Interview: Composer Samuel Nobles on Getting His Hands Dirty for “Greener Grass”

Because of the unique nature of how “Greener Grass” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work.

Samuel Nobles was in high school when he first started getting into film scores and inspired by what he heard, he would start to jotting down notes for a film that didn’t actually exist.

“I would just start writing these simple melodies on the piano and record them, but they always felt like melodies for a movie or melodies that I would hope if somebody were listening to, it would kind of heighten their input of life and the world around them,” says Nobles, who grew up a world away from Hollywood in Delaware. “I just always wrote music that I felt could almost make our own lives feel more like a movie.”

In addition to his more melodic and ethereal work as a musician and producer, Nobles would find a home in alternative comedy as a composer, finding steady work on shorts where he could add that extra something to make the punchlines really sing and the TruTV series “Adam Ruins Everything,” on which Adam Conover’s investigations into the arcane ways of the world have been underlined by the intriguing sounds he creates. Yet a feature film remained elusive until Jocelyn deBoer and Dawn Luebbe could create a universe big enough to contain what Nobles is capable of in “Greener Grass,” setting the scene for the story of a town upended by jealousy – and a murder mystery – where people’s pursuit of being normal by societal standards results in all kinds of strangeness.

“It’s so important for us to get the tone in our movie just right, walking that line between horror and comedy, and Sam’s music is such a big part of executing that,” says deBoer, who has worked with Nobles on all of the shorts she’s made with Luebbe. “That man can do anything. Truly. He can write in any style. He turns things around so quickly.”

Adds Luebbe, “Yeah, we’ll explain the vibe we want and he’ll send us six options the next day.”

In “Greener Grass,” both time and versatility were of the essence when the film went from first draft to screen in roughly eight months and Nobles had not only the central story to think about, but also all of its wonderfully odd digressions that fill out the world, from the TV series such as “Kids with Knives” and “Bald Men and Bouquets” that play in the background to its villain who exists largely in nefarious musical cues throughout the first half of the film. At first, Nobles replicates the artificially cheery muzak that adorned ‘80s sitcoms so authentically to conjure the false sense of comfort and stability to which every family in “Greener Grass” aspires to that you wonder whether the production brought in the same uninspired musicians who were killing time during the day before the gigs at night they were passionate about.

Yet something sinister enters the mix after Jill (deBoer) gives her best friend Lisa (Luebbe) her newborn as a gift — a seeming act of compassion when Lisa looks forlorn that Jill has something she doesn’t but also quite possibly a display of a life that’s become too bountiful — and although the serial killer in the neighborhood gets their own creepy music, the film’s greatest source of dread takes hold as Nobles begins to blend the impersonal and glibly soothing synths with unsettling sounds more typically associated with another popular genre in the ‘80s – slasher films – to bring out the every day horror that exists in a place where people suppress their individual instincts daily to fit in and desperately fear appearing abnormal. While the cues are often deployed in short bursts, the disorienting effect lingers throughout the film to actually let audiences experience the deep sense of disillusionment the characters have when everyone presents their lives as being perfect and there’s considerable turmoil roiling around underneath.

Shortly before the film’s release in theaters and on demand, Nobles spoke about his ongoing collaboration with deBoer and Luebbe, making contrasting musical themes intersect and attending his first Sundance Film Festival.

How did this come about?

We originally started working together on the “Greener Grass” short. I met [Dawn and Jocelyn] through my friend Paul Briganti, who was directing that short, and he had been doing improv comedy with Dawn and Jocelyn and he and I had been working together for like maybe four or five years on “Adam Ruins Everything,” so when he did their short, he brought me in to do music and since then, Dawn and Jocelyn and I have been working together on all their projects.

I’ve been calling it a mix of John Carpenter and “Saved by the Bell.” Is that what you were going for?

Definitely. I love John Carpenter and I feel we referenced a lot of sitcoms and after school specials from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, moving into the digital age where sounds got real plastic and a little sterile. Part of what was so fun was combining these really plastic-y, bright, relaxing and cheesy soundscapes with this undertone of something is wrong, and there’s some dread happening, so we always danced between that, bringing in these discordant drones. [There would be] this little trill sound that would happen when you got a taste of the villain. So it was fun trying to develop this dreadful undertone [to pleasant music], thinking something was terribly wrong.

I had developed a lot of strange drones before we had even [started] shooting and I just sent [Dawn and Jocelyn] a bunch of unpleasant drones to see if they liked that feeling, so it was almost these two different categories – that and the cheery after school special stuff, and sometimes we would say, “Let’s just try layering them both over each other with maybe a soft, peaceful finish, but the last note we’d merge it with the drone.” Specifically, there’s the scene when Twillson, the soccer ball has been born [to Jill] and there’s a nice piece [of music] where they’re all looking at Twillson [lovingly] and they’re excited that the baby’s been born, but the last note ends on this sour note that leads into the next scene.

The handoff of the baby at the beginning of the film is also pretty ominous.

Yeah, that one we just wanted to jump right in with the tone right off the bat. It’s such an absurd moment, so we wanted that tone, despite the bright colors and sunny day, [to say] this is not going to be a necessarily easy movie to swallow. [laughs] [And with a feature] there was way more time to build and expand upon themes. In a short, the shifts happen a little bit quicker, so we had a lot more time to slowly ease in more and more disturbing sounds and let it evolve more over time.

Did you actually start out with a couple specific cues in mind for those contrasting tones and create a library you could work with to develop them?

Yeah, some of the pieces we used were pieces we used in the short and then adapted them to the feature, if the scene was longer or stuff like that, so we had some of that to start with, which gave a certain soundscape. Then there were like some key synth sounds that I used. I used a synth called the M1, [which was] the first digital synthesizer to come out and the sounds were just so familiar to early ‘90s TV, so I wanted to make those the main colors that we used.

Disruption is a large part of this too, where there will be an abrupt cut-out of sound. Usually, I imagine composers think about harmony, but was that something to incorporate into your thinking?

Totally. I feel so much of the humor in this movie are these tense awkward moments, so sometimes if we had a drone building, creating this unease and tension, as we find out in our real lives, sometimes when there’s a silence, it can really make the moment much more cringeworthy and there’s an awkward space or silence. Dawn and Jocelyn and the whole cast are so good at having these moments where nothing is said, so it’s really squeamish, and I think cutting the music completely at some moments heightened that.

Was it fun creating the theme music for all the shows on TV in this world like “Bald Men and Bouquets”?

It was so fun, and it was really nice to dip into these other worlds. Sometimes we’d try to use similar sounds [to the main themes of the film], but that one, we just wanted more of an upbeat ‘70s old school sitcom sound, so for these little tastes of weird TV – it was the same with “Kids with Knives,” we just got to jump into a whole different set of instruments and sounds, still trying to keep it consistent with the feel of the movie, but explore a different little world for those 40 second cues.

What was seeing the final product like?

It was incredible because it premiered at Sundance, and I got to go out there and it was the first time I’d ever done that. [Because] I live in Philly, I had actually never met Dawn and Jocelyn in person. We’ve always worked remotely, and having gotten to do so much work with them — and I [also] met the editor and producer and a bunch of people associated with the movie — that was surreal in itself. Then it showed at midnight in a big theater full of people and the reactions were so cool because when you’re working on it, you see the movie so many times and you know you love it, but you’re reminded of how great it is when people are roaring with laughter. Right off the bat when [Lisa is] handing off the baby, the theater was bursting out with applause and it was super special to see it through a bunch of other people’s eyes in appreciation.

“Greener Grass” opens on October 18th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater, New York at the IFC Center and in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It is also available on demand.

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