[Interview] ‘MINARI’ composer Emile Mosseri crafts the sound of the American Dream

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Composer Emile Mosseri has a light touch when it comes to creating his scores. From his sonically lush, but never overbearing arrangements in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, to the quirkier tonal notations in KAJILLIONAIRE, he knows exactly how to break down the emotions driving a sequence and make its resonant qualities work to the characters’ best advantages. His work as heard in director Lee Isaac Chug’s entrancing, haunting American tale, MINARI, is a culmination of skill and palpable, compelling sensations that connects with our head and hearts.

I’m curious about your creative process and how it all works. Does your approach change which each film, or is it pretty much the same?

That’s a good question. It changes case by case, usually by the circumstance of the movie. But there are some things that are pieces. I’ve done three movies and they’ve all been very different. I get the movie at different stages of the process with each film. It just happens that way. Plus, every film is different and every director is different.

For LAST BLACK MAN, it was a rough edit when I got brought on board. So that was like chasing a moving target. Joe was extending certain scenes for music, but other scenes were locked. It was a totally different experience for KAJILLIONAIRE, which was a locked cut before I got my hands on it at all, which has its advantages too. There’s not a lot of time to work on it – we just had five weeks to score the whole movie. You sink yourself into it. You live and breathe it for five weeks like an insanely dense exciting experience.

For MINARI, it was totally different. I had 6 months to work on the film, or more. I started composing to the script. I met Isaac early before they started shooting. I had started sketching. I wrote a bunch of music in the spirit of the film that they ended up using to assemble the film. Harry Yoon, the amazing editor of the film, would extend certain scenes as a tool in the editing process. So it was very much baked into the batter of the film. I feel like that’s the ideal situation. I’d like to work like that when possible. You can’t always choose.

What was the guiding direction Isaac gave you to begin your journey? What was your creative collaboration like with Isaac? What was the jump off point where you thought, “I know what this will sound like”?

It’s a good question. Isaac was very open. We didn’t talk about specific stylistic references, or composers that we love. I saw his work, Munyurangabo, his first film, and fell in love with it. I had an idea of what kind of storyteller he was. His script for MINARI was so beautiful and I internalized those things and then I wrote music in the spirit of it. The first pieces of music I wrote were connected to his story. There’s something that’s very intimate – in a story about five characters in a mobile home in a small space – but there’s also some grandiosity to the film emotionally. It was writing from that place. I just wrote a bunch of music that felt connective to the emotional core and hoped that it landed with Isaac so I could send him the music before they were shooting. He was driving around in Tulsa, Oklahoma, listening to the music and it was nice. It was all connected through an early point in the process.

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho in MINARI. Courtesy of A24. Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

How do you go about representing character in the score? Do your melodies start with the characters? Do you ascribe different instruments to each character? Or is really more about going with an overarching emotional theme?

It’s more of an overall emotional theme. The material isn’t really assigned… like this instrument isn’t assigned to this character specifically. But there are themes, like Jacob’s connection to the land, his spiritual connection, and there’s a theme we hear with the little boy and his grandmother, but a lot of it doesn’t squarely land to hit each theme on the nose. There’s a looseness to it. It’s all cut from the same cloth so it can flow as one piece.

Are there special instruments you use here you haven’t used before?

The main thing I did differently is I sing on it. I use my voice as an instrument. Whereas, in other films, with Mike Marshall singing the songs, but I used Ralph Cato’s voice as part of the score orchestrally. With KAJILLIONAIRE, I used another amazing vocalist Theodora Russeau. For this, I used my voice in the early stages when I was sketching out ideas and they became part of it. So that was new for me to sing on my own score. Also, I used a few different LFO synthesizers from the 80’s that felt kind of Theremin-esque that were tucked in, blended into the compositions as a light tonal nod to the period since it takes place in the 80’s. But it mainly serves as an unidentifiable sound that can blend with the woodwinds and create a slightly different flavor to the score.

I’m using the same instruments I’ve used before with different melodies and chord progressions and themes. We had 40 strings we recorded in Macedonia and brass and woodwinds and piano.

I thought I had heard the Theremin, but I wasn’t sure.

Yeah, that’s cool. Like you don’t want it to announce itself, especially in this particular film. You don’t want it to announce itself in an overt way.

What was the most challenging arrangement to come up with? How’d you motor through?

There was a challenging piece. A lot of it came together naturally. But the one that comes to mind, there’s a piece, the working title was called, “Water.” It was a tricky one to crack. It’s a long orchestral cue that had to highlight a fundamental change in a character’s priorities, but not be too ominous, or take away the humanity of the character, or tell the audience what to feel. It’s an emotionally complex moment in the film. There’s a beauty in it too. The character is following their dream, but the stakes are high and there’s a balance we had to strike.

What did you learn about yourself making this and being a part of this?

That’s a tough one. I think I learned to trust my instincts musically, in a way, when I had more of an opportunity to write music without any direction (as far as the film hadn’t been shot yet). I had strong direction from Isaac, but not stylistically specific. It was more he was very trusting – a very brilliant collaborator – but he has a different style than I was used to since I hadn’t been involved in this process so early before. It was a little bit scary at first.

MINARI expands in select cities on February 12. It will be available via PVOD on February 26.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.