Yair Elazar Glotman on scoring Netflix’s ‘Reptile’: “It’s about unease, deception and ambiguity”

Yair Elazar Glotman, a film composer and a musician based in Berlin, talks about writing an unsettling score for new Netflix thriller, Reptile (currently holding first position as the most-watched film on the streaming platform for the third week in a row with 14.2 million views this week alone), starring Benicio Del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Silverstone and Micheal Pitt.

Following the brutal murder of a young real estate agent in Scarborough, a hardened detective (Del Toro) attempts to uncover the truth in a case where nothing is as it seems, and by doing so dismantles the illusions in his own life. So begins Reptile, which from the first opening seconds, the audience – immediately made uneasy due to a combination of slick cinematography, disorientating time jumps and Glotman’s unsettling score – is clued in to know that something is off, but what?

Was it an immediate yes from you to join this project when you heard the synopsis?

For me, it was a no-brainer, especially since I'm a huge Benicio Del Toro fan, as I got to stare into his face a lot! His performance is absolutely amazing. When you're scoring to-picture, you spend hours upon hours with the picture; you could be working on one cue on one scene for a couple of days in a row, so you really get to study each actor's performance. That was a privilege to do.

Reptile’s director, Grant Singer, is known for his music video work for artists like Sam Smith, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Camila Cabello, making this his feature film directorial debut. As he has a strong connection to shaping memorable visuals around music already, did he have a specific vision for how he wanted the score to sound for Reptile?

It was a really nice experience working with Grant and it was interesting to collaborate because he has an understanding of music and a vast knowledge of references and different kinds of music genres and film scores. He had many, many references and ideas, and was able to throw out four different ideas and to shift them. 

He has a vast understanding of the role of music, even though when working on music videos, the music is the main thing that's been predetermined for a director. But I think that even though as a music video director, you're not in charge of the music, you respond to music. He is very sensitive to sound and music overall, so it was a very interesting and unique experience working together with him. It was also really cool to just geek out on various kinds of music!

It is a murder mystery where everyone's a suspect and I was mindful about how could I mirror that.

What immediate ideas came to you in terms of how to approach the music, once you got to grips with the director’s vision and the film’s time-jumping narrative style?

A lot of the ideas came when I started watching the material and realised how atmospheric everything is, and also the characters and the arc of the movie. In a way it is a murder mystery where everyone's a suspect and I was mindful about how could I mirror that and reflect that in the music to show that things are not the way they seem, but also, how could I not interfere and keep the perception of all the suspects open and in a way that doesn’t give too much away.

Because of the atmospheric feel of this movie I decided to really focus on more abstract sounds – there is a lot of deception in the movie, so it was really interesting to work with abstraction and to focus on textural and spatial elements to tap into slightly more complex emotions and feelings compared to working with more traditional harmonic and melodic content. 

Even though I still worked a lot with string players – we recorded a string orchestra – it was important for me to use vocabulary and references from old film noir scores, but in a way deconstruct them and transform their sounds to something more abstract and unfamiliar.

In terms of the music you associate with classic film noirs, is it mainly jazz for you, and how did you incorporate that into a modern film?

There were a lot of references to Krzysztof Eugeniusz and different 20th century composers; Bernard Herrmann scores for Hitchcock films, and I think Grant was really inspired by Kubrick's The Shining, which is not a film noir, per se. For me, it's more about the feeling.

There are certain types of harmonic progressions or scales and this type of vocabulary to draw from, but for me, it's more about a specific feeling. It’s about unease and deception and working with ambiguity by not necessarily working with major keys or minor keys. When you see something, you can find different meanings within it; there are certain kinds of harmonic frameworks that each listener can have that can be interpreted differently.

So, for me, it was more about focusing on the texture or aspect of the sound as well. So, even though I was working with strings and vocals, it was important to bring this slightly closer perspective where you really can hear the physicality of the sound – like the metal strings vibrating, the friction of the bow – the main focus was to reveal those hidden sounds.

there is a lot of deception in the movie, so it was interesting to work with abstraction to tap into more complex emotions.

How did your music mirror the film's intricate layers of deception and abstraction?

It was always about contrasting certain things, so you suggest one thing and immediately bring in something contrasting and opposing certain elements. In a way you’re deconstructing those sounds and expectations. A way for me to create a cohesive language was to work with the same orchestrations in the source, which was the upright bass, but when it came to analogue processing techniques like working with analogue tape manipulations, I would put my own stamp on the slightly more traditional approach to string writing.

What was key that you conveyed with the music in terms of a feeling or subtly revealing something about characters, meanwhile without giving anything away too soon?

I tried to avoid giving away too much about the different characters because the main perception is from Benicio Del Toro's character's perspective, so it was more about how I could mirror the arc of this character as his understanding of his surroundings is changing. There is this claustrophobic feeling as if things are closing in on you, so the score starts in one way where you're a bit more distant via more familiar territories, and slowly things are melting away and you're much more confronted with the sound as the perspective is much closer.

Were there any scenes that were difficult to decide on an approach for?

The opening sequence was something that we were trying to think about and they had multiple different interpretations because we were working on setting the mood right away. Later we were playing with different, juxtaposing music and how to keep the opening sequence more neutral, so when things start shifting, you're a bit more surprised. By choosing to use a Motown song, it was interesting to see the power of how the music changes your perception of the picture.

Genelecs are very unique and have always sounded cohesive in their own approach.

You've collaborated on two Oscar winning soundtracks, Joker and All Quiet on the Western Front. How did Reptile compare to these?

For both Hilda's [Guðnadóttir] score on Joker and Volker’s [Bertelmann] score for All Quiet on the Western Front, I was invited to record and perform as a bass player by bringing those unique sound palettes off the bass in a slightly more untraditional way of playing. With All Quiet on the Western Front, we used percussive and raw materials. With Reptile there was an opportunity to delve deeper into this kind of sonic language and to expand on it – and to come up with something unique compared to existing scores.

On the studio side of things, you’ve worked with Genelec monitors a fair bit. When did you first come across them in your career?

The first time was in university. I studied at the University of the Arts in Berlin and I was part of generative art class focusing on sound art and sound installations, and we were doing a lot of multi channel compositions. We had an eight-channel Genelec sound system, so that was the first time I experimented with multi-channel composition, spatialisation, moving sounds and breaking out of stereo, so that was a really interesting and important time for me.

I used to do many residencies in Stockholm at the EMS – which is the electronic music studio there – and at Stockholm they have a place called Audiorama and they had a dome with about 30 Genelec speakers in it, so I remember that experience of listening to multi channel, immersive electro acoustic pieces in that space; it was pretty overwhelming. Genelecs are very unique and have always sounded cohesive in their own approach.

Reptile is streaming on Netflix now.

Reptile image credits: Kyle Kaplan, Daniel McFadden (Netflix)

Yair Elazar Glotman photo credit: Jose Cuevas