Talking With Composer Brian McOmber about Fair Play

Cinelinx’s resident film musicologist had a fun conversation with composer Brian Mcomber about his work on the movie Fair Play.

Shortly after the 2023 Sundance Film Festival concluded I had the opportunity to speak with composer Brian McOmber about his work on Fair Play, which premiered at the Sundance festival and has been acquired by Netflix. Fair Play is set in the stressful world of finance, where Emily and Luke, recently engaged to be married, find their lives turned upside down by a promotion that changes everything between them. Brian McOmber’s past credits include Krisha and It Comes at Night.

I thought first thing we could talk about is for a little background is how you got started as a composer.

I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t go to music school. I always played music, and was always watching movies. My background is playing in punk bands and hardcore bands and making things with my friends. Some of my friends, as I got older, were also filmmakers. And I started making music for some of their films. One of those films went to Sundance and at Sundance, another director saw that film and liked the score. He said he had a film at Cannes.

So within a month of the first film that I ever had premiere, I was on a flight to Mumbai, India, scoring a film in a hotel that was going to premiere at Cannes. But it all spiraled from there. I quit the band I was in and buckled down. I focused on film scoring, and found that I liked it and that I was good at it.

That’s cool. So you’re self taught then?

Pretty much.

How did you end up getting connected with working on Fair Play? And what did you think about the story?

Oh, I thought the story was great. I thought setting it in the finance world was great too. I wasn’t sure when I had talked to Chloe [Domont] originally if she was a stockbroker or something, because it has so much finance world mumbo jumbo. But I think she had seen a film I scored called Krisha. And she had liked that and I think also she wanted a similar vibe out of the music where the music is adding to the anxiety of the situation. The Krisha score was percussive and really abrasive at times and in your face and was trying to drive home this idea of things spinning out of control.

So that’s why Chloe [Domont] originally thought to speak to me, and I read the script and I thought it was great. In our first meeting, I was confident that she was going to not hold back because there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s not for the faint of heart. I think a lot of directors with this same script would have maybe played it more safe and taken a safer approach to it. Whereas I had a feeling Chloe [Domont] was really going to go there and she did, and I think she did it in a pretty unapologetic way with confidence in a vision that was uncompromising.

What instruments did you use? 

There’s some moments where you see the characters going to and from work. You see a lot of subways, noisy cars, the streets sounds. Sometimes there’s music under there. It’s blending with the sound design and the whole idea to create this cacophony. It’s mostly percussion, and even when it’s not percussion there’s strings in there, oftentimes I’m striking a cello with mallets. Or scraping it with chains or something.

When you say striking, you mean you’re striking the strings?

I’m actually hitting the body of the cello with mallets. I have a beater cello. It’s a five string cello with a pickup inside it. It’s not nice. It’s some Chinese made thing. I abused the hell out of it. Breaking strings and bashing it.

And then I can plug it in and run it through effects chains and things like that. It’s not supposed to be played in a classical way. We did add some classical strings afterwards. There’s a lot of tremolos and things like that. There was a string quartet. We recorded this with a small quartet, but a lot of the other effects and things like that I was able to do myself by plugging in.

And so you said there was percussion? What else did you say you used?

I’m using a drum set. Sometimes you can recognize it. For the most part though, I’m hitting the sides of the drums with sticks, or the rims. A lot of the sounds in the soundscape are more metallic to me, like the sound of hitting the metal, the metal rims of the drums or the body of the drum. It sounds like woodblocks. When I think of being outside in New York, I’m always thinking of skyscrapers and the sound of the metal, of the wheels of a subway screeching, these kinds of things, if there was a way to develop that into a set of timbres that we then use for the film. So a lot of that stuff that sounds like ticking are usually the sound of the metal being struck.

I noticed that ticking a lot, especially in the latter part of the film. Was it the director’s idea for the music to be a source of anxiety and panic. Was that her idea from the start? 

That was what she was looking for. To get out of the music. She didn’t have a specific set of instruments or timbres or an approach to it. She just wanted it. I mean, the basic idea that she wanted, she wanted the music to help feel like the world is closing in on Emily. Not just Emily, but Emily and Luke. So she wanted it to feel like a ticking time bomb is how she would probably describe it in a lot of ways.

And she really wanted the music to heighten that sense of anxiety and the world slowly closing in and we had to dial it back a little bit in the beginning of the movie because we also want to give the audience a little bit of a chance to sit with them and in the brief moments that things are going really well.

I did notice that you purposely blended in the music with [the sound design] because it hit me at one point as Emily was getting off the subway. The music suddenly split off from the sound of the subway braking. And that’s when it hit me it had been playing underneath for the whole scene. And so that was done on purpose to just blend it all in there?

I think in the beginning, it was bigger. Before we had all that, sound design went [in] after the music. It wasn’t necessarily a situation where we were collaborating. Sometimes in some films, maybe a sound designer will give me the sound of the subway and I’ll give them some music. And we can really collaborate a lot of ways. With this film, I think I had a lot to do with the time and the budget, it just was like sound design went after [the music]. So I was scoring a lot of these scenes.

Once the sound design came in, we realized we didn’t really need music there. And the more we could pare down on the music, the better. So there’s a lot of music in the film, a lot of needle drops, too. And it really is like the entire film there’s music happening both times between the needle drops in the score. And so anywhere we felt like sound design could really do what the music did, she wanted the music to do [it].

And especially in these scenes, like you mentioned, getting off the subway. Those are just the moments where we can sit with the characters and see how things are slowly starting to go in the wrong direction. So once those sound design moments came in, we didn’t really necessarily feel like the music needed to be upfront anymore.

I totally get that. I don’t want this to come out wrong, but in some movies less music does a better job.

Definitely, I was pushing so hard for her at the end. I’m like you have too much meat. You don’t need music here. You don’t need music here. Because it also in some scenes, the performances were so strong. I felt like if the music was too leading, it’s just insulting to the audience. I mean, you can see it there, especially with the boss character. His performance is so strong. He gets everything said without saying anything at all, just with a look. You don’t need to have music and ominous drone behind him. Because if anyone’s actually watching the movie, they know what he represents and what he’s thinking without saying anything. And without hearing anything you can see performances that are so good that you just don’t need that much music.

So, you’re saying the director wanted to keep more, but you felt like it was making it redundant.

I think so. I guess you could say that. Yeah, it’s not all the time, obviously. But yeah, for certain moments, it was like it would be telling the audience things they could already tell.

When you already have that much, I don’t mean to insult the audience, but you just don’t need it. In a lot of cases when you have such a strong performance out of your actors and again, the directing so well, and the editing also the timing and the pace at which the camera is holding on the boss there when he’s given a look. Especially in the beginning of the movie, you can give away parts of what’s going to happen later if you push it too hard with ominous music there. A look, a little look, a little foreshadowing. Sometimes too much music is taking away from the scene.

Did you make any specific themes for characters like Luke or Emily, is there anything thematic going on?

Not melodically. There are the strings and [you hear that] when things are going well, whether it’s the beginning of the film or when good things happen, you’ll hear maybe a synth arpeggio or synth bass. We use synth bass a lot, almost like a warm cozy part. Because the the metallic and harsh percussion sounds and the string tremolos played on the high strings are so jarring and anxiety producing that when we did want to bring a sense of warmth or positivity, we would use synth bass or something like that. But there was never any themes necessarily for any characters or any moments or spaces. It was more the music was employed to just push one way or the other about how we wanted the audience to feel.

I may have this one backwards. But it seemed to me like as the story went on, the music was becoming more noticeable. What was that? 

So that’s really cool. I think at the beginning of the film between the Donna Summers needle drop in the big first cue, and then the beginning of the movie, hopefully the music in the beginning is noticeable. As the film goes on, though, it becomes less [noticeable]. And then [at the] the very end, we wanted to actually make music come out again. So it’s, I guess, neither both. Meaning it becomes a part of the fabric of the sound design in the middle. And then in the very end, there’s one very big cue.

One other thing I wanted to ask is, how much time did you have to score the film?

We had a first discussion about a year and a half ago, actually. At that point, I just had the script and they were scheduled to shoot it in November, but with COVID and all this crazy stuff the shoot got pushed back. Ended up doing it in Serbia. For various reasons the first time I saw a rough cut of the first 20 minutes or so was in March of last year, so about 10 or so months ago. And then I started really getting into the music in the summer.

I worked pretty pretty heavily on this for the months of June, July, August and September. But you know, we had spent a lot of time talking beforehand, listening to a lot of music and trying out a lot of different ideas for the temp [track], needle drop ideas, stuff like that, that happened in the months prior. But then it was a solid three or four months of really getting into it. And then we had a rough cut together. I shouldn’t even say rough cut, it was more like a fine cut, which had music. And then we did some final music tweaks. I scored every scene to what was a locked picture.

If you could see me I’m using locked in quotes, because they kept going back and reopening, we added quite a lot. I think Chloe [Domont] wanted to keep tinkering and probably would have kept tinkering if it wasn’t at Sundance. So after that I gave them a lot of options. She wanted a lot of drone in there in the beginning, and I tried to encourage her to take a lot of it out. There’s some in there and I think it works well in some instances. There’s like this low…I don’t know if you watched it in a situation when you had a subwoofer or not. But there’s a lot of frequencies below 40 hertz that are just moving around the room.

Yeah. Unfortunately, I was in my living room when I watched it. So probably if I had been in a theater, I probably would have caught it.

Yeah, it’s subtle, but [Chloe] wanted to feel anxiety, not necessarily hear it all the time. Not just hear it, but also feel it in a lot of those moments. That’s what these subway sounds go, like, in their apartment, they’re supposed to be in Chinatown somewhere. So you’d always feel the rumblings of either the subway or the water heater in the building or something like that.

You mentioned the needle drops a couple times. So you had a hand in picking those?

Those were mostly [picked by] Chloe [Domont] and the music supervisor. There was one instance where I think it was like this, it was score. And I was like, what, and then she tried taking a needle drop from, I think it was one of those scenes where it’s like a bar, the next scene in the house, where she took the song and how we would add a reverb and a filter so that the song sees me, so that the song goes from being diegetic to almost like a score. It’s very abstract. And also, I think they talked about it being of a certain time and place a lot of love songs, songs about heartbreak and things like that.

I didn’t necessarily have a say in that. But there was a few times where I was like,
“Well, I think that’s actually a really cool way of transitioning the scene rather than having score for 20 seconds, like we used to in this transitional moment. Why don’t we just take that needle drop and add a really long reverb and a filter to make it feel like the song becomes a ghost like she’s had, you know, that feeling when you leave a bar, and there’s like a song stuck in your head for a couple minutes, or maybe even the day after?”

That kind of thing, that was something I thought was really cool. And I encouraged her to do more of [that] rather than like, sometimes I think of when, when you have a score cue that maybe was for a forty second transition, that forty second transition gets cut down to 10 seconds. It’s almost better to pull the score out completely. And if you can employ some other device, whether it be sound design, or one of these situations where a needle drop blends the two scenes together. That was something I pushed for. I really was pushing for less music, not because I didn’t want I didn’t like the music or didn’t want to do it. Or I just felt like again, it oftentimes didn’t need it as the Edit got tighter and tighter. Just felt like sometimes music was unnecessary.

I would like to thank Brian Mcomber for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Fair Play. The film should be available on Netflix sometime in the future.


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Becky O'Brien
Armed with a PhD. in Musicology, Becky loves to spend their time watching movies and playing video games, and listening to the soundtracks of both whenever they have the time. Can usually be seen writing for Cinelinx though they also do a bit of work for Screen Age Wasteland too. Their favorite superheroes are Batwoman and Spider-Gwen.