On the heels of the NEON release of PIG, the New York Times Critic’s Pick film now playing in theaters, Lakeshore Records‘ Alon Levitan caught up with co-composers Alexis Grapsas (Monday, BBC’s “Trigonometry” Series) and Philip Klein (Wish Dragon, The Last Full Measure). The film’s score received love from critics and playlist editors alike, taking top slots on Apple Music and Spotify playlists. Find out how the composers cooked up the tasteful music to the Nicolas Cage movie.
Alon Levitan: How did you come to score Pig? How did your collaboration begin? What was your collaborative process?
Alexis Grapsas: I was involved in the process right around the time principal photography was completed and after reading the script I wrote some first ideas and themes against roughly assembled scenes in order to pitch my vision and overall approach to the filmmakers, which basically got me the job. After I was brought on board I had extensive discussions and exchanges of ideas with Michael (director) and the producers on a frequent basis about what the sound of the score could be, and we were all coming up with concepts in a very collaborative way. After first rough cuts started coming in from the edit room, I started writing cues to picture and throwing ideas against the wall so everybody could react to the music and give feedback.
“I think Alexis and I both have very similar palettes and fundamental beliefs about music in film, so the process always felt organic and fluid.”
Midway through the process and due to some scheduling conflicts, Phil joined our team. I’ve known him for many years and admire him as a musician and human being, and even if our music is different we share the same sensibilities when it comes to scoring a film. I could not think of anyone else to bring on board when the circumstances required that, and our collaboration only made the score better. He challenges me as a musician and keeps me in check.
Philip Klein: Alexis had done a lot of heavy lifting early on in the process of scoring the film. He had written the main theme that they loved and done a lot of sonic exploring, so all I had to do was take it and run with it. Much of my work was expanding upon the great ideas he had already come up with and making sure the filmmakers were happy with how they played in the film. Once the sound of the score was settled upon it was really about finding the most meaningful moments to utilize it. I think Alexis and I both have very similar palettes and fundamental beliefs about music in film, so the process always felt organic and fluid. We both wanted the best for the film.
Nicholas Cage is a uniquely “meta” actor with an incredible range of melodramatic and comedic performances. Given the meme-worthy star and premise, Pig seems to consciously subvert any preconceived expectations. What were your initial conversations like in regards to capturing the film’s poetic, existential tone?
“The film has three chapters that feel like opening up a book of tales, and every time we enter a new one, a title card with a recipe appears on the screen.”
AG: Nic is a powerhouse and one of my favorite actors. As you very well put it, he has an incredible range — from Raising Arizona, to Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off and Adaptation –- he is one of those actors that can take over the screen and become something bigger than the role and character he is portraying, which can be tricky. And I was always very aware of that in order to stay truthful to the story and write music for Nic’s character “Rob,” not a film that stars Nicolas Cage.
In Pig, Cage is so subtle and grounded and makes you feel so much while giving away the absolute minimum. As a nihilist and someone who has left life as we know it behind, he has a very philosophical approach to everything. And that’s how I envisioned the music to be, to say as much as possible with minimal instrumentation where every sound has a purpose and meaning. And that’s obviously something we discussed in the beginning, to almost treat this as a cathartic experience, a mythical and bizarre journey that much similar to real life, can embody a variety of emotions like sadness, loss, inner peace, darkness, nostalgia, but always through the main character’s existential point of view.
The sublime, arresting theme that recurs in tracks such as “Hunting,” “Bottom of the Ocean,” “Things To Really Care About,” and “Wasted Space” are somehow both transcendent and organic, ethereal and rooted, etc. How did that motif come to life? How did you approach the different iterations of the main theme?
AG: I was looking for a theme that would always connect us with the character’s existential approach as well as his serene way of life in the forest. Emotional yet simple and understated, delicate but raw with some shades of darkness. Much similar to Cage’s performance we discussed earlier, I wanted to achieve the same with this theme, to convey a lot of subtle emotions with the absolute minimum musical information. The film has three chapters that feel like opening up a book of tales, and every time we enter a new one, a title card with a recipe appears on the screen. These were clear pillars for the theme to reappear, each time with slightly different instrumentation. That way as we continue the journey into modern city life, all the things he loves and have kept him away from society are there to ground us. Sometimes it also felt to me like a mournful calling, as if the forest and his Pig are with him and are drawing him back.
“As we shift out of the woods and start to discover the layers of Rob’s life in the city the music becomes much more modern, distorted and aggressive. We use far more electric, percussive and processed sounds.”
How did you approach creating the sonic palette for the score? From the earthy drums and percussion to the vintage/noir guitar tones on tracks like “Out of Woods” and “The Trees Tell You Where To Look,” what specific instruments did you use?
PK: There is a pretty clear polarity between Rob’s life now vs. his previous life. That division also extends to the film’s locations: the forest vs. the city. When we’re in the forest experiencing Rob’s current life of isolation and solitude, we have to respect the space of what we see on screen. The simple folk-like sound naturally lends itself to this world and we kept the textures singularly focused by relying on solo instruments to not overwhelm. We used a baritone violin, various bowed strings and acoustic guitars for these moments to keep us grounded and focused. The textures are lighter, more sympathetic. As we shift out of the woods and start to discover the layers of Rob’s life in the city the music becomes much more modern, distorted and aggressive. We use far more electric, percussive and processed sounds. The earthy baritone violin shifts to a cold, electric sound and the warmth of the acoustic guitar is replaced by various levels of distorted electric guitars.
AG: After establishing the simplicity of our character’s isolated life, the next challenge was to figure out how to follow his journey into the city and his past. We tried a lot of different and extreme things in the early stages, from orchestra to electronic sounds, as everyone was open to experimentation. We discovered some great things and other times we failed miserably. The film guided us on where to land and gave us a clear direction of what the final palette should be, in order to keep the journey exciting while respecting the minimalistic tone of how it had all been set up.
Am I crazy, or do tracks like “Take Me to the City” and “Hotel Portland” harken to Radiohead’s OK Computer?
AG: I never thought about that but I consider Johnny Greenwood one of the most important and innovative artists of our time, so if that guitar makes anyobody throw his name next to something I’ve done, I’m not offended.
Is it fair to call this film a “pet project?”
PK: I think that’s a misleading characterization. A pet project indicates you do something borne more out of passion rather than necessity. By that definition all film projects would be pet projects. No one has to make movies, we make films because we love storytelling and cinema.
“Recently, I’ve really admired Nicholas Britell’s writing, I think he’s one of the most inventive and interesting composers working right now.”
What are some of your favorite scores? What have you gleaned from them?
PK: Vertigo, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, The Village, Lady In the Water, Signs, Thomas Newman’s Little Women, Cinderella Man, Rudy, Apollo 13, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Vice, Sicario…to name a few! I grew up consuming James Horner, James Newton Howard, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, and all of the Newmans. Frankly, I think they are all genius composers and learn something from them every time I hear their music. I think James’ work with M. Night Shyamalan is some of the best scoring of the past few decades. His sense of pacing and drama is impeccable. I don’t think anyone could write a theme like Jerry Goldsmith, within two notes you knew exactly what lay ahead. I appreciate how much Horner can say with only one or two instruments, he always wrote from his heart. Thomas Newman can make a static shot of a patch of dirt seem like the most profoundly moving experience of your life. Recently, I’ve really admired Nicholas Britell’s writing, I think he’s one of the most inventive and interesting composers working right now.
AG: Some scores that come to mind now in no particular order: The Shawshank Redemption, There Will Be Blood, Cinema Paradiso, The Social Network, Vertigo, Moonlight, Sicario, E.T., Godfather.
“There’s nowhere to really hide in scores like this and it forces a level of creativity out of you that’s both terrifying and inspiring.”
Who are your top 3 musical influences?
AG: I’m terrible with lists but I also find it very hard to answer a question like this, as some artists have influenced me with ways that go beyond music. So I will mention three names that are not necessarily my top musical influences but have made an impact on me with their own ways. Brad Mehldau, Debussy, Nick Cave.
PK: James Newton Howard, Witold Lutoslawski, Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Beyond a Pig sequel, do you have a dream project? Dream collaborators?
PK: I sincerely hope Alexis and I get a chance to work on more projects together. He happens to be one of my best friends (and he’s brilliant), so this was very meaningful for me to get to work with him. Lately, I’ve had the fortune to be writing a lot of busy orchestral scores, so more intimate projects like PIG are a lovely challenge. There’s nowhere to really hide in scores like this and it forces a level of creativity out of you that’s both terrifying and inspiring. I’d love to do more animation, as I think there’s some amazing work being done in that genre. Give me a great sci-fi or historical drama and I’m happy, too. Adam McKay, Alejandro Iñárritu, Greta Gerwig, Pete Doctor…all dreams!
AG: The good thing is that Pig cannot have a sequel, and I love that about this movie. Dream director collaborations would be Yorgos Lanthimos, Lulu Wang, Thomas Vinterberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryan Coogler, Bong Joon-ho.
What advice do you have for aspiring composers?
PK: Survive and be patient. Opportunities will come but you have to persevere through a lot of adversity in this business. For most of us, nothing came easy, it’s been years and years of hard work — do not expect your career to follow any timeline. Beyond that, always put your best foot forward no matter the project. You never know who will hear your work or what circumstance you may be in because of it.
AG: Be original, know your craft, and above all write good music.
Thank you Alexis and Philip for your time and for sharing your process on this project!
NEON presents PIG, starring Nicolas Cage and Alex Wolff, now playing in theaters. The soundtrack is out now via Lakeshore Records!