Mark Adler on scoring Food, Inc. 2: “I don't believe in neutral music”

Mark Adler, the acclaimed composer behind the score for the 2008 Oscar-nominated and Emmy-award winning documentary Food, Inc., has made his return for its highly anticipated sequel, Food, Inc. 2, directed by Robert Kenner and Melissa Robledo.

Known for his innovative approach to scoring, Adler used a more traditional way of writing for this project by putting his musical ideas on paper and sticking them to a bulletin board to visualise the score's evolution.

The film centres around innovative farmers, future-thinking food producers, workers’ rights activists and prominent legislators such as U.S Senators Cory Booker and Jon Tester, who are facing these companies head-on to inspire change and build a healthier, more sustainable future.

Adler delves deep into the documentary's themes that underscore pivotal subjects such as pandemic fragility and industrialisation. Drawing from his background in film and unwavering passion for storytelling, Adler explains how he meticulously crafts motifs that resonate with the audience, evoking emotions of hope and optimism amidst challenging circumstances between agricultural practices and societal progress.

my role is to help tell the story in a way that story also doesn't fall victim to overstaying its welcome.

The co-directors stated that after the first documentary in 2008, they never intended to make another, but 15 years later, realised that ethical shopping isn’t enough, and that meaningful change is going to require breaking up the handful of very large and very powerful companies that dominate the food industry. Were you surprised when you got the call about doing a follow up documentary after all this time?

I had heard that they were exploring the idea of a second one, so I knew that it was floating out there. But I was pleasantly surprised and happy that we were working together again.

Did the first documentary open your eyes to the reality of the food industry at the time?

The short answer is yes. Though full disclosure, going back many years, when I was quite a bit younger, I became interested in many of the issues that were dealt with in the first documentary. For example, right after college, I was living in a shared house situation, and we had a yard and a very understanding and progressively-minded landlord, who answered in the affirmative when I asked him, ‘Do you mind if I plough up the backyard, get rid of the lawn and put in an organic garden?’ He said, ‘I don't mind at all’. So my relationship with a lot of these issues goes way back. 

Being able to put my music where my art is, is the icing on the cake, as it were – hopefully, an organic carrot cake [laughs]. I was aware of many elements that were addressed in the first film, but the film assembled all of these ideas in a compelling way. The umbrella that was kind of covering the first film, in terms of its treatment of the subjects, was that all of the stuff was being kept from us, and why was it being kept from us. 

The idea is that if we knew the reality of how our food was raised – how the animals were being treated, how the food was being processed, how the people processing the food were being treated – that wouldn't be very appealing or appetising to us. The way in which they told that story was compelling and engaging.

there is a subtle connection to the first one. It’s not in your face like hearing The Godfather theme in The Godfather Part II!

The first film received such positive reviews and was nominated for several awards; were you surprised at the level of attention it received?

I felt like we had something good, but you never know for sure because you're so in the middle of it that it's hard to stand back, watch it, listen to it and absorb it. Particularly with repeated viewings, you become - not numb exactly - but you certainly don't experience it the way a first time viewer would experience it. 

One thing that Robert Kenner and I have in common is that we tend to have short attention spans, and that's a really valuable thing, because it means that if we're easily bored, we want to make sure that whatever it is that we're creating doesn't bore us. So it certainly helps create something which hopefully sustains engagement on the part of the viewer and the listener.

There's a quote on my website which I love: Stravinsky said, ‘Too many pieces of music go on for too long after the end’. I think it was his way of saying, ‘Yeah, I hear what you're saying; get on with it, because you're not telling me anything new’. 

As a composer, I try to be hyper aware of that, and as a composer writing music for film, my role is to help tell the story in a way in which the telling of that story also doesn't fall victim to overstaying its welcome. Moment to moment, it's about engagement and keeping the viewer interested.

Did you want the score to sound reminiscent of the first documentary at all?

There was a kind of a mandate going into this. When I first started working on it, Robbie and Melissa imagined that we would have a mostly electronic score, because so much of the film deals with ultra processed food, which in the final analysis is a kind of an artificial food: artificial colorings, artificial flavourings.

But as the composing process and the editing process evolved, we got more and more acoustic-sounding elements in. So it wasn't originally my intention to include anything from the first film, but there was an opportunity in one one of the cues to bring back a variation of one of the main themes from the first film. I thought it would be nice to have a little bit of that DNA in there as a reference to it, so I did a variation of it for one scene in the film.

In doing that, I thought to myself, ‘What would be really cool is writing a counter melody, which we hadn't heard in the first film, to go with the theme from the first film’. So now we’ve got something from the first film, but also a musical answer to it that's new and that makes it a little more fresh. I took that counter melody and I did a little variation on it and I started inserting it into other pieces of music. 

So there is a subtle connection to the first one. It’s not in your face, like we're hearing the theme of The Godfather in The Godfather Part II – it's not that strong [laughs]. But there's something about the harmonic content and the melodic content of it that is on the same family tree. That was fun to do because I liked the idea that a score should be unified in some way, and in this case, referred back in some subtle way to the first one. It's the sort of thing that you might not necessarily hear, but you'd feel it.

I don't believe a piece of music should be in there unless it's saying something.

What inspired Kenner and Robledo to make a follow up was when meatpacking plants became Covid hotspots in 2020 and Americans suddenly faced food shortages. With this in mind, what themes or ideas did you want to capture?

Often, we don't necessarily have a lot of verbal conversations. It's more like I'd be sent a scene. It's pretty clear by the way the scene is edited and photographed and the way the narration is that gives me my marching orders, in a way. It tells me what I might explore, musically. So I would respond to something they would send me, and then I would send it back. Then we would start having a conversation about the music that I had written. Sometimes I hit a bull's eye, and that would be hit and I got it, and other times we’d go back and forth a little bit.

One of the tricky things about ​​Food, Inc. 2, compared to Food, Inc is ​​Food, Inc. 2 has much more information in it and as a result, the narration is a little more dense than the first one, which means there's a little bit less space for the music to express itself without running the risk of fighting the narration. 

One of the things we worked pretty hard on is looking for those little spots where the music had to come up and make a statement that complemented what you were seeing, then duck out of the way, but sustain itself under the dialogue. That was a trickier thing but it seems to have been successful in the sense that the music does bring something to the film and at the same time, makes room for all of the ideas and all of the information that is being conveyed.

Given that it is a documentary rather than fiction, how did you navigate the balance between music and visuals, ensuring that the score enhances rather than manipulates the viewer's perception?

That's always been my approach to documentary scoring. I'm always aware of the fact that this isn't an artifice per se, this is reality, because I've scored many dramatic films where the suspension of disbelief is kind of a given. So we know we've seen something that's a dramatic artifice in a sense, because documentaries are quote-unquote, reality. 

However, because there's a lot of animated motion graphics, that's a wonderful thing for music to connect to, because that is an artifice that is a second layer. It's almost like a commentary on the dramatic aspect of it because it is created by an artist. It's animated and so the music can hook into that. It's almost like the graphics, animation and the music give themselves permission to go a little farther than if it were just a cinema verite documentary.

I'm always aware of the fact that this isn't an artifice per se, this is reality,

Which is your favourite cue from ​​Food, Inc. 2?

Well, to use that well worn analogy of, ‘I love all my children’...[laughs] But there were a couple of things that stood out. There was one that I questioned when I wrote it, because early in the film, there's a piece of archival footage from the ‘50s or early ‘60s - probably from the US Department of Agriculture. It’s saying, ‘We can feed the world, we feed ourselves, it's so efficient,’ and all this stuff. 

This very cheesy period music is in there and then it's followed by a sequence that also refers to that time, and talks about how efficient things were in those days. This is before consolidation happened. I remember thinking, ‘Well, we've already heard a period, optimistic piece of music that went with the archival footage,’ so it seemed like I should do something that contrasted with that.

I couldn't think of anything that would contrast with it that made any sense. So I kind of flipped and went, ‘Okay, I'll just do my version of America optimistic, industrial success’. I did that piece and it turned out pretty well – it's more acoustic-sounding. 

We came to a sequence later in the film, The Impossible Burger sequence, where, in the hopes of creating a hamburger experience that doesn't involve killing animals (because raising cattle contributes to greenhouse gases), this is a vegan plant-based burger. I said, ‘What if we use that optimistic industrial music from earlier in the film?’ And Robbie said yeah, so we were spontaneously on the same page with this. The music is hopefully not tipping [the viewer] one way or the other. I think this is where it gets very difficult and delicate in doing this kind of work, because I don't believe a piece of music should be in there unless it's saying something. I don't believe in neutral music.

my genelecs came from Leiber and Stoller, the songwriting team that wrote Elvis Presleys hits.

What is some of the studio technology you couldn’t imagine doing your job without?

I have Genelec monitors; I think I must have got them about 20 years ago. I actually bought them used. I was told - so I can't verify this - so this is hearsay, but I was told that they came from Leiber and Stoller, the songwriting team that wrote the Elvis Presley hits like Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas. I was told they came from one of their studios. So I thought, ‘Well, these Genelecs have a really nice history and a nice ancestry!’ 

So I was already feeling warm and fuzzy, and I don't have any reason to doubt the story, because I bought them from someone who I've been purchasing gear from for many years, so I think it was probably true.

I've been in other people's studios and I've heard their speakers; you become accustomed to whatever you work with and you learn to work with what you have. I do many of my own mixes, and go out into the real world - into a movie theatre or cinema or television - and see how they translate. And my mixes seem to translate fine!

Food Inc. 2 images courtesy of River Road, Participant and Magnolia Pictures.