Interview

Daniel Lopatin On Scoring Uncut Gems

The Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind soundtracks a thriller starring Adam Sandler

Every album Daniel Lopatin has made feels like a portal into an alternate universe. His earliest work as Oneohtrix Point Never, made almost solely on his father’s old Roland Juno-60 synthesizer and collected on Rifts, formed a sprawling multi-album narrative about an astronaut dying in space. The crumbling TV commercials of Replica, MIDI church hymnals of R Plus Seven, and puberty-fueled mutant nu-metal of Garden Of Delete all conjured unique imagery and meta-narratives that felt as vivid as any science fiction film. Last year’s Age Of even seemed uncontainable in its format and worked better as a massive, nearly operatic, stage show. He’s equally excited talking about films by Tarkovsky or Bergman as he is about Terminator or Alien Nation. He described a song last year as “how I would score a Pixar film.” The question was never if Lopatin would move to film composing, but when.

What’s curious now about Daniel Lopatin’s current shift into composing for filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie is that it’s sort of an inversion of Oneohtrix Point Never’s expanding universe. Their first collaboration, Good Time, was an intense character study tasking Lopatin with getting inside the head of one, deeply unstable protagonist and bringing a vast, sonic terrain bridging the styles of his many albums. Even that score — which netted Lopatin the Soundtrack Award at the Cannes Film Festival — feels small compared to Uncut Gems.

Here Lopatin taps into a whole new universe of dazzling euphoria and red-eyed anxiety. Which is to say, he finds Howard Ratner — the manic, quick-thinking diamond dealer played by Adam Sandler who doesn’t so much manage a gambling addiction as he gleefully rides it like a rollercoaster. Even at the mercy of violent yet oddly sympathetic debt collectors, pro basketball players, future pop stars, auction houses, and his crippling self-destructive nature, Sandler dominates the screen with a multilayered performance that inexplicably stands as both his funniest and finest dramatic role. And though Uncut Gems is filled with impressive supporting roles, it’s a showcase for Sandler and the warped reality his character inhabits.

Ultimately, it’s Lopatin who is in the passenger seat with Sandler the whole ride. His music relentlessly roars through Uncut Gems, occasionally drowning out everything on screen, conveying its hero’s endless chase for a higher rush. Taking inspiration from film music heroes like Vangelis and Jerry Goldsmith, Lopatin holed up in an instrument-filled studio jumping from one sound to the other on the fly. He also enlisted singers, a choir, and old friends like Gatekeeper and Eli Keszler to play synths and percussion.

Recently, I spoke with Lopatin over the phone about writing music to fit Uncut Gems’ incessant twists and getting into the head of such a chaotic hero, looking to Vangelis improv videos on YouTube for inspiration, and the staggering final sequence that took over a month to compose and left him in tears at the Telluride premiere. Though Uncut Gems is out only weeks before the end of the 2019, Lopatin’s score shouldn’t be discounted as one of the best of this entire decade. Learn more about it in our conversation below.

STEREOGUM: Coming off Good Time, when did you talk with the Safdies about Uncut Gems?

DANIEL LOPATIN: I read the script early on, and things just tumbled over from Good Time. I don’t think there was a precise moment to it, but I was like, “When can I get my hands on the script?” There was an early version that changed quite a bit. Then sometime in the winter we started talking about music and we were all like, “Let’s just see what happens?”

At first we were batting the idea around of a hybrid orchestral and synth score, à la Jerry Goldsmith — there was an unused [Goldsmith] score for Alien Nation, the ’80s movie. It’s so cool and that unused score is far superior to whatever ended up being used. You could hear examples of that score which were little touchstones for us, but we were winging it for some time. Then it started calcifying around a lot of ideas Josh had about the spiritual realm beyond the material one that Howard Ratner embodies as a Midtown Diamond District hustler. The new age stuff started emerging as one texture, one lane, we could play off as we did other things. It started falling into place after we got that idea.

STEREOGUM: I love how constant of a presence the music has in the film. How do you approach making a score that is so foregrounded in what’s happening onscreen?

LOPATIN: Well for me, it’s definitely pretty funny to see things go that way. I usually go into a cue with a kind of conservative, “Let’s quietly walk around this challenge and start with a few things and add where we need to.” That would be my general approach to scoring — however, the Safdie brothers just demand a different approach. They remind me a lot of certain performers or musicians I’ve worked with in the studio that want to be inspired by sound, versus a progression or a melody. They want to feel ensconced in some kind of feeling — textural, timbral, there’s a kind of frequency they want to be placed into. And if that’s right, everything else can be free.

So they entrust me to write… [Laughs] pretty music? They don’t have much input on that part. But we don’t get to that stage until I’ve created either a wild, dense cacophony of things going on, or I’ve put together some kind of ensemble of sounds or players that hit the purpose of the cue. So it’s really coming from texture and their need to be psychologically and emotionally dwarfed by the music, to be totally surrounded and overwhelmed by music, which makes them really unique and is where some of that density comes from.

STEREOGUM: The music gets so hypnotic that the moments of silence where it drops out feel deafening. In a score that’s often so overwhelming, how did you find those moments where its absence worked best?

LOPATIN: It’s just trial and error a lot of the time with Josh and I in the studio. We pull out one thing and shift things. If you were to just create a total wall of sound and never let go of it and just fortify yourself in that kind of frequency for a long amount of time, you just get acclimated. It sort of loses its initial meaning or its impetus to move you. On some level, I think most of that is hand-built beautifully by the story and characters who take you on a ride, and you get to experience these dynamic shifts in Howard Ratner’s life. That will determine the shifts in the score. So I’m really following Howard and trying to amplify what’s already there.

STEREOGUM: That makes sense. It’s always these very few moments where he’s putting up a veneer of stability, to his wife or his girlfriend or his kids, that we don’t hear the music. It all feels really centered around the feelings happening in his head.

LOPATIN: It’s all centered around Howard. In that sense it’s very similar to Good Time. The only thing that complicates that, I’d say, is this idea of the opal; that Howard has a vague sense of mystical properties happening in his life that he thinks he can scratch away at, or discover through whatever wildly ambitious harebrained schemes he comes up with. But he really does have this kind of spiritual optimism and to honor that we really gave the music a heft, almost revelry.

The reason we were really drawn to a lot of Vangelis’ stuff was because melodically, and even arrangement-wise, [there is] the way he picks out aspects of the orchestra as almost one sound on a synthesizer. That was really inspiring for us because there’s this wildly epic revelry and sense of awe in the world in his music.

That translated really directly for us and one thing that kickstarted the approach to generating the music was watching these Vangelis improvised YouTube videos. You see him totally freewheeling. He’s just grabbing one sound here, one sound there, playing a little lyrical thing here, a sonic gesture there. So that’s how we set up my studio. I thought it was an opportunity to get back into that mode of thinking, just kind of enjoying moving around between instruments, trying stuff out, looping something and reacting to it. Setting a timer and jamming for a while and worrying about the arrangement and hitting beats later.

STEREOGUM: How did the sound design of the film influence your score? Did you find any environmental sounds you wanted to play off of?

LOPATIN: It’s kind of a utilitarian thing I do, which is listening really deeply to the soundtrack that’s there — like the environment sound, the dialogue — and picking out some kind of apotheosis point. Something I can say, “Let’s elevate that.” Let’s say that’s a vaguely D-minor, awkward shuffle from that door. Let’s build up to that. Let’s start writing in D-minor and make the door a kind of holy object. There’s a heightened awareness that’s happening in the soundtrack. There’s probably a really good metaphor in culinary arts. You’re sure the ingredients are going to gel together, even if you’re not sure what you’re making.

STEREOGUM: One of the biggest surprises for me was seeing Eli Keszler and Gatekeeper in the credits. Good Time was more solo. What was it like working with these other musicians on the score, and did it differ from when you’re collaborating on one of your other musical projects?

LOPATIN: Oh yeah! I don’t think it did. It was a really organic process for us to just get together and jam around an idea. Eli [is] just such a wildly talented person. He has a completely defined and idiosyncratic style, but he’s also just a really, really good drummer. He can just conform to any number of things and he likes to do that because he just loves music. We always had that in common.

We were weirdly, staunchly anti-genre. We were just like, “Why wouldn’t you like any of this!? It’s all so great!” It sounds kinda stupid, but just that attitude is really, really good. It’s gotten me through a lot of hard situations. It’s made me stronger, it’s made me more curious. I’ve met a wildly diverse array of people from that. You open yourself up and good things happen and Eli — that’s his soul. Working with him is second nature. We go all the way back to Boston days, as you probably know. And Gatekeeper too. Those are just really old friends I knew I could entrust with complicated sound design tasks, on a deadline.

There’s all this stuff that’s not fun at all about scoring a movie. And I tried to do this approach like, “Well I’m not going to work with my friends, this is stuff I can ask a professional to do on a deadline.” And I tried that and I was so insanely bummed out, and then I thought, “Wait, what am I thinking? All my friends are absolutely wonderful, responsible, great people. I’m not offending anyone by bringing them in. It actually helps.” So it was incredibly gratifying because we just got to hang out and jam again. I don’t know if that would have been on the forefront of my imagination and now it is.

STEREOGUM: I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending so I’ll be a little vague and maybe we can talk around it. The very last sequence of this movie is such a huge dramatic shift and sort of like a coda for the whole film. It reminded me a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the music there brought me all the way back to your stuff on Rifts.

LOPATIN: Well, the opening cue and the final cue were absolute monsters. We avoided them like the plague. We almost set it all up like a video game, where we’re beating the easier levels and building up to the final boss. It was a major challenge, they were so difficult to wrap our heads around. Near the end we were like, “OK, we really need to do this scene justice.” I really don’t know, I felt like I was in a cyclone of fear and anxiety when I was making that final cue.

I think we just burst into tears the first time we saw that all together at Telluride. I looked over during that moment and was like, “I can’t believe we did it.” Some of these things are really hard because they’re just hours and hours and days and days of throwing shit at a wall to see what works. Just that and the opening cue together was about a month and half of work.

STEREOGUM: So after two films, do you see yourself working with the Safdies again?

LOPATIN: I would love to. I think we’re all on the same page more or less, that that’s the kind of stuff we want to do. It’s a really natural thing.

Uncut Gems is out 12/13.