First-time Oscar nominee William Butler, from the Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire, who is nominated along with Owen Pallett for the score of Her, said the music for the movie morphed as the relationship became stronger between the two main characters, played by Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson. The film, directed by Spike Jonze, is an unusual love story about a man who is isolated after being separated from his wife and struggling to let go of that relationship and eventually becoming intimate with his interactive computer operating system. Both “people” are trying to figure out what it means to be human. Jonze shot Her in only 42 days, but the editing took 14 months. (Her also is nominated for Original Song, “The Moon Song” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig.)
Butler and Jonze are old friends and actually visited at Jonze’s home, at one point, while he was writing the screenplay. “He was working on the film for seven years,” said Butler. “So when we would be in New York, we would sometimes stay there. Spike and I had done a short film together in 2010 and 2011, Scenes From The Suburbs, so we had worked together before.” But Butler wouldn’t formally be brought on for Her until Jonze had committed to shoot the picture. “They sent us just some atmospheric shots, like overhead tracking shots of L.A. at night and some from Shanghai because they shot there,” and from that Butler began working on the music.
Butler’s brother Win and wife Regine Chassange also are Arcade Fire, a Montreal band that formed in 2003. In 2010, their third album The Suburbs bowed at No. 1 in the U.S. and the UK and went on to win the Album of the Year Grammy in 2011. Pallett plays violin and also opens shows for Arcade Fire once in a while. “We’re all based in Montreal, so we worked at a couple of studios there. Studio Pierre Marchand – and they had a beautiful piano there, some Italian make … a contemporary Italian piano that was beautiful and, apparently, extremely expensive” (it was a Fazoli grand concert piano), and he began working. “After we got some footage, we kind of game him baptism music. We sent him different piano pieces.” As time went on, Butler said, the music began to evolve as the story changed. “It got more and more internal and less about the world around them,” he said. “It got to be about the relationship between them and cut away the world slowly, slowly.” Jonze was very involved, and the director even traveled to Montreal twice to listen to the musical score. “It was intense as we were trying to figure out how melancholy or sweet a piece was,” said Butler. “People’s response to music is super idiosyncratic. So what made one person feel cold, another would say, ‘That’s the sweetest song I’ve ever heard.’ ”
They ended up using orchestral sessions (with Pallett) and an Eventide H-3000 Harmonizer to generate hybrid sounds. “The synthesizers and electronic elements got warmer and warmer and more electric and less electronic,” said Butler of the score. “One of the main queues was on this old pump organ and then was it was processed through some effects. We had a mix of warm, natural instruments and strings … there are a couple different feelings to it all. We were walking the line between warm and fuzzy and droning unease, between utopia and dystopia.”