Collaborating variously with director Mike Mills over the years—most notably on Beginners—composer Roger Neill brought an ethereal synth-driven score to 20th Century Women, in the process reestablishing a connection with instruments he’d played as a child. As ever, music is integral to Mills’ final product—he’s often described the film on the awards circuit as “‘As Time Goes By’ meets the Buzzcocks,” an apt description of the intergenerational family drama, which captures a mother’s disillusionment as her connection to her teenage son frays. Speaking with Deadline, Neill breaks down the instrumentation behind the score and Mike Mills’ vision for the film.
You’ve worked with Mike Mills before. What got you excited to return to the fold for 20th Century Women?
First of all, I just really enjoy working with Mike. We’ve done a bunch of stuff together, most notably Beginners, but also some commercials and other projects over the years. We just have a unique way of communicating and talking about music. He’s a good enough musician himself that he knows how to direct, but fortunately for me, not a good enough musician to be able to write his own score. [Laughs] Although I will say that his son Hopper did send me a number of noodlings. Hopper, I think, is 3 years old , so I got a few tips from Hopper.
When Mike and I work together, we usually actually work together, side-by-side, particularly for initial ideas. He’ll just sit in my studio and we’ll just get some basic notions of sounds, and I’ll play some chords and he’ll say, “Yeah, I like that chord, but I don’t like that chord. Take that third chord and make it the first chord and then repeat it, but only twice.” It’d be kind of something like that.
His notes are such that I end up making musical choices that I definitely otherwise would not make. He intentionally limits what I can do, or I’ll come up with some really beautiful note, like this one note that is just perfect, and he’ll say, “Okay, everything is great except for that one note, take that one note out.” Then I have to find some way to still make it work, so the result is I end up creating with Mike music which is different from everything else that I do.
Mills is a writer/director who is very specific about his choices, not least when it comes to music. How did he describe the film’s sound to you in words?
I read the script, five years ago maybe? A long time back. It was always established that there was going to be punk rock, a specific kind of California punk rock from that year . Mike and I are pretty much exactly the same age, we’re both Californians, so we know exactly what that is, and not just what it sounds like, but what it represents. He had a notion early on that the score would be in direct contrast with that, tonally.
The first idea was on the table for a long time—it was going to be cellos, a bunch of cellos, which we abandoned along the way, more or less. When we first got together, he and I, for our first writing session, noodling around with it, we were writing blocky cello pop—not really pop, but it’s a cello-based sound. Along the way, it just morphed into more of a Brian Eno direction. He and I are both big fans of that, particularly the Eno-Bowie stuff in the late ’70s, and the early Eno ambient records. I started adding more and more synthesizers, particularly.
I don’t know if you know much about these instruments, but the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer was our main axe, which I think came out in 1977. That was our main sound. That sound, the Prophet-5, is something that we’d used before.
One quick thing about that is the first time I ever played that particular synthesizer, I was 15—I was the same age as our main character, Jamie. For this movie, I had that very same specific Prophet-5 shipped to me. It was now living in Indiana, so the same instrument that I played on at 15 is actually the one I’ve used for the score.
Apart from the synthesizers, what other instrumentation do we hear in the score?
It’s funny. When you work on a score, a lot of the process, when you have the time, is to really figure out what the sound is, what the instruments are. Eventually, you eliminate choices so that you’re left with a certain core sound. Yes, there are certain instruments that we used. It was that synthesizer, it’s two other synthesizers, the Solina String Ensemble and the Yamaha DX7, which is a really glassy-sounding synth from that era. That particular instrument I used for just a specific cue. In addition to that, we did keep cellos, not a bunch of them, but single- and double-player, so there are cellos in there, within the fabric of the sound of the score. Then the last thing we ended up putting in the overall fabric is me playing guitar. Some of the cues I use are a particular technique called the EBow, which makes the guitar sustain indefinitely. That ends up being a sound of the whole score. The very first thing you hear at the top of the movie is a sort of whale sound—that’s the EBow.
It seems like distortion is also used as an artistic device.
First, with the guitar, that’s the distorted, and it’s really washed with a lot of reverb and echoey sounds. All the techniques we used in recording the movie’s music were sounds that were available to us in that year, 1979. We didn’t want to make it sound like it was from 1979, we didn’t want it to be a nostalgic score, but we just wanted to be in that world. It’s as if you had all those instruments, we wanted to do the most interesting, innovative thing we possibly could within 1979. I processed a lot of things, like the Solina String Ensemble instrument I mentioned earlier—I put it through an effect to give it a warble-y sound. “Waba-gaba-gaba-gaba-gaba-gaba-gaba.” That ended up being a sound we liked a lot, it energized the music in an interesting way.
How do you go about identifying your musical themes for a film, or land on a specific feeling?
Most of the music was not written to picture. In fact, a lot of it was written before we even shot anything. Then there’d be certain pieces of music that I would write and he would like it. I would do different versions of the same piece of music. Then when he was finally editing, he would put those pieces of music in the score. The initial titles of any particular piece of music refer to something happening in the movie, so one of the titles of one of my favorite pieces was called “The Politics of Orgasm,” which is the name of the essay that Jamie is reading. Anyway, Mike would take these pieces and he would just throw them wherever he thought was working right. He would really experiment to make connections with the music that were not necessarily obvious, which I loved. For example, when Dorothea, Annette [Bening]’s character, she’s in the punk club by herself and people are thrashing away, but we’re not hearing that music, we’re hearing this very lush and beautiful synth music, it’s very dreamy. That’s not something that would have occurred to me, but it occurred to Mike to do that.
The tone the music strikes is unique—there’s something nostalgic and bittersweet, but also cosmic and grand about it.
I have to agree. I in part was thinking about records I had myself at that time period. The cooler, artier records that not everybody else had, that were just really awesome that I had discovered. I think Mike and I both were going for a sound of something that was a bit more unusual, but still within the vernacular of music from the late ’70s. It’s still within that feel.
I’m pretty sure if somebody who heard this music without seeing the movie, they wouldn’t say, “Oh, this is ’70s music.” That wouldn’t come across at all. I think it just comes across as an interesting score. Hopefully. That would be my intention, but we do want something that did work with the whole feel of the entire movie.
Did Mills outline the pieces of period music that he wanted to incorporate into the film? Did you need to work around those cues?
There definitely were pieces that were stated in the script. You never know if we’re going to really get those pieces, but at least I had an idea where he was going. For me, once I realized he was using early Talking Heads and the Buzzcocks, that really got the sound he was going for. I myself was not involved in making those decisions. Those were Mike’s decisions, and I didn’t try to integrate my music with that in any way. I was just trying to write music that would fit with the story. Also, you have all the other music, which is Dorothea’s music, which is music from the ’20s and ’30s. In some ways, the score acts as the ambassador between different time periods. Links it all together.