making of // EXTERNAL LIVING
EXTERNAL LIVING is, simply put, a dark film. Set in a not too distant future rife with class warfare and grave existential struggle, a woman seeks to leverage her girlfriend's talents to gain standing in an elite circle, in order to dig them both out of the woes of their day to day lives.
“It always gives the score more resonance to me when the instrumental choices feel germane to the picture. So that was where I started.”
This is a story about the human struggle, and how we all might act in truly dire circumstances. I felt the score needed to not only reflect that, but the environment they existed in.
BUILDING THE SCORE
One central theme to this film was resource scarcity. Water in particular is used as a recurring theme throughout to demonstrate a huge gap between the haves and the have nots, so it felt appropriate to try and work some water based instruments into the score.
What's this instrument you ask? That's a waterphone. Initially developed by Richard Waters (a fitting name), it was initially conceived of as a vessel for ethereal sound design. Water is poured into the base through the post, and the metal rods lining it are sized specifically to resonate at certain pitches. It can be bowed, plucked, struck with a mallet, whatever your heart desires, and slowly and gently swirling the water in the base creates a harrowing vibrato. It's an instrument that was widely used in many classic scores to convey a sort of unsettling, otherworldly sound, but with the right technique, one can create some great consonant sounds with it. The cue below features it heavily, the metallic, swirling pad throughout was built entirely from this instrument.
SETTING THE TONE
The film takes many a dark turn, and I felt it important for the score to of course reflect that, while not completely overwhelming the humanity of each moment. While the film's concept lives in a more fantastical world, the person to person drama remains on a very intimate scale, so grandiose and over-the-top music simply didn't make sense.
Modular synthesizers were used extensively to create many of the more subconscious, pulsing textures that were layered underneath a great deal of the score, textures that drove tension through the film in a way that was more felt than heard. Everything from low, rumbling pulses to high, screechy lines came out of this magic box, which gave the score necessary ghost-like quality. A score that sits on a somewhat uneasy bed will never quite feel settled, which was the idea behind using this foundation.
Which brings us to the strings. Strings are of course very familiar to us, especially within the world of the film score. But played in just a very slightly off kilter way, or processed in an interesting fashion, they can have a strong psychological affect. A recurring motif throughout is a string figure doing a haunting downward glide, as heard in the cue "Rumor and X". Typically string players use quite a lot of vibrato and precision to focus their sound, to give it power and luster. For this score, it made sense to avoid that entirely, and it helped give the performance an ominous, atrophied feel. Recognizable, yet still unsettling.
"The idea was to create a warped version of the familiar, as the film very strongly existed within the realm of reality. That way the audience wouldn't feel like they were watching total fantasy."
EXTERNAL LIVING will be released in 2021. The score was written and arranged by Eric Plust, and recorded an mixed at SOUTH Music in Santa Monica, CA.