The Cloverfield Paradox sent shockwaves throughout the entertainment industry when it debuted on Netflix mere hours after its first and only trailer during the Super Bowl. I was thrilled to return to the franchise as a member of the creative team for this ambitious entry in J.J. Abrams’ monster saga, and compose a ‘spiritual successor’ to my previous score in the series, 10 Cloverfield Lane.
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD: I was fortunate to be brought on board The Cloverfield Paradox early. I had opportunities to visit the set on multiple occasions, and found inspiration wandering through the elaborate and serpentine hallways. I felt an immediate sense of claustrophobia, a memory I would draw upon later while composing the music. While the film was finishing production, I experimented with tones, colors and ambiences, building up a unique sound palette.
In post-production, picture editorial and music composition ran concurrently, not because we were up against a tight deadline, but because collaboration would yield the best creative results. I worked closely with director Julius Onah, producers J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber, Jon Cohen, sound designer Robert Stambler, and the editors, in particular Matt Evans and Rebecca Valente. Music playback sessions frequently evolved into detailed discussions of all aspects of filmmaking, as we explored how score, picture editorial, VFX, and sound could help fine-tune a scene. The more times we worked through a moment, the better it became. I revised certain cues upwards of fifteen or twenty times. However, each revision made the score better. I was inspired by the material, and exhilarated by the challenge of crafting it to perfection.
THE THEMES OF PARADOX
The Main Theme
Fundamentally, The Cloverfield Paradox is a horror score, with long set-pieces built from ear-splitting orchestral dissonances. Despite this, the score is entirely thematically-driven. The Main Theme and Ava Theme are the two primary building blocks of the score, musical ideas that permeate the score.
The Main Theme, opens both the film and the soundtrack album, with the track “Overture.” The Main Theme is mischievous, exuding a playful menace that gives the film a musical identity. From its very first notes, slamming into the soundtrack on the Bad Robot production credit, the score pronounces its most important material.
The “Overture” credit sequence goes on to introduce the theme’s basic components. First, there is a brisk, spiccato string figure I call the Main Ostinato:
This ostinato is the theme’s engine, and provides tension and propulsion to many scenes. Ordered and precise, this riff underscores our protagonists when they have a plan and work together to implement it. This motor provides support for the Main Theme, or A Theme:
This figure is built around an insistent, upward chromatic line. The quick starts and stops give the melody a sense of urgency.
This idea was never intended to be the film’s main theme! On the first day I presented cues to Julius and J.J., I showcased scenes built from an entirely different main theme: a long, legato melody set above an introspective harmonic progression – functional, perhaps, but not memorable. The last cue I showed them was written for the sequence where Hamilton realizes that Earth is missing. That sketch was built from these rapid little chromatic licks, underscoring Hamilton and Monk’s frantic looks as grim reality dawns on them.
Upon hearing this cue, everyone in the room lit up. “It’s tense,” J.J. responded, “but it’s clear that someone with a sense of humor wrote this music.” I immediately scrapped my entire, original main theme idea, and used this cue as the basis for what would become the film’s new main theme. (The cue that resulted in the theme still exists, essentially unaltered from my original sketch, both in the film and on the album, “Drifting in the Dark,”)
In addition to the Main Ostinato and the A Theme, the Main Theme also features a secondary, or B Theme:
With long, lyrical lines and elegant leaps, The B Theme offers relief to the relentless tension of the A Theme. That unexpected burst of emotion gives the “Overture” and the End Credits a sense of cinematic scale, and I also use it sporadically in the body of the film, to acknowledge successes for our protagonists.
The Ava Theme
I always knew that the playfully menacing main theme would have to be counterbalanced by an emotional theme for Ava Hamilton, one that could underscore her character arc, and her relationship with her husband on Earth, Michael. Like the Main Theme, the Ava Theme is written in 6/8, and is built from a unique ostinato and melody. The Ava Ostinato is most often heard in the violas, with support from a bassoon or clarinet:
These long, legato lines immediately separate it from the more energetic Main Ostinato. This pattern is often heard in a supportive role, but it could also sustain a moment on its own, as in the first minute of “A Stable Beam.”
The most important component of the Ava Theme is the melody:
Contrasting the tight, chromatic movement and stuttering phrases of the Main Theme, the Ava Theme soars with large intervallic leaps, most notably the downward octave leap in
the second phrase. Octave leaps in melodies are not unprecedented, but definitely less common than smaller leaps. (A fan on Twitter recently commented on a similarity between Ava’s Theme and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song that contains perhaps the most famous example of an octave leap in popular music history. Coincidence?)
The Ava Theme is the only theme in The Cloverfield Paradox to feature choir. I felt voices would be an effective way to communicate emotional depth, while maintaining an epic feel. The large vocal group is built from sopranos, altos and tenors. Without basses, the ensemble has a lighter, more airy color, fitting for intimate passages. These choral moments increased the emotional range of the score, allowing the tension and horror to punch even more effectively.
Ava’s Theme is built with a harmonic rhythm that has narrative significance to the structure of the film. The chord at the end of her melody (a Vsus that resolves to a dominant V) sets the expectation that it will complete the musical phrase with a return to the tonic, or first chord in the scale. Instead, the harmonic pattern returns to the IV chord, to repeat the whole pattern over and over again. Each subsequent statement of the Ava Theme becomes more dramatic than the last, resulting in a musical feedback loop, where our subconscious expectation that the phrase will complete itself is never satisfied.
The first example of this concept in action takes place at the reveal of Main Title. Rather than resolving to the tonic, the orchestra holds on that V chord, then stops completely rather than resolving it. The audience does not get the resolution they expect, setting a precedent that will last for the rest of the film. To the audience, the additive, emotional impact of this lack of resolution in Ava’s Theme is powerful, and it builds up as the film progresses.
I saved the completion of this phrase for the final passage of the end credits. The absolute last thing the audience experiences in The Cloverfield Paradox is the choir finally resolving Ava’s Theme to the tonic, as the orchestra swells gently to support them. Her story is complete, and that musical promise made during the Main Title has finally been fulfilled.
The Shepherd Theme
After the Main Title, our protagonists fire up the massive Shepherd Particle Accelerator. For this sequence, I introduce a swirling tornado of strings, flowing across augmented major chords, The Shepherd Theme:
I imagined these string lines as strands of sub atomic particles, existing as points and waves simultaneously. The furious finger movements of the violins and violas blur together to underscore the mystery and promise of the subatomic world. Inspired by the fantasy scores of Bernard Herrmann, muted trumpets, trombones and stopped French horns provide punctuating fanfares as the intensity escalates. At the climax, I build to a massive melodic fanfare:
The Shepherd Theme is only used when the particle accelerator is at the forefront of the action – once in the film’s beginning, and once at the end. Despite only appearing twice, I included the Shepherd Theme in the film’s End Credits suite because I loved writing it so much!
The Anomaly Theme
Shortly after the audience first hears the Shepherd Theme, reality unravels for our heroes, and I introduce the Anomaly Theme, using it to represent the increasing threat from unusual events. This theme is more a collection of colors than a melody.
The most distinct component of the Anomaly Theme is a droning texture that becomes increasingly present throughout the film, a combination of low male vocals, and a high, shrieking feedback. That wailing banshee sound is actually me playing hurdy gurdy with an unusual technique, pinching the drone string between two fingers to produce different pitches. Half the time, the string would only produce a hideous scratching tone. But, once in a while, other-worldly screaming harmonics would burst out. I spent hours messing around with the hurdy gurdy to get these performances to sing, but it was worth it.
The theme’s rhythmic component is a 5/8 ticking ostinato, performed by orchestral strings playing col legno, gently tapping their strings with their bows or a pencil:
I set this theme in 5/8 as a response to the Main Theme and Ava Theme being written in 6/8. Reflecting the film’s exploration of how parallel dimensions crash together and alter one another, this musical contrast in the time signature suggests that something in our world has been skewed.
Set Piece Themes
The final two themes of the score are one only heard once apiece, in “Airlock 6” and “Spacewalk.” Both of these film sequences were unique enough that I felt they should be built from unique themes.
The idea of scoring a specific set piece with its own musical theme was inspired directly by the composers I grew up admiring. When I was a kid, I wore down my mix tapes of dozens of soundtrack cues, collections that heavily favored orchestral action cues. Some of my favorite cues included “Shootout” from Batman, “’Too Many Secrets’” from Sneakers, “Scherzo for Motorcyle and Orchestra” from Last Crusade, “Battle in the Mutara Nebula” from Star Trek II, and “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes Back. Thanks to a recent conversation with my friend and agent, Richard Kraft, I realized why these cues stood out from their respective scores: they were all built around a single thematic idea. In each case, this core idea was usually not thematically significant to the film as a whole. These film set pieces were so cool, that their composers reserved for them a distinct musical identity.
I will likely never write anything as cool as any of those cues, but I’ve applied this technique to my own in writing the Airlock and the Spacewalk sequences. Inspired by my favorite action cues composed by my heroes, I made no effort to use the Airlock or Spacewalk Themes anywhere else in the film. These themes exist solely to highlight these memorable sequences, and then they cease to exist.
In a tense scene in the middle of the film, Tam is trapped in an airlock that rapidly fills with water. As the sequence begins, I introduce an ominous line in the low strings and woodwinds, The Airlock Theme:
This figure is set in 5/8, as a nod to the Anamoly Theme. I gradually increase the tempo, ultimately whizzing by at more than double their initial speed. This was the most difficult passage for the orchestra to perform. The mental gymnastics required to count in 5/8 and other constantly shifting meters, while concentrating on the quickening click, would have reduced any but a world class orchestra to tears.
This video captures our first responses to hearing “Airlock 6” played back, after working over it for nearly an hour.
The spacewalk sequence is special because it moves our characters, and audience, outside the space station into a swirling vortex of debris, while the station spins wildly out of control. Rather than solely playing up the tension, I hoped to simultaneously infuse the scene with awe and wonder. I wanted the audience to feel exhilarated, while rooting for our heroes to accomplish their perilous mission.
This Spacewalk Theme is not subtle when it enters, in fact the score practically announces an exciting new idea is coming. As Kiel first informs the crew of the mission, lightly tremming strings sneak into the soundtrack with an almost magical quality. They build intensity, climaxing in a swirl of epic orchestral colors as our heroes step out of the ship. Undergoing constant harmonic variations, and clashing with the score’s frequent polytonal brass fanfares, the Spacewalk Theme weaves throughout the entire sequence that follows.
Just as it entered, the Spacewalk Theme makes a dramatic exit. As Kiel floats away in the severed maintenance deck, violins once again emerge with the theme, but this time it slows down gradually, the melody’s intervals drifting gently upward. At last, the Spacewalk Theme finally dies, flatlining on a sustained harmonic.
After several months of composition, the score for The Cloverfield Paradox was recorded with a ninety piece orchestra over three days at Sony’s legendary scoring stage in Culver City, California. The orchestra and choir were at the top of their game, and dove into the challenge enthusiastically. Conducting them was a joy. Typically, I lavish on particularly difficult cues, and burn through easier ones to make up lost time. However, this was the most technically difficult score I have ever written, and it essentially did not contain any easy cues.
Even the film’s frequently used Main Theme was deceptively difficult. Quick string phrases required extreme precision from every member of the orchestra. The frequent rhythmic gaps instantly revealed any performance errors. If one person made the slightest mistake, we had to start over. And the Main Theme was a breeze compared to the Shepherd Theme, with its rapid ‘particle wave’ effect in the strings. At the climax (starting around 3:00 in “A Stable Beam”), I even added an extreme tempo acceleration to it, but the tireless orchestral musicians never faltered.
I wish I could thank every musician personally, but special acknowledgement is owed to concertmaster Julie Gigante. Julie drew upon our extensive working history together to guide the phenomenal string sections. The woodwinds added exotic colors in the extreme low and high registers, especially Jenni Olson’s sparkling flute solos. The brass navigated precise tuning in polytonal chorales and survived relentless high passages, requiring the absolute best players in the world to hit take after take. The horns, led by Laura Brenes, were especially vital to the identity of the score.
I look back fondly on these recording sessions. We filled the front couch in the control room with friends from Bad Robot and Paramount. Everyone in the studio radiated excitement, and genuine appreciation for the effort put forth by the orchestral musicians. J.J. provided a fantastic coffee truck for the final day, with a heartfelt note of gratitude.
Why did I look so good? My daughter Sonatine provided support as a make-up artist and stylist. (Ok, she had some help from Jenny Hou!)
Perhaps my favorite moment in the sessions was when I was presenting the Bad Robot team with a special cake, inspired by the film’s most gruesome kill!
After a creative journey lasting more than eighteen months, I am thrilled that this score is finally out in the world. The Cloverfield Paradox soundtrack album is available now, from Sparks & Shadows, via iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or your favorite digital retailer or streaming service. A physical CD edition is in the works, so stay tuned for details. Would you guys want a vinyl edition as well? We’re exploring that idea at the moment. Here is the tracklist:
1. Overture (2:10)
2. Ava and Michael (2:25)
3. Converging Overload (2:17)
4. Drifting in the Dark (5:35)
5. In the Wall (2:30)
6. Mutant Space Worms (6:44)
7. Jensen (4:40)
8. Molly (3:01)
9. Cassiopeia (5:00)
10. Airlock 6 (2:02)
11. A Message for Ava (5:44)
12. Magno-Putty (3:56)
13. Spacewalk (6:46)
14. Launch Sequence (8:46)
15. A Stable Beam (7:06)
16. The Cloverfield Paradox (7:35)
Any eagle-eyed fans notice the nod to 10 Cloverfield Lane in one of the titles?
I can’t possibly thank everyone who made this score possible, but extra special thanks are due to director Julius Onah, producers J.J. Abrams, Lindsey Weber and Jon Cohen, and everyone at Bad Robot, as well as Randy Spendlove, Kim Seiniger, and everyone at Paramount. I also wish to thank my reps Laura Engel and Richard Kraft, for their logistical, creative and emotional support.
Big hugs go to my brilliant engineer Steve Kaplan, my orchestrators Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson and Jonathan Beard, and to our friends at Encompass Music Partners, especially Peter Rotter and Jasper Randall, for assembling this world class group of instrumentalists and singers. Huge thanks are owed to Joe Augustine for producing this album with me, Patricia Sullivan for her stunning mastering, and Alec Siegel for shooting and cutting the incredible promo videos. I am eternally grateful for the consistent support from my team at Sparks & Shadows, including Marisa Gunzenhauser, Sam Ewing, Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, Joanna Pane, Kaiyun Wong, Andy Harris, David Matics, Andrew Ransom, Angelina Park, and our hardworking interns. I couldn’t have done this without Raya Yarbrough, and my favorite guest conductor, Sonatine McCreary.
I am grateful to have contributed to the Cloverfield musical universe that began with Michael Giacchino’s deliriously fun theme from the first film, and I look forward to seeing the franchise evolve from here. I’m also proud to have scored my first feature film for Netflix, and to have been a part of the history-making stealth release on Super Bowl Sunday. I eagerly await new opportunities to write scores in the epic orchestral style of my musical heroes.