Ahead of the Oscars on April 25, three films have more in common than just competing for top honors. Sound of Metal and Minari, which both have six nominations, and One Night in Miami…, which has three, highlight how much more collaborative composers have become in the filmmaking process, whether working closely with actors on select songs or even doubling as a screenwriter.
For Abraham Marder, working with his brother, director Darius Marder, on the Sound of Metal script — about heavy metal drummer Ruben (played by first-ever Muslim best actor nominee Riz Ahmed) — also guided how he made the film’s music. As co-screenwriter, Abraham identified how the film, which also earned a best original screenplay nod, could best express the experience of Ahmed’s character going deaf by amplifying the sound design more than creating a traditional score that drew viewers into his world. “The film succeeds [by sitting] with Ruben in the toughest moments of quiet and havoc,” says Abraham. “A score often seeks to smooth and remove these rough edges from films, but I felt this would have defeated the purpose of the story.”
Though writer-directors like John Carpenter and Robert Rodriguez have also composed music for their movies, it’s not often a screenwriter will compose a film’s closing track — as Marder did with “Green,” which was short-listed for best original song. He began working on the minimal and downtempo track when Sound of Metal was first conceived, but didn’t finish the lyrics until the last week of the movie’s final sound mix, once he fully understood the depth of Ruben’s experience.
From a musical perspective, understanding a film’s characters is key — which is why, at the suggestion of director Lee Isaac Chung, Minari composer Emile Mosseri (who landed a best original score nomination) enlisted actress Yeri Han, who plays Monica in the film, for “Rain Song.” Mosseri had already written the track when Chung tipped him off to Han’s vocal skills. Working with her and Korean lyricist Stephanie Kong gave him the opportunity to add a deeper layer of emotion to the lullaby that helps close out Chung’s tender immigrant story, which is also up for best picture.
Similarly, songwriter Sam Ashworth believes best original song nominee “Speak Now” wouldn’t have become what it needed to be without drawing on Leslie Odom Jr.’s experience portraying Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami… Before they wrote the song over FaceTime, Ashworth, who previously worked with the Oscar-nominated actor on his 2019 album, Mr., had the verses and melody for the tune, but knew the lyrics didn’t feel right. “The song needed a real sense of urgency, hence the ‘listen, listen, listen’ and ‘speak now,’ but Leslie came with a strong conviction for the direction of the verses,” says Ashworth. “Leslie’s perspective from having played Sam Cooke was imperative. [He] had to live that character to be able to come out of it and process what it meant — and how it changed him.”