Alex Ebert has had many roles throughout his creative career, from ringleader of art-damaged indie rock outfit Ima Robot to the creative shaman of folk-rock collective Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. With his Golden Globe-nominated score for All Is Lost - amazingly, his first film score - Ebert brings musical grace and gravitas to the story of a man lost at sea, seemingly with no hope. We asked him how he did it.
All is Lost seems like such a difficult beast to tackle for any film composer, let alone a first time film composer. What moved you so much about the film that you wanted to take on this challenge?
I got pitched the movie like “Hey, you wanna do this movie? It stars Robert Redford and there is no dialogue and there is no one else in it.” And for me, that was instantly like “You gotta be kidding me. That sounds like the most outrageously ideal situation.” It actually didn’t strike me as terribly daunting, so much as I instantly got excited about the idea. It just made sense.
There’s one character, no dialogue. You could have scored this in so many different ways. And in a way you sort of did! How did you hone in on the overall sound world you wanted to create for this score?
Originally, I wanted to try and write a score that had one note every five or six minutes, and then that increment would diminish, until suddenly it was more of a song. I wanted silence - or not silence, but his environment - to be the other major character. So you had music, and then just the sound of the ocean. But at the same time, that desire rubbed up against my desire to - after I saw some of the footage - to really make it lyrical and beautiful and spiritual. Which meant for me that it needed melody, not just suspense and tones. [Searching for] the one instrument that could do a melody in a sort of elemental sense, I landed on the alto flute. Which really does sort of sound like the wind, or a foghorn, or something like that. I’m really, really happy with that, very grateful that I was able to land on that.
It was a process that was sort of unguided. I had this wide open canvas. I tried all kinds of things that didn’t end up in the movie and didn’t work. Or worked for a time. I mean, the movie really could have been a musical, to be honest! It could have been an amazing anime of loneliness. And it was like that at a point, because I would turn all the sound off and just have fun painting on the canvas. And then, you know, take a step away. But I had written a main theme quite early on. I had written it on the piano, and to find a voice for that was really a key moment. And then the alto flute kinda took it away.
There’s this whistling thing that flows through a few of your cues. Did you conceive of that as “Robert Redford’s theme” as it were? The most human element of the music?
I always thought of death or surrender calling to him. And I always felt it was a bit playful - literally playful, as in a play - in a very antiquated sense of the music actually being a third character. Not kind of being a third character, but actually being a third character, calling Redford’s character to surrender. So I guess that [whistle is] not really Redford’s voice. It’s my voice, or a third party’s voice, watching down from the sky.
Did you think of the music as what Robert Redford actually hears - the voices in his head? Or is it more a musical translation that could only be perceived by the audience?
It’s a bit of a combination. I think that they are speaking to Redford, but he does not quite hear them. He’s really bent on these actions of survival, these little things that he can to do to patch things up and make things work. And he’s so into them that he doesn’t really want to hear fate calling to him. Eventually it really does. And I think when he finally accepts the music into him, or that voice, that spirit into him, is when he writes the letter, and we hear that theme for the last time. We’ve heard it a bunch, almost to the point of “Why are we hearing this so much?” It’s like the necessity of repetition in his actions, and the repetition of surrender calling to him, and then finally the theme disappears and you never hear it again. To me that’s the most emotional moment in the movie.
Can you talk about the impact of the elements - light, wind, water - on the music itself? The sounds you put into your score?
Certainly wind. Wind was an easy one, with the alto flute. There’s the hum of the body, which hums very loudly when you plug your ears up, and you hear that loud drone when you’re underwater. I am not sure I had all those sort of thoughts precipitating things. It was more a process of instinct. But I did have a feeling to use these crystal bowls that I had, these giant bowls that make a sound kind of like the edge of a wine glass, if you lick your finger and swirl it to make a tone. These are giant ones, very sonorous. Similar to Tibetan bowls, brass bowls, which I used as well.
And so we’d sit there and do these bowls for minutes and minutes. People use them to meditate. It’s just a very...all-penetrating sound. So a lot of that sort of stuff, and some more familiar stuff, like acoustic guitar, which I didn’t exactly know how to work into there. I think acoustic guitar is sort of earthy, and reminds one of the land, of the people. I think in some unwitting way, I was trying to allow all of the elements to whisper to the character.
The acoustic guitar arpeggio that comes in during your “All Is Lost” and “Virginia’s Dream” cues reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” There’s another earth image right there! The mountain taking you over.
It’s also similar chords that Leonard likes playing with. And those chords I would almost describe as earthy, in the sort of nerve-wracking sense, of going underground. The cycle-of-life sort of earth, which can feel dark, and also of course spiritual, and positive in some sort of unknown way.
Did you have to put yourself in a different creative space to write this score than when you were writing for Edward Sharpe or Ima Robot?
I wouldn’t say a different space, not physically, nor mentally. It was more of a liberation, and a space that propelled itself forth. There was no “I need to change up my mind.” It more pulled my mind out of my brain! It was just something that happened.
Writing songs all the time is, for lack of a better word, inherently formulaic. You have an expectation put on yourself and an expectation that people put on you that a song should have, for instance, a chorus. And a song should, for instance, have a verse. And then, if you wanna make it really interesting, you put a bridge in. But you only have these couple of things. And they’re almost rules - they’re certainly guidelines. But with this, there was nothing. When something made sense to disappear, it disappears. If it doesn’t come back, it doesn’t come back. If you want it to go here, it’s all in service of instinct and the moment. It was a very liberating feeling.
I would say there can be as much of a formula to film scoring. This may be one of the benefits of A) having such an open canvas for the film, and B) having you come from a different musical background than most film composers.
I was aware that I was in a unique position, in the sense that I wasn’t getting pressure from producers, anything like that. I wouldn’t get calls, even my manager wouldn’t call me and be like “Hey, they need a hit,” you know? It wasn’t like that. And I know that it can be.
I’ll watch other movies, and the music feels intensely formulaic. Even then, the formula is “tension and release.” It’s a bit more amorphous than “verse-chorus.” Even in that sense, I’m sure that would become very tiresome. But you know how every thriller, and certainly every trailer, is like “Nyaaaaah-ZUM?” They take the idea of tension and release, and "2013" it, and make it so barbaric and blatant and belligerent. But I imagine you are probably right, that I haven’t scored enough movies to get bored of it.
The thing that I really wanted to prevent in the score - because it was very easy to do, in my opinion - was to make tension. Tension is like the low low low C on your keyboard. That’s all you need to do. You just hold the low note down, and you got tension. You got it in the scene, and some s**t’s about to do down, and everybody knows something’s not right. And it actually works, but there’s no effort involved in that. So that’s why if I wanted to put tension in there, I wanted to involve these crystal bowls or different humming noises, make it fun. Make it a process, as opposed to a canned good.
You must have been writing the score and the last Edward Sharpe record around the same time. Did you experience any “bleed” from one to the other? Sounds or instruments or even techniques that you used on both?
Especially with “Amen.” “Amen” was one of those songs that I was like “S**t man, I should put this on the album. This is a very, very good song…” Man, I think it’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever penned. It’s very emotional. I finally played it live for the first time, and I actually started shedding a tear while singing it, which is a rare experience.
But yeah, I mixed “Amen” in the same studio where I mixed the last album, at the same time. I was in a studio in Ojai, and I would just go back and forth between our album and the score. It was actually a really nice thing. As far as production, things I learned from one and applied to the other, nothing is really coming to mind except that it was definitely all happening at the same time, and I would take a break from one and jump to the other.
The film Life of Pi is about a guy and a tiger in a lifeboat, and Mychael Danna’s score won an Oscar. This year, Steven Price wrote an amazing, Golden Globe-nominated score to Gravity, which is about a solitary woman in the vast expanse of space. What do you think it is about these “one-person-against-the-universe” scenarios that makes for such amazing music?
I think that they make for such amazing emotions. I mean, the hero story - and this would be a perfect time to cue Joseph Campbell - it’s one of those really, really classic internal tales. We don’t even have to see a movie to understand the relevance of being alone, the challenge of that, the emotion of it.
And I think it’s a big part of any initiation phase. A lot of the initiations that youths go through, certainly in tribal times, are [done] alone. You go on a walkabout. Or you go on a vision quest. In some ways, the same thing arises when we become older, at least in my imagination. You know, the sage that must leave his family and go into the mountains to be alone, and see if he can pick up anything to bring back to society. Or just to go and be alone now. I think it’s a rite of passage in youth and in decay, or towards the end. I think it’s just a powerful theme.
How has being a member of ASCAP made a difference in your music career?
When I get my money, it says “ASCAP” on it! You guys work your ass off to figure out who played what and collect all this stuff…[but] I know that you guys do quite a bit more than that. I remember with Ima Robot, we’d be like “We need help doing X, Y and Z, maybe ASCAP could help.” I came in there and had a meeting with you, and we sat down and talked about plans for this, that and the other thing. The feeling I get is of a helpful resource...I know it’s a nice sort of thing to have.
Alex Ebert on the web: alexanderebert.com
Visit the official All Is Lost website: allislostfilm.com