Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things hits Netflix today (4 Sept 2020) and brings his usual chaotic brand of existentialism to a story of a couple on a snowy roadtrip, played by Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley, with Toni Collette and David Thewlis in supporting roles as Plemons’ parents. The film features a whole host of pop culture references, with one of the main ones being the musical Oklahoma. Towards the end of the film, there is a stunning seven-minute ballet sequence, which takes place in a High School. As well as songs from Oklahoma, Plemons also sings an 50s-style advertising jingle for ice cream stand Tulsey Town (which only exists in the world of the film).
Composer Jay Wadley had the challenge of incorporating these musical elements into the film, as well as writing an original score that deliberately referenced known works and would sound familiar to audiences. Unlike most of us, Wadley has been having quite the year, scoring Sundance film I Carry You With Me and the critically-acclaimed Driveways.
This interview will make little sense if you haven’t seen the film, so it’s highly recommended that you watch it first!
How did you get involved with this project and why did you want to be involved?
Anthony Bregman, one of the producers on the film, from Likely Story is the one who reached to me and thought of me for the project. We had worked together before on James Schamus’ Indignation which I scored back in 2016 and we had a great time working on that together. He thought I was uniquely suited for this project based on what the needs were, musically and he reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be involved. I was a bit taken aback and shocked and thrilled and terrified and all of those things simultaneously! He sent me over the script for me to check out before I spoke with Charlie. I’ve been a long-time fan of Charlie’s work, I think that goes without saying, he’s always been a filmmaker that has intrigued me, with his thoughtfulness and the way he constructs his narratives – all those self-referential, meta and surrealist aspects of his films have always really drawn me in and I’ve been so attracted to that.
I come from a classical music background and I think that Charlie constructs his films in a way that resonates with me. The way I used to think about thematic development within classical music, it has this cyclical, self-referencing nature to it. It’s a bit more of an academic exercise sometimes and to be able to get into that in a film score was super exciting for me.
You mentioned self-referencing there, I’m very interested in how the music fits into one of the film’s main themes, which is that nothing is original and everything is inspired by or regurgitated from other sources. I understand that you wanted the music to remind the audience of other pieces?
Yeah, absolutely. That was something that was very intentional from the get-go. Particularly, with regards to the ballet, the way that I intended that to work was for it to feel very familiar, as if you could have possibly heard this before. Maybe in a piece by Debussy or Ravel or a Stravinsky ballet – it feels like it could be from one of the those composers but it’s not. It’s been internalised, it’s been reprocessed and worked into this character’s individual narrative, the alternative narrative for his own life. That’s what I found so intriguing about the film, is that it references these external pieces of literature and film and brings them into the film and presents them as its own ideas, I thought that was so great. So that was my intention in reflecting it, without literally quoting anything else because I don’t ever quote anything, but I do very intentionally, in every situation, try to make it as authentically something as the piece is trying to be.
So, for the movie-within-the-movie, I made a score that was supposed to be sort of a traditional rom-com score, maybe reminiscent of John Debney. Then the 1950s style jingle that’s part of the fever-dream piece at the end, I wanted it to feel very authentic, as if it could literally be a real ice cream jingle from the 50s. There’s a lot of other self-referencing, even within the score itself, I wanted to make it sound as if it could have existed prior to this film. The whole sequence at the end, there’s elements of the ballet stretched out, slowed down and reversed and run through tape recorders and layered on top of each other. You get the jingle reversed and stretched out. It’s all supposed to be as if his synapses are firing off and there’s lots of crazy connections being made, his memory is coming in and out of focus. That’s the approach I took with the score, in trying to mirror some of the thematic elements of the film itself.
I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the Tulsey Town jingle, how did you approach it and what were you working with, did you have any visuals while you were working on it?
I didn’t have any visuals, both the jingle and the ballet I had to write prior to shooting, so that all of that could be baked into the movie. With the jingle, Charlie had sent me some references of old 1950s jingles from various times, because he has this interesting obsession with old time commercials, especially the animation and how creepy they are, in retrospect they’re so disturbing. So he had some really great things to share with me and he wrote lyrics for the jingle and told me how he wanted it to play out. So I did a little bit of research on those things and the interesting challenge was in trying to write something that feels organically from that time and feels familiar from the get-go, so you’re not sure whether or not it has existed prior to this.
The biggest challenge, I’m presuming, was probably the ballet sequence. What was the process of writing that like? I know you had to come up with it in advance, what were you given to work with?
When we first began, there was the possibility that we were going to use – because there’s two songs from the musical Oklahoma – there was talk of maybe trying to use the ballet from Oklahoma. But it just wasn’t going to work within the structure and narrative of what the ballet actually needed to achieve, so it was clear that we were going to have to do an original ballet. Pretty much what I got was in the script, there was a scene description, with all the various parts of what happens in the ballet spelled out eg “Lucy turns the corner and walks down the hall and sees Jake down the hallway, their representations come and stand behind them, they switch places, they run towards each other and jump into a big embrace and perform a pas de deux” all of that stuff was spelled out, as far as the general actions and descriptions of what these scenes would look like and feel like. Based off of that scene description, I just had to imagine what this would look like and kind of time that out. Music and dance draws actions out in time, so it’s not the same as if it’s happening in real time, it’s drawn out to really get something dramatic.
So I sketched out a rough structure and timings to get approval from Charlie. I dug into some themes, of what that felt like – there’s the whole mysterious opening sequence, there’s the big running towards each other and leaping into each other’s arms for the big love scene and they perform that pas de deux and then it transitions into a wedding sequence, then the janitor comes in – so all of those moments were score points for me, that I had to take into consideration while composing this piece. I had to make sure there were definable changes in tone and character to give the choreographer enough material to play with, so I had to make sure those things were obvious and really worked together. So once I got that initial pass and structure together, luckily we were on the same page about it pretty quickly, Charlie didn’t have too many notes for me, there was no starting from scratch or anything like that. He was really open to my perspective on it, I came to it with the perspective of “I think it would be really great if it is reminiscent of classic ballet and really is referential and reverential to that tradition” and he was on board, it was great.
So once I got that fully fleshed out, I passed it over to the choreographer Peter Walker of the New York City ballet, it was really great because I got to go and meet him at Lincoln Center and run through those rehearsals with him. We made a couple of minor adjustments, like running down the hall, this is probably a little bit long, let’s shorten this based on the actual physical space. Peter had the opportunity to go and see what the location was like and when you’re working with music and dance that exists in time, it also exists in space. It was a fun puzzle to work out together.
The Oklahoma finale – I believe you were involved in that, in terms of working with Jesse Plemons?
Yeah – I went and recorded Jesse Plemons at a studio here in New York and got to work with him. I brought in an amazing music director to help work through performance stuff and Charlie was there to deal with character performance aspects. It was a lot of fun, I got to spend some time with him recording Lonely Room and spend some time with Hadley Robinson who played the girl who was singing Many a New Day earlier on.
And then I recorded the orchestra after the fact, so I recorded their vocals just with piano accompaniment and then I recorded the orchestra in Nashville about nine months later. It was a lot of fun because with the Many a New Day aspect of things, I was working with the same orchestra but we wanted to make it sound like it was an amateur High School orchestra, so I had to coach them in how to unlearn playing their instruments. When I realized that the orchestra was actually going to be onscreen, I’m always a stickler when I watch films, when you see musicians onscreen or you see a conductor onscreen, that they look like they’re playing the music that they are supposed to be playing. So I had the opportunity to actually be the High School conductor and I appear onscreen for like two seconds (laughs).