By Jennifer Walden
The aftermath of a tragic event plays out in front of the eyes of the nation. OJ Simpson, wanted for the gruesome murder of his wife and her friend, fails to turn himself in to the authorities. News helicopters follow the police chase that follows Simpson back to his Rockingham residence where they plan to take him into custody. Decades later, three-time Emmy-winning composer Gary Lionelli is presented with the opportunity to score that iconic Bronco chase.
Here, Lionelli talks about his approach to scoring ESPN’s massive documentary OJ: Made in America. His score on Part 3 is currently up for Emmy consideration for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series. The entire OJ: Made in America score is available digitally through Lakeshore Records.
Scoring OJ: Made in America seems like such a huge undertaking. It’s a five-part series, and each part is over 90 minutes long. How did you tackle this beast?
I’d never scored anything that long within such a short timeframe. Because each part was so long, it wasn’t like doing a TV series but more like scoring five 90-minute films back-to-back. I just focused on one cue at a time, putting one foot in front of the other so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the full scope of the work and could relax enough to write the score! I knew I’d get to the finish line at some point, but it seemed so far away most of the time that I just didn’t want to dwell on that.
When you got this project, did they deliver it as one crazy, long piece? Or did they give it to you in its separate parts?
I got everything at once, which was totally mind-boggling. When you get any project, you need to watch it before you start working on it. For this one, it meant watching a seven-and-a-half-hour film, which was a feat in and of itself. The scale was just huge on this. Looking back, my eyelids still twitch.
It was a pretty nerve-racking time because the schedule was really tight. That was one of the most challenging parts of doing this project. I could have used a year to write this music, because five films are ordinarily what I‘d do in a year, not six months. But all of us who write music for film know that you have to work within extreme deadlines as a matter of course. So you say yes, and you find a way to do it.
So you basically locked yourself up for 14 hours a day, and just plugged away at it?
Right, except it was actually about 15 hours a day, seven days a week, with no breaks. I finished the score 11 days before its theatrical release, which is insane. But, hey, that part is all in the past now, and it’s great to see the film out there getting such attention. One thing that made it worthwhile to me in the end was the quality of the filmmaking — I was riveted by the film the whole time I was working on it.
When composing, you worked only on one part at a time and not with an overall story arc in mind?
I watched all five parts over the course of four days. Once I’d watched the first two parts, I couldn’t wait to start writing so I did that for a bit and then went back to watch the rest.
The director Ezra Edelman wanted me to first score the infamous Bronco chase, which is in Part 3. It’s a 30-minute segment of that particular episode. It was a long sequence of events, all having to do with the chase itself, the events leading up to it and the aftermath of it. So that is what I scored first. It’s kind of strange to dive into a film by first scoring such a pivotal, iconic event. But it worked out — what I wrote for that segment stuck.
It was strange to be writing music for something I had seen on television 20 years before – just to think that there I was, watching the Bronco chase on TV along with everyone else, not having the remotest idea that 20 years down the line I was going to be writing music for this real-life event. It’s just a very odd thing.
The Bronco chase wasn’t a high-speed chase. It was a long police escort back to OJ’s house. The music you wrote for this segment was so brooding and it fit perfectly…
I loved when Zoe Tur, the helicopter pilot, said they were giving OJ a police motorcade. That’s exactly what he got. So I didn’t want to score the sequence by commenting literally on what was happening — what people were doing, or the fact that this was a “chase.” What I tried to do was focus on the subtext, which was the tragedy of the circumstances, and have that direct the course of the music, supplying an overarching musical commentary.
For your instrumentation, did the director let you be carried away by your own muse? Or did he request specific instruments?
He was specific about two things: one, that there would be a trumpet in the score, and two, he wanted an oboe. Other than those two instruments, it was up to me. I have a trumpet player, Jeff Bunnell, who I’ve worked with before. It’s a great partnership because he’s a gifted improviser, and sometimes he knows what I want even when I don’t. He did a fantastic job on the score.
I also had a 40-piece string section recorded at the Eastman Scoring Stage at Warner Bros. Studios. We used players here in town and they added a lot, really bringing the score to life.
Were you conducting the orchestra? Or did you stay close to the engineer in the booth?
I wanted to be next to the recording engineer so I could hear everything as it was being recorded. I had a conductor instead. Besides, I’m a terrible conductor.
What instruments did you choose for the Bronco chase score?
For one of the scenes, I used layers of distorted electric guitars. Another element of the score was musical sound manipulation of acoustic instruments through electronics. It’s a time-consuming way to conjure up sounds, with all the trial and error involved, but the results can sometimes give a film an identity beyond what you can do with an orchestra alone.
So you recorded real instruments and then processed them? Can you share an example of your processing chain?
Sometimes I will get my guitar out and play a phrase. I’ll take that phrase and play it backwards, drop it two octaves, put it through a ring modulator, and then I’ll chop it up into short segments and use that to create a rhythmic pattern. The result is nothing like a real guitar. I didn’t necessarily know what I was going for at the start, but then I’d end up with this cool beat. Then I’d build a cue around that.
The original sound could be anything. I could tap a pencil on a desk and then drop that three octaves, time compress it and do all sorts of other processing. The result is a weird drum sound that no one’s ever heard before. It’s all sorts of experimentation, with the end result being a sound that has some originality and that piques the interest of the person watching the film.
To break that down a little further, what program do you work in?
I work in Pro Tools. I went from Digital Performer to Logic — I think most film composers use Logic or Cubase, but there are a growing number who actually use Pro Tools. I don’t need MIDI to jump through a lot of hoops. I just need to record basic lines because most of that stuff gets replaced by real players anyhow.
When you work in Pro Tools, it’s already the delivery format for the orchestra, so you eliminate a conversion step. I’ve been using Pro Tools for the past four years, and so far it’s been working out great. It has some limitations in MIDI, but not that many and nothing that I can’t work around.
What are some of your favorite processing plug-ins?
For pitching, I use Melodyne by Celemony and Serato’s Pitch ‘n’ Time. There’s a new pitch shifter in Pro Tools called X-Form that’s also good. I also use Waves SoundShifter — whatever seems to do a better job for what I’m working on. I always experiment to see which one works the best to give me the sound I’m looking for.
Besides pitch shifters, I use GRM Tools by Ina-GRM. They make weird plug-ins, like one called Shift, that really convolute sound to the point where you can take a drum or rhythmic guitar and turn it into a high-hat sound. It doesn’t sound like a real high-hat. It sounds like a weird high-hat, not a real one. You never know what you’re going to get from this plug-in, and that’s why I like it so much.
I also use a lot of Soundtoys plug-ins, like Crystallizer, which can really change sounds in unexpected ways. Soundtoys has great distortion plug-ins too. I’m always on the hunt for something new.
A lot of times I use hardware, like guitar pedals. It’s great to turn real knobs and get results and ideas from that. Sometimes the hardware will have a punchier sound, and maybe you can do more extreme things with it. It’s all about experimentation.
You’ve talked before about using a Guitarviol. Was that how you created the long, suspended bass notes in the Bronco chase score?
Yes, I did use the Guitarviol in that and in other places in the score, too. It’s a very weird instrument, because it looks like a cello but doesn’t sound like one, and it definitely doesn’t sound like a guitar. It has a weird, almost Middle Eastern sound to it, and that makes you want to play in that scale sometimes. Sometimes I’ll use it to write an idea, and then I’ll have my cellist play the same thing on cello.
The Guitarviol is built by Jonathan Wilson, who lives in Los Angeles. He had no idea when he invented this thing that it was going to get adopted by the film composer community here in town. But it has, and he can’t make them fast enough.
Do you end up layering the Guitarviol and the cello in the mix? Or do you just go with straight cello?
It’s usually just straight cello. There are a couple of cellists I use who are great. I don’t want to dilute their performance by having mine in the background. The Guitarviol is an inspiration to write something for the cellists to hear, and then I’ll just have them take over from there.
The overall sound of Part 3 is very brooding, and the percussion choices have complementary deep tones. Can you tell me about some of the choices you made there?
Those are all real drums. I don’t use any samples. I love playing real drums. I have a real timpani, a big Brazilian Surdo drum, a gigantic steel bass drum that sounds like a Caribbean steel drum but only two octaves lower (it has a really odd sound), and I have a classic Ludwig Beatles drum kit. I have a marimba and a collection of small percussion instruments. I use them all.
Sometimes I will pitch the recordings down to make them sound bigger. The Surdo by itself sounds huge, and when you pitch that down half an octave it’s even bigger. So I used all of those instruments and I played them. I don’t think I used a single drum sample on the entire score.
When you use percussion samples, you have to hunt around in your entire hard drive for a great tom-tom or a Taiko drum. It’s so much easier to run over to one in your studio and just play it. You never know how it’s going to sound, depending on how you mic it that day. And it’s more inspiring to play the real thing. You get great variation. Every time you hit the drum it sounds different, but a sample sound pretty much sounds the same every time you trigger it.
For striking, did you choose mallets, brushes, sticks, your hands, or other objects?
For the Surdo, I used my hands. I use marimba mallets and timpani mallets for the other instruments. For example, I’ll use timpani mallets for the big steel bass drum. Sometimes I’ll use timpani mallets on my drum kit’s bass drum, because it gives a different sound. It has a more orchestral sound, not like a kick drum from a rock band.
I’m always experimenting. I use brushes a lot on cymbals, and I use the brushes on the steel drum because it gives it a weird sound. You can even use brushes on the timpani, and that creates a strange sound. There are definitely no rules. Whatever you think or can imagine having an effect on the drum, you just try it out. You never know what you’ll get — it’s always good to give it a chance.
In addition to the Bronco chase scene, are there any other tracks that stood out for you in Part 3?
When you score something this long, at a certain point everything starts to run together in your mind. You don’t remember what cue belongs to what scene. But there are many that I can remember. During the jury section of that episode, I used an oboe for Johnny Cochran speaking to the jury. That was an interesting pairing, the oboe and Johnny Cochran. In a way, the oboe became an extension of his voice during his closing argument. I can’t really explain why it worked, but somehow it was the right match.
For the beginning of Part 3, when the police arrive because there was a phone call from Nicole Brown Simpson saying she was afraid of OJ, the cue there was very understated. It had a lot of strange, low sounds to it. That one comes to mind.
At the end of Part 3, they go to OJ’s Rockingham residence, and his lawyers had staged the setting. I did a cue there that was sort of quizzical in a way, just to show the ridiculousness of the whole thing. It was like a farce, the way they set up his residence. So I made the score take a right turn into a different area for that part. It gets away from the dark, brooding undercurrent that the rest of Part 3’s score had.
Of all the parts you could have submitted for Emmy consideration, why did you choose Part 3?
It was a toss-up between Part 2 and Part 3. Part 2 had some of the more major trumpet themes, more of the signature sound with the trumpet and the orchestra. But there were a few examples of that in Part 3, too.
I just felt the Bronco chase, score-wise, had a lot of variation to it, and that it moved in a way that was unpredictable. I ultimately thought that was the way to go, though it was a close race between Part 2 and Part 3.
I found out later that ESPN had submitted Part 3 for Emmy consideration in other categories, so there is a bit of synergy there.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.