Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” garnered six Oscar nominations, five of which were in top categories like acting, writing, directing and Best Picture. The film’s sole technical nod went to 35-year-old composer Emile Mosseri for his beautifully offbeat musical score (some of it featuring his own humming voice), which cushions the story’s emotional arc.
Mosseri, who makes his home in Glendale, California, and lived for eight years in Bushwick, Brooklyn, has made a big impression on the indie-film music scene in just the last couple years with scores for art-house hits like “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Kajillionaire.” He is also a bassist in the rock band The Dig.
During a conversation with TheWrap, Mosseri spoke about the tricky line between sweet and saccharine in music, and of the particular Tim Burton film (with a score by Danny Elfman) that first sparked his obsession with movie melodies.
“Minari” is a memory piece that never announces itself as such. Part of that has to do with your music, which is very idiosyncratic. What were your first thoughts as you began writing it?
It’s interesting you bring up the memory piece thing. I had lunch with (director Lee) Isaac (Chung) when it was just a screenplay. He hadn’t made the film yet. And he said that while writing it, he had written down 80 snapshot memories of his childhood. They could be just as something as simple as an image of his grandmother or an image of his cowboy boots or whatever it was. I thought that was such a cool way in, such a visceral way to approach writing it. And he’d tap into that and then all these other themes sort of naturally unfold.
And was that in someways similar to your own approach?
In my case, I was struck by his screenplay. But our first conversation about childhood memory had teed up the film perfectly for me. I’d worked before with Christina Oh, the producer, and Harry Youn, the editor. There was something that was familial about the whole experience for me. And it was my first time getting to start that early on a film.
Were you able to visit the production once filming began?
I was, yeah. My wife and I went down to Tulsa, where they were shooting. My wife actually was born in Tulsa and grew up there, so it was a cool experience for us to go back there and go to set and absorb that experience. I had already started writing before that, but it was nice to be down there. It’s nice to get involved early for a lot of reasons.
It can only help, right?
Exactly. There’s no downside. And this was the first time I was able to do that. On other films, I’d gotten either a locked cut or sort of moving target of a cut.
Lee Isaac Chung had written a different ending for the film, which I think was a voiceover summary of how the plant minari was so symbolic of the immigrant experience.
Yes. I think Isaac had changed it before they shot the film, as far as I know. But yeah, I think that it lives in its own way now because of where the film ends. And how the ending lands.
It’s such a great last shot. That slow push-in to that secret place in the woods.
Little David and his Grandma picked a good spot, didn’t they? That ending hit me really hard when I first saw it. I love that shot too, that slow, pushing-in on David and Jacob as they begin to pick the minari.
Did you struggle with the music for that last scene?
Well, in fact, it was Harry, the amazing editor, who had placed a piece of music that I had written in that scene. It was a melody I had written as a sketch before they even shot the film. And Harry and Isaac had selected a piece of music that I wouldn’t have thought to put in that place.
Oh, really? It’s not heavily instrumental, that last piece.
No, it’s almost solo piano. It’s very subtle, it’s very delicate. But a little bit of music can go a long way. And I think it did. There is much bigger music in the penultimate scene, or the scenes leading up to the end. But you kind of want to land with a simmer, I think. I was really excited about how that came together.
The movie is very specific to the Korean-American experience but also managed to tell a really universal story. How did that perspective influence the way you composed?
Yeah, it’s an immigrant story while being a very universal, poignant, intimate film about family. Musically, we weren’t trying to have any sort of Korean stylistic influence in the score in any sort of calculated way. There’s some subtle ’80s elements baked into the orchestral tapestry of the sound.
Like a slight synth nod to the time period?
Yeah. But we didn’t want to have an ’80s synth score. And we didn’t want to have a traditional Korean score. And we didn’t want to have a twangy Americana, acoustic guitar score, just because it takes place on a farm. You want to find something that’s not hitting it on the nose. It was more about having the music connect to the story spiritually and emotionally rather than geographically. We wanted some juxtaposition there in order to work and elevate the film rather than push it too far in one direction.
In your score, there are cues that are more triumphal and then there are some that are more melancholy. It’s really nicely woven.
Yeah, well it’s a story about five characters living in a mobile home, so there is delicacy and intimacy that you have to consider in the instrumentation. That explains the melancholy side of the score. But the story is also a kind of an epic. There’s grandiosity and vastness and emotional depth. So there are places where we could highlight that and bring it out with music. But it’s a tricky line to walk because you don’t want to overplay your hand. You want to walk up to the line of writing emotive music, but not cross it. You don’t want to be afraid of it, but you don’t want to cross it into someplace that saccharine or syrupy.
Can you speak about the composers who have influenced you? You’ve spoken about the importance of Danny Elfman on your career?
Absolutely. And my life. I’ll never forget seeing “Edward Scissorhands” for the first time. That was when I really got excited about the power of film music and what music in film could be. That was when I first began to understand how the music specifically composed for a film could make me feel about the film. About the two things worked so intimately together.
While listening to your score for “Minari,” I think I noticed the influence of Michael Nyman, too.
That’s cool to hear you say that. I’m a massive fan of his. Like Danny Elfman, he was a big influence too. In “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” there was actually a piece of music of his that’s featured in the opening sequence. There’s something about his music that’s hot-blooded and kind of rock-and-roll. But Nyman can also write incredible intimate music. He has some pieces that are more minimal and then some that are very grandiose.
It’s interesting because when the trailer for the documentary on Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” actually features a Nyman piece which had appeared in a much darker Peter Greenaway movie.
But it works, right? That’s the best compliment you can give to great music. You don’t know exactly why it works, but it just works.
That’s what I like so much about your music in “Minari.” There’s something unexpected about it.
Well, that’s what I’m attracted to as well in other composer’s scores, like Elfman, like Nyman. There’s a juxtaposition there that I try not to be afraid of. If there’s something unexpected in the music, it can work for some inexplicable reason. The inexplicable is actually the reason why it works.