Set in a New England university town, One Percent More Humid follows two college-aged friends (played by Juno Temple and Julia Garner) reunite for the summer to help each other cope with the untimely loss of a childhood friend, an effort that inevitably entails smoking pot, drinking cheap beer at dingy dive-bars, skinny-dipping, and having forbidden affairs. Nominated for Best U.S. Narrative Feature and Winner of Best Actor (Alessandro Nivola) in a U.S. Narrative Feature at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, One Percent More Humid explores such themes of heartache, love, and retribution via the bold affectations of two young women trying to make sense of themselves and their circumstances.
Known for his musical contributions to Award-winning documentaries like Rich Hill, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, as well as one of this year’s top prize winners at Cannes, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Nathan Halpern sets up a score that is effortless and meditative, with pieces like “Calling to Me” and “We Miss You” providing a compelling emotional backdrop for the romantic themes and picturesque visuals of the film settled within and around the woodlands.
TYF: How did you become involved with this project?
NATHAN HALPERN: Liz W. Garcia, the director, contacted me about the film a couple of years before it had went to production. She sent the script, which I really connected with, and we talked about it. She actually wrote the film quite a while earlier — at least 10 years earlier, and it was a script that [garnered] a lot of interest, though she refrained from selling it because she wanted to direct it herself. She sort of waited until that point where she was able to kind of get it off the ground.
TYF: There’s this very lovely and specific aesthetic and nuance to the film. What was that process of collaboration between yourself and Liz in terms of marrying the visuals and themes into the score?
NATHAN HALPERN: When looking at the film, I think there’s two things. There’s a cinematic aesthetic to it that has a bit of this quality of a teenage daydream. There’s a very romantic quality to a lot of the motifs — the recurring visuals of the lake, and the woods, and this young woman journeying through the woods. There’s a very classic, poetic quality to that. Queuing off of that, I think, led to the music having that same mystical aspect. Though, at the same time, there’s also a very real pain that’s underlying everything. There are occasions where this very delicate, romantic piano motif will be set against churning, distorted sounds that remind us of the anguish that underlies everything in the film.
Of course, a huge part of the film is about romance and affairs, and the intensity of feeling – both of romantic passion and of internal turmoil. And so these two emotions are really feeding one another and are sort of part and parcel of the same overall experience. I wanted to really evoke that totality in the music.
TYF: Did the both of you share a similar vision for how the film should sound?NATHAN HALPERN: Yes, absolutely. The film that sort of connected us in the first place was a documentary I scored a couple of years ago called Rich Hill. It played at Sundance in 2014, and it won the Grand Jury prize, and I think she saw it shortly thereafter. Something she responded to in that soundtrack, I believe, was the ambient, atmospheric quality that draws you to reflecting on what you’re seeing in a different kind of way than you might otherwise. Musically, I think it sounds pretty different [from One Percent More Humid], but I know that was something that came up.
One other thing we talked about is how [the film] also has this timeless college milieu, and I thought about some of the musical motifs that could connect to this sort of experience and time. It’s in part why we liked the idea of having a song in the score, which we ultimately did for the ending. When we decided to do the original song, “Calling To Me”, it was an opportunity to really give direct voice to the film’s themes of yearning and grief and love. Something that’s very important to me from a scoring point-of-view is really connecting into the subjectivity of the protagonist. And because this film runs into these themes of love and loss – and because Juno Temple’s character is a young poet – we really liked the idea of having the song be this simple little poem that’s very plaintive and full of yearning – both for the friend’s loss and death as well as for her romantic yearning in the most conventional and literary sense. I liked this idea that it almost felt like a very simple, personal thing that was coming from her, and of course we were very lucky to get Emily Forsythe to sing the song, who has this very haunting and ethereal vocal style.
TYF: It’s a real stand out, for sure. What was it like recording that track with Emily [Forsythe] as opposed to the more ambient sounds of the score?
NATHAN HALPERN: It happened very quickly. Beneath it, the underlying chords are very similar to those we hear in the rest of the film. I just sort of played it quickly and quietly on the guitar in a kind of raw fashion. It’s not an overly produced track. I wanted it to feel like it was coming from a very personal place. The best part of it, for me, was Emily Forsythe singing it because it was really the emotional quality that we wanted. Even though the sound of [the song] is quite different, it feels connected and part of the same world in its own way. Just a different side of that world.
TYF: Is there any one aspect or key scene in the movie that ended up inspiring the score itself?
NATHAN HALPERN: The cinematographer Andreas Burgess, who is a friend of mine, has a very kind of poetic eye. The way in which we experience this story is so largely in the outdoors and through these very timeless visuals of nature. The images, in particular, of Juno Temple’s character moving through the woods, going into the lake…I think that sort of recurring visual for me really inspired the piano motif that’s at the heart of the score.
TYF: You have scored so many exciting fiction films and documentary projects, most recently The Rider and Netflix’s brilliant new release Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. What has been your approach in choosing projects?
NATHAN HALPERN: There always has to be something I connect to emotionally or in the cinematic style of the films. Certainly The Rider, as far as a narrative film goes, is one of the most beautiful things i’ve ever seen — even when I saw it in a very rough format. It was incredibly exciting to work on. Interestingly, as I think about it, even though these films, while they cinematically and in various ways are quite different, if there were to be some sort of common denominator, these films all deal with very big questions of mortality and finding one’s place in the world and in the universe often in the context of the death of a loved one or the death of a dream or concern of one’s own impending death. And those kinds of bigger, existential questions are really inspiring to me musically and just in general. These are not trivial films.
In The Rider, as you know, it deals with a rodeo cowboy who suffers a very debilitating injury where he’s forced to reckon with his identity. Chloe had said something to the effect that it’s about a man whose dreams are destroyed yet he continues to dream. It’s a very profound thing.
One thing that was very lucky for me is that when this film came up, at that time, before putting my daughter to bed, we would listen to these sort of old folk songs together — many of which are these old cowboy ballads [originally] written by cow-herders and cowboys out in the field. Interestingly, a lot of them do have this very existential, beautiful, sorrowful quality. And I tried to, in a deconstructed way, invoke some of the feeling of that kind of music to some of the score [for The Rider].
Right after we premiered The Rider at Cannes, the opportunity to work on the Joan Didion film came up. And because much of what you get from Joan is this musicality in her writing, it was important that the music really be in harmony with those rhythms of her individual pieces. For example, one of the readings for the White Album, where she deals with this sort of impossible task of trying to wrap one’s mind around the logic of the Manson murders — trying to find sense in a senseless situation — there’s this kind of circular piano motif that’s taking you on this journey in a very distant fashion. Then, there are some later pieces, as in “In The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights” — dealing with the deaths of her husband and daughter respectively — [where] the music is meant to help take us into this phase of suspended animation into which she goes. We need to feel the tremendous pain that’s there yet not push it in any sort of sentimental fashion because she doesn’t do that in the writing at all. There’s meant to be a certain ambiguity in the music there, which was incredibly important.
TYF: What has been your experience scoring a western, a coming-of-age dramedy, and a documentary within an incredibly short span of time in-between?
NATHAN HALPERN: From a musician’s point of view, while it has its stresses and its elements of anxiety, there’s also something very liberating because one can’t sit there and spend years on it. You have to go with your true instinctual reactions to the material. There can be those times where sitting there and working something through forever can kind of kill the spontaneity.
The other great blessing from a creative point of view, the most essential aspect for me, is the inspiration. And here you’re being given that inspiration. You’re presented with these beautiful gifts of these films in how they look, their stories, and the themes that come up and what they bring out in you. It’s not just beginning from scratch. You really have something to respond to emotionally. And that’s really what you need.
You can stream Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix, and catch The Rider in theaters, which is set to be released by Sony Pictures Classics in early 2018. One Percent More Humid is available nationwide on iTunes and VOD.