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Scoring ‘Assassination Nation’ with Ian Hultquist

Trap beats set against strings. Disembodied synths ripe for disintegration. Traditional symphony orchestra. Soundscapes and atmospherics.

Ian Hultquist’s memorable and innovative score for Sam Levinson’s battle cry Assassination Nation covers a lot of territory and there are moments when it sounds not like a score for a film set in Salem, Massachusetts, but SALEM. In other moments, there is the tempered crystalline beauty of Cliff Martinez. Other moments get a bit more pop-oriented.

At its core Hultquist’s score — which is out now on iTunes and everywhere else on Friday — is a powerful musical expression to help fuel a film dedicated in some ways to removing the boot from the neck of the oppressed. (With him for the ride is Isabella Summers of Florence and the Machine, with the cue “Rage,” along with the Jackson State University Marching Band covering Miley Cyrus.)

“It was a free-fall into audio weirdness.”

Hultquist and the filmmakers pull out all the stops to tell the tale of four young women who come together to take on hateful people such as misogynists, racists, and transphobes, in the fallout of a hack that exposes Salem’s deepest, darkest secrets. The dissolution of privacy unleashes a chaos that seems to serve as a kind of ablution for the sins of Salem, all the while commenting on our stranger- and worse-than-fiction modern era.

“I hope people feel empowered. I hope they feel they have a voice,” Hultquist said in a recent Skype interview with Vehlinggo. “… I feel like this movie speaks to a lot of people who feel voiceless and powerless. I want people to feel like they’re not alone.”

Ian Hultquist, film composer.
Ian Hultquist, film score composer.

‘More and More Relevant’

The Chicago native Hultquist’s musical career has been the province of two different approaches: As a founding keyboardist and guitarist in Passion Pit, one of the most popular electropop/indie bands of the past 20 years; and as a film composer, creating music for documentaries (among those, Andrew Rossi’s Ivory Tower and The First Monday in May, and Erin Lee Carr’s Mommy Dead & Dearest) and feature films (AnimalsLove & Bananas: An Elephant Story, A-X-L, and The Gospel According to André).

With some films under his belt and more on the way, it was back in the fall of 2016 that Hultquist first read the script for Assassination Nation, which stars Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Anika Noni Rose, Colman Domingo, Maude Apatow, Joel McHale and Bella Thorne.

“Obviously, it was a weird time in this country,” he said. “[The script] felt so relevant and I thought ‘who knows; by the time it comes out it might not mean anything anymore.” Of course, the past couple of years have shown that “it has become more and more relevant.”

Hultquist spent a year working on the score in a collaborative process that differed from what you’d consider the more standard approach: a composer writes to the image on screen and just gets notes from the director. In this case, Hultquist worked with Levinson and other members of the production in a host of unique ways.

assassination nation

“The first thing that Sam Levinson said to me was ‘there are no rules, do whatever you want; we’re going to try anything and everything’,” Hultquist said. “We went on some interesting paths for a while.”

The first couple of months the score had a western vibe to it, because Hultquist felt the film was a kind of western.

“After we got over that hump, we said ‘we’re not one genre, we’re all genres’,” Hultquist said. “That’s why you do hear trap beats set against strings; synths being mangled; something that is almost a pop song that falls apart into ambient mush.”

They experimented a lot of with sound degradation to get that mangled sound. In some instances, the film’s editors would take a cue that Hultquist wrote, plop it into ProTools, and stretch it using the lowest-quality setting. This might sound bad in a technical sense — gritty, crushed, and unsettling — but the outcome is highly appropriate to the film.

“It was a free-fall into audio weirdness,” Hultquist says.

In a statement Levinson expanded on that.

“We had a big breakthrough when Ian started chopping and screwing up the tracks, focusing on the hi-hats and a percussive quality,” Levinson said in a press release. “Ian would send over tracks and I’d slow them down and play them backwards and send it back to him to show him how crazy I wanted it.”

To Picture or Not To Picture

Hultquist didn’t often “write to picture,” as they say in the biz. Generally, composers will have score-less scenes, or even a full film, to which to write music, but as established above, with Assassination Nation things were different.

“It was something that was hard for me to do at first. For years I trained to write to picture,” he said. Hultquist studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston before he joined Passion Pit. Even after he left the band and began to score full-time, he was generally creating music as he watched images move on a screen.

During the making of Assassination Nation “I was having a hard time not writing to picture, but Sam encouraged me to try that more and more,” Hultquist continued. “Now that I’ve gone through that it’s helped me to be a better composer — because I’m not tied to picture.”

Sometimes a piece of music can fit too well if its attached to the images on the screen. Maybe it’s too perfect — too natural. “There’s not enough of a creative weirdness to it,” he says.

If a film’s editors just have some cues to work with that aren’t tied to a particular scene, it can give them the ability to mix and match cues to see what fits, or what is an audacious pairing. I like to consider it a Brian Wilson-type approach  — when he was recording “Good Vibrations” and SMiLE, he’d record all the songs in modules that could be rearranged to create new songs in a variety of different manifestations.

A cue that stands out to Hultquist is “The Shootout,” a torn-up onslaught of malfunctioning and degraded sounds that is nevertheless a powerful and melodic track that is effective both in the context of the film and outside it.

“The note from Sam was that this needs to not sound like any other movie,” Hultquist says.

Even as Hultquist lauded the disentanglement of moving images from the writing process, he still lauded the traditional process. For composers moving across different types of media, such as documentaries, feature films, or television, they are confronted with a particularly important truth: you are but one part of a team and every project is different.

“I’m reminded every time, especially with Assassination Nation, that every film is its own beast — its own animal — and you need to be malleable enough to adapt yourself to each one,” Hultquist says.

Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Abra in 'Assassination Nation.' Courtesy of NEON.
Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Abra in ‘Assassination Nation.’ Courtesy of NEON.

A Composer’s Life

It’s clear that Hultquist’s foray from film-score student to the indie-pop world to film scoring as a profession has been a fruitful success. He’s made a great go of it, as his IMDB page proves.

“When I jumped from the band, that was a scary moment for me,” Hultquist says, “because I was part of it for so long and people only knew me through that. I felt like I was relying on it too strongly. I just wasn’t sure how [a film-score composer career] was going to go. I felt I could do it, but you just never know.”

As I spoke with him, he was working again with Carr on a score for a new documentary of hers, only this time he is again partnering up with his wife, the profoundly talented Sofia Hultquist. (Vehlinggo readers will recognize her as Drum & Lace.) Ian Hultquist is the composer for director Karen Maine’s upcoming feature film Yes, God, Yes, starring Natalia Dyer, who you know as Nancy Wheeler on Stranger Things. He’s also making his foray back into the world of bands, working with LA act Dear Boy.

Ian Hultquist

Overall, Hultquist says he feels thankful about where his life has led him.

“I’m such a skeptical person,” he says, “but I’m starting to feel like I created a new career for myself.”

And his partner in all of this is Sofia. Their LA home has a studio inside the house and in the garage, providing a life filled with music and a sense of discovery. As mentioned earlier, they’ve scored projects together in the past and will again in the future.

“Sofia is my constant motivator, sounding board, and inspiration,” Hultquist said. “She hears almost every note I write, and I am always eager to hear what she thinks first. On Assassination Nation, since it was such a crazy and long process, with lots of cooks in the kitchen, she wasn’t as involved musically. However, she was there for me as moral support, which I definitely needed at times.”

You can currently buy the Lakeshore Records-released Assassination Nation via iTunes. On Friday it will be available on additional digital platforms. The film is out now in movie theatres all over.