A Q&A with ‘Life Itself’ Composer Federico Jusid

A film composer’s life is often one of changing scenery: With each new film, there’s something to be learned. It could be a musical style or a new way to illustrate characters or tell a story. There’s always something to learn.

Argentina-born film composer Federico Jusid has scored dozens of films and television shows in Argentina, Spain, and the United States, including Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes; the Al Pacino- and Anthony Hopkins-starring Misconduct; and Everybody Has a Plan, featuring Viggo Mortensen. He even contributed music to Alberto Iglesias’s score for Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.  

Jusid has learned a lot with each new film, but it was working on This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman’s multi-faceted film Life Itself  — which stars Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac and which hits theatres Friday — that posed a particularly new adventure for the long-time composer. The Amazon Studios’ film’s story follows multiple couples over several generations in New York and Madrid, all connected by a single event.

“This is a complete change of gear in my career,” Jusid told Vehlinggo in a Skype chat recently. “Not because I haven’t done wonderful and magnificent films; but because the importance of the work of Dan and being able to work with him was a huge step up.”

(From left) Dan Fogelman, Federico Jusid, and Sergio Peris Mencheta.
(From left) Some ‘Life Itself’ folks at TIFF: director and writer Dan Fogelman, composer Federico Jusid, and actor Sergio Peris Mencheta.

He described Fogelman as a “polyphonic” filmmaker for his ability to introduce the rich fabric of characters in multiple layers and still keep people interested. Certainly it has been a success with NBC’s This Is Us.

I caught up with Jusid as he was promoting Life Itself and as he was putting the finishing touches on a score for upcoming animated mini-series Watership Down, a co-venture between the BBC and Netflix based on the 1972 Richard Adams novel.

In our interview we focus heavily on Jusid’s experience scoring Life Itself, but we also talk about his compositional craft in general; and the impact his parents, Argentinian film director Juan José Jusid and Argentinian actor Luisina Brando, had on his decision to choose a creative life; among other things. (I am in New York and he was in Madrid, so in a sense our interview was very on point.)

Vehlinggo: You’ve done everything from orchestral scores to more electronic fare, such as in last year’s Orbiter 9. How did you approach scoring Life Itself? It’s a story with a complex fabric to it.

Federico Jusid: This film was a real challenge for me, mostly because I’ve had the chance to explore different colors, different tones, different music styles… Although I’ve had to score hybrid scores and pure orchestral scores in the past, this one had quite a pop color.

I think Dan’s language is close to the pop. I mean not only musically, but the narrative has something direct, very seductive. It’s laid back and profound, but not in a pretentious way. It’s lyrical, but not in an operatic way. The music should probably do the same.

So when I was brought on board, one of the challenges was to accompany and adapt to the language — not bring in huge and dense orchestral writing and big violin sweeps and scales. I try to understand the simplicity and directness of the dialogue and not overload that, because there is a lot of sentiment and depth in Dan’s work in a very informal way.

I think a composer’s mission is not to make each film sound like him, but to try to understand the nature, the language, the intentions of the filmmaker and to try to bring your soul to his discourse.

Life Itself poster
Life Itself poster. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

You can definitely see in the TV shows and films that Dan Fogelman has made, that there’s a really intimate nature to them — a particular type of nature, language, and intent. For Life Itself, were there any specific certain characters or certain themes you scored for along those lines?

One of the first tasks I dealt with was to write a set of variations on the [1997] Bob Dylan song, “Make You Feel My Love,” because this song is almost like another character in the film.

This song is played through different times and different points of view and different geographies. A bunch of these variations had to have a Spanish flavor, because part of the story happens in Spain, which is why I was the one chosen for this. [The song shows up in a Spanish guitar, a piano, a string orchestra, for example.]

The same way the theme works structurally, the rest of the score does something similar — themes connected to narrative motifs like Wagner would do. Some recurrent motifs that Dan explores: love, death… huge existential elements.. and how these elements are treated through different characters and different generations and different geographies. So one of my challenges was to approach the same motific material from a different point of view and from a different stenography — from the southern Spain aspect and from a New Yorker vibe.

In some way the film happens in different places, different times; but the core of the film stays the same. And I think one of the missions of the score was to follow this architecture. They have the same motif and same thematic material performed perhaps in different ways and different styles at the same time remaining the same.

Even with all of that happening, Fogelman’s work maintains a through-line that keeps everything glued together.

Dan is a virtuoso in screenwriting. He’s very polyphonic. If he were a composer, he’d be kind of a Bach… using different voices at the same time and keeping them all interesting. Not that one voice is a subsidiary of another one. He’s able to tell you three stories at the same time and keep you interested.

'Life Itself' composer Federico Jusid at TIFF.
‘Life Itself’ composer Federico Jusid at TIFF.

Zooming out a bit, you’ve been scoring film and television for 24 years. When scoring Life Itself, was there something new you learned — something you haven’t tapped into before? I’m thinking of a vibe or methodology.

Composers, or at least composers who have their hearts open, I think, will learn with every film because we work with different filmmakers who have different universes. In this one I learned big time — and I mean from a structural point of view — that Dan is a sophisticated architect and having to accompany the sophisticated architect of a film script takes analysis, improving, and questioning. “How am I going to do this — how will I build a leitmotif throughout time and geography?”

It’s challenging, because for this film I wanted this score to not sound alien to the pop songs in the film, yet I didn’t want it to sound like another song. For me, it’s interesting to write for a string ensemble but make it sound like a pop accompaniment — writing for piano or rhodes piano and making it sound like an interesting counterpart of that. In a way it’s as if the roles have been twisted. I don’t want the string orchestra to sound like Mozart, whereas in other films I’ve had to.

“How will I build a leitmotif throughout time and geography?”

In this… the [score] had to have the simplicity of a pop guitar player accompanying a song. The lyrics would be dialogue eventually. It was an interesting compositional challenge: Use an orchestra, but not make it sound intellectual, pretentious or bombastic, but simple and direct.

Could you tell me a bit more about how you and Dan did the score?

With Dan I was so fortunate — this is something that my fellow composers will understand well — when I got to the cutting room to watch the film with him and Julie [Monroe], the editor — most of the temp score was mine from other films.

That’s so fortunate, because it’s very common, especially in the US industry, that the director or editor or producers are used to a certain temp score that they love. They develop this “temp love” and you have to come up with something very good, if you’re lucky, and make them forget this “temp romance.”

They don’t know whether they love the temp because they love the temp, or because they have been listening to that for months — thousands of times — and it’s very difficult when they have the scene connected to certain music that articulates in a certain way with certain syntaxes, to change that.

In this case I was so fortunate to land a film that was already finished and they had been using a lot of my music. Yes, I still had to beat that temp score, but in a way it was easy, because I wasn’t pretending to be someone else.

I think our duty in those cases is to understand what is it from that temp that they like. Is it the structure? Is it the sound, the color, the style, the pace? We have to deconstruct the elements to figure out what works so well for them, because of course there’s something. If that temp is successful it’s because there’s something good about it.

federico jusid life itself
‘Life Itself’ composer Federico Jusid on the red carpet at TIFF.

You’ve been a musician since you were about seven years old, when you began studying piano. After which you were formally trained in music at a few different schools, before becoming a composer in 1994, all the while composing your own non-film compositions. Basically, you’re a musician through and through, and yet you grew up surrounded by filmmakers and actors. What made you choose the music route, as opposed to the careers your parents have had.

Because I spent so much time of my youth in a green room in a theatre or at a theatre watching my mom rehearse or in a studio, I didn’t have the possibility of idealizing this [entertainment] world. Of course I love what they do. From very early on I knew music was something that got me deeply and I wanted to do that.

I’m so infected by my family history that even when I write for my concert music, I would say probably two-thirds of the concert music has some theatrical element.

I have a piano concerto where two performers have to do some acting, and then I have a bunch of chamber music pieces where the performers have to run around the stage or where conductor at some point turns around and recites a poem, and another one in which musicians run away at some point.

I try to get away from drama and theatre, but it’s in me. I went so far as producing a film and now I’m going to produce more. I’m also going to produce theatre. I’d never direct or act, because I know how difficult that is and how talented you have to be and how much skill you have to have to do that.

I think it’s human nature to be drawn to some kind of narrative.

It’s probably my lack of talent to write just pure concert music. Or, I find that nowadays it’s so so difficult to conceive a new orchestral piece that has something really interesting, and to follow that piece and be concentrated for even 20 minutes. There are so many wonderful pieces. Like with painting: What are you going to do after Picasso?

What are you going to do after Picasso?”

My musical limitations or just my history, or because of the fact that I grew up watching my mother rehearse Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, or I saw my father shooting a film and then accompanying him to the moviola — for me it’s very natural to structure the dramatic art of a piece on a kind of a script. If not a script, then an idea that is based on something that is extra-musical.

Before we sign off. Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m now wrapping a project that I am absolutely proud of, which by the way is absolutely opposite of the narrative of Life Itself. [The Netflix and BBC miniseries version of Watership Down, directed by Noam Murro,] is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen and done.

Imagine, for a film composer to have this canvass of animation, plus wonderful text and literature, and a story that’s animated but not soft and naive, but harsh… with drama and romanticism. It has it all in it. I’m very happy to share that with you.

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