Mica Levi revolutionised film scoring with her unearthly soundtrack for Under the Skin, and she does it again for new film Jackie
Jackie, the Pablo Larraín film about former first lady Jackie Kennedy, is nothing without Mica Levi’s agitated, tense score. Recently screening at the Los Cabos International Film Festival, the audience tails Jackie – played by Natalie Portman – in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. She crumbles before our eyes, coping with the devastating tragedy in the only ways she knows how: rearranging her closet, dancing to the Camelot soundtrack, and chain-smoking. Her internal civil war about how to properly mourn JFK is compelling. Portman is a great actress. Some are already pegging her for an Oscar win, but the true Oscar winner in this film is Jackie’s stomach-churning soundtrack.
Jackie was brought to life by Mica Levi, the mastermind musician whose score lifted Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin into public consciousness. Since its release, it has effectively influenced the way movie music is made. The “micro-trill” – rapidly switching between two adjacent notes, like the sonic equivalent of a colony of bees – has infiltrated such popular TV shows as American Horror Story and the most recent season of Black Mirror. Employing her micro-trill progressions and pitch bent strings in Jackie, Levi skilfully creates an atmosphere of comprehensive unease. It’s all the more exciting because, as she tells me, she composed the soundtrack without having seen the film. (When we spoke, she hadn’t even seen the trailer.) Levi’s songs hold you in a vice-like grip that squeezes relentlessly until you’re forced to empathize with Portman’s character. Now that the soundtrack has been released for free online, Levi explains how she likes to distance herself from her work, and how she has an enduring fascination with the romantic.
A lot of film scores are made with a temp score already in place that the director then asks the composer to copy. Have you ever had to match a temp track?
Mica Levi: Some people don’t cut to music. This latest thing that I did, they didn’t use a temp score but instead I just sent a load of music and they cut the film with that. So that was a very different way round. It was for Jackie. But yeah, (matching a temp track) would be disheartening. It’s just a bit safe; there’s no wildness. If you’re going to collaborate with someone, and you cut them down too much then you’re not going to get the best out of them.
The music used in the trailer for Jackie sounds like a twisted version of that song “So This Is Love” from Cinderella. Is it weird that I made that connection?
Mica Levi: No, Cinderella’s a Disney film. I haven’t seen the trailer, but it must be music from the score, and I bet it does sound like that. I definitely watched Cinderella when I was a kid. It’s not intentionally referencing that but, to me it sounds a bit like John Coltrane. I don’t know what music is used in it though. I don’t know which particular track.
How come you haven’t seen it?
Mica Levi: I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. Why do I know about it? Somebody said something about it the other day. But I hadn’t seen it and I broke my phone and I’m just not online very much, that’s why.
What kind of Disney films really stuck with you when you were young?
Mica Levi: Aladdin I watched a load. Robin Hood, Dumbo, I watched Cinderella a bit – I think there’s Tchaikovsky in that, actually. It’s a waltz. I reckon his music is that music. Pinocchio, and probably the two main ones are Jungle Book and Aladdin.
Have you heard that creepy Jungle Book song “My Own Home” where she sings by the water?
Mica Levi: That’s amazing, right? It’s a really good one.
It’s so eerie. There was this other song they cut out of Jungle Book called “The Song Of The Seeonee”. Have you heard of that?
Mica Levi: No, what’s that?
It reflected story writer Bill Peet’s more ‘mature’ tone for the film before it became this more kid-friendly version. But the song is floating around the internet.
Mica Levi: I’ll definitely look for that, that’s amazing.
You said in one interview that you had a phase of writing fake romantic music, just before doing Under the Skin. Has any of that been resurrected for Jackie?
Mica Levi: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s quite traditional in that sense. It’s definitely got Disney vibes in there I suppose, because I didn’t write that much of it to the picture. I saw some bits, but I’d just seen the most dramatic parts of the film. Short music videos, and I just wrote music that seemed a little airy and a bit cat-like. Suave, and a bit restrained as well. I picked the instruments that I was going to use, and then sort of jammed it out.
You’re very good at making an audience feel uncomfortable with your music. Are there any specific sounds you employ to create that feeling?
Mica Levi: Not that I can think of. I suppose it’s just all a series of suspenses and resolutions, if that makes sense. One minute you’re really supported, and one minute you’re not. Like drops, buildups and drops. But that can be done with harmony and that can be done with register and how high something is playing, and then you introduce a bass. All these different aspects of moods of something that can do that.
“I’m just superstitious and I want to continue to work […] To be honest with you, especially with a film, once you’ve done your bit I guess you’ve sort of communicated something” – Mica Levi
Can you explain your process?
Mica Levi: I start by just writing music I like. I start making music. And then it’s later down the line that something develops. If something is strong and that’s a theme, there might be ways I’d think about how to move that theme around different instruments. Like slow it down, or attack it differently. The main thing that begins is that I just write a lot of music that I feel is decent, and then see what feels strongest and see what’s working. Once you’ve got your characters, you can dress them up in different outfits, instrumentally or whatever. For me the point of writing on paper, writing notes out, is so you can give it to players to play. There might be a sound that is better achieved instantly that way. Then doing it on the computer, it might be quicker sometimes. And you get more wild stuff that way.
You went to school and are actually classically trained. Does that help out a lot?
Mica Levi: That background I have definitely informs a lot of stuff, probably more than I can recognise. Things are maybe a bit more ingrained in me without me even knowing it. I think it means something and I think it means nothing, and I switch between the two things. But it does mean that I’m familiar with some of the things the instruments can do. But then again, to be honest with you, you could probably approach the computer with no experience of that and make music that is possible to play. I don't think it makes too much of a difference.
Have you noticed how your work in Under the Skin has shaken up the film score status quo and has influenced a lot of people?
Mica Levi: No, but that’s maybe because I haven’t been to the cinema enough. But no I haven’t. That’s cool if it is. Wow, that’s amazing.
There’s already a lot of Oscar talk of your score for Jackie. How does that make you feel?
Mica Levi: Yeah, great. Oscars, great.
Do you try and distance yourself from your work in a way after it’s finished?
Mica Levi: I think I’m just superstitious and I want to continue to work so, that’s why maybe. To be honest with you, especially with a film, once you’ve done your bit I guess you’ve sort of communicated something. It would seem more that someone would want to talk to me maybe, since I’d talk to them or something, I don’t know.
Jackie is out in UK cinemas 20 January 2017, the soundtrack is available here