Mica Levi Composes for the Music-less Commandos of Monos
Transcribing a verbal interview can calcify its fluidity. Congealed to text, the spontaneity of a subject’s ongoing efforts to articulate their process is reduced, encouraging readers to mistake the record as definitive. Some interviewees ponder the permanence of their words anxiously and fear fumbling, saying what they don’t mean, or what they might not in a month or a year.
But composer Mica Levi’s (Marjorie Prime, Jackie, Under The Skin) oral replies retain their suppleness on the page. Her understanding of her score for Alejandro Landes’ Monos, about a group of teenage commandos flummoxing their military responsibilities atop a mountain and, eventually, the throes of the Jungle of the Samaná River canyon, develops to this day.
In that same elastic fashion Levi took our call from inside a moving train. In discussion, she feared she spoke in riddles, but her answers were simply non-static, aware that they were both the best of her current understanding and open to the new forms they’d take in the future. In our modest efforts, Levi articulated the music she wrote for the child soldiers who live in void of their own. As an audiophile (and bonafide music prodigy) with strong music associations to the landmarks of her adolescence, she stepped away from her own experience and the temptation of era-specific sounds and instruments, instead fixing up an elemental, reverberating synth-glitch and roaring drum kit that is, in true Levi form, inseparable from the moving pictures.
Filmmaker: You started violin at four and went on to accomplish prodigious feats in your music career at a young age. When did it occur to you that it was the thing you loved and wanted to do forever?
Levi: Strangely, I think I had an idea about it even then. But that changes. It changed: what exactly it would be, but I definitely put my hopes into it early on. I never wanted to do anything else. Sometimes you might want to be a vet or an astronaut — or a professional footballer, that was probably my second calling. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I haven’t kept up with your work outside of film, I imagine you’re working on music in between?
Levi: I’ve played in a few groups, yeah, I’ve been playing music but I haven’t really released much. I’ve been playing lots of live music.
Oh sorry, I’m on the train. Very unprofessional. I’ll be off on the next stop. [laughs]
Filmmaker: When you score a film, your work must serve amongst other moving parts. Is the process of recording music outside of film, removed from that obligation, more abstract or more personal to you?
Levi: I think it depends on the approach or the way which you’re making stuff, probably across all — what would you call it? Forms or practices? I suppose if someone wanted to write a number one tune there’d have to be an element of something you couldn’t really put your finger on. But then there’s also a lot of skill, formula, and finessing that goes into making that.
Sorry. Oh my god. [laughs] I’m getting off here.
But I guess what I’m saying is, long story short, that it depends on what you’re doing. I suppose I feel it’s best if there’s a goal, but that you don’t know what that goal is when you set out to do it, it kind of appears. When a director asks you to make music for a film, they might have a reason for that, and a thought about how it might work, and that’s where it starts, but it doesn’t get stuck there. Does that make sense, or am I talking in riddles?
Filmmaker: You’re making sense.
You’ve talked about how the simplicity of Monos’s score has something to do with the simplicity of the resources and materials its characters are limited to. Is the score restricting itself to the worldview of its young characters or is it broader?
Levi: Well I don’t know. Weirdly, I don’t know what I was on about when I said that. It’s just something I noticed. It’s not something I set out to do. I started to see connections to other elements of the film that I probably made unconsciously. There are a lot of clashes of materials. There are faint elements of the city that remind you that it’s still out there, like track suits, but they’re in a remote location in a very rural situation with not all that much. It’s strange. I actually have no idea about that kind of life, living outside of the city in a completely remote situation.
And it’s always on. It’s always kind of operating…
What am I saying? I guess I had the sense that they might have had more stuff at some point. Not all the sound is natural, is kind of what I’m getting at. Some of them are from a more modern sound environment, but [the score] is stripped back because it’s not all there anymore. Does that make sense?
Levi: [laughs] It probably doesn’t.
Filmmaker: There are fragments of whatever we imagine they started with in life. In your other scores you’ve played with combining and alternating between organic and inorganic sounds. Is it more or less of one or the other here?
Levi: What do you mean? In terms of the instruments or…?
Filmmaker: Yeah, like the way you combined real and MIDI strings in Under The Skin?
Levi: Sugary. There’s a sugary element. The rises. I don’t know. They’ve [the teen squadron named Monos] still got some bits. They’ve got their radio, their night vision goggles, there’s a bit of tech in there. But basically everything else is pretty rough, pretty raw…
Filmmaker: Have you used any experimental or handmade instruments like you did in Chopped And Screwed in the recording of any of your film scores?
Levi: I haven’t. No. It’s funny, the instruments are important, but once you’ve gotten that together it’s kind of more about how it fits into the film, the timing. It becomes about something else quite quickly — for me anyways. I don’t know about others.
Filmmaker: Were there sounds you developed early on that didn’t become part of the language you would come to for the score?
Levi: There were a few sounds that didn’t work, that didn’t feel right. But the thing we were grappling with more was when and where. And also things about volume. I’m always working with the sound and the rhythm of it. But Alejandro is really open — he really supported everything and pushed it.
I suppose if a sound became too defined — I mean… if I suggested something that could tie us to an era it didn’t work. There are certain instruments and certain sounds that take you to a specific time and location that we avoided. These kids don’t have music, which can be difficult because there’s lots of adrenaline and teenage shit going on, where people are figuring things out. My personal experience ties me to a lot of music, and I imagine that’s the same for a lot of people that age. Music is very freeing, so maybe I had to let go of that.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about that process of arranging the score you alluded to and how you came to the resulting balance with music supervisor Bridget Samuels, sound designer Lena Esquanazi, re-recording mixer Leandro De Loredo, and Alejandro?
Levi: It was very collaborative.. That’s a bit of a broad word but we all had to agree. You have people, you know? You’re responding to each other’s responses. Alejandro was supportive of my initial instincts. He was excited to work with me, but I was like, “Lets see if you like my instincts first” and we’ll start from there. Some of the first things I put forward to him ended up in this, so…
Bridget was really key, as it was an international situation where we weren’t always able to work together. I could work with her to get things straight. I could get a really strong and trusted point of view, and then she could communicate with both of us and mediate, I suppose, when needed.
We had a really productive time in Argentina with Lena and Leandro. We were all able — and there was definitely some broken Spanish and English — to communicate much better. It was great to work together in the same place. Much quicker, more fun.
Filmmaker: Did the sounds recorded on site inform your process?
Levi: Definitely. Especially the jungle, which was so rich for the sound. It’s such a complicated live sound. There are no cars about, no hums. It’s very rich. I hope the music comes and gives space to that. That’s what I really liked about the film. There are all of these people on their own, all armed in these extreme conditions. I don’t know if you’re going to interview anyone else from the film but the stories I’m hearing from how they made it make it sound quite void of help and safety. The actors are jumping into rapids with, I imagine, a bit of a quick talk before about trying to avoid the rocks, and then going for it.
Publicist: We have time for one more question.
Levi: [shocked] Oh hi! [laughs].
Filmmaker: What dictates when the soundtrack is driving a cut or a transition vs not, or driving an action vs stepping away?
Levi: I think I can answer that! I don’t know if it’s driving it, but I can give you an example I’ve witnessed with the sound, and I can give you an example I’ve witnessed with the music, where something isn’t happening on screen but is directly there and sends a message. There’s a moment in the film where the Monos…. [Levin goes onto describe a spoiler that involves the sound of a gunshot and an act of dissent that puts the soldiers at odds with their higher authority, known only as the “The Organization”]. There’s music that’s associated with the presence of, and which I feel represents, The Organization, the clarity of the fundamental power an organization has over your belief system, and the ruthless effect of disobeying the order, basically. I can’t find the word… the consequences! When they’ve [committed their act of dissent] the messenger [the only on-screen agent of The Organization] isn’t there. The presence of the score at that point helps us feel something we can’t see.
And then an example I found interesting when Lena was working with the sound: There’s a gun shot, which she had to put in because they were using rubber bullets, and eventually you see where the gun shot goes, but then you also hear the birds panicking in the sky. There weren’t any birds panicking in real life when they shot that. [The sound] gives it an effect that you can’t see but that you hear — disturbing the order of things.