Michael Abels is the composer behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, who recently scored Bad Education, an HBO film directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) and stars Hugh Jackman as the head of a proud education system that’s built on a swamp of corruption.
Bad Education director Cory Finley grounds the narrative in the true story of a corrupt school administration. The realism is thanks to writer Mike Makowsky who experienced these events unfold in real-time as a middle-schooler. Jackman is Dr. Frank A. Tassone, the head administrator of the Roslyn school system, whose veneer shimmers with that of a forthright educator. Allison Janney plays Pamela “Pam” Gluckin, who handles the finances for the proud and successful school system. However, beneath it all, just under the surface of hard-working educators on the verge of becoming the best around, is a cauldron of chaos.
See It Through
Michael began creating music at an early age. “I was always interested in music. When I was eight, I was trying to write music. I figured out the first part, and then I couldn’t figure out what came after that. When I was 13, I managed to stick with a piece and finish it.”
Michael explains a bit about the process of becoming a creative professional. “Anyone can have an idea, but then what happens? What are you doing to do with it and where are you going to go? It’s like telling a story.”
For Michael, these stories should have a specific impact. “I’ve always thought of music as taking a listener on a journey; it’s just that they get to decide what that journey means to them because it’s not written in words.” Michael continues, “Any good piece of music takes you on a journey and being able to figure out all the different stages of that is important to being a good story.”
There was never a question about becoming a musician and composer. “I always knew. I love a good puzzle. To me, writing music is this really great puzzle where you get to decide how the pieces fit together.”
Michael further explains, “The bonus of that is you fit them together, and it touches people’s emotions in a way that no other art does. So, on the one hand, it’s very ‘left brain,’ but where it touches you is very ‘right-brain’ in that way that it makes you feel things that can’t be put into words.”
It was a matter of that first burst of confidence that propelled Michael into the career he enjoys today. “Once I figured out that I could see it through I said ‘this is what I gotta do.’”
Road To Film Scoring
After high school and college, Michael spent time, “… scoring student films … TV and radio commercials, but I didn’t really get any traction in the industry.”
Instead, Michael found another area eager to showcase his talents. “I found more receptive ears in the concert music world, so I wrote a lot of concert music and was teaching music.”
Michael’s big break into cinematic scoring came from Get Out and Us director Jordan Peel. “… I got my first real entry into full feature film scoring.”
How exactly did Peele come to hear Michael’s work? “He heard a concert piece of mine on YouTube.” Michael shares his thoughts about working with the acclaimed filmmaker. “He’s seen every horror and suspense film ever made. Also, he knows their scores and understands why the scores work in the film. Peele is a big fan of composers like Penderecki … 20th-century concert composers. I think he heard in my work that I was familiar with that sonic palette and those particular colors would match the world he was trying to create in his films.”
About Bad Education
Like Peele’s films, Bad Education is an expertly crafted story. The film’s narrative is patient and poignant, and the music often serves as compelling interludes between dramatic sequences that consistently raise the stakes. “On Bad Education, I got to use a much more traditional, old-school classical sound to depict the school and it’s stuffy, high achievement at any cost world.”
The intro to Bad Education features Hugh Jackman’s Frank receiving adoration for his work as an administrator. “Cory wanted to make sure when we meet Frank on stage, and the people are cheering, he wanted viewers to have that suspicion that this is not where we’re going to end.”
Bad Education is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. “He’s got this great sense of human morality versus what’s socially acceptable. It’s kind of where Cory lives. It’s always the edge of dark comedy and tragedy.”
Michael shares more about the goal of Bad Education’s score. “Cory loves for the music to really play. He loves music to be central in a scene, but he knows where there needs to be silence. There aren’t many cues in Bad Education compared to other kinds of films, but each one is really crucial to the scene that it’s in.”
Indeed, the music is powerful when present, playing over static images that become like well-dressed ghosts and harbingers of the chaos to come in the film. “Cory loves doing sequences like that.”
In one sequence that’s a bit more traditional, Michael uses slowly unraveling minimalism as we follow Rachel, the high school reporter through the archives room. She ultimately uncovered the story in real life. “It’s very simple. In some ways, it’s the opposite of classical music or concert music, which can be very full-blown.”
Michael explains the use of contrasting styles to elevate the narrative. “The idea of that music, it’s the beginning of the unraveling of Frank’s elaborate world. It starts with a drip. We wanted the audience to know that ‘this is the thing,’ but where’s it going? Little drips that add up and before long it’s a puddle and then the dam breaks. That’s where that idea came from.”
The juxtaposition between styles is present through Bad Education. The music is powerful, bombastic but also pared down and simplistic. “Those different styles of music are separate [in the film]. Until there’s one cue near the end, Frank’s addressing the mob of parents in the auditorium, that’s the only cue where both styles of music meet. The dam is broken.”
Get the score for Bad Education!
Michael admits his influences are many and in a constant state of flux. But he mentions two key composers who are part of his creative DNA. “Count Basie has to be one of them and Prokofiev.”
What remake would Michael love to do if it ever happened? “Vertigo.”
Bad Education comes out on HBO on April 25th, 2020. So, what’s next for Michael? “I’ve got a film I did for Netflix coming up on May 1st. It’s called All Day And A Night. It stars Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), and it’s directed and written by Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote Black Panther.”
Is Bad Education on your watch-list?
Thanks to Michael Abels and Costa Communications
for making this interview possible.
Want to read more interviews like this? CLICK HERE.