A scene from Bart Layton's "American Animals"

Interview: Composer Anne Nikitin on Hearing the Call of “American Animals”

When Anne Nikitin was a teen, she was obsessed with music, taping herself as she would play her guitar or keyboard and creating her own form of composition before actually studying it in college. Yet it was during a trip to the cinema to see “The Piano,” with that rapturous Michael Nyman score that had the sweep of the sea off the coast of New Zealand where Jane Campion’s film was set, in which Nikitin could hear in a different way.

“It was the very first time I paid attention to film in music. I’d always loved film and I studied English literature before I studied music, but it was the first time I paid attention to music combined with the narrative and it blew me away,” says Nikitin. “That’s what I’m aiming for. I love a whole range of genres — I don’t want to be put into a box, saying ‘she can only do this, she can only do that,’ which I think happens a lot with people in the creative industry. So far, I’ve been really lucky.”

However, to the degree she’s able to, Nikitin has made her own luck, often creating a wide range of music for the films she’s composed scores for – none more so than her latest work in “American Animals,” her second collaboration with director Bart Layton. After previously selling “The Imposter,” Layton’s wild tale about a Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin who tormented a family of Texans who he led to believe was their long lost relative, as a thriller that hid its own nonfiction roots with a style that echoed scripted dramas, particularly in its driving score, Nikitin finds an ideal match for her eclectic sensibilities in creating the music for Layton’s innovative hybrid, which recounts the exploits of four college-aged men who angle to steal rare books from a university library to sell on the black market.

Reflecting the different temperaments of the amateur thieves, Nikitin only occasionally creates harmony among them as they plan the robbery, giving each a distinct sound of their own, sometimes reminiscent of the films they reference for their scheme and other times simply a window to their soul. While the men, led by the brash Warren (Evan Peters) and the idealistic Spencer (Barry Keoghan), struggle to distinguish themselves – the goal of the heist isn’t only money, but fame – the music crisply identifies them even as they lose sight of who they are the more their plot progresses, with their identity further confused for the audience by Layton’s mischievous incorporation of the real-life perpetrators of the crime. With the confidence gained from pulling this all off once before, Nikitin literally matches the writer/director beat for beat, creating something both playful and poignant for the tale of youthful ambition applied toward nefarious ends.

While “American Animals” is in theaters, Nikitin spoke about reteaming with Layton, being in the rare position to start working on the score from the script stage and the many collaborators she brings into the process along the way.

A scene from Bart Layton's "American Animals"I know this goes back to the “The Imposter,” so how did this collaboration with Bart Layton come about?

I’ve known Bart for years because he runs a company called Raw, and I was hired by them for probably my second ever job, writing for TV. He was executive producing a lot of the shows, so he was hearing a lot of the music and when he needed a composer for “The Imposter,” which was his first feature film, he asked me to do that. It worked really well and soon as he had a script for “American Animals,” I read it and I was like, “Please hire me. I have to do this. I have to do this.”

On “The Imposter,” a big part of selling the nonfiction story as more of a dramatic narrative was the sweeping score you created. With Bart reworking that equation here, did it have any impact on your work?

I did see a lot of links, even though the score is completely different. Bart does like to play with blurring fact and fiction and finding these incredible stories to tell that stranger than fiction, and yet for “The Imposter,” everything was a bit tongue-in-cheek. The score was a bit more orchestral, playing around with the lies and the deception and the protagonist’s brain concocting all the time, so the music was trying to follow that. For “American Animals,” there are a lot more emotional shifts, so the score was really quite eclectic for “American Animals” and the big struggle for me and Bart was trying to not have a score that was too fragmented because there were so many themes, emotions and layers to capture that we ran the risk of having a score that was all over the place – different styles, different genres, different themes running all the time.

This was a tough nut to crack, and it was the first time I ever had a brain block, really, because I didn’t really know where to start. What happened was I read the script and I came up with 10 pieces of music just based on that before they went to shoot. Half of those got thrown out by the time we got into the edit – we realized they weren’t right. Then the other half seemed to stick. We were placing them in different parts of the film, saying “Well, this little bit works. Why don’t we develop this now?”

A scene from Bart Layton's "American Animals"Bart and I talked a lot about creating themes for each of these characters, especially for Warren and Spencer, two contrasting characters and two contrasting themes. We kept coming back to was Warren’s theme [because] there were questions about who was the leader of the pack in the film, but the film points the finger at Warren as being the instigator who was egging everybody on. He’s a little bit like the character of [Frederic] Bourdin in “The Imposter” in that I tried to come up with a theme that was his brain ticking. Every now and then, the camera focuses on him and his steely eyes and I had a synth melody that would come over that and develop throughout the film.

Then because they were editing constantly, they were throwing scenes at me that might have nothing to do with the theme, so one of the very first tracks I did was called “The First Plan Montage,” the first time [the characters] decided they were going to do [the heist] and they draw up the blueprints and they’re scoping out the library. That piece of music really had nothing to do with any of the other themes. It was more of a nod to “Ocean’s Eleven,” that more kind of playful, big band feel, although it sounds nothing like “Ocean’s Eleven.” So every now and then, I’d dip out of the themes and I’d go to a track like that, which was really fun and then I’d go back into theme world.

Did knowing Bart’s process from before inform how you’d create this score?

Yeah, Bart’s great because he really has a strong vision of what he wants and he’s really keen to get me involved right from the beginning. He did that with “The Imposter” and I found it really helpful. As a composer, sometimes you’re tacked on at the end and of course, the pain is less because you’re on the project for less amount of time, but you don’t feel like you’re as much a part of the project and it can really be really great and a real honor [to be on it from conception]. I really felt I was part of that post-production family and it gave me and Bart enough time to play around with a load of themes and a load of different styles and genres. Bart really wants to get into the nitty gritty of everything, so you do need that time with him because he likes to try and test everything out before he hones in on something that he likes.

A scene from Bart Layton's "American Animals"I’ve read that you ask directors for playlists and for “American Animals,” Sonic Youth was part of it. How did that influence the score?

Yes, I’ve just found over time that it’s helpful to get to know a little bit about the director and what they like because I’ve been on projects where they’ve said to me, “Absolutely no strings. I hate strings.” Or “Don’t you dare use a flute – I hate flutes.” [laughs] So you may have written a great flute piece, but then you play it to them and they say, “I’m actually allergic to flutes.” So the director’s taste in music will often inform the kind of a score they want and what kind of a movie they’re making, so Bart and I did have playlists, he sent me his and I sent him mine and we compared notes. Since we both love Sonic Youth, I knew I could throw in some thrashy guitars and he wouldn’t say, “What is this? Get them out.”

Were there any instruments you were drawn to when you were reading this?

Because it’s eclectic, I really loved that idea I could explore with a whole range of instruments. I love writing for guitars, for synths and for strings and I knew straight away that I wanted to use the London Contemporary Orchestra for this, because I thought the strings here wouldn’t be your typical classical, traditional style of strings. They needed to veer on avant garde music and the London Contemporary Orchestra are masters of that. They also love to collaborate and show composers what they can do with their instruments and really take the compositions to another level. As I was finishing up writing the score, I called Hugh Brunt from the London Contemporary Orchestra so he could watch the film and hear some of the demos for the sound I was after and then we had some meetings. He orchestrated for me and just discussed the sound before the recording session and then Robert Ames conducted [for the recording] and it was brilliant. It was a treat to work with them and I really love writing for strings, but in an unusual way and they were the perfect ensemble to help me do that.

A few years back, I got to talk to Simon Aboud, who worried he tortured you on “The Beautiful Fantastic” with how much he had you do – with something like 150 cues for the film, and how you’d dutifully go back and rework a scene after he was inspired to reedit by something you did in the music. I suspect you have a similar relationship to Bart, so do you enjoy that back and forth?

Yes, absolutely. I was tortured by Bart and Simon. [laughs] But actually I really enjoyed my time with both of them because they were similar in that they wanted to hear a whole range of things before they settled on what they think could work. Certainly, I would score music while they’re editing because the edits change and it’s nice to fit music to picture and it might inform how I might change the music. I’m really a fan of that collaboration as opposed to coming on at the end [because] you don’t have as much time to experiment and I really enjoy working with editors as well as directors, so the three of us having input really helps.

A scene from Bart Layton's "American Animals"You’ve said before the first test screening revealed that the tone initially might’ve been a little too dark. What was it like striking the right balance?

That’s right. Even with “The Beautiful Fantastic,” we went too dark and we had to come back, and for “American Animals,” we started off too dark. Spencer was a very morose character, quite humorless, and we just decided the film needed more light and dark shades. We also needed the film to kick and punch from the beginning and if it’s too doom-and-gloom and a bit dull, people will switch off and music will definitely help. If you don’t get the tone right, it can be a bit of a car crash, so we realized the music just needed to pack a punch and be a bit more playful, so we tried to go for something light and more humorous.

What was it like to see the film with the final score put on it?

It was really great. When you’ve worked on something for so long, for very long hours and you’re very tired, it’s very hard at the end to feel that sense of satisfaction. Even at Sundance, I was still very tired, but going to the New York premiere was absolutely brilliant because for the first time, I could just sit back and watch it as a film by itself. I wasn’t sitting there listening to every cue wondering if I should’ve done something different, I could just sit back and enjoy it, and I was really pleased. I think it’s a fantastic film and I hope other people receive it well.

“American Animals” is now in theaters.