Isabelle Nélisse and Laura Dern in "The Tale"

Interview: Composer Ariel Marx on Finding the Right Musical Language to Tell “The Tale”

In the music Ariel Marx composes for a film, you’ll often first hear a sound – some strings usually, ‎given her background as an accomplished violinist and fiddler – that cuts through the air like a shot across the bow, before getting somewhat lost amidst a cacophony of other sounds, only to emerge stronger when it rises to the surface once more, seemingly battle-tested and resistant to the influence of the other instrumentation. It is how a quivering string can have more power than a thump from the deep end of a piano, and how even in the harmony one can recognize the power of an individual instrument, that Marx’s work distinguishes itself and it’s telling that when the composer was recently scoring her latest feature “To Dust,” she wanted the microphones to be as close to the instruments as humanly possible.

“[It’s] really not being afraid of imperfection and not being afraid of hearing the rosin on the bow, the hair on the bow brushing against the strings, the plucked strings, the trumpet valve… the humanness of performance,” she says, recalling how approaching the comedy in which a Hasidic cantor (“Son of Saul”’s Géza Röhrig) is forced to seek out the help of a secular biology professor to find peace of mind as his late wife decomposes in accordance with Jewish tradition, meant the music couldn’t be too refined. “That was very intentional in terms of having a very raw, vulnerable sound to the mixes and to the strings…the whole film was about these odd vulnerabilities these two men were showing to each other, so the music couldn’t be too cinematic, it couldn’t be too polished because they weren’t.”

And yet that is where Marx finds beauty, throwing a dizzying array of notes at the screen that replicate the frenzy of molecules coursing through the characters’ bloodstream or thoughts rattling around inside of their heads, some pleasing and others hinting at a sense of danger that have made the films she’s worked on feel so alive and so intimate. It is this combination that no doubt appealed to Jennifer Fox when she was looking for just the right tone for her deeply personal drama “The Tale,” premiering on HBO this weekend, the kind of film that feels as if it’s speaking directly to you even if you were to watch it with a crowd. The writer/director vividly recreates her experience of stumbling upon an old essay she wrote in middle school alluding to sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of an older man, but she has trouble accurately recalling it as an adult (played by Laura Dern), whether it’s because she couldn’t simply comprehend what was happening to her as a prepubescent girl or she’s done her best to block it from memory.

Flipping back and forth interrogating scenes that have come before and after to make sense of what’s imprinted in the recesses of Jenny’s mind, “The Tale” is continually recalibrating itself to move towards a truth without the rose-colored glasses of youth or the anger and pain that comes from keeping such a devastating experience private, and Marx’s moving and versatile score closes the gap between those extremes of age and emotion as soaring musical accompaniment for Jenny’s younger years come back to earth with that tactile quality that the composer can effect so precisely as the adult Jenny begins to have a grasp on what actually occurred to her. In such a fine-tuned film, the score is truly extraordinary and shortly after Marx had the experience of having two features play at the Tribeca Film Festival, with both “To Dust” and “The Tale” getting prominent placement, the composer spoke about how she found her calling making music for movies, collaborating on the sophisticated multi-tiered experience of “The Tale,” and how her insistence on originating certain elements that have become rote in film music have led to a distinctive sound for herself and each movie she’s worked on.

Laura Dern in "The Tale"You actually created music for visual art before composing for film. Has it always been of interest to merge different artforms?

I always felt like something was missing for me just writing music for music’s sake. I really loved collaboration, even if it was just something else I did [for a] visual collaboration or a collaboration with another artist, but [adding] some multidimensionality and storytelling to [music] was always where I felt more inspired, so when I finally wrestled with the fact that I could write music for a career, [movies] felt like a really good fit, just merging all those needs of mine.

“West of Her” director Ethan Warren told me earlier this year that you answered a flyer he put up at NYU to score that film. Is that how you booked some of your early film scoring gigs?

Yeah, I had worked with him three-and-a-half years ago while I was in graduate school and that’s really where I found all my connections. Shawn Snyder, who directed and co-wrote “To Dust” was an NYU student as well, and I met him through mutual friends, and “The Tale” was through a Columbia University connection — one of the producers on the film, Reka [Posto], I had worked with on a short film several number of years back and she was involved with [“The Tale”] in pre-production. She ultimately gave me the connection to Jennifer [Fox, the director] and we met and I watched the film. She was wondering about my reaction to it and then we just started the initial conversations and moved on from there.

What were those initial conversations about?

It’s really nice [now because] I was doing some interviews before it premiered at Sundance and it was hard to talk about it with any sort of clarity because all parties involved were keeping it as vague and as neutral as possible because it hadn’t premiered yet, but at Tribeca, [Jennifer] said something that was so powerful to me — that when she was a young girl, in this relationship and in this time of her life, she felt love and safety and acceptance. A part of her felt so much love for somebody who was also doing her great harm and she said as an adult if you erase that part of the conversation, if you erase and eliminate that feeling. [If] you say, “No, that feeling didn’t exist, he was an abuser,” then all of a sudden, you lose these tools to understand why it happened, so embracing that story and taking in the child’s perspective was really important to Jennifer in healing and learning what happened to her as an adult. That’s a lot of the perspective the music took, which was this present love and wonder and feeling of acceptance with these two people in her life, so it’s a really interesting tonal choice that we decided on. She just had a strong vision for it in the first place.

Were there any instruments you gravitated towards?

it was a lot of strings, but intimate strings. The idea was not [to do a] large orchestral score. It wasn’t anything too big. It was delicate and light and intimate with guitar, strings and piano, bells, electronics, and with that, the palette was very nostalgic. It also grew from some of the source music that she was [already] using in the film [from] the time period when she was a child, matching some of the cues [with the songs] she would be listening to, so some instrumentation grew from that, so the instrumentation is also really taking a perspective of memory and something stuck in time [almost], so that was an influence.

The repetitive element in “The Tale” of Jennifer, as played by Laura Dern, constantly sifting through her memories to realize things she hadn’t before, seems to offer a unique creative opportunity musically. Was that interesting to work with?

Yeah, a lot of the approach was layer-based. So much of the film is about recontextualizing memory and reframing it and Jennifer is very clear – she remembers everything. This isn’t a story of repressed memory of somebody uncovering these new memories. It was really a redefinition of them. So in every piece of music, every cue, there were lots of different layers to pull out and pull apart, and to make more prominent and less prominent as certain memories took on different characteristics and different meanings. There are these recurrent themes that we see and repetition was another way to iterate that these memories existed and they’re present, but now there’s no veil over them anymore or there’s a different feeling and approach in digesting them, so those layers were intentional in terms of [conveying] how memories exist and change over time.

One of the things that stood out, and reminded me of another score you did for Laura Moss’ short “Fry Day,” was how you embed a subtle feeling of malevolence into the music where it reflects that feeling Jennifer might have that something’s amiss – or not because of her age, but the notes of danger can be seductive at first and gradually overwhelm. Is it difficult to achieve that kind of emotional arc?

It was important for us and important for Jennifer not to tip the hat too much into darkness. Again, it’s all about honoring young Jenny’s perspective. Her memory and her perspective count, so keeping that lightness was really crucial to understanding the film and in terms of hinting at those darker tones, we found the right tone with trial and error. For “The Tale,” the darkness comes with a little bit more of an electronic palette, so the innocence of young Jenny is a lot more acoustic, and when the memories are recontextualized, the palette gets a little bit darker via non-organic instrumentation. Once you establish your language and know the outermost boundaries with the instrumentation and the palette you’re working within, you have a lot of flexibility for a single cohesive score to have a lot of character and color to it.

How much do you consider the whole versus specific scenes?

It’s really important to step back and orient yourself because you can get really microscopic in terms of [thinking], “This piece of music is working well with this scene, so I won’t bother with examining its larger context.” But in fact, it’s important to map out exactly what themes you’re using where and how they’re developing. Conceptually, the way I organize [themes], I have a detailed map of where and when I’ve used what themes and how it’s evolved and why it’s evolving. The more intentional you are about that and the more aware you are of your own score as evolution in partnership with the script, the more meaningful it will be regardless if you as a listener will pick up on the various different arrangements or not. It’s an impression that people can walk away with regardless of if they can define it or not. We’re all wrestling with using incredibly fast timelines [in terms of production], so you have to make sure to devote that time to step back, even if there’s not always time to do that because when you watch it as an entire piece, you actually find, “Oh, this music is actually too developed here, or tipping its hat in one direction too much here, so although it works microscopically in the scene, it doesn’t in the whole.”

I’ve read elsewhere that you actually create your own sample libraries to draw from. Why has that been an important part of the process for you?

Creating your own sample libraries, getting live players [to perform the score] and playing on your scores [yourself] are all really the way to distinguish your own voice. As composers, we all have access to symphonic orchestral palettes infinite synth libraries for relatively affordable prices, but when we all have the same tools, I find it really important to distinguish and find colors that are really unique. And unique to the film. So I will play a lot on my own scores and really advocate for at least one live performance, if I’m not playing, [to have] the character of humanness and human imperfection [in the film] — imperfection in the most charming and palatable of ways. And making my own sample libraries, you really can transform ordinary sounds into unordinary ones and then you have them at your fingertips on a keyboard. Sometimes that becomes the voice of the film. With “Fry Day,” it was very simple palette, but I mapped those sounds out onto the keyboard and you’ll have happy accidents when you create a sample library because if you play something to an octave sound and you add effects or modulators to it, all of a sudden, it becomes something incredibly different. It’s really hard for me to be creative unless I create these specific boundaries within the film, so a lot of [creating] this unique voice and palette and language for the film comes from making your own library.

Geza Rohrig and Matthew Broderick in "To Dust"Your score for “To Dust” is also very special and unexpected – one imagines with the story of an ultra-orthodox Jew, there would be klezmer music, but you resist. What was it like figuring out how to get that kind of spirit without being traditional?

Yeah, that was a really lovely and wonderful adventure as well and like “The Tale,” that was another film that was so tonally specific. It’s morbid, it’s dark, it’s sorrowful and yet we couldn’t play it completely straightfoward [because] it was a really complex examination of grief and there’s a lot of humor and lightness to it. It was just such an interesting palette to play with and I met [Shawn Snyder, the director] a year before they started shooting. We met up for coffee once every couple months and we talk about his intentions for the music and we found out pretty early on that we were pretty kindred collaborators.

I just adored the script and I was really inspired and called to do palette tests, so I would write music before they even shot. We had seven or eight pieces of music exploring all of these boundaries of the comedy, the horror, and how sorrowful and playful can we get within this world, and it was very helpful and fun. Once the film actually took shape and became a film in a physical form, then the music evolved, so it was another growth period in which we adjusted and kept picking apart these themes now that we actually had a film to play with, and what was wonderful was there was no temp music. It was my music through and through from script form to the end. Shawn mentioned being able to play my music for the cinematographer before he started shooting and that was really helpful for the cinematographer, so it’s such a blessing and I think pretty rare that you’re involved so early on. And it felt like we were able to create a language that was so endemic to the film that didn’t belong anywhere else but in that film.

Having both “To Dust” and “The Tale” at Tribeca crystallized how well things to seem to be going in your career right now. What is this moment like?

I feel really grateful, and I actually had a short film at Tribeca too called “So You Like the Neighborhood,” and all of these connections are from people I had worked with several years before, so what’s been so amazing is to see how the people I love and admire have been fans of and friends with also moving up too. These projects are so unique. They’re so extraordinary in terms of tone and content and to see the way that everyone is recognizing “The Tale” and its importance, but also it’s delicacy with tone is just incredibly powerful for me. Its rollout with HBO is so intentional with resources outside of the film being available to viewers and [how it is] part within the movement is really amazing.

And with “To Dust,” at the last Q & A I was in the audience for, a woman stood up and mentioned she was from a Catholic family in Louisiana and she was drawn to the film because of its wrestling with grief. She had recently lost someone in her life and [she said] how it was true to her experience. And what’s so beautiful is ”To Dust” is such a such a specific snapshot of grief [within a] specific culture, yet it’s so universal, and they found a way within this relationship to really make it accessible in ways that normally it probably wouldn’t be. So that I could be a small part of that, I just feel very excited and proud of the work that I’ve done on these films and how they’re resonating with people.

“The Tale” premieres on HBO on May 26th at 10 pm EST. “West of Her” is now available on demand.

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