Emile Mosseri’s music always leads with its heart. With every film is scores, the actions of the characters are enhanced by the softness of his music that creeps in slowly. For The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the music shaded in the memories and recollections of its two leading men, but his work on Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari might be his best work to date. Mosseri taps into something so pure that it feels like he is scoring memories plunked out of our own heads.
There is nothing frivolous or unnecessary about Mosseri’s score so much that it feels like it grows as Jacob and Monica begin their life in America. The more comfortable they become with their surroundings, the more the music thrives. The music is as humble as Chung’s film.
Mosseri was always conscious of looking through the eyes of the film’s young lead. David’s precociousness and his innocence are a driving force of Minari, and that is reflected in how Mosseri pieced together the score. When the big finale comes, the music comes in without being intrusive or distracting to the story. Telling this particular story with honesty is magnified by Mosseri’s gentle touch.
Awards Daily: I like how your music feels emotionally open. Minari‘s score…glimmers. That’s the word I kept thinking of when I listened to it. How did you want it to connect to the earth since the characters are making the same connection?
Emile Mosseri: That was a big part of the thematic concept to the score. David and Jacob’s connection to the land had a theme in terms of what it meant to him. That Garden of Eden kind of concept. It meant so much to him in building this life on American soil and bringing these Korean vegetables and becoming a farmer of that time. That was a big part of the conversation for the themes of the film. It represented so much so we had to figure out how to represent that musically.
AD: A lot of the music comes in when David is walking around outside. I love how it’s from the perspective of him. How did you want to give the score that precocious nature?
EM: That’s a great question. That happened organically. There is a mischievous quality to his character. When we were placing different pieces of music over the scenes we found certain things worked and that brought that out of him. It wasn’t so much a calculated thing of orchestrally making it more playful. There are certain things that happen when you’re building a score that certain things work for certain reasons and you don’t know about it after the fact. The film really is Lee Isaac [Chung]’s story which is David’s character’s story so it emotionally all came back to him. There wasn’t a specific theme for him as much as there was a theme for the relationship between him and his mother. They had their own thing and there is something childlike about that.
AD: I love how Minari has an introduction and an outro. I don’t think we see that very often. There is a lot of piano so there is this classical feel to start us off with. How did you want to introduce us to the story musically?
EM: The best way to describe how we came to that piece was that felt the most like David’s memory. It’s very dreamlike and has a simple melody and it feels like there’s something classic and timeless. It’s not as specific to the film as the rest of the music. It recalls old, classic melodies. Not totally Christmas-y but like halfway there. Old Cole Porter melodies that feel nostalgic can feel like a memory and we wanted to set up the film through David’s eyes. That scene is from his perspective so we wanted that piece to be seen through him.
AD: Maybe I also responded to the music because of your reference of Cole Porter?
AD: There is a song on the soundtrack called “Rain Song” and the vocals really stick out. It’s one of the only tracks that has that. I really responded to that piece.
EM: To piggy back off your last question, that’s a companion piece to the opening. It’s the same melody–we used it to bookend the film–at the beginning it’s lyrical but there’s no vocals. At the end we have a lyrical song version sung by Yeri Han. She’s singing it as a sort of lullaby to her son. The lyrics are about the rain and the land but it’s a soft, sweet lullaby. It was important to us to bookend the film with that piece. we wanted people to walk out with carrying the feeling of that song. It was fun to make it because I got to write a song in English and have it translated to Korean. I’ve never done that before. We worked with Stefanie Hong who was another huge champion and amazing contributor to this film. She helped me translate the lyrics so we co-wrote that piece together. Yeri sang it from Korea and she sent us memos she was recording on her phone. It was this across the seas collaboration.
AD: “Minari Suite” might be my favorite piece of music probably because of the contrasting melodies stuck out.
EM: I’m so glad to hear that that resonated with you. It’s a longer suite. The back half is sort of the main theme of the film, but the front half isn’t in the movie at all. I wrote it and we tried it in different places but it didn’t quite find a spot until the back half starts. That’s the beauty of making an album. Whatever reason it didn’t fit into the puzzle, we can include it as a track.
AD: Just say it’s an exclusive.
EM: (laughs) Exactly.
AD: The music that comes in during the finale really sneaks in. When I went to watch the film a second time, I expected to heat this huge musical cue, but it doesn’t do that. It slowly makes it way to support the scene. There’s a lot of pain in that scene and that section of the music feels different than anything else played throughout the rest of Minari. It’s also not sensational when it could’ve been–it’s very emotional music.
EM: There was a lot of conversations of how and when to get in there.
AD: It’s not obvious at all.
EM: There’s a delicacy that you have to consider. You want to feel like you are in there with those characters. Experience the horror of it in a naturalistic way and not told how to feel. It’s such a huge emotional moment thematic, it can elevate the back half of it. The trick was how and when to get in and how to do it in a way and not announce yourself. “Here’s music to feel sad” was what we wanted to avoid. There was a lot of thought and care that came from Isaac and Harry [Yoon], our editor. I’m really happy with how it turned out. You don’t need huge music in a way and you don’t percussive, anxiety-inducing music in a scene like that because it can really be on the nose and bump you out of it. Sneaking in and then landing in a similar way. A little music goes a long way.
AD: If you have this big BUM BUM BUM cue, it would lose a bit of the soul of the film.
EM: Yes. Exactly.
AD: I really loved Kajillionaire as well.
EM: Oh, thank you.
AD: I think there are some similarities between how both it and Minari are about families struggling for meaning. Even The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about someone looking back at his family’s place in the world. Are you drawn to films about family?
EM: It’s interesting that you bring up those three films. All three of them are deeply, deeply personal works. There’s a purity and a vulnerability to them and they are all, essentially, a director ripping their heart out and putting it on the screen. I feel very lucky to be working on projects like that. Those are the dream jobs for a composer to tap into the musical heart of that language is.
Minari–and Mosseri’s score album–will be released on February 12.