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.

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.

What surprised you most?

Aside from occasional conversations with J.C. and [music editor] Suzana [Peric], I was left alone. That was the most shocking part of it in a weird way. I was part of a process that I now understand is a privileged version of a normal process. Normally there’s a producer checking in constantly. But in this case, they had already sold the movie, they had the money to make it, and they were at the helm, so it was amazing. I know what a collaborative process movie-making can be, so I expected more insertion of opinion, but there was very little of that, which was really nice. It was a real journey for me.

That sounds appropriate for a movie about a man alone at sea.

For all I know they did it to me intentionally!

I’ve heard film composers talk about the idea of being invisible, that a job well done means going unnoticed. The best film scores enhance what’s happening on screen, but never take viewers out of the moment. Do you feel the same way?

It’s a safe thing these days to want to be invisible because music is very easily corny and can easily be way too emotive and ruin everything. I think the response to that is a fear-based response where directors don’t even want to gamble on the whole thing. That’s the right thing for certain movies, but there are certainly many movies I can think of, including Jaws, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Mission, where the music is the story.

The music just has to be good. We’re in this state where everything is just hyperrealistic to the point of being unrealistic. Musicians are asked to simply do drone sounds or go far out of the way, but movies don’t need to be that neorealistic. The premise of movies is a dream state. I miss what happened in American cinema in the 1970s, when music was wildly juxtaposed against the image with tremendous results. We’re at a different time right now, and hopefully it’ll come back.

When The Atlantic talked to J.C. Chandor, he said the film has a very particular point of view, yet some audiences are divided in their interpretation of the ending. What’s your take?

I think J.C. had it in his mind to possibly end the movie slightly differently, but he essentially kept true to his vision. I must say, the conversations we had, I would be like, “So what really happened?” This is a philosophical movie in some ways, and that’s sort of what I love about it. That it is open-ended I believe is unintentional. When you see the movie, you can go out and have a slice of pie and discuss it. That’s the kind of movie that’s not always made. A lot of the time the whole damn thing is laid out for you, and in this case, it pushes your mind. It’s allegorical.

When you’re composing, do you think in terms of those big-picture allegorical messages? Or do you try and get inside the head of Redford’s character?

I was keeping in mind what he was doing physically, but to me it was about the spiritual journey of this man. Defiance, surrender—I wanted these themes to feel timeless and forever relevant to anybody. I was just watching Louis C.K. on Conan, and he was talking about how he was driving down the freeway and a song by Bruce Springsteen came on. He had to pull over because he started sobbing, and he’s trying to explain to Conan why he was crying. You know that forever-lonely feeling inside you? People started sending this clip around because Louis C.K. was getting real on Conan. That feeling he’s describing, to me, is the premise of poetry and was what I wanted all of these pieces to elicit. My eye of course was on what’s he doing, but using those events as launch pads for timeless pieces that really speak to the essence of being. It sounds like a very lofty goal. That’s all any artist is trying to do anyway.

The music did feel lonely and sad, but for a movie about death, it wasn’t as dark as I was expecting.

Exactly! Poetry for me is the recognition of beauty in its transient form. You have all this beautiful music that’s also sad. When you match that up against this dire situation, you have all these ingredients. That it’s not straight-up doom music or trying to make you frantic the whole time speaks to what I’m saying, that it’s more philosophically minded. I’m just trying to go for that timeless poetry that evokes the sense of death in a spiral of beauty.