Director-Producer-Screenwriter Jeymes Samuel has never had a problem wearing multiple hats. The multi-hyphenate creative tackled an astonishing five positions for his feature film debut, The Harder They Fall.
Samuel’s film follows outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors, Lovecraft Country), who discovers that his rival Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is being released from prison and rounds up his gang to track Rufus down and seek revenge. As Rufus realigns with his crew, including “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), Nat Love is joined by his former love, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), hot-tempered Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and fast drawing Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler).
Including the three job titles already mentioned, Samuel has landed on the Oscar shortlist for Best Score and Best Original Song with “Guns Go Bang,” featuring Jay-Z and Kid Cudi. The English composer’s diverse score, which features popular Western, Afro-Caribbean elements mixed with a classical orchestra, also overlays a humming bassline with the renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. In addition, he’s curated an expansive soundtrack ranging from Nigerian Afrobeat performer and activist Fela Kuti to the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.
With The Harder They Fall, Samuel showcases gun-slinging women as outlaw heroes and villains along with their male counterparts. The African-infused score gives credence to the tribal drums of days past and incorporates reggae, rap, and dubbing. “If I’m going to use percussion and you’re going to hear it, I’m going to make that build into the story,” shares Samuel. “People forget that drums were how we communicated in Africa. We would talk to each other with drums, like the Djembe drum in the Congo.”
Samuel spoke with Awards Focus about the meticulous work of scoring the film and writing numerous songs, including the Original Song contender “Guns Go Bang,” and why he will always compose the score on his own films.
Awards Focus: You’ve mentioned that dialogue can inspire a melody. As a composer and screenwriter, were there times when you were writing a scene and you would stop and spin over to the piano or grab a guitar and run with an idea?
Jeymes Samuel: Yes, literally every day. I’d be writing for about half an hour, and then I’d go into Logic Pro. It was back and forth the entire time. As I’m writing, I’ll write a piece of the dialogue, say it back to myself, then get a melody from it and start riffing on that melody. It was one continuous stream of consciousness between writing the score, music, and screenplay.
AF: The film opens with your Oscar-shortlisted original song “Guns Go Bang,” and the piece is incredibly powerful but I get a sense that there was a great amount of intention behind each layer of the song, particularly with the gun shots going off.
Would you say it’s a fairly meticulous approach that you employ, regarding the gun shots and how they accentuate the song?
Samuel: That song was actually going to be somewhere else in the film, during the bank robbery. But then when Kid Cudi came in and did his bit, we put the orchestra on, and then Jay Z did his bit, and I was like, man, that is the best opening for a film ever.
I made that song very early on as I was writing, and I wanted the gunshots to be in a beat because I’d never heard that before. So I would record the beat first with my mouth. The whole thing was going on in my brain, but it was meticulous in getting that and making it in the same vein as the verse. With the verse, I’m in my David Bowie bag “[singing] Avalon be damned, venture foreign lands.” So I had to make the verse and chorus fit in seamlessly and then get the artists in on it with that music sensibility.
AF: There is such a specificity to the rhythms that it must have taken a significant amount of willpower to take the time to get it exactly as you wanted.
Samuel: People have no clue the amount of work it takes, but it’s so much fun. It’s all about the adventure, right? The adventure and creation of making it.
For example, there’s a song with Laura Mvula and an artist from Cape Verde called Mayra Andrade on the soundtrack, “We Go Hard.” It’s an analog banger, but it’s in five [boom two three four five], five four time signature, which is not common. So even when you’re listening to something, and you dissect it, if I’ve made it, there’s always something in there that is kind of unusual or irregular.
AF: When it came to the choir, it’s so complex and brilliant. How did you decide who you wanted to use for that?
Samuel: You’re asking me such amazing questions because no one asks me about that choir. I had wanted to use them long before I had the idea of doing this film. They had stayed in my brain for probably fifteen years. I used a choir called The Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville, and the choir was established in 1871.
After the emancipation proclamation act, the university was going broke, so they sent their singers all around America to tour with old Negro spirituals singing old Negro spirituals. They were so successful they toured around the world in the 1800s and brought so much money back to Fisk University that they’re still there and still in existence.
They were the first choir to take the old Negro spirituals and spread them around the world, so I had to get them. It was such an honor to speak to them and have them agree to do it. A man named Dr. Paul Kwami, the Fisk Jubilee Singers conductor, came too. He really loved the film and loved what it was about. They turned my new Negro spirituals into old Negro spirituals.
AF: There’s a theme throughout the film, this bassline that’s so catchy, like a John Williams theme. What was your thought process behind balancing the use of that and deciding how to keep that thread fresh throughout the film?
Samuel: That bassline introduces dub and beats and old-school reggae, and it’s always been very cinematic to me, but no one has ever used it in a score. It’s the bassline for Rufus Buck’s gang.
It’s in there when we see Jesus Cortez and Trudy’s gang get off the train. When Nat Love goes to rescue Mary Fields in the evening, you hear the bassline, and I’ll put the echo tab of the guitar in, but what makes it different is I put the orchestra on top of it, which doesn’t happen with dub. It’s a really beautiful and super cinematic amalgamation of world sonics.
AF: The use of percussion only tracks in the score is a brilliant choice. Your percussion track has a story and a movement to it… which has a complexity beyond most of the percussion only cues I’ve read over the years.
Samuel: If I’m going to use percussion and you’re going to hear it, I’m going to make that build into the story. People forget that drums were how we communicated in Africa. We would talk to each other with drums, the Djembe drum in the Congo. In other films, people would just have that drum there, and it wouldn’t actually move; it would just loop, and that’s no fun.
AF: Were there any moments in the recording sessions, whether you gave a note or tried it differently, that you found a sweet spot you’d wanted for the song?
Samuel: It was all like a super note. I did so much experimentation while I was writing that I knew where everything went when it came to recording. I always say that composers come on too late to projects. I believe the composer is attached to the script, to the film in the script stage. They can be working on melody motifs that would influence the director and where they place the camera. It would influence the shot composition and the choreography of the camera.
For instance, you’ll see that I do this trick through the movie when we go to Nat Love’s face, and he’s whistling the music. When he rides off, he’s whistling the actual theme. Of course, you can only do that if the scene’s already written. There’s nothing but benefit to come from having a composer come on as early as possible. With this film, I’ve introduced many new things to cinema that I have not heard before, so I think I’ll always do my own score.
The incredible Behind the Scenes reel from Netflix offers a deeper look into Samuel’s creative method and collaborative spirit.
NOTE: Matthew Koss was the co-author on this piece.