Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch Talks Memories and All of Us Strangers

Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. Image by Joe Starbuck.

Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is a beautiful, melancholic ode to memories. Adam (Andrew Scott) is a lonely screenwriter living in a near-empty apartment building in London. Periodically, his seemingly sole neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal), knocks on Adam’s door to break him out of his routine. The two begin a bit of a whirlwind romance, but it takes a backseat to Adam’s discovery that his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), who had passed away in a car crash thirty years ago, are somehow still alive. They are the same as they were the night they died, living in the same house, everything exactly how it was then.

All of Us Strangers is the gut-wrenching emotional narrative that Haigh has become known for. Film Obsessive sat down with Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, the film’s composer, to talk about building the sound for this meditative reflection on grief, love, and loss. (The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

Film Obsessive: What was the first instrument that you started learning music on?

Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch: I did the boring, classic thing of learning the piano as a child.

Is that still your favorite instrument now?

It is. It is still the instrument that I’m the most fluent with. And, you know, like when you write music for a film, a lot of the time you just write in front of a screen with a big keyboard. So yeah, being a pianist is very practical because I don’t really have to think that much I can just play in. And yeah, there’s a fluency that comes with it that makes composing much more comfortable.

Emilie poses for a photo
Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. Image by Joe Starbuck.

When did you start playing piano?

I mean, there’s the moment when my grandmother gave me the first few lessons when I was pretty young, like seven. And then I just carried on taking piano lessons. But I was not a child prodigy or anything of that sort.

Was film also a long-time love of yours too? Or did that come later?

That came more when I was a teenager, I think from twelve onwards, one of my mother’s friends introduced me. In one summer, he lent me the Lord of the Rings books and a copy of Blade Runner, the film. Because I was reading the book, I was going to see the films when The Lord of the Rings came out. I did the midnight screenings and stuff. As I grew older, I started getting more into indie films and slightly more experimental. I remember watching one of Lars von Trier’s films on TV quite late, Breaking the Waves, and being utterly destroyed by it. I think that was the film that made me realize how powerful cinema could be and how strange, but still impactful.

You also do your own personal music. What is the difference between scoring for a film and writing your own music for your personal albums?

I think what I carry through is, and I think it’s how I also pick my projects, is my personal music often comes from strong emotions. Internal emotions that I need an outlet [for], like a way to process. I will do films that I have a connection to at least one of the characters that’s quite strong, and I can understand their emotions quite well. Or at least I want to dive into their inner world and it’s almost like when I start to be able to feel what they feel, then I can write from that point of view, that reaction. Obviously, there’s a lot of more intellectual and more strategic elements that come into play. But I think the source of both my music and my scores is that emotional reaction to something that’s happening to me or something that’s happening in the film.

This idea of memory and remembrance are themes that you explore in your personal music and, first of all, is that what drew you to All of Us Strangers? Then also, did that kind of background lay a groundwork for where you wanted to go with the score?

It’s interesting because it’s not necessarily the part that really attracted me to the film because I saw the film before signing on. But it’s definitely something we extensively discussed with the director, the nature of memory. That’s also why we didn’t really want to have long, properly, thoroughly formed melodies in the score because it felt like memories, you never remember things in full. You know, it’s never like a huge whole day that you remember. It’s a fragment of a day. It’s one specific sound or smell or thing that really sticks with you. And yeah, the nature of memory is definitely something that I find fascinating because it’s a different thing from truth. There’s just so much complexity related to it. It was really exciting when we started talking with Andrew Haigh because it was also something that he had been exploring. And I know that the cinematography also addresses that, and it’s really at the core of the film that and, you know, love and grief and all these other things.

Adam and Andrew embrace, bathed in the purple light of a club.
(L) Andrew Scott and (R) Paul Mescal star in All of Us Strangers. Photo by Chris Harris for Searchlight Pictures.

I saw a review of the score of this movie and somebody called it both eerie and alluring at the same time. And so that also kind of speaks to the fantastical nature of the plot itself. How did you find that balance between the fantasy, sort of otherworldly aspect of the movie and then the deep, grounded human emotions of it?

I think the emotion is because I had quite a strong connection. There was part of me who could see myself in them, but also there was part of me who could see myself in who Adam would be once he resolved those issues. And there was an element of me that felt really caring for him. And so the truthfulness of emotion was kind of a given in a sense. And then because I came from this place of compassion, I also wanted the audience to have this sense of compassion. So rather than making it just really going for the weird or something too hectic, I wanted it to be quite dreamlike and floaty. And the film is asking the audience to go along with a story that’s, you know, quite odd at times. So the only way it would work is for people to, to just take it as a dream, to go with the dream logic of the film. So yeah, it just ends up the two things that it needs is bringing you into that world with being supported, feeling warm, but also relaxing into it so that you can open yourself to the emotions.

I read that you used different music effects and digital techniques. What exactly does that mean?

So I did want to keep some instruments, especially the piano, but the cello, the violin, because I just think it’s more human if some of the instruments are clearly played by the physicality of a human being. It’s better. But then how do you do that and then have a score that just doesn’t sound okay? So what I was doing was putting those live instruments into chains of effects. Some of them are going to be reverb, some of them are going to be granular synthesis, so that they would just start being a bit strange, like a bit more difficult to place, difficult to recognize. Then what you have to avoid is making it really technological like it shouldn’t be glitchy because you don’t want it to sound that maybe it’s a new technology or anything like that. So yeah, it was just trying things until there’s a sound that feels good. This is strange enough, but it’s not threatening, although at times it can become a bit more threatening because Adam is feeling threatened. But yeah, I shouldn’t, it shouldn’t feel technological or just weird for the sake of it.

Adam, shirtless, looks out of his apartment window
Andrew Scott as Adam. Photo by Chris Harris for Searchlight Pictures

Adam sees his parents from 30 years ago. Did you also look at music from 30 years ago to kind of intertwine that into your score?

No, it’s an interesting one because in the film, there’s moments where even the lyrics of the songs are super specific. I mean, actually, every lyric that comes into the film is a direct commentary of what’s happening in the scene. Ninety-percent of the songs were written in the script, so that kind of influenced the idea that this soundscape shouldn’t be too jarring or competing with the songs. Then it makes sense to have quite a lot of synthesizers as well because they’re 80s songs. But I didn’t want to make a score that was nostalgic, if that makes sense. I didn’t want it to be to be saying, we’re in the past now. It should always be with Adam who is in our time.

Do you find more minimalist or atmospheric scores to be easier in terms of composing, or do you prefer kind of like the larger scale? Like Censor kind of feels more built out, if that makes sense.

Which is funny because there were less musicians. I did everything on set, so it’s really intimate in a sense, but I always like as much as possible. I always try to think what is best or what makes the most sense for the film. So, you know, I’ve done films with much larger orchestral ensembles because it was right for the project. So it really, really depends. I don’t believe in just thinking I do this type of score and whatever the project is, I’m just going to do what I do because I don’t think that’s a good example of collaboration.

That kind of leads me into my last question. You’ve done some horror movies, you’ve done some beautiful emotional dramas, but is there a style of movie or a type of score that you’re just desperate to have the chance to create?

I don’t know if I’m desperate to create it, but I feel like I have such a love for space opera that at one point I hope I get to do one. It’s just another one of those genres with the space for experimentation and I think I’m quite eager. The selfish part of me does like taking projects where I know I could stretch myself in a different area, like a type of score I’ve not done before. Exploring how you can portray real emotion in this style. And I think that’s why I really was so happy to be doing Censor and why I think horror scores can be so rewarding for composers because you can just go really strange and everyone is excited about it. But I think a space opera is great in the sense that you can go really strange, but you can also go a bit bombastic as well. A big melody with big, big orchestras because you’re in the vastness of space, so you get to go a bit too big. Which yeah, it would be exciting to do.

Listen to the full conversation with Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch:

All of Us Strangers will be released in theaters on December 22 in the United States.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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