Netflix's mini-series When They See Us, chronicling the false incarcerations of the Exonerated Five — formerly referred to as the Central Park Five — remains one of the most chilling projects released in recent memory. Directed by the brilliant Ava DuVernay, the story left viewers heartbroken and a large part of that visceral reaction is due to the series' thoughtful score composer, Kris Bowers.
Fresh off of learning of his 2019 Primetime Emmy nomination in the category for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special, Bowers spoke with BET.com about his tailored creative process for this project, deliberately adopting a horror-themed sound throughout it, and being appointed to handle "the Black stuff" by Hollywood's often backhandedly racist higher ups.
Take a look, below:
What did you feel upon first seeing When They See Us?
A lot of things. My first time seeing the show was my first interview with Ava [DuVernay] to possibly come on to the project. She had me come into her office and chat with her and she showed me the first episode and I watched the first episode and went back to go chat with her and couldn’t contain my emotions, and I started crying talking to her. I felt anger, I felt incredible, immense sadness, and also fear, just because I think, just growing up as a young Black man in this country, my parents' [thought for me] was that something was going to happen where I was going to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and be misidentified and something was going to happen to me. Being the child in that dynamic, I always thought that, like, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me” I always kind of looked at them as being a little dramatic, to be honest, and then, of course, as you grow older in this country, and the most you start to feel why they feel that way, and you feel your own fears and things like that, and seeing it off-screen was seeing it all that realized, and seeing it happen to these boys just really broke my heart.
What kind of mood were you seeking to convey through the compositions?
In the first meeting I had with [Ava DuVernay], I actually told her I wanted to [pull from] references from horror movies, actually, and not like any fantastical horror films. It just felt so scary to me that it needed to have some sort of horrific sound to it, and so the first thing that I did was I started taking instruments like the cello and saxophone and trumpet and violin and I had each instrumentalist play the weirdest sound they could find on their instrument and things that aren’t very musical, but give more of a visceral feeling or something like that. Then I ran all that stuff through effects and all those different things to sort of make it feel not even weirder or more eerie, but also, to me, it just represented what was happening on screen where you have these innocent boys who are being manipulated during these interrogations. I thought that the best way to do that would be to take some of the most beautiful instruments and make them sound as bad as possible or as weird as possible.
And I think the only other thing that was a part of our first conversations that was really important was also trying to represent the humanity and innocence and the love and the heart of this film, because I think there’s a world where this show could’ve been scored with, like, very predictable, procedural drama-type of music, and that was something that Ava really, really stressed that she didn’t want, and even in those interrogation scenes, it was really important to her that you could still feel the boys. There were a couple of early cues that I did and she was like, ‘I can’t feel these boys in this music because it doesn’t feel like it has that softness that it needs to have underneath all of this horrific-sounding stuff.
Upon first seeing a film or series, most viewers get lost in the story and rarely take deliberate notice of its composition. Can you speak a bit on why this aspect of the experience needs to be carefully curated?
Whenever somebody tells me that they didn’t really notice my music, but they were so moved by a show or a film that I’ve worked on, I kind of take that as a compliment, honestly, because, at the end of the day, my music is really just meant to aid the story, enhance whatever is there or just making sure that it’s never getting in the way or distracting from the storytelling, and it’s only just kind of helping that. So, with a project like this, there’s such a thin line, and I think, for example, with episode two, with that whole episode, we already go into the story knowing what the story’s about. We know these boys are going to be convicted. We know how that court case is going to turn out, but my job as a composer was trying to find the ebbs and flows of that episode, and the ups and downs, and try to squeeze as much as we could, sometimes, to make it feel like, by the end, when we’re about to hear that verdict, I wanted to make sure that people still felt hopeful that maybe they weren’t going to be convicted. So, something like that, a lot of times, it’s a balance of a very, very light touch with something so emotional. Much that would’ve been so heavy-handed with emotion probably would’ve made what was happening on screen less impactful, and a lot of times, in some of the more emotive parts, the music is actually pretty sparse and timid, and we’re trying to let that speak for itself. And then, in moments maybe where there’s a bit more silence on screen, then the music can kind of sweep up, and start to, like, tell us how we should feel in this moment, or accentuate how we should feel in the moment. It’s a balance I think everyone should pay attention to, because when you’re watching a movie or you’re on a ride, you don’t even realize what’s going on and you don’t realize that the editing, the sound, the music, all these other aspects, are also so much of the reason why we’re getting to that feeling we’re getting to.
You’ve been an active composer for years now. How has your personal journey been as a Black composer in Hollywood?
It’s been interesting. For one, I honestly have to just pinch myself often, just looking at where my career is, and it’s just something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, and to be doing it on a successful level the way that it’s happening, I still can’t really believe it sometimes, and so I’m mainly just thankful. Especially on a project like this, I feel just thankful that I’m even a part of it, and I think the other side of it, of course, is that it’s been an interesting path to navigate when there’s so many preconceived notions about really any person of color. I think when it comes to music, when I first started in the industry — albeit, my background is as a jazz pianist and I have performed with hip-hop artists and things like that, but the music that I create as a film composer, not only does it vary, in general, but also, at that time, when I first started, none of that music really had that sound to it, definitely not hip-hop and maybe a hint of jazz. At the same time, there was much more trust with producers, or with showrunners or studios in the industry with me getting a project that needed, like, a hip-hop score or a Black score to it, but when it came to a film that needed just a simple piano and string score, which is very much the heart and sound for When They See Us, people didn’t really trust me with that. All of a sudden, they would be like, “Oh, we’ll find somebody else for that stuff.” And I was just talking to Christophe Beck the other day — he’s an incredible composer who composed for Frozen and all that stuff — and he started a diversity initiative with his publishing company or P.R.O. (performance rights organization) that he’s with, and he was saying that for somebody like him, a studio would trust him with a hip-hop score without batting an eyelash. They would ask him to do that and trust that he would be able to figure out how to do that, even though that is very far from his background and has nothing to do with any music that he’s created on his own, but he’s had experiences where a huge studio would trust him with that and with anything else, and with my situation I explained is quite the opposite, where they can look at me and be like, ‘OK, we can trust him with the Black stuff,’ even though they’re just doing that because of how I look, not at all based on my music or my history.
You’ve composed scores for series, films, video games, documentaries, you name it. Is there a favorite medium among the bunch that you enjoy creating for? And if so, why?
There isn’t. I really feel like I’m always going to be that varied in the type of work that I do, just because, [for] one, it constantly challenges me. It constantly makes me have to approach something differently, and so I can only get better by taking on projects like that that challenge me in that way. And it also just keeps it fresh. I think me being, at the end of the day, a performing artist, especially as a jazz artist, the thing that I love about jazz is the freedom that comes with it; the freedom that I can express myself however I want to, whenever I want to at any moment in time. If we’re playing a song on stage, I can decide in that moment [that,] ‘I want to approach this in a much more abstract way,’ or ‘I want to approach this in a 1950s way, or ‘I want to approach this in whatever way I want to,’ and that freedom is always what has me excited about that style of music as a performer, and I think that’s kind of what I’ve always looked for in my career. I’ve been a fan of a bunch of documentaries, or films or TV shows and played a bunch of video games that had big impacts on my life and childhood, and so to be able to contribute music to any or all of those is exciting. So I just want to do great work, so it doesn’t really matter where it comes from.
Lastly, what do you hope viewers took away through your composition in When They See Us?
To be honest, I just hope that the composition just helped them feel the story more. That’s what I hoped they would do, in the first place. For example, when I was working on it, every time I would watch the scene before I started working on it, I would watch it without any music a number of times to just see how I felt and just see what moments were really pulling at me, and so many of those scenes, like the scene with Niecy Nash, the Marcy scene where Marcy keeps saying, “Norman,” over and over again and Marcy leaves the house, and that scene I would watch by itself and get emotional, and anytime I would add music to it, there were times I would add music and I wasn’t as emotional watching it, and I was like, “It needs to change,” because the scene was working by itself and now I added something and now it’s not working. So, that constant trying to work on it until it made me feel the way that I felt without any music, and so I really just hope that the music just helped audiences or viewers feel the story even more.
(Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences)