Score composer Julian Scherle sleeps outside in a tent most nights. Specifically, outside of his house on the property on which he lives in the mountains outside of Los Angeles. It’s a source of inspiration, even for his work on technology-laden mystery film Missing, out now in theatres.
Although his means for crafting the music for the film show up in vastly electronic forms with some traditional orchestration mixed in — Cliff Martinez-esque ambient synth arps pulsate delicately on the same score that features digital sonics bit-crushed many many times into a staggeringly abrasive blast of ones and zeroes, meanwhile Herrmannesque strings, a piano, horns, and other acoustic fare await their turn — it is his habit toward outdoors slumber that inspired the film’s main theme.
Early one morning, before sunrise, the German-born Scherle was outside sleeping in his tent, while outside the snow fell with measured obligation. An epiphany struck and he awoke abruptly with a melody in his head.
“It’s like, “Shit, that’s a theme!” Scherle told Vehlinggo recently in a Zoom chat. So he leapt out of the tent, trudged through the snow, and entered his studio to sketch the theme. “I always have my computers running, so I can get in and start working right away.”
After he had something going, he showed it to the film’s directors, Nick Johnson and Will Merrick.
“The moment I played it for [them], they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s it; that’s the theme’,” Scherle said.
Missing, which stars Storm Reid, Joaquim de Almeida, Ken Leung, Amy Landecker, Daniel Henney, and Nia Long, is a sequel of sorts to director Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 film, Searching. (It’s essentially an installment in the same world, but not the same story.) Like its predecessor, Missing takes place largely on screens. You see the whole story play out on things like phones, webcams, and related fare. Reid plays June Allen, a teen trying to find her missing mother (Long) after the latter disappears in Colombia while on a trip with new beau, Kevin (Leung). Fans of the The Office should take note: Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute, makes an appearance.
The Bavarian Scherle comes to Missing with a background that includes working as an additional composer for Vehlinggo favorite Mac Quayle, who among other things has scored Mr. Robot and American Horror Story and was himself once an additional composer on films like Drive, The Neon Demon, and Contagion. As with Missing, Scherle is also the main composer on upcoming Amazon series Luden and previously served that role on the Michael Shannon-starring Heart of Champions in 2021 and 2019’s Princess of the Row, among many more.
Mr. Robot, was, of course, centered on technology, too, although the main themes focused on malefactors’ use of it to perpetuate societal rot. (I’m being very general here, because of course the show also dealt with grief and mental illness.) The score had a noticeable glitch to it, and Scherle had come to work for Quayle on the project with a background centered on glitchy electronic music back in Germany. Pair that with Quayle’s own background with electronic music (both as a remixer of acts like New Order and Madonna, and his work with Martinez), and what resulted was somewhat of a prediction of the kind of material we hear on Missing.
“I’m a pretty big synth fan and, [along with] that glitchy kind of stuff, I really fit into the sonic world of Mr. Robot,” Scherle says. “It was a really cool show to work on and Mac is a very pleasant guy.”
Not long after, Quayle took over American Horror Story composing duties, beginning in season 4 (AHS: Freak Show). He would go on to score several Ryan Murphy shows. Scherle was along for the ride for additional Murphy fare, such as Scream Queens and American Crime Story. He says the experience informed his approach to his solo composing gigs.
Going from a more leisurely pace with one show to doing several concurrently taught Scherle to be able to create effective cues efficiently — to be “able to write music that works as quickly as you possible can in that [short] time frame, and not play around with EQ settings… or should we compress this a little bit more,” he said. “You know, the small stuff that we can really get caught up in. You have to keep moving.”
He also learned the art of swift revisions.
“You have to be fast at understanding the notes you get back that can sometimes be a little bit cryptic, and translating that into musical terms and sending it back as quickly as possible,” Scherle says. “It was a great time.”
Making Ugly Sounds Beautiful
A few years later, we find Scherle celebrating the Jan. 20 release of Missing in theatres, along with Milan Records’ release of his score album on digital platforms. During the composition process, beyond traditional orchestration and familiar synthesizer techniques, Scherle did some transcending. (Noted film music journalist Todd Gilchrist in his review of the film in Variety said Scherle offered a “buzzing, fairly constant score” that “[ratchets] up” the film’s “intensity.”)
“The very basic question that Will, Nick, and I had was what’s the human technology interface and how does that change how you interact with another human? If we’re both sitting in the same room, we interact differently than through the screen that we’re on right now,” Scherle says. “What gets lost on the way, basically?”
With that in mind, he explored a few different ideas. One thing he did was program his computers to compress audio files up to 5,000 times. The result was a kind-of controlled sonic chaos.
He looked at audio compression and what that does to the listener emotionally. The result is generally that the more compression there is, the more anxiety-inducing the sounds are for the listener, he said.
“If you hear some brass instruments in real life and then someone plays you a heavily compressed brass instrument, there is a completely different emotion,” he said.
So he wrote a script — a set of programming instructions for a computer — that “took some sound material and recompressed it with the worst possible mp3 settings hundreds of times to see what the end result would be and what it would do,” Scherle said. “[The end result] is digital garbage. It sounds absolutely horrendous.”
He then used what was a soup of compression artifacts as a basis for manipulation with instruments like digital synthesizers or through methods like granular synthesis to create new musical elements.
Another aspect of his methodology was deploying a microphone that captures electrical interference off various devices and machines, rather than sounds like a typical audio mic would.
“I spent multiple days just walking around my house, though the studio, recording all kinds of digital noises,” he says. He also recorded the various digital sounds his Toyota Prius makes. “They’re really unpleasant, but you can reuse those sounds to create actual music out of it.”
And then there was the implementation of AI and machine learning, which isn’t a practice commonly associated with film music (or most music in general, really).
“I trained different systems for re-synthesis of specific input sounds and output sounds, and could use those previous two [experiments] as input material,” Scherle says. “And then I used a bunch of dialogue from Storm Reid and trained the systems to re-synthesize those sounds.”
Furthermore, Scherle tapped into Colombian instrumentation to meet the musical heritage of the setting. That entailed including pan flute and the string-based percussion instrument berimbau in his compositions. Although, naturally, they were processed in such a way that they may not be entirely conspicuous.
Can You Sing It?
That main theme for Missing that Scherle conjured up in his tent-wrapped dreams is a memorable mix of much of his experimental processes and modalities, but one key element I haven’t touched on yet is that Scherle really wanted to make it something you can’t sing. It’s a mystery flick and a theme you could hum just wouldn’t be entirely complementary.
“There’s a Germany show that I remember from when I was a kid, and it has a theme you cannot sing,” he said, before laughing and adding, “and I always thought it was so cool. In your head you hear it — it’s right there — but you just cannot sing it.”
It’s great, tech-laden cue among dozens of compelling and often unorthodox tracks, forged in a very low-tech, traditional environment.
“I like being connected to my surroundings.. and waking up when the world around me wakes up,” Scherle said. “The birds start chirping and the light creeps up on the horizon. I just feel very connected.”
You can see Missing now in theatres near you and check out the soundtrack album on all of your favorite digital platforms.