Go backBack to selection

Inner Soundtrack: Composer Jerskin Hendrix on Poor Things

Kathryn Hunter and Emma Stone in Poor Things (Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Jerskin Fendrix’s 2020 album Winterreise wends through a bog of squelchy pop textures—discordant bursts of rubbery noise, percussion lines that sound banged-out rather than played, synthesizers overextended to within an inch of their lives. Upbeat melodies and Dada sloganeering are punctuated by dirge-like ambient burbles. Speaking from his home in England, the Brixton-bred Fendrix still seems surprised that Yorgos Lanthimos “just happened to hear” it when seeking a composer for his fantasy/sex comedy/road picture/existential bildungsroman Poor Things. 

For his first screen credit, Fendrix builds on those tonal disjunctures, translating cinematic themes into musical ones. Supplied with a script and a packet of concept art and denied any composers or scores for reference points, Fendrix spent six months noodling in a vacuum and completed almost everything before the cameras rolled. He followed the “emotional intensity” of Tony McNamara’s screenplay, in which comely tabula rasa Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) matures at warp speed from a subverbal baby-woman into an enlightened, self-possessed agent of her own destiny. Aside from one traditional leitmotif in the pitch-bent pizzicato of the recurring composition “Bella,” Fendrix strove to instinctively inhabit the mental interiority of a character for whom everything feels revelatory and thrilling. “I didn’t do a great deal of technical planning or infrastructure, which is sometimes an option,” he says. “It was very much driven by the excitement of having a character who was basically experiencing a lot of intense things for the first time: love, familial affection, horror, fear, disgust.” 

As Bella’s mental facilities expand, so too does her musical accompaniment. Sparseness laden with resting fermatas gives way to denser, more complex songcraft in “an important progression.” Exploring the limits of her own consciousness, Bella soon latches onto the orgasm as the meaning of life. The two-part “It’s Siesta Time” soundtracks her formative trysts with spritely synth arpeggios, suggesting a revelatory awakening in the score’s first full, driving melodic line. When she finds temporary employment in a Paris bordello, a wood-block clapper called an “orchestral whip” mimics the sound effects of her BDSM dabbling. “I wish I could say we took the on-set recording of someone getting their ass spanked,” Fendrix laughs. “No people were spanked in the making of this score.” 

When, during an interlude in Egypt, Bella beholds a nightmarish and colossal vision of slave labor, the scene is announced with a droning wail of Uilleann pipes, an Irish cousin of the bagpipe offering a “flexibility” its Scottish equivalent can’t. “Wind instruments have so much to do with breath and playing with how people breathe,” Fendrix says. “You have wind instruments that are not [played with] human breath like a flute, but mechanized or animated, like a pipe organ or Uilleann pipes or an accordion. When you start to get these mechanized wind instruments bending in a way which is fairly unfamiliar, we can bend the pitch the same way someone speaks. It’s almost as if you’re trying to reanimate them and get this machine that you’ve taught how to breathe to learn how to speak and interact. You can join the dots on why I thought that was a cool idea for the film.”

Fendrix recorded each instrumental part individually; what he lost in the chemistry that comes from an ensemble convened in the same room, he gained in precision and control. With a single audio file for each orchestral voice, he could manipulate each piece of the increasingly elaborate arrangements to his meticulous liking. “I only brought in about five or six session musicians to do the woodwind and the percussion,” he says. “Apart from that, it was just me. This allowed me to surgically process a lot of the instruments and give them the sense of something warm and familiar about them. You think, ‘Oh, this sounds like violin or an oboe,’ but there’s something really off about it. For example, all the very low-pitched instruments in the basic parts are actually very high-pitched instruments that we pulled all the way down, and a lot of the high-pitched instruments are actually low-pitched instruments. A lot of stuff which sounds like it might be one thing is another.” Likewise, Fendrix says, “There’s this woman who’s phenomenally charming, and everyone who meets her seems to fall in love with her, but they can all sense that there’s something really not right to her. They can’t tell what it is or even admit it, but there’s something dark and unnerving at the bottom of her.”

Even with its extensive digital reworking, there’s a discomfiting tenderness to the score. “It’s a very weird thing, to have music that’s that prominent and also reasonably underdone—not particularly reverberant, not a lot of padded, ambient stuff, not giving it a pillow,” Fendrix explains. “I wanted it to be quite raw and quite striking. The more you add those softeners, the more music starts to feel a bit objective. You feel a bit removed; there’s more of a distance. And I liked that this idea of something really concentrated, really piercing, like there wasn’t anything to hide behind. With the way the music’s mixed into the film, sound designer Johnnie [Burn] opted to take out most of the sound design. I wanted to confront people with this extremity of feeling.”

Fendrix encouraged rough edges in performance during his sessions with fellow musicians, then played them up while tinkering with the mix to emphasize a productively abrasive quality, though he’s leery of that particular adjective: “There are a couple of points where I needed the music to be really, really serrated. The high frequencies, some of the scraping, the way the violins were recorded, really accentuated in the bows—none of it was EQ’d out, as it often is with strings just to give them that lushness. I prefer the idea of not trying to clean something up for presentation. You get a gorgeous, central part of it. But, as part of the bargain, you have everything else. There are some people who’ve described bits of the score as atonal. There’s actually remarkably little, if any, bits of the score that are literally atonal. I think a lot of people hear bits which are very tonal but presented through a really difficult texture or recorded in a really startling way. ‘Atonal’ is just the word that’s used if something sounds unpleasant.”

Lanthimos and Fendrix shed their impulses toward the off-putting in the film’s final act, which sees Bella self-actualizing to the strains of Fendrix’s triumphantly symphonic “Finale.” The composer shifted from minor to major keys to convey a rousing swell of completion and summation, a parallel to Bella’s accumulated experiences. It’s the most conventionally cinematic cue to be found in the filmography of Lanthimos, a recent and tentative adopter of sentiment. As a Searchlight Pictures release, Poor Things is technically a Disney movie, and Fendrix turned to the foremost purveyors of pathos for inspiration as he sent Bella off into a bright future. “I’ve always really loved classic Disney films like Pinocchio, where at the very end it’s like a hyper-sped-up obituary, smashing through all the themes really quickly,” Fendrix says. “It’s a celebratory, sweet way of ending a film. There are so many ways this film could have ended horribly. It does have a really happy ending, [so] I wanted to really push that classic Disney [sound]—fairy tale’s over, the good guys won, everyone’s safe. So much of this score has this grim sense to it, not quite an irony but a sort of archness to it, and then the finale is so drastically different. It’s in the same way that Yorgos’s filmmaking has kind of gotten, if not softer, less cold and dark than it used to be. The happy ending feels very uncharacteristic for him. I love the feeling of giving in to a positive thing.

“I think a lot of artists are starting to move away from the idea that if something’s too pleasant or too sweet or too resolved, then it doesn’t count as serious, that it’s bubblegum shit or whatever,” he adds. “I think there’s great subversion and bravery in knowing when it’s right to be sincere and knowing when it’s right to give in to something which is uncomplicatedly sweet. I really relish when I feel like that’s the correct thing. I think Yorgos does too.”

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham