Words by Sean Wilson
It’s not every day that one gets a new Ghostbusters movie, and it’s not every day that a composer is asked to step into the almighty shoes of the legendary Elmer Bernstein. However, this was the challenge faced by the versatile Rob Simonsen when his regular collaborator Jason Reitman asked him to score Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
Although Simonsen and Reitman have established a partnership via the likes of Tully and The Front Runner, neither have veered into the realm of blockbuster filmmaking until now. With Reitman adopting the mantle of his father Ivan, who helmed the 1984 and 1989 Ghostbusters movies, it fell to Simonsen to channel the spirit of Bernstein’s menacing score from the first film.
Given that music is so intrinsic to the Ghostbusters lore (Ray Parker Jr., of course, gets a shoutout here), we had a lot to discuss. Rob revealed how he traced elements of Bernstein’s material and blended them seamlessly with his own, with the final product materialising as a deliriously enjoyable and nostalgic hybrid score.
The original Ghostbusters is a sacred cow and so many people cherish it. Were you one of the original generation fans?
Yeah, I was born in 1978 so the original Ghostbusters was definitely part of the canon of eighties films that I grew up with. It was the first film that creeped me out. In the eighties, we watched everything. I was watching Commando when I was little. But Ghostbusters had a lot of adult stuff. I remember thinking that it was creepy, but I was laughing as well.
I remember the music was scary, the big, imposing brass chords. It's very apocalyptic. It definitely rattled me a bit. But I loved that movie. I watched it more times than I could count when I was growing up. I was a fan of the franchise and the gear and the sounds. Working with Jason on the new movie was great. When he called me up and told me he was doing it, I was like, "Alright! Let's give it a whirl."
That must be a career high point, right? The director with whom you've worked before on Tully and The Front Runner rings you up and invites you to work on the new Ghostbusters movie.
Honestly, it was a bit of a shocker. Jason likes making indie films, and this was a big-budget, action-adventure, sci-fi spectacle. It was great. I really appreciated how this was a very personal film for Jason. He grew up on the set and this was his life. You can feel the awe that he had as a kid for the franchise and for his father, Ivan's, work. It was a passing of the torch, and I knew it would be a musical passing of the torch as well.
When Jason and I met for the first time, he said that he wanted to use Elmer's themes, he wanted it to feel like the original and he wanted us to record the ondes martenot. He wanted the same kind of sound world. But after I read the script, I knew that the film was going to go in a lot of new directions. If there's something that's familiar from the original, we tended to reach for it, and sometimes we simply re-recorded Elmer's cues.
I also have to mention Peter Bernstein, Elmer's son, who is a wonderful composer and a fantastic orchestrator. He orchestrated for his father on the original 1984 Ghostbusters score. We rang him up and wanted him to be a keeper of the flame, part of the brain trust. It was great to have somebody there who could weigh in and say, "We would have put a timpani hit there" or "We would have doubled this with this" or "We would have pulled out this instrument for this passage".
It was a wonderfully educational time, working on this film and digging into Elmer's score. We were very mindful of it. Jason and I knew that this wasn't a case of taking the Ghostbusters theme and putting an EDM beat on it, or trying to snazz it up, trying to make it hip. We wanted to do something that sounded like the mid-eighties. This was my homage to the scores I loved listening to as I was growing up.
I studied the scores of mid-eighties adventure films & watched a lot of those movies again.
There were trace elements of Jerry Goldsmith's Gremlins in there, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Is it fair to say that your score is a celebration of the orchestral and electronic techniques from the period?
The ondes martenot is an early synthesiser if you can call it that. It's an electric musical instrument, one of the first of its kind. But there's a synth from the 80s called the Yamaha DX7. Goldsmith used that on Gremlins and Elmer Bernstein used it on Ghostbusters. You just hear it on every 1980s film score. So I bought one.
That was the only synth that we used. In fact, I pretty much used exclusively the patches that were in the original. Peter has been doing live Ghostbusters concerts, and he owns a DX7. We had a bit of fun with all of that. But there's Goldsmith and Williams and Horner and Silvestri. Those guys were the sound of my youth. So inspiring. This was my moment to give a nod to my upbringing.
I think you've done a magisterial job with it, and I love the way the score is mixed in the movie. A good mix is not something you can always guarantee in today's blockbuster movies. You've worked on a lot of character dramas for the likes of Jason Reitman and Bennett Miller, but given that Ghostbusters is itself driven by its characters, do you see this score as a personal departure?
Yes and no. It was definitely new territory for me It was my first homage score. I studied the scores of mid-eighties adventure films and I watched a lot of those movies again. I studied how they scored those scenes and how they felt. I looked at how busy things could be underneath the dialogue and used lots of wind runs.
There are a lot of things that have recently fallen out of favour in film scoring. Working on this score was new in terms of the orchestrational techniques that we used. It was also about the spirit, as in how, how were we trying to affect the picture?
I was having a conversation with Patricia Sullivan at Bernie Grundman Mastering, the company that mastered the record. I asked her: why do eighties scores sound the way that they do? They still have a special place in the hearts of so many people. And her response was amazing, she said: "We were more innocent back then."
It's so true that we could lean into that sense of optimism and hope. We didn't know all the messed-up stuff that was happening in the world, whereas now we're flooded with information about atrocities 24 hours a day. It's hard for us to make things that have that kind of unabashed optimism.
Legacy is key to the movie and it's writ large primarily through the handing of the baton from Ivan to Jason. Was that an important part of the mission brief regarding the score?
I think the direction was: "Get dressed up in the clothes of the original and walk to new places." But Jason told every department, "This is not about your voice." It was about the voice of everyone contributing to the original.
He just went really deep on everything, the look of the special effects and the sound of the sound effects, everything. They dug up the sound effects from the original film. They got the tapes of the sound of the proton packs, the guns and the beams. It's all there. We're just lovingly taking this stuff and using our best judgment about how to carry it forward.
I ask a lot of film composers about the importance of spotting a movie. How did you work with Jason Reitman to spot the location of the original Elmer Bernstein themes?
Jason is a bit notorious for taking a cue that I wrote for one scene and saying, "No, it's not right here, but it works great for this." He'll take the music and put it where he wants.
This was a process for Jason and me both, in terms of how we normally work. I'm used to giving him a lot of sketches, which he then edits into the film as a first pass. We'll then look at it and fix it. That approach works in the other films we've worked on because they're more tonal. It's not mickey-mousing the action like in Ghostbusters. There was a little bit of a learning curve there. But Jason would always know when it was a touchstone Ghostbusters moment. I was happy to support.
Sometimes we'll have an Elmer cue that's an Elmer cue from beginning to end. There are others where we're quoting a piece of material, and the bars will match how it showed up in the original. Other times, we would take a theme or motif and re-harmonise it. Re-imagining the Ghostbusters theme as a dramatic piece was pretty fun. It's got a little bit of chromaticism in it. It was difficult working out how to re-voice it. It was a puzzle to solve, one among many. It was great fun.
Your score restores dignity to the Elmer Bernstein original because large sections of that were dialled down in the 1984 movie. In fact, I thought your placement of Bernstein's comedy theme found its natural emphasis in this movie with the adventures of the kids. Something old finds its outlet in something new.
The instrumentation for the original was very New York-sounding. This kind of old tack piano, jazzy sound, the kind you would hear at a bar in New York. Imagining that for the kids was the easy part.
Because of the way legacy works within the film, with the kids putting on the proton packs and taking things in new directions, I wanted to do the same thing with the theme. There are moments where that theme is not accompanied by the piano at all. It's rendered in a more dramatic, more orchestral way that you never really hear in the original.
There are plenty of people who will see this movie and have no idea. But if you're a fan of the original score, I think that there are lots of little Easter Eggs in the score. Lots of little nods to the original.
Finding an outlet for Bernstein's spooky Gozer/Zuul theme must have also been tremendously exciting.
Honestly, it was such a great playground. I could do whatever I wanted with the material as long as it was appropriate and handled correctly. In a lot of ways, cracking a theme and a sound and a palette for a film is one of the hardest parts of the process. So, to come in and discover the themes are already in place means the weight isn't on my shoulders.
There are new themes in the film that find their way as the film goes on, and they become a little more solid at the end. But what a treat! Someone else did all the hard work and you get to come in and play. It's fantastic.
I really appreciated how this was a very personal film for Jason [Reitman]. He grew up on the set and this was his life.
I really like your new theme, which takes full flight in the 'Reconciliation' cue. Did you lace thematic breadcrumbs in the build-up to that climactic track?
What's interesting is that statement was never intended to be a theme. It was in one of the sketches that I gave to Jason, and he loved it. He put it in a few different places. It was just a riff and I wondered how I was going to turn it into a theme. It was this weird little angular thing played on piccolo and different wind instruments.
Jason had such an affinity for this so it started showing up and I started figuring it out. As the riff turned up more and more in the film, it started to reveal itself to us. It became like the Spengler theme. Again, it was intended as a theme of the heart for an emotional scene. But it was another little puzzle to solve.
If you go back and look at how it shows up in the film, it arrives pretty early on, only not registering like a theme. It then descends in register and by the end, it's a full-blown thing. I'd love to say that I'm the mastermind behind putting the breadcrumbs there, but it was really me chasing it.
What orchestra did you use and how many players were present?
I think it was about 85 players. It was a Los Angeles orchestra that was put together by music contractor Gina Zimmitti. We recorded at Sony, which is the largest scoring stage in town. It may actually be the largest in America. It's not as big as Abbey Road 1, but it's a nice big room.
We did some sessions before COVID but a lot of them took place after COVID. We had to separate everyone, which is unfortunate because this is the kind of score where you really want everyone playing together. There was nothing we could do about it.
Presumably, there were individuals playing the speciality instruments like the ondes martenot?
The ondes was recorded remotely with Cynthia Millar who had played it on the original score. She played for a lot of Elmer scores and she was recorded remotely at Abbey Road.
Elmer Bernstein casts such a huge shadow over film music. Outside of Ghostbusters, which of his scores have had the biggest impact on you as an artist?
His Western stuff is iconic. He nailed it. To be honest, there were a lot of scores that I didn't know. I had never checked out the score for The Ten Commandments, but talk about apocalyptic and Biblical. You hear similar stylings between that and Ghostbusters in certain moments.
Bernstein definitely had different eras. He was the drama guy, then the Western guy and then the comedy guy. That happens to composers as they stick around for a while. You get these waves of being known for something, and you get called to do it again for a decade before it changes.
With Airplane!, Bernstein demonstrated that scoring comedy is even better when the music is played straight. When you came to score Ghostbusters: Afterlife, how much of a challenge was it to score the humour?
Most of the humour we ended up pulling from the original material. So it was more re-arrangements of that stuff. You know that you can laugh when you hear that music. We never wanted to take a highlighter to the jokes.
There are some moments where the music is playing something ominous while Podcast and Phoebe are cracking jokes. And it's the dichotomy that makes it funny because the kids are being funny while they're walking into the mouth of danger. As humans, we love that. Many of our favourite heroic characters do that like Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Basically any Harrison Ford character from the eighties! [laughs]
I love doing things that are understated where you get to make a lot of rules about the sound world.
One of your scores that I really like is Foxcatcher. The killing sequence is not scored but the sense of desolation comes in afterward as Steve Carell drives away with those stark piano notes. That was a brilliant approach. Is music more exposed in that kind of quiet, wintry, sparse movie?
Yes, actually it was the ultimate challenge that I didn't pass. In that scene, it's actually an Arvo Pärt piano piece. Bennett had cut that in. He's very good and thorough at crafting the sound world in his films. He creates a very heightened sonic world. Anything that you hear is deliberate. It makes for a spellbinding and mesmerising viewing experience. That spot was taken by Arvo Part but there are plenty of others.
I gave more versions of a single cue while working on that film than I have in any other film. Sometimes it was about playing with the volume of the entrance of a string note. Nothing's even moving; it's just how it comes in. I was really impressed by Bennett's sensitivity to that stuff. When you're working on a film like that where everything is controlled, it takes a lot of elbow grease to get it right. Sometimes there are accidents but more often one is slowly chipping away at it.
You also scored The Way, Way Back, which is a criminally overlooked film. Did scoring that movie also favour the 'less is more' approach?
We never did comedic scoring, and in most of the films that I've scored, the music isn't ever highlighting the jokes. I'm always trying to imagine what a character's inner world sounds like. What is the sound of their personality? What is the sound of their emotions, and their reactions to a particular moment?
I really related to that kid in The Way, Way Back. I had summers like that, feeling like the outcast in some town and going to the swimming pool. Everyone is running around with friends while I'm feeling out of place and I'm looking up to these older kids that feel like gods. I think I was able to channel what I felt and I think it worked. I agree that it's underrated. It's a lovely little film.
I always try to make music an invitation to a feeling, rather than try to be too heavy-handed. I tend to get calls for films where the directors are looking for that. But sometimes, you simply have to do what needs to be done and whack people over the head.
Would you happily work on more movies like Ghostbusters?
It's definitely fun. The answer is not 'no'. [laughs] I'm very happy about the projects that are finding me these days. Some of them are bigger-budget things and others are small indies showcasing directors with whom I'm thrilled to be working.
As far as I'm concerned, I'll try to maintain that balance. I love doing things that are understated where you get to make a lot of rules about the sound world. But being given an orchestra to bang around with? I'm incredibly humbled and feel grateful for that opportunity every day.