It took more than half a decade to get Nimona to the screen in all its pink, punk rock glory, but it finally happened in June thanks to a group of creatives who wouldn’t quit and a few mix tapes.
“We love music, so when we were starting this story process, we started making each other mixtapes about what we love,” director Nick Bruno tells The Hollywood Reporter about how he and fellow director Troy Quane geared up for the Netflix film’s soundtrack. “We love the idea that this whole soundtrack is female-led. It’s punk and big energy and stuff that you want to dance to, and you want to ride a rhino to. It’s multi-generational, and a lot of that is because of Kier [Lehman], our music supervisor.”
For Quane, Nimona‘s composer Christophe Beck “is nothing short of genius,” producing a score for them film so stirring, they opted to pull all other sound in a number of scenes and just let the score play. “We wanted something classic and traditional to respect the fairy tale past, but make it contemporary current and hip. Then we ran away and laughed and laughed and laughed, and somehow he did it,” Quane added. “He brings his indelible heart to it, and we want to hear that score because it’s so emotional. It sweeps you away.”
Beck — known for his work on animated titles like Frozen and Trolls — was hired six years ago “when it was a different director at a different studio,” he says. It’s the longest time he’s ever been on a project, after waiting years to know learn if the former Blue Sky Studios turned Annapurna title would survive its initial studio’s shutdown.
“That to me was the most challenging aspect of it. I was involved in a project that I was so excited about but had to just wait and wait and wait, and didn’t know if it was ever going to happen,” he tells THR. “So for it to finally happen, and with directors like Troy Quane and Nick Bruno on board who were just a delight to work with, is an incredibly happy ending.”
For music supervisor Lehman, who’s responsible for the memorable needle drops behind animated projects like Sony’s Spider-Verse films, the journey was shorter but just as rewarding. Starting with some choices already made by the music department at Blue Sky, he came in after Annapurna began completing the movie to finish delivering the radical sound for Nimona‘s rule-breaking hero.
“Most of the time there are many challenges on films that I work on. This one was really a smooth process and a testament to the directors Nick and Troy and the producers,” he says. “Everybody was really excited about it and had been for years. They finally had this opportunity to finish this movie the way that it deserved to be made, and I was really fortunate to have an amazing time being a part of it.”
Together, Lehman and Beck weave the musical arc and landscape of Nimona‘s bold and moving story. Beck did so with the help of a personal partnership and the clever use of a single repetitious sequence that listeners can use to track the film’s distinctive hero through his score. Meanwhile, Lehman leaned on an on-the-nose credits theme from K.Flay and an ear for kick-ass female rockers. (Though, as far as he knows, featuring The Dickies “Banana Splits” was not an intentional call back to voice star Chloë Grace Moretz’s appearance in Kick-Ass.)
THR sat down with both Beck and Lehman following Nimona‘s release to talk about how they bridged the (fairy tale) past with the (tech) present in their music; capturing Nimona’s emotional complexity through a female-dominated soundtrack; how she ended up with her own pump-up song and “metal” playlist; and how they snuck in a few easter eggs, including Psycho and George Michael references.
You have separate jobs on a film, but there seems to be some overlap in terms of what you’re doing here with this soundtrack. Can you start by talking about your approach and what discussions you had with the directors about what they wanted to get from your respective work?
CHRISTOPHE BECK We talked a lot about the setting, which is unique. It’s a combination I have never seen before — this medieval environment where you’ve got knights with swords and cell phones. For me, capturing the medieval, very traditional vibe involved using the orchestra and using a certain type of writing that has signposts towards the medieval knights of the round table. But also infusing it with a bit of a contemporary element that uses electronics and synthesizers to give it a backbone. Besides that, what we talked about a lot was just the emotional content of the story. The loneliness that Nimona feels being a person who isn’t really seen as who she feels she really is. The feeling Ballister has been wrongly accused. What brings that to the front lines of the story, musically speaking, is having a very strong, very heartfelt musical theme. One for Nimona, one for Ballister. I could play with those. I can play them at the same time, I can have them interplay off each other.
The last part about the conversation I had with Nick and Troy was there were just a few spots where I bust out my guitars and drums. They really wanted more of a punk rock feel and I think this is where, as you pointed out, the roles of composer and music supervisor get a little bit blurry, where I’m composing stuff that sounds like it could be from a song. I also know there’s a big action set piece that is scored with “Flight of the Bumblebee” in a punk rock setting as another area where our roles overlap a little bit. I get to take a very well known classic piece from classical music, but rearrange it in a way that not only sounds really fun and contemporary, but also I get to apply my scoring to picture techniques as well. I get to really tailor it to the scene from start to finish.
KIER LEHMAN My part of this was developing the side of Nimona’s character that’s her attitude — the energy that she has that she brings to these situations. A lot of them are the moments where she’s fighting her way out of a situation. She’s trying to get Ballister out of trouble or from being captured or out of being captured. She’s got this really inherent strength in her. She’s fearless, she’s creative, but there’s also an element of fun to the fight scenes with her funny commentary about what’s going on or what Ballister was doing or how she’s convincing him to trust her. There’s a few song moments where we’re playing with both sides of that, where the song has to carry the energy and the fight elements. There’s some back and forth, there’s some anger there, but there’s also this fun that she’s having. She’s probably the only one that’s having fun in the situation, but this music is playing to her character and telling us about her.
BECK Kier, you just reminded me of an opportunity I had to connect directly with her character in that way, and in a way that I’ve never had an opportunity to in any movie that I’ve worked on. There are a couple of moments where she’s getting psyched up to get into some mayhem, and she’s got a little guitar riff. I remember early on Troy and Nick said we need a guitar riff that she could sing, so I mocked up a few different ones. They picked the one they liked best. Then they had her sing it after I wrote it, and then they animated to it. So you actually get the effect in the movie of her singing that riff, and then the score kicks in right away, picking up on that same riff. Now, the rest of the scene is scored with that riff that she was singing.
You tell viewers who Nimona is in two different ways. Kier, you’ve got her fun, chaotic, punk rock side with a soundtrack full of female voices. Chris, the Nimona theme is a softer song that uses string instruments and vocals. It’s also remixed throughout the score to different emotional tones, emphasizing that concept that she’s dynamic — never one thing. How did you want those differing sounds to shape the totality of her as a character musically?
BECK You’re correct. Her theme is softer, and I think that speaks to the way every human being on this planet has a mask that they show the rest of the world and, in Nimona’s case, the mask she’s choosing to show Ballister is “I’m having fun. I like chaos. I like mayhem. I like to beat people up, and I like to be the villain.” It’s all this stuff that is very entertaining for us to watch as the audience. The way I look at it, it’s a coping mechanism for her to protect her from the pain that she’s experienced and continues to experience. That’s where the softness comes in. That’s where the heart comes in. I think a very interesting way of looking at our different roles — Kier’s role and my role, and this is not necessarily an exact comparison that worked cleanly the whole way through the movie, but I would say broadly speaking — is that he brings that chaos, that sense of fun and sense of rebellion.
My role is to get underneath that and bring forth the pain, the loneliness, the need that she has to connect with other people that she’s been unmet up to that point. A lot of the songs have a female vocal feature, and it was very natural for me in the instrumental scorecard to also feature a female vocalist. In my case, we don’t actually hear her sing any words. It’s more part of the instrumental fabric, but you get that very human texture, and you can make that connection to Nimona as a listener, much in the same way that you make the connection with the songs.
LEHMAN The voices were really important as far as representing her character, but also the kind of community that we’re drawing from and speaking to in this film with the LGBTQ characters and themes throughout the story. We wanted to bring voices that speak to that community, but also include voices and bands that have a broad appeal. People that have really strong voices, that have an attitude that matches that energy that Nimona brings. People like Karen O, Santigold, The Dolly Rockers, The Dickies and Metric. These are things that the filmmakers and I are just really big fans of.
When I came into the project, it had been developing for a long time, so some of those songs were already a part of the world. I came and helped build on it and bring other artists to the table like K.Flay and Dope Saint Jude. The era that a lot of this music comes from is a few years back, and was a time when a lot of those voices and that attitude were getting more attention in music. Not to say that those things don’t exist now because they do, it’s just not as visible. It’s a time that had a lot of that energy in the music and that raw excitement, pulse and drive to it that’s a different form right now in music.
So we were trying to find that energy and either create it or find the songs that existed that still have that. Dope Saint Jude, which is a more modern artist, is the first we hear as far as the songs and that introduces the movie in a way. I liked having that more modern take on that sound and that attitude and that feeling as we get started and help set up a movie — as we were talking about earlier — that exists in kind of two different times: medieval and futuristic. We were fusing those elements together for the introduction of Nimona.
Nimona calls things “metal,” and in the music supervision, it manifestas as the “fuck the man” rock genres, defiant lyrics and literal metal band Judas Priest. In the score, there’s electric guitar, but also brass and other literal metal instruments. Those allude to heroism, something Nimona exhibits, but it’s mostly tied to the sound of the Institute — “Gloreth’s Theme,” “Regicide,” “Night to Knight.” So how did Nimona’s metal concept play into your musical choices?
LEHMAN Part of that is that we wanted to literally show her connection to the music — her talking about the music that she’s listening to and singing. One of the conversations that we had early on was about making the music connect to her character directly and specifically. So there’s moments where she has headphones on, and she is playing and singing along to the Santigold, Karen O song, “Go.” We talked about wanting to make that direct connection that this is the music that she listens to in her life. This is the music that’s inspiring her in those moments and scoring her in those scenes.
With the Judas Priest use, in particular, there were some moments that we’d been playing with that were very literal takes on what music would be playing here. The George Michael saxophone — those kinds of moments — were just hitting the nail on the head. We’re using this element to tell that story, and we’re using the song to tell the story in a pretty literal way. So that one had a lot of levels to the metal-ness of it, and the character of Ballister [Boldheart] and what he’s going through. It was fun to play with that. We really had a lot of fun with the song choices in general where we’re making jokes. We’re showing these characters are having fun, and that’s part of their character, inherently.
BECK I just want to take the conversation back a little bit further to what you talked about with remixing themes. One of the fundamental tools that as a film composer I have — which is something that comes from opera and was popularized with incredible skill by John Williams in Star Wars, who really brought that to movie scoring in a big way in the ’70s — is the idea that a theme or a melody can represent a character. Then we use all the musical tools as composers at our disposal to vary that theme and present it in different contexts. If a melody is strong, you can take that same melody and orchestrate it, arrange it, reharmonize it in a way that it feels totally different, but still recognizably the same. And what a perfect mirror to a story like Nimona, where you have a singular character going through all these different emotions. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, so that’s a very astute observation.
As far as the brass section goes, I get to take a particular instrument, or a family of instruments like the brass, and explore all the different colors that those instruments can bring. You correctly pointed out there’s the heroic aspect. You’re hearing brass playing a heroic, glorious theme in the first 30 seconds of the movie. But you also hear, as you pointed out, some of the more scary moments — definitely when you get into the low register with trombones and French horns. You get a very snarly kind of effect. Bu there’s also some beauty and heart in the brass section. A single French horn solo brings a nobility to the proceedings. We have a number of French horn solos, usually when we’re talking about Ballister as a misunderstood hero. So you get the sadness and the heart that comes from a beautiful melody being played on the French horn, but because it’s on the French horn, that brings it just a little bit of heroism, even if the overall feeling is one of sadness.
Nimona is a film that plays to a wide audience, and it can do that in a way because it’s multiple genres. There’s the comedy of the “Tra La La Song” and a tinge of horror in the “Zombies” composition. There’s also instrument blasts like the “See Something, Say Something” scene. Can you talk about those opportunities to diverge a bit from the rest of the film’s tone?
LEHMAN “The Tra La La Song” is a little bit of a step out. We’re introducing this advertisement for cereal that kids eat. I think it’s just development of the world that they’re in. It’s a funny joke. We bring it back a couple of times and give one of those moments of levity. We’re letting people have a good laugh and telling the story. One of the other moments of that is, again, the George Michael “Careless Whisper” saxophone that’s in the train station. That’s maybe a little bit more subtle and maybe something for the parents to notice and have a little bit of a laugh, too, while we’re in the middle of this kind of intense escape scene that precedes an intense battle and fight scene.
BECK I like to avoid music that is designed solely to be silly or to be goofy. I think you can have a lot of fun with a scene with music that takes the characters seriously and still feel permission to laugh. The “Zombies” piece is a perfect example. You listen to that on its own, it doesn’t sound funny or silly. It has a nostalgic quality to it. We really wanted to make it feel like what scary music — or what people thought of as scary music — sounded like at that time the zombie movie would have been made. Another scene where we do get a little bit deliberately playful with the music was the scene right after Nimona has shapeshifted, and she now appears as [Ambrosius] Goldenloin.
That’s an incredibly pseudo dramatic scene where we want the audience to feel like this murder is actually happening, but we pull the rug out from under their feet. We wanted to give the audience a chance to exhale a little bit and have a little fun after a moment we were hoping they were like, “Holy crap, what is going on?” I think there are very few of the horror beats that you’re talking about where I actually go along with that and do a big scary music blast. When I do that, it’s played for laughs. During the “Flight of the Bumblebee” sequence, where they’re trying to kidnap the page, she’s taken the form of a little boy.
Another moment, she decides to have a little fun and scare people, so her face gets all googly-eyed. I will gleefully play along with that and do a little horror movie sting, but it’s not meant to be scary. It’s played from the point of view of the person she’s trying to scare, and we’re all in on the joke. There’s another moment like that near the end where the bully knight, Todd, is leading the charge on their levitating vehicles, and he looks forward to Nimona in all her scary glory. I actually — for anyone who knows the music from Psycho — make a reference to the famous shower scene. I’m referencing a classic, horrifying, scary moment not meant to be played for laughs, and I’m taking that same string effect for laughs.
It’s clear from the score Chris you are writing to different characters, emotions, places. Kier, you spoke about capturing interactions between Nimona and Ballister in the music, which really seems to pop a lot during Metric’s “Gold Gun Girls” — a song about being “enough.” How much were you both thinking musically about other characters?
BECK Obviously, Nimona’s name is the title. She’s in a lot of the scenes. She’s a central character. She’s a musical focus. Her relationship with Ballister is also a huge, huge part of the movie. But there’s lots of other situations and scenes and characters. You pointed out the Institute and Director. We don’t know that the Director is up to no good until sometime in the movie, so there was a bit of a balance that I had to play there. I think when we first hear her theme, it’s in the context of grief for the queen who was killed at the knighting ceremony, so it’s got a sadness to it. But once she shows her true colors, that same theme now gets played in low strings, and it’s much more sinister.
LEHMAN That Metric moment you mentioned has multiple layers — her relationship with Ballister, the element of the Director having lied and the news that they’re celebrating in that scene. We looked at a few different songs for that moment and different takes on what we’re trying to say there. Is it purely celebratory, or is there some deeper conflict there? Eventually, we ended up with that song, which we realized had all these elements about the relationship between the two of them — the lyrics that you mentioned in the song, and the tone of the song which has a little bit of a darker edge to it. It’s not just celebratory. This isn’t a fun moment like we’ve had in the past with Nimona, even when she’s in the battles. At this moment, we are dealing with this undertone of what the Director’s role is, and there’s still this tension between her and Ballister and their relationship — is he accepting her or not.
Was there any element of this experience or a song that was particularly special to you?
BECK Nimona‘s theme for me is super special personally because I got to work with my fiancée on it, who sings the female vocals and who I happen to be marrying in three days. That was very special that I got to share the experience of working on a film like this with my very soon-to-be wife.
LEHMAN The song I’m most proud of and excited about in the film is the end credits song, “T-Rex,” that K.Flay made for us. We had tried a few people writing demos, and came close with some ideas, but when I brought her in to watch it and write, this was the first thing that she turned into us and everybody was just so excited right away. We all knew that this was the energy, the tone, the lyrics. This is the right kind of artist to bring this to life. She did such an incredible job. There were so many pieces to the lyrics that the filmmakers just loved. Little bits of production that they got really excited about, like the little slo-mo line and then to repeat it in slo-mo. The directors’ just loved that, and they were like, “Turn that up louder.” (Laughs.) So we were super excited about that song, and I was really happy to be able to bring her and to be a part of the film. The way it works with the animation of the credits is really fantastic.
Interview edited for length and clarity.