In theaters today is the critically-acclaimed family drama People Like Us (review). In addition to boasting a star-studded cast and a screenplay from award-winning writing team Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also directed), the film’s score is the latest from two-time Oscar-winning composer and songwriter A.R. Rahman. Rahman was nominated for three Oscars in 2009 for his work in Slumdog Millionaire, and won Oscars for the score, as well as for the song “Jai Ho.” Rahman has worked prolifically in the years since, earning another two Oscar nominations for the mystical score and song “If I Rise” from 127 Hours. Though People Like Us is a dramatic departure for Rahman, his blending of world music elements with a more classic film score results in something unique and memorable. (check out a preview from Lakeshore Records)

In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently chatted with Rahman about his work on the film. Here’s what he shared with me about writing and recording music in Los Angeles, collaborating with the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Liz Phair on a song for the film, and crafting the score for People Like Us.

Jackson Truax: Once you read the screenplay for People Like Us, what was the process of crafting the score?

A.R. Rahman: The whole challenge after I read the script was…that the score has to play such a big role in highlighting the whole emotion… From the first scene where [Chris Pine] is about to lose his job, and you see Frankie [Elizabeth Banks] is in a bad state, the music had to play light, and yet have the emotion. And not drown people in sadness of the negative emotion. Alex was pretty clear about that. So we started the score with that. The movie actually took us on a ride of what it wanted.

JT: What was an example of something you wrote or a direction that you went in that was a result of the movie telling you what it wanted the score to be?

ARR: I had written a couple of themes in the beginning after reading the script, which helped in a way to shape up the sound of the movie. Then we moved away from [some], but certain elements were kept. It had to be a very middle-class family sound. It had to be…not perfect. It had to have little imperfections, like all the imperfections that the characters have and yet have a lot of beauty and hope in it… Alex had written the script with songs in mind. We said, “Let’s write a song together.” We met Liz Phair, and that’s how the song came about. She took some of my melodies, and she came up with her lyrics. It was beautiful.

JT: What was the process of collaborating with her? You’ve worked with so many different artists now, what was it about working with Liz Phair that was unique?

ARR: She had this voice that was so much like Frankie. You could see she used the character as an inspiration… The words fit perfectly. It was amazing… That was unique.

JT: People Like Us features a lot of songs from the past several decades. When you were writing your score, did you know what songs Alex Kurtzman wanted to use? Did that influence your writing at all?

ARR: In the beginning…I also wanted to write a couple of songs that felt from that era… Then I felt it was better to have songs that already existed, so people can relate to that stuff. I found myself concentrating more on the score and the last song. So we were really clear about my role as a songwriter and composer in this movie.

JT: People Like Us is very specifically set in and around Los Angeles. You’ve obviously spent a lot of time here in recent years. Did the sounds or the feel of the city influence your writing of the score at all?

ARR: I grew up with Hollywood movies. I grew up watching so many movies back in India. When I bought my first VCR, I would watch two or three movies a day… There’s a kind of connection, which I feel is certainly completed by me doing an American movie, and a movie about a family in Los Angeles and New York. So I can relate…subconsciously, to all this stuff. There are great musicians here. Sometimes you get to work with those musicians…they bring a sound that is so inspiring. When they play a chord, it really takes you back to that whole genre of beautiful films. I love working with musicians here.

JT: Do you have a core of musicians in Los Angeles that you use when you record music here?

ARR: Yes, I use the musicians of [music contractor] Peter Rotter, who is a great friend. He’s so good at his job, that he gets me the best musicians. Sometimes I meet people who are budding musicians… I try and use them too. But the core musicians are provided, mainly by Peter Rotter.

JT: During the process of scoring the film, how much did you talk to Alex Kurtzman and get his input as you were in the process of writing queues and recording music for various scenes?

ARR: Working with a person like Alex…he’s so much into every sound affecting his consciousness. So sometimes, you’ll see…how much he wants a sound to be connected to his characters. The music has to move with the characters in the frame and the edits… In a way, you feel so good that somebody’s so passionate, that you want to give one hundred percent to this person to make this movie a success. That’s an amazing thing I discovered about Alex. We worked with an amazing music editor Erich Stratmann. It was a great team.

JT: The score for People Like Us is a lot more subtle than a lot of the work that you’re best known for. What are the biggest challenges in writing a score like that?

ARR: The score of Slumdog Millionaire, whenever it comes, it’s in your face. It’s meant to be like that. The mix is like that. It was in your face… In this movie, it’s so sensitive. Every sound is so sensitive. It’s good to be in a completely different genre. It’s very Hollywood in a way, which I really love.

JT: Is there anything in particular you’re hoping audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll? What effect do you hope your work will have on that?

ARR: It’s not a score that’s like, “Here comes the score of A.R. Rahman.” It’s a score that is subtle, in a way. I want them to live with the sound. And whenever they think about the movie, hum a couple of tunes from the movie. And that’s enough. Because the movie’s like that… I didn’t want to do flashy work.

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