Composer Adam Peters reteams with Icarus director Bryan Fogel, providing an evocative melody for The Dissident— Fogel’s blistering documentary chronicling the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Peters’ composition for The Dissident stuns, working in tandem with Fogel’s storytelling to create moments of pulse-raising tension and an emotional yearning that ruminates throughout the film— a beautiful marriage between a filmmaker and composer at the top of their game.
Read our complete interview with Adam Peters below to learn more about how he created a score that, like The Dissident, will move you, leave you breathless, and stop you in your tracks.
Awards Daily: You’ve done a number of projects that were political in nature. How was The Dissident different?
Adam Peters: No matter how similar one thinks a project is going to be, each one takes its own unique path and has an individual set of circumstances. The things that stood out about this project were the brutality of the act, the real-world ramifications, and the emotional undercurrents of Jamal and Hatice’s relationship.
Previously, I worked on several projects with Oliver Stone that were political in nature. Setting out on this I thought that Snowden would be close to The Dissident in its scope as a modern-day, real-world set of events. Though the killing [of Jamal Khashoggi] in The Dissident was highly upsetting and hard to work with. This was a dark, emotional, and upsetting movie to work on.
The thing that runs through all the political movies I have worked on is that I feel a strong desire to do the characters justice. I often feel the weight of what these people have done with their lives—their sacrifices, their bravery, and their selflessness. To then sit and write music that portrays them can be a humbling experience. When I am writing I will often keep a picture on my desk and stare into it, trying to somehow burrow deeper into who these people are, their motivations, who they loved, how they felt, etc.
AD: What was your goal for the score in speaking with director Bryan Fogel?
AP: In my original conversation with Bryan we talked about how this documentary was going to play like a thriller, in regards to its pacing. Bryan felt very strongly that the audience should be on the edge of their seat. It was my job to do this musically, whilst retaining an honesty in the score. It is a balance to walk this line in a documentary. Making it feel like a thriller, without resorting to artifice and melodrama. We felt that if we could make it play like a big-screen movie— with those kinds of beats, that it might, ultimately, reach more people and have a powerful impact.
The horror story and tension were the main elements of the arc of the storytelling. Then we set out to intertwine the love story and the human element.
We all worked closely as a team—Bryan, writer Mark Munroe, the editorial team, and myself.
AD: Your score is masterful in its subtlety, enhancing the film’s emotional moments. Tell me more about this, what instruments and techniques did you use?
AP: Although the final couple of months of the project were done at a breakneck speed, I was happy to be brought on at the outset. This gave me time to write for a couple of months—play with ideas, themes, and sound palettes. It gave me time to experiment freely with no constraints.
As I dug deep into the writing and thinking process, It was then that I hit the idea of a “home” theme. I realized that all dissidents are away from their homeland, there is a distance involved. This is the part of their lives that is not on display—their longing and inability to ever return. That emotional undertow gave me the impetus to keep the score in a place where its humanity would breathe. I wanted a sense of distance and longing even though the act of the killing was so barbaric, though I suppose, ultimately, all killing is barbaric.
The ‘home’ melody, which is sung at the beginning and end, is longer and has a deeper yearning in it. It was only stated twice in the movie, but I used its elements in a deconstruction throughout.
To create tension, I used a lot of cello mixed with some old analog synths. The cello has a quality that is similar to the male voice, both in range and sonority. I tracked up multiple takes of detuned cellos to create a backdrop to the killing.
It is rare that a documentary will sustain a theme with a long melody as there is so much spoken information so I made the melodies fragmented and intertwined them. I also used a recurring rhythmic pulse as a tension motif for Omar [Abdulaziz].
Jamal was the hardest character to score. I spent a month or so trying different ideas—weeks just looking at footage and trying to read into him. I probably wrote ten or fifteen ideas until I hit on a sound that seemed to feel honest and right for him. On a scripted project like Snowden, it is different. Oliver had already spent time with Snowden and then written the script. So he’d already distilled the character into a more precise place. With a documentary, you have to do exactly musically—without meeting the people.
I used some Turkish oud guitar and violin— a combination of eastern and western modalities, just like Jamal. I wanted him to have playfulness and depth at the same time. It sounds simple though it was a complex route to getting there.
For his fiancee, Hatice, I used piano and cello. It seemed to play well for her genuine sorrow and hopes, her struggles with politics, and her desires to carry Jamal’s work forward.
AD: You’ve had a distinguished career as a musician and composer. How do those things inform one another? What insights did you learn from The Dissident that you hope to carry on to future work?
AP: That’s kind of you to say. Thank you. You know, I’m not sure how these things inform each other. There is an alchemy that I sometimes prefer not to analyze.
I know it took me a long time to learn how to technically master these musical things, years of training, and practice. I was then able to throw all that learning out of the window. Once things became second nature I learned to trust myself. I just try and work on instinct alone for the writing phase of each project. That is where the truth of the music lies for me.
The insights I have after a project normally take a bit of time to reveal themselves. I don’t know what I will take from this, as it is still fresh. I learned a lot doing this movie—how to write for a big screen and keep [the audience] feeling on the edge of their seat, and yet, still emotional.
Personally, I think what always carries on in future work is a constant desire not to repeat myself. I presume, if I’m ever asked to write a thriller, it is more than likely that my writing will use a different mode and soundscape. I’ll bring this knowledge to a new sound.
AD: And what’s next for you?
AP: I am currently working on a couple of projects that have NDA’s so I can’t say too much. One is a project with the amazing French artist JR. The other a powerful feminist look at racism in the American suburbs. Both are wildly different and satisfying! One day soon I’d like to write a musical. Something deeply serious and funny at the same time.
AD: Lastly, do you have a message for our readers and viewers of the film?
AP: I don’t know if I have a message for viewers/readers. Hopefully, my voice is there in the music. To aspiring composers, I would say that it is important to listen to as much non-film music as possible. Through this lockdown, my companions have been an album of Russian folk music, a Steve Reich boxed set, a couple of old Horace Andy studio 1 reggae albums, a set of Brendel Beethoven piano recordings, some Radiohead, Otis Redding’s greatest hits, and a collection of Baroque choral music that I love. It helps me keep my brain alive and open.
I think the message of The Dissident is pretty clear. I think there has always been a dark side and a more positive side to humanity. The two seem to coexist uncomfortably and permanently together. It has forever been thus. Jamal Khashoggi embodied the positive side. The other side of humanity is driven by money, greed, and power. I believe we are better off with the positive side, but the other side doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.