How Oneohtrix Point Never Made One Of The Year’s Best Soundtracks
As Oneohtrix Point Never, New York-based electronic producer Daniel Lopatin has mastered the art of shape-shifting, otherworldly compositions that sometimes feel impossible to describe. In many cases, you have to hear it to believe it. Lopatin has been making textured, highly composed electronic music as Oneohtrix Point Never for a decade now on albums like Russian Mind and 2015's sprawling Garden of Delete, where he created alien sonic landscapes that often felt like they could be the soundtrack to a hallucinatory sci-fi odyssey.
In that sense, Lopatin might not be an obvious choice for a crime movie set in modern-day New York City. But Josh and Benny Safdie, the directing duo behind last month's Good Time, saw in Lopatin an ideal collaborator, an artist who could help bring their schizophrenic, jittery vision of New York City to life. In the movie, Robert Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, an amateur criminal who, after a botched bank robbery, spends one insane night trying to free his brother from police custody. For Lopatin, who has collaborated with FKA twigs and worked on the score to Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, the opportunity represented a new challenge, one that paid off when he won the award for best soundtrack at this year's Cannes Film Festival. We spoke to Lopatin recently about why the Safdie brothers are destined for greatness, how New York city influenced the score, and shooting the shit with Robert Pattinson in the studio.
Had you watched the movie without music at one point or did you just start making music for the soundtrack?
They had a rough cut going. They weren't quite done with it, but it was enough to start, and it was just very evident how important music could be to a film like this when I watched it. There's just this energy chasm that can be filled in the movie by music because it is kind of like an action movie in its own way. It deals with those kind-of action movie dynamics, like Indiana Jones-style, where someone's really stressed out, and then there's release, and then they're stressed again, and so on and so forth for an hour and a half. That's a rhythmic thing, and immediately my first reaction to watching it was like, "Oh, okay, we're going to really need to figure out a way to define for myself what high energy is, what rhythm is, what tension is." And that's something I do, but I avoid drum machines at all costs—I hate them.
Because when it's a drum machine or a recognizable element of a drum kit, I always feel like it's getting pulled back down to earth, and that's just not a place where I want to be.
Did you want the soundtrack to feel classic or modern?
I wanted to do something that was in the tradition of the genre, in the crime sense. We were looking at examples from across a whole array of stuff like that, but we weren't specifically pinpointing this retro thing—that's just built-in implicitly to the way the Safdies and I think. We're not into things being old, we're just into history.
Did you have any relationship with the Safdies before this project, or did they contact you out of the blue?
It was out of the blue, but we knew about each other and we were both in New York, running in different circles, and I was a fan of their film Heaven Knows What. If you're in New York and you're at all aware of what's going on, then you know about these kids, because they just stand out and are really big personalities. So yeah, we just met up and were immediately in the soup.
Where do you and the Safdies overlap, creatively?
I never really thought about it. It starts with all that cinephile stuff, like, in early high school and discovering Tarantino and then going deeper and deeper from that point. Tarantino was a student of film who then became an educator of film to people like me and a whole generation of kids who grew up on his suggestions. That really got me obsessed with all the great ‘70s cinema and that is still in my DNA. And here's the best way to put it: That thing with Robert Altman movies, where you let people talk over each other? I see that as a broader philosophy, and I apply that to music. I get nervous when things start to feel too much like a song and not like something more fundamentally real or cosmic or complex or mysterious about reality. And the Safdies just completely jive with that.
How much of this soundtrack reflects the mental state of characters and how much of it reflects the physical action we can see?
A lot of what we were doing here was finding a way to do both. Basically, I would think of the instrumental bed of a piece of music as the environment, but then the sort of soloistic stuff that I was doing was meant to personify that insane ineffable inside world of Connie. All of his sociopathic thoughts, and plans, and his sentimental love for his brother, and this sort of sense of reality, the sort of sentimental American Dream-thinking that he goes through, where he thinks reality is something he can dominate through his sheer will and power.
How did New York City influence the soundtrack?
When you tour a lot, you have takeaways from each city, and for me, it’s often to do with the infrastructure and public transportation and public services, stuff like that. That’s what gives a place its feel, I think—the steel, the mesh, the paint. And that's part of New York the Safdies draw up. It’s just the feel, the cold feel of concrete, and how life for a lot of people in New York is hard. And it relies on infrastructure, to give you support through whatever phase of life you're going through, and a lot of people are dependent on those things. On a very basic level, the Safdies are just showing you what’s real and in front of your face. I’m surrounded by people that are New York transplants, and they could really give a fuck about Queens or the Bronx. The Safdies are not that way. They're in the mix with everybody, they shot at Rikers, they were advised on the prison system by an ex-convict who they're very close with. It's not just a movie to them—it's a lifestyle. They're not just tourists to New York. They're in the soup. They're just living it, and that's why people appreciate it, because it's not a cultivated version of hardness. It’s just hard.
Is the soundtrack part of the Oneohtrix Point Never catalog or is it something separate?
I wanted it to be a Oneohtrix Point Never album when I realized that the Safdies were the kind of people that wanted it to be a Oneohtrix Point Never album. I followed through with that because they gave me ample opportunity to do what I thought was best for the film without constraining me in any way. I get that it’s a soundtrack and not an LP, but I still think that, in a way, it's very much part of my oeuvre.
Is it a different album when you just listen to it on its own, without the visuals of the movie?
A lot of people are asking me that. I would not be able to put my name on an album that I felt was some kind of a weird cop-out, where you just took the score and slapped it on the album and then expect people to listen to it even though without the film it would basically make no sense. So I changed all of the music. I made it all travel-ready, and on top of that, I took all of the diegetic sounds from the movie and kind-of folded in ambient environmental sounds that the Safdies were giving me. I tried to make something unique that would stand alone.
The fact that you didn't use your real name—Daniel Lopatin—says it all.
Yeah, a lot of that I can attest to the relationship with the directors, that's pretty much the key to that. I worked with Sofia Coppola and had absolutely no desire to be credited as Oneohtrix Point Never on the score because I was just so fundamentally removed from the creative process. I was basically plugged in on the side and never talked to the director.
What was winning the award at Cannes like, and suddenly being thrust into that glamorous world?
I'm not used to winning things, so that was weird. There seems to be a lot of awards in the film industry and not in music industry. They really like congratulating themselves. But it was cool and really glamorous. I had a tux on, and my wife and I were in the cut with all these celebrities at these weird parties, and we took a boat to another boat and saw Leonardo DiCaprio. We were on his yacht—I don't know if he shared it with some other people, I have no idea—and I couldn't tell the front from the back because it was so big, and I was really inebriated. I didn't think I would assimilate to the good life as well as I did.
Since you’ve worked with FKA twigs, did you have a relationship with Robert Pattinson prior to making this film?
No, I didn't. That was completely coincidental, and I don't even think the Safdies knew at the time that I was working with twigs. I met Robert in the studio in London a couple of times. He was chill, and he was a fantastically warm and nice and gentle soul. I liked when he came by the studio because it would be like, "Oh, there's another bro in the room." Because the court of twigs is a completely feminine space, and it's very healthy for me to be in that space, but for days on end, it's a little difficult for a guy like me. So when Rob would come through, it was cool that we can just shoot the shit.
Have you been surprised by the movie’s great reception?
It is definitely surprising and, at the same time, there is just this vibe around the Safdies. They have this energy. I remember the first time I met them, walking into their Midtown office, and their producer was wearing a one-piece tracksuit, and, like, half his body is out on the terrace smoking a cigarette and the other half is inside the office, and he's wearing sunglasses and he's just covered in jewelry. And the reason he's halfway in the room is because he doesn't want to miss a second of what's going down. He didn't even want to go out there to smoke a cigarette fully because he wanted to know what was going down. They're so amped and so energetic and so crazy that they just have this vibe. It's in the cards for them—they're designed for big things. So, on one hand, I'm not surprised by it, but on the other hand, yes—it's an independent film that was made on a shoestring budget. In the era of over-reliance on storytelling, they made a real piece of cinema.