How Do You Score a Film With No Dialogue?

The frontman of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros explains the "forever lonely" feeling behind All Is Lost's Golden Globe-nominated score.
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Lionsgate; Stewart Cole

Scoring a film with almost no speaking parts poses a challenge to any composer, let alone one setting out on his first feature-film project. But that's just the assignment Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' Alexander Ebert took on when an unexpected phone call invited him to meet with director J.C. Chandor about All Is Lost.

The film shadows Robert Redford's nameless character out at sea as he runs away from an unspecified failure in his personal life. With the exception of a few spoken lines in the beginning, he hardly says a word. One morning his boat collides with a stray shipping container, and he spends the remainder of the film grappling with his mortality and weathering one disaster after another. The film was inspired by Chandor's real-life near-death experience, but it was Ebert's job to help its themes of resilience, surrender, and defiance resonate with every audience member. It appears he succeeded: Last week Ebert's work earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score.

I spoke with Ebert over the phone about the solitary nature of composing, knowing when to hold back, and finding the lonely, poetic beauty in a movie about your own death.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


How involved in the film’s production were you?

I just got a phone call, and it felt quite out of the blue, actually. He sent me the script, and I read it and met with J.C. He and I would talk and have pretty in-depth conversations. I really wanted to know what he felt the story was actually about, so there were a lot of really good talks. I went down to Mexico and hung out with the production for just a day, but I was just in sporadically constant contact with J.C. I would send him stuff. They sent me some clips and I started composing, although the main piece, “Excelsior,” I wrote with the movie in mind before I had seen a clip.

I sent him this one YouTube clip of a man going into ocean, and I put some stuff to it. I put one piece I had already done that was a synthy, droney thing. I put John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I put a piece from The Mission or something and just gave it to him. They all did interesting things. It’s one of my favorite things to do while painting, putting on a CD and a favorite movie on silent. Image and picture link up, and the way it changes a story is always amazing.

How do you decide what sounds to use? Some of it sounds very nautical, but other moments not so much.

That was the hardest part, finding the voicing. I knew that J.C. didn’t want piano, which made my job a lot more difficult. I write most of my stuff on piano. The theme “Excelsior” I had written on the piano, and it was really beautiful. But he didn’t want piano because, for him, he can’t help but imagine who’s playing it.

It was a short search. I tried the oboe, and then I landed on the alto flute. When it hits that low, droney note, it sounds like a fog horn. The first time I played that sound was the last scene, when he finally sees the boat, but he’s not sure if it’s actually there. The nautical aspects of the movie are both accidental and intentional. The guitars on the theme “All Is Lost,” it’s sort of waterfall guitar playing, water falling over itself. That’s intentional, to conjure up the feeling of water. The imagery was informing the music.

It seemed like the trick to scoring this movie was knowing when not to add music.

That was the main crux of the conversation I had with J.C. I was actually very inspired to do a single piece for the entire film that was composed of a particulated version of itself. At the beginning, there’d be a note every two minutes, every 40 seconds, and those intervals would get closer together. At the end of the move, you’d have this song, but at the beginning you’d have this granulated version. I wanted to incorporate silence or negative space into the music. Of course, I didn’t end up doing that particular piece, which I still think would be really interesting, but that philosophy was ingrained in my headspace.

How did you end up approaching a movie that’s so bare?

This movie called for immense restraint, and it could very easily turn into a musical because there’s no dialogue. The sound production was incredible, the way they made the boat sound, that really carries the film, as well as Redford and everything he goes through. It was about coming up with a theme that was very gentle and powerful and poetic.

The only part of the movie where the music really grabs my ear and clinches the story is the storm when he’s in the raft. I was really glad J.C. took a gamble and included it. It was kind of unconventional, including me singing it. At the ending when he finally let go, this choral piece with strings comes in, and we hadn’t heard anything like that until the ending. There was a time and place for pushing a little harder, but for the most part it was really about surrender calling to Redford the whole time, and that is a very tender frame. This whole movie, to me, is about death, resilience, defiance, and surrender. That’s the poetry. That’s the good stuff.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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