"To get a call from Jordan Peele out of the blue was really a dream," Michael Abels says. The composer had been trying to break into film scoring but had "not really made any headway in the industry," he remembers. In the meantime, he was writing orchestra music and posting the live recordings on YouTube. One of those pieces was Abels' "Urban Legends."
"It had a couple dozen hits and one of them was Jordan, when he was looking for someone to score Get Out," the composer shares. "He was looking for someone who could write in a really scary style but also who understood the African American experience. So, he had the producers hunt me down."
Abels has been writing music his entire life, so he was more than prepared when the call came. He made his feature debut with the score for 2017's Get Out, weaving together Swahili vocals and bluegrass influences for one of the decade's most unforgettable soundtracks, and reunited with Peele for 2019's Us, crafting hip-hop infused compositions that equally defied genre expectations.
Their latest collaboration, Nope, might be the pair's most ambitious to date.
"It was clear that the film was a lot bigger in scale than any of the others," Abels says in conversation with Nope star Brandon Perea for The Academy. "It was important that the music step up too and fill that space and play into what a big summer movie needs to be — but in the world of Jordan Peele, which no one has seen yet."
Nope is set in a remote gulch of inland California and follows siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) as they experience a close encounter of the alien kind. Peele conceived the film as the next great American UFO story, though as he is wont to do, it subverts genre conventions as much as it embraces them, which required Abels to create a nerve-shredding soundtrack that combines elements of sci-fi and a touch of Western with the horror-scapes Abels has become known for.
"Every director has a really specific idea of music that they begin with and they work with the composer to help find the unique score to their film," Abels says. "Jordan's instructions to me was that it's a bad miracle, and the music has to be part, 'Oh s***!' and one part, 'Oh my god.' So, the music I'm doing is trying to do that."
Abels (who co-founded the Composers Diversity Collective, an advocacy group to increase visibility of composers of color in media) reveals that his most important conversations with Peele revolved around fine-tuning the specific rhythms he was composing for Nope. "Some rhythms make you wanna dance, and some let you know that something bad's about to happen and maybe you oughta run and not dance," he says.
"The difference between those is kind of slight sometimes," he details. "So, when I'm coming up with rhythms, I always want them to be ones that make people want to dance a little, and sometimes [Jordan will] say, 'That's not scary enough.' And I have to go back and I'll make it less dancey and more scary."
And then, at a certain point, the music stops.
"Jordan really uses the slowdown of music and sound as a warning sign," Abels says, "to let you know that something really bad's about to happen."
Watch the full conversation between Michael Abels and Brandon Perea below.