In Chloe Domont’s upcoming erotic thriller Fair Play, the relationship between two competitive stock traders — Phoebe Dynevor’s Emily and Alden Ehrenreich’s Luke — goes from fairy tale-esque to a ticking time bomb.
It’s a rather fitting dynamic for the soon-to-be-wed couple who both work at the same company in an industry driven by the thrum and thrill of the unforgiving relentlessness of risk and timing. To help capture that, composer Brian McOmber produced a score that plays with “what to use — or misuse” within the instrumentation, texture, rhythm and pacing choices of a traditional thriller sound.
The track “One Crest,” which is off the film’s official soundtrack releasing Oct. 6, is a perfect example of how McOmber’s approach captures the entire film and score’s mingling of character, mood and environment, alongside the composer’s strength in percussion and Domont’s own take on thrillers as “fun.”
“The time, the pace — Chloe constantly mentioned that she wanted it to feel or sound like a ticking time bomb,” McOmber tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m not from [New York] and I don’t live there now, but I have been there — it just feels like the pace is so fast. When you’re walking, it’s like one, two, three, four.”
The city itself is embodied almost tangibly by the track, and that’s not on accident. McOmber says he and Domont thought about the rush and thrill of the city “a lot as far as tambour.”
“All these shots, you see so much metal and glass and things are gray. It’s very cold,” he continues. “I like to think about it not necessarily as a melody, not necessarily a theme. It’s a texture. I thought about what the sound of metal is. A lot of those clicks are just me striking pieces of metal with other pieces of metal. That’s the sound of these oppressive, downtown steel skyscrapers.”
“One Crest” captures not only the palpitations of New York’s streets and subways but also the inside of Luke and Emily’s offices, which can serve at times as an even more punishing urban playground. “Inside, that clock speeds up. Everything is just under a pressure cooker. It’s ticking, ticking, ticking and getting faster and faster, louder and louder,” he explains. “So there’s that variable of rhythm and time.”
The track also exemplifies Fair Play‘s playful, twisting — and notably sometimes on the nose — approach to instrumentation. “In the beginning, there’s a little drum roll that’s me actually playing a cello as a drum with mallets,” McOmber reveals. “Everything’s defiled or misused as a metaphor. I was even playing the cello with a credit card, just scraping, which Chloe particularly loved, obviously with these characters being a bunch of bankers.”
Ahead of the film and soundtrack’s Oct. 6 release, THR spoke to McOmber about how he worked with Domont on adjusting the score’s sound from absolutely punishing to painfully fun, the approach to exploring gender and power dynamics through the music and Domont’s exploration of decoupling “fragile masculinity and female empowerment.”
How did you and Chloe approach the score in terms of getting underneath the film’s story conceptually and casting that into music?
The most important thing Chloe spoke about from the get go with the score was that it should feel like a bubbling anxiety attack, start to finish. But once we got into that, I think Chloe realized — especially after showing it to different people and sitting in rooms and feeling the energy — that it was just a bummer of a film to watch. Obviously, having that bubbling anxiety and darkness running through it is a really important part of the film. But one day she came in, and she said to me, “I think there still needs to be more fun,” … [and that] was not what I expected. So from that point, we were taking all these chances and bringing in items like hammers for percussion. That discussion and that shift in making it more fun and silly sometimes and emphasizing some of her incredible comedic writing — I think that was where we had a breakthrough. The score starts very beautiful, pristine and then it becomes that dark anxiety attack and then we’re left at the end with just scorched earth. That’s what we wanted to do, too, but it took a little while to find that.
There are some twists about how Domont delivers an “erotic thriller” that lean in and out of the traditions of the genre. How did you think about and compose “thriller” musically?
We were talking pretty early on about using strings and percussion to fill out some of these very low frequency range items — the stuff that you’ll feel in your chest but not necessarily hear them. As far as the instrumentation that I would use for a thriller, it’s almost always going to be percussion, and largely, that’s because that’s my wheelhouse as a drummer. But something I think that was new just sitting in a room with Chloe, spit bawling in my studio and just making sounds for her, is I started looking at the cello as a percussion instrument and not necessarily something that you’d get a melody out of. We do use a cello in that way, but once I started using and playing it with drumsticks or playing it like a hand drum or plucking it — preparing a cello by attaching clothes pins to it — her eyes would light up. So we just kept experimenting and experimenting.
How we made it fun was the choice of percussion instruments. In the beginning, it was just thundering toms and bass drops, but we brought in things like wood blocks and tambourine. I think of the tambourine as an instrument handed out at children’s parties and everyone shakes them — it’s fun. Of course, how they’re played matters, too. We use a lot of rhythm that way — more bouncy rhythms, less pommeling, straightforward stuff. Almost dance-y. I think for Chloe, thrillers are fun, or as she likes to say, “If there’s a thriller, there will be blood.”
A lot of the score feels less character-driven and more atmospheric, but this is a thriller with a pretty specific focus on gender dynamics and one woman’s experience in male-dominated environments. Were you as a result focusing the music on her perspective and using character themes, or were you composing to the emotional arcs and tensions of the duo’s scenes?
We were, absolutely. One of the things we thought a lot about was music from the perspective of our female lead. When we’re hearing the music, it’s supposed to reflect the emotional state of her character and where she’s at. In another [movie] I did that, [but] Fair Play was a little more complicated. One of the things we needed to work out, both Chloe and I, is that we know what happens — we’re rooting for someone’s demise. But to really have that rug pulled, we’re going to need to make the audience at that moment actually feel for [them]. I had a lot of trouble relating to one character, and that’s separate from the fact that they’re all predatory stock traders. (Laughs.) But can we have the audience relate to this [one] character a little bit and feel for [their] situation a little bit? Chloe came in one day and was like, “The audiences that we’re showing this to don’t really relate to [this one] character. There’s no journey there. It’s just flat.” That’s where we came up with these sad strings.
There’s not really a character with a theme. It’s more of a malaise, a deep-seated sadness or insecurity that [two characters] have. Alden’s character [Luke] has a sadness that then becomes [Phoebe’s character] Emily’s theme. And the end scene of the movie, with all that fun percussion, that’s Emily’s point of view. We absolutely do that with Luke in a very different way, too.
Can you expand on that?
There’s a scene after Emily gets her promotion, and she’s trying to be supportive. I don’t know if the audience buys how much he’s trying, but we wanted the possibility there that [Luke] is. In these moments that he’s alone, he’s trying to address some of that disappointment or whatever for him not getting it — and in a way, you’re rooting for him. Maybe he can get [a promotion] too? Maybe this can be great? We wanted the audience to go there to feel that, so instrumentation-wise, it was kind of the smallest violin (Laughs.) And Alden is such an incredible actor that one of the difficult parts was really that stringing three sad notes together was too much because you can just see how sad, emotive he is. These sad strings quietly played were his sound and Emily’s sound at the end is just full-blown me bashing the drum set with 15 layers of percussion as hard as I can, strings being pounded.
There’s been a history in music of “masculine” and “feminine” sounds. You’re playing with some instruments that have gotten caught up in that. How did you and Chloe think about gender in terms of the music itself?
I feel like I should answer that question by quoting Chloe from a Q&A. She said, masculinity is not an identity, it’s an energy. I do know the concept and even in classical music — I don’t think this is a very common thing right now — of masculine endings and feminine endings and how melodies work. Which I don’t think has any place. I just don’t see it that way. Some of my favorite most bombastic drummers are women. For Chloe, especially, she talked about trying to decouple this idea of fragile masculinity and female empowerment, and talked about the sympathy that she increasingly feels for men like [Luke]. We didn’t necessarily think about oh drums or percussive instruments, and Emily has the biggest balls. We didn’t talk about that at all. It wasn’t like we needed to have masculine energy for Emily. I think it was really much simpler than that. It was more that these sounds make me feel the way Luke or Emily are feeling right now.
There’s a few intimacy-related scenes in this, which have varied tones. What did you and Chloe discuss in terms of the ones you worked on, and separating that from the pressure cooker sound of a track like “One Crest”?
I don’t think I scored most of the sex scenes at all. I only worked on one of the sex scenes right in the beginning, when they’re in the beginning, andit’s all beautiful music. They’re in love, just can’t stop fucking. It just feels like warm, fuzzy love, and then it’s just like brutal fear and cold after. We wanted the audience to root for them not just as individuals but also as a couple in the beginning. Going back to the instruments, the use of the same instruments changes over the course of the film, which has to do with that power dynamic. I don’t think that was the main objective, however. The main objective was to for the music to reflect the deterioration or situation rather than this shift in the power dynamic.
Not having compositions for the sex scenes says a lot about Chloe’s approach to telling the story of Fair Play. What were the conversations like about where she wanted or didn’t want music in the film?
We tried a lot of different stuff, and we worked with a great music editor in the beginning, experimenting with where music could be or what kind of music it could be. We had a meeting in the beginning where we talked, even before we started putting any sounds against picture, about the texture stuff, the instrumentation, how it’s used. Then Chris, our music editor, worked with Chloe to figure out if we could start the queue later or keep it going; bring two cues together or have some sort of revisiting of an idea. With a lot of other film scores, where music is used can be tricky, whereas on this one, Chloe had such a tight vision. She knew exactly where she wanted music or where she didn’t.
The only question that we didn’t really know about was how much music there should be. Especially some of these moments that you’ll hear in the beginning and middle of the film, which give a very low rumble. You can’t really tell if it’s music or sound design. If you hear rumbles and you’re on the West Coast, you have to wonder if it’s an earthquake. In New York, there’s just a constant rumble of the subways and the trucks going through the concrete and up the buildings. Oftentimes, we wanted to emphasize that even more and a lot of that ended up becoming more sound design.
There is some stuff I did where when I’m listening to it, I can’t even tell sometimes what were the things I added. I just jammed a whole bunch on my modular synths and tried to hone to the frequencies between 25 hertz and 50 hertz, right — those frequencies that you can’t tell a pitch, you can only feel it in your sternum. And that was the only part where I pushed back and I was like, “I don’t think we need that much there. I think we’re telling too much. I think we can pull back a little bit,” and we did. I think it’s great. It’s a happy-medium. There’s not wanting it to sound like a huge rumbling anxiety attack all the time, but to have those little pushes in these moments where you don’t really know what’s going on.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Fair Play debuts on Netflix Oct. 6.