Emile Mosseri's Oscar-Nominated Score for Minari Evokes Dreamlike Memory
When Emile Mosseri B.M. ’07 created his Oscar-nominated score for the film Minari, he took an oblique approach: he wrote music that didn’t directly reference the film’s visuals or dialogue but that nonetheless was able to get right to the heart of the story.
Though on its face Minari is about a Korean-American family that moved to Arkansas in the 1980s, Mosseri says that the film, at its core, is director Lee Isaac Chung’s love letter to his upbringing, understood through the gauzy nature of childhood memory, loaded as it is with feeling and partiality.
“(Chung) is not presenting this movie as ‘This is exactly what happened.’ It's an emotional story, and it's his emotional recollection of it, so the music helps define that distinction, or the music helps the viewer process this as a man's recollection of his life as a little boy, and not as documentary. So the music is very biased.”
The result is a timeless, ethereal soundtrack that avoids being too on the nose with its subject matter. The music doesn’t sound Korean, it doesn’t sound Americana—nothing Mosseri calls “heartland-y; i.e, harmonicas and twangy guitars.” It also doesn’t sound like a period piece. Mosseri lightly referenced the decade by using an ’80s synth, but mostly because it had a dreamlike sound a theremin might make.
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It helps that when Mosseri wrote the score, he had no visuals to work off of. The great majority of the music that ended up in the film was composed before shooting began. “So it was just emotionally and spiritually connected to the story,” he says, adding that having the music finished before filming was advantageous in several ways.
For one, the music had more breathing room in the film. Instead of pieces being written to fit a scene, some scenes were shot, extended, and edited to fit the music. “The music became sort of baked into the batter of the film in a way that I was really excited about, and grateful for,” he says.
A second major advantage of giving the score to the director before filming is that a composer doesn’t have to fight “temp love,” or when the director falls in love with pieces of temp music—often by brilliant composers such as Philip Glass or Thomas Newman—that have been living in the cut for months. “If their music is in the director’s ear, in an edit, for months and months, the biggest challenge...is knocking that music off the mountain, writing something that the director is as excited about as the temp,” Mosseri says. “When your sketch is the temp you’re doing yourself a tremendous favor later in the process.”
But, of course, in order to write the music early, a composer needs to be brought on during the project’s early stages. Mosseri had the good fortune of having a relationship with the film’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, for whom he had scored The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) and Kajillionaire (2020). In fact, those were the only two feature films Mosseri had scored before his Oscar-nominated work in Minari.
The Path to Minari
Considering that Mosseri earned the nomination for Best Original Score just a couple of years after he scored his first feature film, it might seem that he rocketed to the upper echelons of his profession in record time. However, though he says he's honored by the nomination, his success "didn’t feel fast because I’ve been scoring films and putting out music for 16 years.”
Growing up in Westchester County, New York, Mosseri spent his teenage years “dedicated to perfecting the art of the bass solo,” a quest he continued at Berklee, where he studied the instrument for two years before starting the film scoring program. He recalls his time at college as a period of deep immersion, “just living and breathing music in that intense way.”
After graduation, he moved to New York City, scoring small projects on the side while recording and performing as a bassist and vocalist for the indie rock band the Dig. It was through the band that he met director Terence Nance, who directed a music video for the group. For the next several years, Mosseri contributed music to Nance’s projects and scored some of his short films.
In 2018, Nance directed the television series Random Acts of Flyness, which was picked up by HBO, and hired Mosseri as a composer, prompting Mosseri to move to L.A. From there he got an agent and landed the job for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, produced by the same company that later produced Minari.
The most exciting part for me was to be in a category with these people that I’ve been fans of for decades…. The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around (was) that those were my peers.”
In addition to his own preparation, Mosseri credits the success he’s enjoyed to finding and working with talented artists before they had money or real exposure. “It’s just about working with people that you believe in…that inspire you and do good work,” and hoping that the project they’re developing takes off, he says. “If you do good work and put that music out into the universe for years and years, then you’re heightening the chances of your music connecting with people or...breaking through [on] some vehicle, some TV show, or some film.”
The vehicle of Minari took Mosseri to the Academy Awards. The experience—from nomination to the ceremony—was “a tremendous honor” while also “completely surreal,” he says. “The most exciting part for me was to be in a category with these people that I’ve been fans of for decades…. The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around [was] that those were my peers.” (Trent Reznor, Jon Batiste, and Atticus Ross won the category for Soul.)
It was also fun, he says, for him and his wife to get “all dolled up” and leave the house, especially during the pandemic, to go to a fancy event.
Mosseri is following up his success with Minari with another film from A24, the company that (along with Plan B) produced the movie. He’s scoring the upcoming Jesse Eisenberg film, When You Finish Saving the World, which is now in postproduction.
At the same time, he’s continuing to make his own music and collaborate with other artists, as he did in New York. He’s currently working on his solo debut album as well as a record with composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith B.M. ’08.
For him, these worlds—making records and composing scores—are part of a whole. He says that his early years in New York as a touring and recording artist have “100 percent” helped prepare him for film scoring in terms of what he learned about songwriting, collaboration, navigating relationships, and being inspired by other musicians.
“You learn something from every one of them, and that finds its way into your film music,” he says. “Whatever you’re doing is going to find its way into your work.”