Numlock Awards: Score-Keeping
Synths and drums and 21-foot invented horns, oh my!
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter. Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Michael.
With the Oscars right around the corner, I wanted to cover a category we’ve yet to touch in our four years of newsletter coverage — Best Original Score.
The category’s history is complicated and has gone through several iterations, including a brief period in the ’90s when it was split between scores for dramas and scores for musical or comedies. Even today, the Music Branch’s Executive Committee could reactivate a third category — Best Original Musical — through a special request to the Board of Governors “in a year when the field of eligible submissions is determined to be of sufficient quantity and quality to justify awards competition.”
The nominees this year are:
Don’t Look Up, Nicholas Britell
Dune, Hans Zimmer
Encanto, Germaine Franco
Parallel Mothers, Alberto Iglesias
The Power of the Dog, Johnny Greenwood
Don’t Look Up
This is Nicholas Britell’s third nomination following nods for Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. He’s worked with director Adam McKay a few times before on The Big Short and Vice, and won an Emmy for the theme song to McKay’s Succession.
He got a splashy feature in The New York Times Magazine last year, and the mega-success of Succession means his music plays at many awards shows when the show and cast inevitably take home some hardware. After graduating from Harvard, Britell took a detour into the world of high finance and worked at Bear Stearns (yes, that Bear Stearns), perhaps giving him some insight into how to score a movie or television show about rich guys run amok. His first real foray into composing for film was for his former Harvard classmate Natalie Portman’s segment in the anthology film New York, I Love You. He also contributed music to 12 Years a Slave, scored by fellow nominee Hans Zimmer.
In an interview with IndieWire, Britell talked about trying to crank up the anxiety in the score when the two main characters call NASA to tell them about their discovery of a comet heading toward Earth.
“It’s the moment where we go from the world that we think we live in to the world that we actually live in,” Britell added. “A comet is coming and we will follow the science. But politics intervenes. We had to turn up the dial from the ‘OMG a comet’s coming!’ to what was going to happen next.”
Hans Zimmer is one of the most prolific composers out there — this year alone, he scored Dune, The Boss Baby sequel, No Time to Die, Army of Thieves, and The Unforgivable. Zimmer won an Oscar for scoring The Lion King, and Dune is his twelfth nomination.
You might know him from his big, loud scores in Christopher Nolan movies like Inception and Dunkirk (the “Time” theme from Inception has 236 million streams on Spotify, so I know we must have some Zimmer fans in the audience). He turned down the chance to score Tenet so he could instead work with Denis Villeneuve on Dune.
A February article in Vanity Fair called out big-name Hollywood composers for taking the credit when they have massive teams doing a lot of the work behind them — and Zimmer featured prominently in the story, given that his Remote Control studio reportedly has dozens of composers, musicians, and arrangers working there. Still, he’s won the BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Critics’ Choice Award for his score on Dune, so he seems like the odds-on favorite.
And it’s not a surprise — the Dune score is incredible. After agreeing to do the film, Zimmer trekked to Utah to listen to the sounds of the desert and the team invented new instruments, including a 21-foot horn.
“Denis and I discovered over the past few weeks, not as much when we were making the film, that we were both teenagers when we read the book,” Zimmer told The Playlist. “Rather than approaching it with wisdom and looking back on things, it actually became something that took us back to that time. I think part of what the score does is, it’s relatively reckless, [like] a teenager who wants to experiment and try things out, and doesn’t understand he’s not supposed to do certain things. I do think there’s an innocence about it which, had it not taken me back to that time of being 15, 16, I would have probably written a more cautious score.”
Best Original Score is one of the most gender-imbalanced categories at the Oscars. Only four women have won before, and three of them won for since-discontinued categories (Rachel Portman and Anne Dudley for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score in the ’90s and Marilyn Bergman for writing the lyrics to Yentl). Hildur Guðnadóttir’s win for The Joker made her the first to win Best Original Score outright.
This year, Germaine Franco is nominated for scoring Encanto. Her previous credits include writing songs for Coco (including “Un Poco Loco”) and scoring movies like 2015’s Dope and 2019’s Little. As a kid, she started out as a drummer, over her teacher’s insistence she play the flute or violin like the other girls in the class. With Encanto, she became the first woman ever to score a Disney Animation film.
“The Disney fantasy, you would automatically hear like certain strings and tinkly, high-pitched instruments,” Franco said, speaking about how she wanted the Encanto score to sound different than your traditional Disney fantasy film. “And then with Latin American magical realism, the sounds and textures are different because there’s more indigenous influence in it as well as the mix of the Afro-Colombian because we got the three cultures, we have the European, then we have the indigenous, and then we have the African elements. So, every Latin American country has their own cultural sound and so magical realism as a whole in Latin America is a different approach.”
This is Alberto Iglesias’ fourth Oscar nomination. In his native Spain, Iglesias has racked up 18 Goya Award nominations (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) and 11 wins.
This is his 13th collaboration with director Pedro Almodóvar. For Parallel Mothers, the latest melodrama from the Spanish auteur, Iglesias wanted the music to have “a thriller aspect to it.” When Iglesias and Almodóvar work together, Almodóvar will visit Iglesias in his studio so they can have a constant back-and-forth about the music.
“When Alberto sits down to compose, I’m there with him. I’m sitting with him and he’s consulting me constantly on his compositions. And he even does some demos for me and plays the themes that he’s composing for me. He’s also a wonderful pianist, a great composer for piano pieces,” Almodóvar told IndieWire.
The Power of the Dog
You may know Jonny Greenwood as the lead guitarist of Radiohead; I know him as the guy who composed the music for We Need to Talk About Kevin; we are not the same.
There’s some precedent for famous musicians winning in this category (or variations of this category) — Prince won Best Original Song Score for Purple Rain, and the Nine Inch Nail guys won for The Social Network and Soul, but by and large the winners are dominated by film composers without a side hustle. This year, Greenwood composed the scores for Spencer and Licorice Pizza as well as his nominated work for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.
“When I first started to talk to Jane, I’d just read Ted Gioia, where he talks about how the orchestra is made up of animal parts, animal bones, animal skin, cat gut, actual horns,” Greenwood told The New Yorker. “Historically, it’s a sort of slaughter yard. That’s something that we thought about a lot—trying to make the music . . . “visceral” is really overused, isn’t it? But trying to make it as physical as possible, make it feel sort of dirty. We couldn’t use folk music, and we couldn’t use American country, because, first, it’s beyond me, and it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. So it was about using traditional instruments but having them sound like there’s something slightly wrong with them. Make it evident that it’s a human being making the sounds—that it’s being made with effort and sweat and breath. When the players are breathing too loud, make the most of that.”
I think Hans Zimmer will likely get his second Oscar in a week’s time — Britell might be his closest competition, given he’s one of the It composers working right now, but I still think the distinctive sounds of Dune will put Zimmer over the top.