.
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I score both scripted narrative and documentary films, and this approach is in fact comparable to what I prefer to do on more vérité-based, character-based documentaries; in such films, I find that it is often most effective to stay out of the observational scenes, music-wise, as much as possible. Ideally, the music enters more in the aftermath of such sequences, if at all. In this way, the music can leave space for a feeling of reality and authenticity, while at the same time help to create a heightened experience that speaks to the deeper emotional themes that lie beneath the story.
First, we needed to create a musical palette that would take us into Brady’s physical and mental state as he recuperates in the aftermath of the injury. Chloé described it as being woozy, what it sounds like from inside a bubble. Consequently, the sonic landscape I created here is very deep in register, with defamiliarized and warped musical sounds — pitched winds (evocative of the natural landscape) and high glassy pads. His injury puts his future and his identity in jeopardy so there is underlying sense of existential despair, which I dialed into musically with low cello harmonics that swell up beneath the more abstract sounds. Take a Listen (Below):
There are also moments in the film of emotional clarity and transcendence. In the clip below, after a period of convalescence, Brady takes out Gus, the family horse – who is about to be sold for rent money – for a ride at dawn. It’s Brady’s first time riding since his injury, and the sequence builds into one of immense visual beauty as he rides.
In beginning of the scene, as Brady approaches the horse, the music eases in with the more abstract tones that we associate with his injured state and associated existential despair. But as he begins to ride, emotive and organic strings begin to enter. As Brady picks up pace and begins to ride with greater confidence, the camera moves into a majestic wide shot. And as the visual language develops into something grander and more expressive so too does the music, which becomes bigger and more explicitly melodic and emotional. The music now dials into the complex emotions that lie beneath – the beauty of his connection with his horse as they ride, the sadness of the horse’s imminent departure, and the underlying uncertainty of what lies ahead for each of them. In this moment, as Brady’s numbness gives way to deep feeling, the more abstract and disjointed sounds fall away, and the warm, emotive strings that were gradually creeping in take on full force and melody.
Coming out of the scoreless moments of cinema vérité, and the subjective moments when the score helps brings the viewer into Brady’s fragile headspace in the aftermath of the injury, sequences such as this one stand in cinematic and musical contrast, as Brady reconnects with his identity as a rider. Following Chloé’s unsentimental approach to the film, and saving our bigger moments of scoring for sequences such as this one, helps us to feel the emotional power of Brady’s dreams – which, even when dashed and imperiled, live on.
“The Rider” is playing in select theaters before going wider on May 18th. You can listen to Halpern’s score for the film on spotify.