Don't Look Deeper: Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum on Scoring Quibi's New Sci-Fi Series
Quibi's new sci-fi drama series, Don't Look Deeper, debuted this week on the short form streaming service with the series offering a "fifteen minutes into the future" story about high school senior Aisha (Helena Howard) who just can't shake the feeling that something isn't quite right about her. It turns out Aisha isn't human and it's that discovery that opens up not only a world of questions about who she is and where she comes from, but encourages the viewer to examine their own ideas of what it means to not only live but be human as well.
While the series tells Aisha's story with solid performances by Howard along with Avengers: Endgame star Don Cheadle, Mary Poppins Returns' Emily Mortimer, Ema Horvath, Jan Luis Castellanos, Kaiwi Lyman, and Harvey Zielinski, the series' story is told just as much by its actors and actions as it is by its music as well. The score to any film or television show has a significant role, but Don't Look Deeper's score, from composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, offers a unique soundscape that invites the viewer to genuinely explore their own feelings of self and connection.
ComicBook.com recently spoke with Kroll-Rosenbaum about Don't Look Deeper about her journey to becoming a composer, the unique quality of the series' sound, and how the series' score supports Don't Look Deeper's big questions and the exploration of self.
ComicBook.com: Tell me a little about yourself, and also how you became a composer. What's that journey like for you?
Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum: Oh, okay. Let's see. I have been a musician my entire life. I played the piano as a kid. I hated practicing. I loved improvising. And I came from a house that had a lot of live music in it. Both my parents are amateur musicians, and I have a twin sister who was playing the violin and I was playing the piano, and so there was a lot of jamming and playing live music to begin with when I was growing up.
I became a composer when I was in seventh grade. And I don't, how old is that? 13, 14, however old that is. However old you are in seventh grade is when I kind of decided that's who I was. And my parents got me one composition lesson with a woman composer. And it's amazing, because I grew up in a really feminist house. My parents are awesome. They're both scientists, and there's a real strong sense of kind of understanding feminist history, and it's amazing how much role models matter. And so, despite having all of that in my background, it hadn't occurred to me that becoming a composer was even an option when I was a girl. When I was a little girl, it didn't occur to me. That wasn't like, "Oh, what are you going to be when you grow up?" A composer. It was the act of going and having a composition lesson and meeting with Karen Tarlow, who she is a female composer. She then was on the faculty at University of Massachusetts, but that totally blew my mind that that was an option, a career path. And I decided that I was a composer.prevnext
Then when I was in seventh grade, I started writing music. I had been writing music down before that, so it wasn't some new idea, but it was just that I could do it for real. And then that was my identity. And I have lived with that identity as who I am since then. I went to school for music, and I went to Julliard, and I studied with Samuel Adler and Milton Babbitt, and just had a really hardcore classical background.
But at the same time was always really interested in collaborating, and collaboration is what always got me excited. And while I was at Julliard, I co-founded a group called VisionIntoArt, and that group has now kind of gone on to become national sawdust in Brooklyn, but it was all about, I co-found it with a woman named Paola Prestini, and it was all about collaboration. So we would put slam poetry with dancers and we'd a new music ensemble, but the crazy part of it is that we would commission filmmakers to make films to music that we had written. So you know those moments in your life where you think "God, I'm smart. I understand myself." It's like, "Oh my god." It was like exact opposite film composing. So instead of scoring the film, we would hire the filmmaker to make the film to the music. You know what I mean?
That was really wacky. So anyway, so I did a lot of performing in New York and running a new music multimedia arts organization, and it was totally fun. We toured. We did all kinds of stuff, and I got really into live electronics, and creating kind of hybrid music that was really about kind of live concert music meets all kinds of stuff, avant garde, electronica, all kinds of stuff. So that was totally fun. I was also always interested in film music. Fast forward, I fell in love very hard. In 2005, I met Laura Karpman, my wife, and the rest is history. I'm in LA. I always loved film music. I always loved also like old film music, too, and so film music ends up being this really natural space where you can be a storyteller and collaborate, and collaborate with really interesting people who I think bring amazing ideas to really unique situations, like Don't Look Deeper, and that's what really drives me is working with cool people, working with cool, interesting musicians.prevnext
Tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved with Don't Look Deeper. What actually drew you to the project?
So, Catherine [Hardwicke, director]. That's the long and short of it. I had known Catherine for awhile just socially. We've a lot of friends in common, and I had a really great opportunity to hang out with her and spend more time with her at the Sundance Institute. We were both, not fellows. What do you call it? Advisors. We were both advisors. We were both advisors at the Sundance Sound Sound Lab. And we just got to hangout more and spend more time together. And so the combination of Catherine and also the music editor who was on this project is a really brilliant person named Adam Smalley. I don't know if you know Adam, but he's a really brilliant guy, and he has really clear and clean ideas about music, and I really liked the way he thinks about music.
Catherine called and asked to meet about the project. I read the script and the script immediately jumped off the page to me, because it was just, like you said. It's really an incredible identity piece, and it's weird. And so I got to check off a number of boxes that I like to check off, which is, okay, this is interesting and unique. This is a story I haven't really seen, and in the hands of a really great director. We can make something really cool here. And so that was the seeds of it. That's where the seeds of it all happened.prevnext
One of the things that kind of stuck out to me is that so much of the score has this really interesting kind of sound that is both orchestral and kind of almost a little industrial, a little techno. There are places that it kind of feels to me like Nine Inch Nails goes to the orchestra, but make it young and a little bit feminine, while other parts sound like modern jazz meets a waking nightmare. How did you create sounds that are so completely unique, but also very familiar?
Okay, so thank you so much for saying that, and thank you for noticing that, and thank you for being able to package it in those words that are that's right. That's what I was going for. I think one of the really interesting things about this piece is that we're living in this time where we're naming everything, and I feel like all the identity stuff, too, I'm a queer woman. I'm married to a woman. I'm a composer. There all these things, and we use all of these words to kind of qualify things. I was really interested in this question. The question of like whether or not someone in this story is organic or biologically organic or not. I wondered if we could throw all those questions out the window, if we would allow ourselves to comfortably live in a gray space, what would that sound like? And so if we accept people and beings for their deeper identities, as opposed to what we choose to name them or box them in as, then could there be a musical score that was a total mashup of the organic and the inorganic, the acoustic and the electronic, and could all of that emanate from a familiar place of biology.
So, basically the whole score comes out of the idea of breathing and everything is very gestural. So like there's music that you hear over and over again with string quartet, and then you hear it with orchestra, and you hear it with voices, and you hear it analog sims, too, and it's very gestural, much like a wave in the ocean goes out and comes in the same way you breathe out and breathe in. So there's this sense of the familiar in terms of the way the gravity of the score, the way the physics of the score work, but I wanted it to live in this weird gray area where you were like, "Is that acoustic? Is that electronic? Or I don't know." And I didn't want anyone to have to choose. I want it to find a way of warmly embracing that gray area. So that was my intellectual thinking behind it, but I also just wanted it to feel good. I wanted it to feel emotional. And I wanted to support this identity quest that this piece is about.prevnext
I had this moment of where my brain was kind of fighting with itself a little bit at first, where it's like, "I'm hearing an orchestra. Wait, no, that's breathing. Is that breathing? That's music. No. What is that?" And eventually my brain just had to stop and be like, "Just sit with it."
Exactly. Just sitting, and accept it or don't accept it, but don't decide that you have to know what it is, and all the things that you're hearing are in it, and there moves, and there's air, and there's humans, and there's non-humans in all of it, and that's exactly it.
It was wild, and something else that's really cool about it is there's a wide range of what I would call tonal expression in the score. There are moments in themes that feel very, very bright, but then there are also pieces that are very heavy feeling, even though they maybe don't sound as heavy. I'm thinking specifically the track that was labeled Abel and that really jumps to mind. What was your process for developing such a rich and complex musical palette?
Oh, that's me singing in it.
Oh, that's amazing.
Well, there are a lot of strings in the score, in different sizes, orchestra and string quartet. I don't know. It was a really a feel thing. I wanted to also though not, I wanted there to be a uniformity of the score so that it wasn't based in one instrument being one character and another instrument being another character. It was really about not villainize, it's comes back to the same thing, and I'll tell you what it is. It's that, and this is like one of the great things about Catherine as a director is that she lets you get to know characters deeply, right? So it's not like you have, someone's a villain, so we decide that they are this person or we understand them. So all of these rich, complex characters kind of deserve, I think, these layers of knowing and not knowing that we would give anybody.
And so I think a track like Abel it's like that track has lightness about it, and there's a sense of innocence about it, but there's also a sense of, it's kind of gender queer, too, which is fits for Abel's character, too. So it's not about, again, not about boxing Abel in and Abel who, I don't want to spoil anything for people haven't seen it, but it's not about bad or good. Right? It's about life experience. And so I think that that's, the layers of the score, and the depth of that, and the voices, and the very human elements were Able, but also the electronics that are in that music also make the music not different necessarily from that of Aisha or any of the other characters.prevnext
Absolutely. And you kind of touched on something I was thinking when I was watching it. In most stories, there's a hero and a villain. That's the way stories are told, but that's not how humanity works. Everyone, and in this one in particular, there are moments where you think, "Oh yeah, this one person's totally the villain." And then you walk away from it going, "No, these are all just people trying to figure out who they are." And at its core, it's very much about identity, and a lot of people think when you say identity, you're thinking about, oh, sexuality or gender, but in this it's really a matter of human identity. Is it sexuality? Sexuality is there, gender is there, but we've also got professional identity, personal sense of self and purpose. How did knowing that the story, because you said you had read it and you were very drawn to it, how did that piece of the story really inform your approach to how you would make it? Because again, we've got all these characters who are all struggling with the concept of identity.
Yeah, but I would add to that they're also struggling with connection. And I think that's a really important word, because I think they're dealing with personal identity and their own personal struggles, but you also really have this question of what does it mean to be in a family. Right. And you have Aisha's family and you also have Abel's family that really plays a huge part in the story, too. Right? And so the question of what does it mean to be connected to other people and what do those relationships look like, I think that was all really important to me, too, in terms of building a score and supporting the story.
In terms of the decision making, I'll tell you, Catherine was a great collaborator. So part of what I did, too, is I wrote a lot of themes away from picture that were about, the very first theme I wrote for this was Inner World, and it was called Inner World, and it was really about the kind of inside life inside these families, the inside the bodies, inside the person, the both the pushing and pulling of it, again like that breathing idea of like the struggle with is it really about what it means to be a human or is it about connection, and is it about a sense of belonging and how can the music very warmly let you live in that space? So if we can abandon the big questions of are you this or are you that, is Abel this or is Abel that, but instead look at the humanity in it, which is what Catherine is so good at, and then so much of her work is about really getting deeper into the humanity of relationships. I think that's what I was trying to do with the score.prevnext
When it comes to the score for the series, is there a track that you're most proud of?
I don't know. I mean, there's so much music I love. I do love Inner World. That was the seed of this, of everything. I would say, though, that I also collaborated with Taura Stinson. She is a brilliant vocalist and songwriter, and we had a ton of fun creating. We worked with all these different vocoders, and basically created all of these kind of songs that function both as song in the score and they carry through, in Don't Look Deeper, there are places, actually, where you hear tracks that we did as source that are playing through as though they're songs on the radio or something like that, but they're very cool. So I'm pretty proud of those two. I'm wondering which ones you might have ... I don't know if you heard, there are like lists of body parts and all of those cues.
Hope Falls, I love that. I love that, too, because it's so pure. And yet it also, it's both innocent, and sad, and hopeful at the same time. It's and I, and again, I like those things that are these strange contradictions that let you just be in some space. So I love Hope Falls. I love Inner World. I love all the music. Look, I'm biased. What can I tell you? But I definitely would be happy to have just keep going with all of it, too, because it's just, the music is kind of self generative. It asks for more, so I don't know.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Don't Look Deeper is now streaming on Quibi.prev