Mica Levi had only scored two feature films before “Monos,” but her work on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” are among the most unique and celebrated pieces of film music from the past decade. Director Alejandro Landes said he wasn’t very confident he could land the popular composer for his film about a pack of Colombian child soldiers.
“I knew Mica doesn’t like to come onboard in the screenplay phase,” said Landes. “So her agent saw it, and I wasn’t sure I was going to get past the door-keeper there. He very much connected to it, sent it to her and she was in.”
Levi instantly connected to characters and the world, which starts above the clouds high atop the Andes, and moves down into the jungle. The composer told IndieWire that she could never create music for something without feeling like she can immerse herself in it: She first needs to react to the images, color, landscape and the spirit of the film to know if she will able to write music for it.
“It is amazing what you learn from having that quiet open. It makes such a difference to see the film without music and enjoy it on that level,” said Levi. “It’s hard for me to know any other way other than seeing it. So it was already a film before I got involved with it and I thought it was great.”
There was just one problem: Levi thought “Monos” worked well without music and wasn’t sure it needed any. Landes pitched her on taking a “monumental, but minimal” approach. Music would be sparse — it ultimately consumed only 22 minutes of the film’s 102-minute runtime — but when it was present on the soundtrack it would make a deep impact. Levi sent Landes some short pieces that marked a departure from her normal use of strings; the initial compositions included a whistle (which was Levi blowing into a bottle), timpani, and a rising digital synthesizer sound. That opened the door to a new approach for how music could work in Landes’ film.
“I hope you can see the instruments like they’re all found,” said Levi. “Like one day someone went to this remote mountain and found all the elements that make up the film, all the objects.” It wasn’t an approach Landes was expecting, but he was quickly taken by it, as it helped address the role music would play in his film.
“I was looking for something you couldn’t quite put your finger on in terms of past or future,” said Landes. “She proposed some elemental sounds, like blowing into a bottle, which has a very spaghetti western feel. Then you also had synthetic sounds that could come out of a Berlin nightclub.”
Later, when Levi came to Buenos Aires, they recorded string instruments to add to the score. Levi, who had previously scored films with two clear protagonists who were in almost every scene, saw her music playing a different role in “Monos.” Each instrument, or musical moment, was part of the Landes “wolfpack” of child soldiers and the landscape surrounding them.
“The music is just another element of the condition they are in,” Levi said. “It’s kind of like these extra sort of onlookers, almost like a fairytale type of thing. Then there’s adrenaline in there, and that somehow comes together to tell the story.”
Landes loved the fable-like quality of Levi’s music, and the way instruments were assigned to various characters. One of Levi’s bottle whistles was shrill and dubbed the “Authority Whistle,” representing the presence of the paramilitary organization overseeing the children’s activities. The second whistle from Levi blowing into the glass bottle was more “bird-like” and spoke to the connection between the community of child soldiers.
Landes may not have known what he wanted from the music at first, but the role of sound was something baked into the conception of “Monos.” In his previous film “Porfirio” he didn’t have any music, but with “Monos” sound designer Lena Esquenazi he created a rich soundtrack that stemmed from location-based sound.
“Like me, Lena likes being inspired about what’s there and what’s natural,” said Landes. “She takes what’s there that you discover, and she builds off that and stylizes it in a way that seems otherworldly, but it’s really born out what is there in front of you. That’s the same thing that I did on the location with the kids. They all seem otherworldly, but they’re born out of the physical world. It’s almost as if we take what’s there and push it to the border of fantastic without jumping off. That was kind of the motto of what we did, but it’s clearly a building process.”
That process meant finding a balance between Esquenazi’s sound design and Levi’s score. Despite the language barrier – the Cuban sound designer doesn’t English, and Levi doesn’t Spanish – the three collaborators spent seven weeks together on a Buenos Aires soundstage in what Landes called a “jam session,” where they experimented with the different ways for two elements could work together to create a unified soundscape that was both fantastical, but grounded in the film’s incredible landscapes.
“These were was very some of the most beautiful and entrancing places on earth,” said Levi. “Lena’s sound is what’s real coming from those places. Music exists on this other plane that is psychedelic. You’ve got to figure how real things are and how much sound to let in. It’s that kind of thing. You’re just playing around. You can’t figure out one without the other.”
“Monos” opens in theaters Friday, September 13.