Oneohtrix Point Never, 2017
Photo: Warp Records

Nothing But a Good Time: Interview with Oneohtrix Point Never

As a genre-bending electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, a film score is a new challenge. He talks about his soundtrack to the Safdie brothers’ Good Time.

At its core, the film Good Time is about one thing: brothers.

Underpinning everything is the relationship between the central protagonists Connie (played by Robert Pattinson) and Nick (played by co-director Ben Safdie) as they both find themselves lost without the reassuring ballast of their sibling. After a botched robbery, and a frenetic run from the police, Nick is arrested, leaving his brother to find the bail money to get him out. What follows are Connie’s increasingly frantic attempts to get the money to do what he has always done in his own, often delusional way — look out for his brother.

A large part of the film’s success both artistically and critically can be attributed to the score written by none other than electronic composer, Oneohtrix Point Never. His score is ever-present in the film as it works itself into the pores of the characters seemingly propelling them into action whilst heightening their anxiety. Calling on various aspects of his solo career, from the jarring, metallic sounds of Garden of Delete via the synth drone of Replica to the brighter, arpeggiated chords of R Plus Seven. The result is an absolute triumph and one of the few soundtracks in recent memory that stands out independently from the film it was created for.

Speaking from his home in Brooklyn, New York, Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never), the man behind the soundtrack is eager to talk about the challenges he faced in making the soundtrack, how the process worked and what it was like working with a musical icon. Not least because it afforded him the chance to take a well-earned break from the studio as Oneohtrix Point Never cheerfully opens with, “It’s nice to be home and not in a dimly lit windowless studio dungeon!”

Unsurprisingly, the project that is taking up so much of his time is a new Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN) record. As Lopatin explains. “Last night was the end of what I’m calling phase two, so the end of pre-mix. Me and my engineers are kind of just mixing and arranging the entire time so it’s not totally correct the way I break it up, but just for the sake of having some structure to this, I think of there being one more mix session where we prepare it and it’s done.” Lopatin seems suitably pleased with the way it’s turned out, adding, “It’s good. It fits together. It’s strange in the way I want it. It feels epic in the way I want it to feel.”

Nevertheless, making an OPN record is a world away from scoring a film. Scoring a film is a process that presents it’s own trials and tribulations whilst offering its own rewards. A process that all started when he was invited to the Safdie brother’s (Josh and Ben) offices to discuss the film that would become Good Time.

“It’s funny imaging that day because we have become quite close, now we’re just friends. It’s funny for me because I always thought the world of scoring as like labor but it’s not and that’s mostly due to the fact that at our first meeting we were immediately in the soup together and I don’t even think we were talking about the film. Their energy and their humor is so awesome and cyclonic and gets everything going all the time even when you’re just hanging.” Oneohtrix Point Never continues enthusiastically. “I thought ‘You guys are not just industry people, you guys are fans first,’ you can tell, there’s just this spirit. I related to that a lot.”

Having made that initial connection, their pitch for the film couldn’t have been any more enticing for Lopatin. “It was like, ‘What!?’ You’re making like a Midnight Run kinda movie with Robert Pattinson and a Sprite bottle of acid. To me, it just sounded so fresh and so iconic right off the bat. It sounded like the kind of film I would have just loved and gone into every single tiny detail of when I was 17 years old. That’s still kind of, like, the model for me.”

Coupled with the Safdie’s approach to genre, it was an easy decision for him to climb on board. “I still have this kind of giddy excitement about genre and that’s where we connected immediately. They were making their first ‘genre’ film and I’m, in my own way, an experienced crafter of genre tapestry in what I do.”

Nonetheless, Lopatin was quick to challenge the Safdie’s perception of his music. “I think one of them said ‘Your music is already a soundtrack’ and I said ‘I don’t think so actually.’ My music is not a soundtrack because I’m thinking about the edit, the mood and not the score. I’m trying to somehow formally abstract what films do into a composition not support it so I’m always a little nervous when people say ‘your music is cinematic’. It’s cinematic but it’s actually too insane and specific.” An approach that the Safdie brothers reassured him would work in their film. “And they said ‘no’, ‘we can support that. We can allow that with what we’re doing in our genre film. We are also kind of inverting the genre formalism, pushing it and messing with it. It’s not a straight story’. I was like ‘OK, this is really intriguing’. If they grant me that access to detail and their imagination, then this is a film I want to score.”

From there, it was time to get to work and it soon became evident that the process was vastly different from working on his solo material. “What was apparent to us… well me.. instantaneously was that they were going to be really really specific on a moment-to-moment basis. It wasn’t like they would tell me to go off and give us your impression of this scene. It was really like ‘oh I think you should just come over’. And that turned into like a month-long thing so like they would appear in the studio in the afternoon and just sort of be there until whenever. No one was looking at the clock cause we were all so psyched on the material.”

To ensure both parties were on the same page, the Safdie’s provided a guide for Oneohtrix Point Never to work to, as he explains. “Technically they had a lot of temp score and the temp score was meticulously edited as if to create a very specific kind of guide for me. They had it all mapped out already so that part was great for me and then I was just playing off of that Working from the temp score was fantastic for me. It’s not mimicry, it’s having a wire frame and seeing where you fit in and how you do things differently and the temp score really provided me with a good opportunity to do that which is a way I like to work anyway.”

Not that the process of scoring the film wasn’t without it’s problems with one section in particular causing the biggest headache. “I think it was called like ‘the first 22 minutes’ which was a big ask cause the music never stops. The credits are really long and they’re on top of action which is like the expository backstory for the whole movie. I was immediately thrust into this question of ‘What is action score?’ So much relies on how you felt for those first 20 minutes. It’s important to not mess up the energy because you mess up the idea.”

The opening to the film, in which the audience are introduced to the protagonists as they attempt a bank robbery and subsequently run from the law, sets-up what is the essence of the film — Connie’s frantic race against time to bail out his brother, Nick. For Lopatin this provided the crucial element of the score. “The conceptual thing I was working on was time and that when time becomes apparent to you then you’re in trouble. If time doesn’t become apparent and you’re just living your life then you’re probably not experiencing any stress but if you’re up against the clock or you feel the presence of time on some level then everything changes and I think everything is one step from falling apart and I think that’s what this film is about. So I have to think how do I make music that immediately thrusts you into this where time is just pumping right now. So that was the big one for me. There was some debates but I think generally we had the same sense of things.”

It’s clear from the way Lopatin describes working on the film, that he embraced every challenge wholeheartedly, and, as if the pressure on him wasn’t enough, he also reached out to one of the most recognizable figures in music for the song, “The Pure and The Damned” — a certain Mr Iggy Pop.”That really was an experiment because we just didn’t know. I had written the music and I had actually written a top line too and I had this idea. It was that kind of scenario where your manager says ‘Iggy’s down’. ‘OK so what’s next?’ ‘Oh we don’t know’ ‘Oh OK.’ We’re going to do this over ISDN and I don’t know what’s coming at me. We’re just sitting there and suddenly the voice of god is coming in over the monitors and you’re like ‘OK!’.That was stressful.”

Lopatin continues, “So then he said ‘I’m gonna try and few things. I’m gonna try some spoken word stuff’ and I look at Josh (Safdie) and we were like, ‘What are we gonna do?’ ‘Of course, he can do whatever he wants’. He’s like Poet Laureate as far as we’re concerned. And honestly the hardest part was….. The piece is so stripped down. It’s so careful in what it does at any moment and in how little it does. There was a lot of pressure with the story I told and the composite edits of his improvisation takes on the top line. That was what made me nervous. I was scared that with a piece like that that if it wasn’t all the way through, one shot written that it would suffer by feeling like a Frankenstein scenario. However, everything Oneohtrix Point Never said and everything he sang was so interchangeable with the music in some way that it became fun.” Ultimately, when Iggy had done his part, there was still one important question left for Lopatin. “Do we want to end it on the ‘pure’ or the ‘damned’? What are we actually trying to say at the end of this? We were like, ‘fuck it! Let’s just end it on the ‘damned.’ He invented punk after all!”

Good Time is a quintessential Safdie brothers film, a term that is clearly going to be used more and more as their exposure and success grows. For Lopatin, there is a clear reason as to why they are enjoying a period of critical acclaim for their approach. “Whether it’s movies with their iPhones or with a huge budget. The thing for me about the Safdie’s, the reason they’ve even gotten this far is that whatever is primal in them, whatever is really engendered in them, what really drives them to make movies. That seed always grows into some film. It creates a lot of confidence in the greater family around them so people feel that we are doing something that is us.”

Theirs is a personal and artistic relationship that Lopatin hopes will continue. “To me the no brainer is to continue working with the brothers on stuff. As far as other things, I’m open to it yeah, but I do really thirst for those really direct relationships on projects and so it would be interesting but I like making and doing art projects with your friends. I love the idea that you develop a relationship over time that yields new projects and more creative freedom and trust. It’s this thing but it’s also part of this community of things. The perspective becomes broader and broader as you develop the relationship. That’s the exciting thing. It’s so hard starting over. It’s like dating or something. Small talk and that. Let’s skip that and see what this relationship can yield.”

In all of Lopatin descriptions of working on the movie and his burgeoning relationship with the Safdie brothers, it’s clear that the whole experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one for him. “What’s really important to me is that it’s (scoring) a new thing for me and I love film so much so would have suffered if I hadn’t done as good of a job as I could. You never really know but you have a hunch if something’s good. If your director’s happy and if the producers are happy but there’s nothing like hearing about distant friends or family or people on Twitter who would never relate to OPN music say the score … they noticed it. They remembered it. They took something away from it. It is this gratifying thing. It wasn’t something that was tucked away. It did it’s job and that people take with them some level of excitement is very gratifying. And it makes me think that I actually scored a film and didn’t screw it up.”

Oneohtrix Point Never summarizes simply, “I am so happy because I wanted to hit a home run at some point in my life so I’m glad that it happened.”