Composer Marco Beltrami Uses Suspense to Help an ex-White House Photographer Throw Shade

Oscar-nominated composer Marco Beltrami has scored a number of horror films in his career — from Scream to the Carrie remake and A Quiet Place. But working on the documentary, The Way I See It, required evoking terror of a different kind — the kind seen through the eyes of former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza, in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s presidency.

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In The Way I See It, streaming on Peacock for free, and available for rent on demand at Amazon, Apple, GooglePlay and FandangoNow, Souza shares how he came to hold the position he did, photographing two of the most iconic presidents in American history, Obama and Ronald Reagan. It also shares how Souza came to use his photographs, through his social media platforms (2.7 million on Instagram alone) and his books (Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents), to comment on the man who followed Obama, throwing ‘shade’ at and trolling President Donald Trump with images of Obama that show up the stark contrast in their administrations.

Beltrami, known for collaborating with some of the world’s most respected filmmakers, like Kathryn Bigelow, James Mangold and Wes Craven, worked with the documentary’s director Dawn Porter (who also made John Lewis: Good Trouble) to give viewers an insight into how and why Souza became so angry and frustrated with Trump, and began using his photos to call on Americans to be more socially active. With titles like “Trolling Trump,” ”UnAmerican,” and “Pete’s Opinionated,” Beltrami created a soundtrack, that’s been released by Back Lot Music, to accompany the documentary’s biting commentary.

“Buck Sanders, Brandon Roberts — my co-composers on the project — and I each watched the movie and compared notes,” Beltrami tells American Songwriter. “We all agreed that it would be great to have an ‘Americana’ vibe to the score — that the music could make the viewer feel emotionally in sync with the images and that it could help lead the viewer through the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of the shots.”

Their score enhances the various standout moments in Obama’s tenure, as seen through Souza’s pictures — from the suspense of being inside the Situation Room the day Osama bin Laden was killed to the fun of Obama coaching daughter Sasha’s basketball team; from the intimacy of Obama embracing Michelle in an elevator to the touching sadness of his final goodbyes to the White House staff.

There are also two original songs on the soundtrack, by Aloe Blacc, “Snow Angel” and “The Future,” which lend the film a hopeful note on which to end — needed more so when the film initially came out, before this month’s presidential election results had been realized. Beltrami wasn’t involved in those songs, even though he says they are very effective in the documentary.

He, together with Sanders and Roberts, who he’s worked with individually on various projects before, focused on the tone of the film, building the suspense and trepidation behind Souza’s words. “We actually had fun playing around with scoring all the Trump scenes with horror music, haha!” he says. “No, actually there is a fine line between music accenting something and being over the top, so we were constantly riding that razor’s edge, and it was more important to create the bigger picture arc than stinging moments.”

Creating suspense, in its varied forms, is what New York-born Beltrami does best. He was nominated twice for Best Score at the Oscars, for 3:10 to Yuma and The Hurt Locker, and the surprise hit, A Quiet Place, earned solid praise for Beltrami’s balancing the tension of silence with the thrills of sound-attracted monsters. He also scored the 2019 Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, which felt like watching a horror film to many of those who tracked Alex Honnold’s 3,000 foot free-climb of Yosemite’s own monster, El Capitan.

Beltrami has followed his work on The Way I See It with a return to horror of the more traditional kind, scoring the film Love and Monsters, and A Quiet Place 2 was meant to open in cinemas in March, before the pandemic hit. But when it does eventually release, audiences will hear more of what Beltrami created in the first film. “The main thing was to incorporate silence as a compositional element into the score,” he says. “Also, by building an emotional connection with the characters through thematic scoring the suspense gets magnified too.”

The key to getting suspense just right, Beltrami says, is being involved in the story that’s unfolding onscreen. “Getting ‘into’ the picture, so you’re not commenting as an observer, but rather an empathetic participant,” he says.

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