With Sundance and TIFF Midnight Madness favourite Assassination Nation hitting US cinemas today, Friday 21st September, our man in New York James Kleinmann spoke exclusively to the film’s composer Ian Hultquist for HeyUGuys about his unnerving, experimental and atmospheric score. You can read our rave review of the film from Sundance here.
Assassination Nation Composer Ian Hultquist
Assassination Nation Composer Ian Hultquist

James Kleinmann: At what stage did you come on board and what was it the that drew you in and made you want to be part of Assassination Nation?

Ian Hultquist: I actually came on board really early, around four months or so before they started shooting. I was sent Sam Levinson’s screenplay by my agent and the first time I read it and looked through the ‘lookbook’ visualising what they were going for, I was just like ‘this is crazy! Even if I don’t work on this I would love to see where this goes, because it’s such a well-written story and it’s so bizarre’. It was so scary because it was so relevant. It’s funny, because when it first came around I thought it was perfect for right then, but I didn’t know how it was going to be in a year or two but it’s just become more and more relevant, which is kind of terrifying but also amazing at the same time.

I was excited about working on it and I got on a Skype call with Sam Levinson, the writer and director, and he seemed really enthusiastic about my work and I was obviously enamoured with the screenplay he’d written so it was a really good conversation. We first spoke in November or December of 2016, so it was a crazy time in America and then he started shooting the following Spring. I started writing around when they started shooting.

One of the things I love about the film is how genre-defying it is, it doesn’t limit itself. It’s so many things in one film: thriller, horror, satire, with western elements and more. Did that present a challenge when it came to scoring, did you feel a need to connect all those things?

It was a real process figuring out what our actual sound was going to be. I worked on this for almost a full year and most of it was spent experimenting and trying different things. When I first read the script it reminded me of the original Scream movie, it has that sense of dread in a small town and you feel like everything is falling part around you. I still love that movie so much. So that was my original jumping off point, mainly creating that emotional dread and fear and Sam really pushed me to go way beyond that.

At one point the whole movie score was a Western. That didn’t necessarily stick, but there are still a few elements of that in the finished score here and there. And then we started going down this crazy route of really manipulating audio and melding genres where you have orchestral strings with trap beats. We were taking cues that I’d written and then chopping and screwing them, so really slowing them down and degrading them and then playing that against the picture to see how it felt. It really ended up being a giant melting pot of weird sounds!

Marching band in ASSASSINATION NATION. Courtesy of NEON.
Marching band in ASSASSINATION NATION. Courtesy of NEON.

One thing the film does so well, where many others have failed, is authentically conveying social media, message alerts and the digital world in general on screen, that pressured feeling of receiving notifications when you’ve already got so much going on in your life. For instance when Lily’s character is publicly accused of something and suddenly becomes popular on social media and receives hundreds of updates simultaneously. Were you influenced at all by those alert sounds specifically or just the digital world we’re all enveloped by?

Yeah, definitely to an extent. One of the things that’s so amazing about the film is how they handle that and it was actually written into the screenplay, Sam was very particular about how social media was represented. He hates when you see a character looking into a phone screen on film because technology moves so fast that it just feels dated, so he wanted to find a way to do it where it’s a bit more fluid, a bit transparent. It’s not like ‘oh we’re staring at a screen’, you go in and out of the camera and on my end I think it just added to the chaos of it. There are those moments where Lily’s phone is just exploding and to me I wanted the music to feel like chaos when that’s happening. I don’t know whether there are any moments where social media alert sounds are connected to my music, but it’s certainly connected to the emotion and the hectic quality of it.

How would you describe your collaboration with Sam Levinson? What kind of guidance did he give you about what he wanted for the score?

The initial guidance was ‘there are no rules, do whatever you want’! Which was fun, but as much as I like to push myself to try new things and to be different it was a little scary, especially with such an insane film on my hands which I really want to do justice to. So that’s how we ended up spending a few months scoring the entire thing like a Western, because I think at one point I mentioned to Sam that parts of the script were like a Western and so he said ‘ok go with that’, which took us down a rabbit hole. But honestly I’m glad we did it, because through that he discovered some of those Ennio Morricone tracks which ended up in the final film and open the movie.

There are still a few elements that I originally did that for the Western score that are snuck in there, even if it’s just a little piece of it, say a guitar sound or something. After we got over that hump of going to a specific genre, we decided it was going to be all genres. That’s where the collaboration got really interesting and honestly it was a team effort between Sam Levinson, myself, the editor Ron Patane and especially the cinematographer Marcell Rév, who’s phenomenal. Marcell Rév’s work on this might be one of the most incredible things about the film. Everyone was coming in with ideas and I would go into an editing suite and they would have taken music cues I’d written and taken it into Pro Tools and completely destroyed it and say ‘this is the cue’ and I’d be ‘alright, this is the cue now’! Then I’d take what they’d done and finesse it. It was really interesting, I have definitely never worked on a project that’s rolled quite this way. It was challenging at first and kind of scary, because I never really knew where we were going to end up, but honestly I’m so happy with the outcome.

It sounds like there was a lot of trust on both sides, but from your perspective you went in and they had changed your music; what was your initial reaction to them changing your music so dramatically?

I always pride myself on being a team player. There’s no way any composer is not going to have a little bit of an ego bruise when that happens, but honestly what they were doing was so interesting and unique and it was forcing me to think so differently, that I was was just like ’yes, let’s go with this!’ It would have been one thing if they’d played it back and I thought it was terrible, then I would’ve said ‘ok guys, lets stop!’ but I just loved the direction that they were pushing me in. And I’m so glad that they did it because I think that I’ve become a better composer because of it.

Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse and Abra in ASSASSINATION NATION. Courtesy of NEON.
Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse and Abra in ASSASSINATION NATION. Courtesy of NEON.

You mentioned the team effort and some of the people involved like Marcell Rév, I loved the cinematography too especially the house invasion sequence where the camera moves around the outside of the house, it’s so unsettling and riveting. 

That’s definitely my favourite sequence in the film and that’s actually one of the cues where we ended up using audio that is basically broken. It shouldn’t sound that way, but that’s what we liked about it and that’s what you hear and I think that’s part of why that eight and half minute sequence is so excruciating to get through. Aside from what you’re seeing, it’s also what you’re hearing too; it’s strings being ripped apart digitally.

What do you mean by the music being ‘broken’…

Well, we take files, pieces of audio, and stretch them out. With today’s technology you can manipulate things to be longer, to be slower, different pitches. You can do it in a way that sounds really clean and beautiful and you would never know that it had been done, but we wanted to do the opposite, we wanted to do the old school method of stretching things out, but not to a nice rate, so you end up with something that’s destroyed and degraded and broken sounding. There was a lot of this film where Sam wanted me not to score it like I would score any other film and obviously being a composer I would fight that at times, but once we got to the final result it was like ‘yes this is perfect!’

Was that the most satisfying sequence to score?

Every time I see that sequence now I tear up a bit because it’s so insane and terrifying to watch, but also I can’t believe how it came together. Marcell Rév’s work there is just phenomenal. The first time I saw a cut of that I thought ‘I can’t believe this is happening in front of me’.

You’ve scored a lot of documentaries. Is your approach any different when it comes to composing music for a fiction feature film or a documentary or does it just depend on the individual film?

For documentaries it often does end up being a bit more in the background. I really try to push music forward because I think music help documentaries have more of a cinematic experience and I like documentaries that make you feel like your watching a film like any other. Luckily I’ve worked with a few directors who are really good advocates for that and allow me to run with that like Erin Lee Carr I’ve worked with a number of times and Andrew Rossi who I’ve been working with for years now. They both are really big fans of music and appreciate when we can let the music take over a bit.

Who are your musical heroes when it comes to scoring films?

I love Jóhann Jóhannsson and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that’s he’s not here anymore. His score for Prisoners came out at a time where I was still touring with my band Passion Pit but really wanted to get into scoring full time and just hearing that score while I was watching that film, experiencing it, was something that really pushed me and made me realise I have to do this. It might mean taking a leap or not making any money for ten years but I have to do this.

It was just such a haunting score. There are a small number of themes that are repeated and he does it in a way where you accept the repetition and it kind of hypnotises you. Max Richter is another composer who does something similar, where he finds that emotional short snippet that he can repeat and drill into you. I really love composers who do that I try to do that as well, even with Assassination Nation there are a few themes that I repeat a few times and hopefully it lures you in and hypnotises you into the world of the film.

Assassination Nation is in US theatres from today 21st September 2018 and the film’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack featuring Original Music By Ian Hultquist is also available from today on Lakeshore Records.

If you have any questions of your own for Ian Hultquist, Ian is hosting a Reddit AMA on Tuesday 25th September at 3pm PT/6pm ET to answer fan questions about ‘Assassination Nation’ and his film scoring career.

Assassination Nation will screen during the BFI London Film Festival Friday 19th – Sunday 21st October and opens in UK cinemas Friday 23rd November 2018.


Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the film stars Odessa Young as High school senior Lily, who along with her three best friends (Abra, Suki Waterhouse and Hari Nef) lives in a world of selfies, emojis, snaps and sexts. When their town of Salem is besieged by a massive data hack it results in half the citizens’ private info spewed into the public view and the community descends into anarchy. Lily is targeted after being falsely blamed for the hack and bands together with her friends to survive a long, blood-soaked night.

Assassination Nation Official Poster. In US theatres 21st September 2018, in UK cinemas 23rd November.