The once-billionaire and now-convicted felon Elizabeth Holmes is a great example of the contemporary brand of narcissistic corporate fraudster. At a young age she bought into the cult of personality surrounding tech CEOs and leaned into that dynamic when doubling-down on a failed invention that could have revolutionized medicine if it had worked. Reality needs more than just a drop.
Seemingly more altruistic than fellow Millennial con artists such as Martin Shkreli or even Anna Delvey, Holmes in the end served up the same ol’ patent medicine that has tricked high-powered, wealthy, and presumably intelligent people — mostly old white men — for decades or even centuries in the United States. The tech startup cover and Steve Jobs worship made it more palatable to the media, tastemakers, and the suits, but it was inherently a classic grift.
The Dropout, the new Hulu miniseries created by Elizabeth Meriwether and starring Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, excels at capturing the roots, rise, and fall of Holmes and her once-storied Theranos corporation. It energetically follows Holmes through her younger years as a wannabe billionaire to Theranos’ promise of changing the world with one drop of blood to the very obvious fact that it all was built on a very expense house of cards. Key to propelling the narrative is composer Anne Nikitin’s novel and compelling synth score, which never overtakes or disappears and instead offers a poignant complement to the story.
Going into it, Nikitin knew about as much as any of us about Holmes and Theranos — the typical news reports and maybe some podcast episodes, but not the more comprehensive story. Once she signed on and got a look into Holmes’ rather messed up world, she was able to use electronic means to capture the artifice and unbelievable qualities of the narrative.
“[Working on the series] gave me an insight into her back story and… how somebody becomes that way and maintains it and goes crazy with it as well,” Nikitin, whose score work includes Lost Girls, American Animals, and The Imposter, said in a recent Zoom interview with Vehlinggo.
Here, we dive into the scoring philosophy for The Dropout, how it all came together, and what it was like for Nikitin to rely on synthesizers when they are not her traditional scoring medium, among other things. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Vehlinggo: I’ve seen the first few episodes of The Dropout and what struck me was your choice to go full synthetic/electronic, which isn’t something you typically do, based on what I’ve heard of your mostly acoustic and organic resume. Nevertheless, Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes and that whole thing are “synthetic” in the sense that it’s all artifice. It’s all some iteration of reality. How much of that element had an impact on your instrumental and composition choices?
Anne Nikitin: When I spoke with Elizabeth Meriwether, the showrunner and executive producer, our early ideas were to create a synth score for the lab [and] for the tech; and for the rest of it to be quite organic and to use real instruments — whenever she’s not in the science.
Then we realized, as we went on, that it just wasn’t really working with all of the organic music. I had come on quite early and was able to sketch [electronic music] ideas, which meant the editors could throw my ideas into the cuts. And it just really seemed that the electronic music was working [better].
There was one cue that [Meriwether] really loved, called “Beijing.” [It was] the sound [Meriwether] wanted for Elizabeth Holmes. I ended up creating a whole bunch of variations based on the sounds that I had used for that track — building on that.
However, there were a few moments when I did revert to live, more organic instruments. For example, I used a drum kit, as you’ll hear in episode 4 when the Walgreens guys come in. They’re hilarious. It’s a really funny episode called “Old White Men.” So we thought, let’s go for a ‘70s sound. We then reduced it to just the drum kit with a couple of bits of synth around it. But that’s one of the few times I used a live instrument.
There are a couple of moments with Elizabeth’s mom toward the end of the series that feel quite real — it’s the only time you see the real Elizabeth Holmes with real emotions. I recorded myself doing a couple bits with guitar, but again it’s making it a little bit loopy and making sure it embeds well into the synth world.
One thing that struck me watching this: I listen to and write about a lot of synth-based film and TV scores, but you managed to pull it off without sounding like everyone else. Given the renewed popularity and ubiquity of synth scores over the past decade — and especially the past five or six years — some of them can blend together even if they’re well done. How were you able to pull this off?
Thank you. That’s a very good compliment! Maybe [it’s] because I’m not very comfortable with synths. It’s not my natural go-to. I love listening to synth music, but I was never one of those kids who wanted to know what the synth was or cared where that sound came from. I was really into organic instruments, especially when I was writing music. I loved rock music and string music… and merging those two worlds together. But I’ve never written a score that was pure synths to this extent.
I was nervous in many ways, because I know that there are lots of boys with toys who know their synths inside-out and they know what everything does. I just don’t. I just played around and decided that I’m not very comfortable in this world, but I’m gonna just embrace it. I’m just gonna have fun.
I tried to stay away from the pure, gorgeous synths you hear in Blade Runner. I love acoustic instruments. So I decided I’d still use acoustic sounds, but synth versions of them. I’ve got [synth] bells or flutes rather than the real thing.
“It’s like a cauldron. You just stick stuff in it and create a potion.”
So, essentially, you’re not dogmatic about it. You’re not trying to do another Vangelis or Jan Hammer or Tangerine Dream score.
Yeah, I wasn’t inhibited by a dogmatic approach. I think it was more fun just to experiment — to take some patches that exist as they are, like a violin, and add some plugins or effects to that. I don’t think pure electronic composers would do that — they would really go down to the nitty gritty and make their own sounds. I combined out-of-the-box sounds with my own and really loved messing around with plugins and effects.
It’s like a cauldron. You just stick stuff in it and create a potion.
You have a rather varied body of work on your resume — everything from Lost Girls and American Animals to the Trial of Ratko Mladic and Chuck Norris vs. Communism and all points in between. I’m wondering if you see any common thematic threads between the projects you’ve chosen to work on?
That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it. I started off in documentary and I really love a good documentary. I like a good old, true story. But [The Dropout] really spoke to me. I love the intrigue and I love the psychology behind Elizabeth Holmes. Another favorite film of mine that I scored was American Animals, which is a true story dramatized. I really loved it. It’s a weird hybrid genre: the actual guys are being interviewed as the drama’s going on. I love the craziness behind these stories — the quirky aspect of these characters. So I suppose I’m drawn to that.
I also seem to get lured into doing a lot of depressing [material] — murders, horror, and depressing stories — which I like doing, because I find happy music to be quite difficult to write. Which I’m sure a lot of composers will say.
Are there any future projects you can discuss? I’m sure I can speak for everyone when I say we’re eager to hear what you have in store. And are you going to do more synth-driven fare?
I’ve got one that I’m working on at the moment. I can’t really say what it is yet, but it’s going to be a classical score. It’s a period drama. Later this year I’m going to be working on a sci-fi film, which I’m super excited about because I’ve always wanted to score a sci-fi space film. And I’ll get to use synths again.
Anne Nikitin’s score for The Dropout releases April 1 via Hollywood Records. The series also stars Michael Ironside, Stephen Fry, Laurie Metcalf, William H. Macy, and many more, and new episodes pop up on Hulu weekly.