“I remember 1980 as a time when New York could be a scary place,” recollects composer Christopher Spelman. The musician wrote the score of James Gray’s new film “Armageddon Time,” which takes place in Queens, NY, in 1980 and chronicles the friendship between two sixth-graders during a transitional moment in United States history. He remembers the city at that time as a “really amazing, fascinating place where I was super happy to be, but a place where you could run into chaos pretty much anywhere.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Spelman has frequently collaborated with Gray, having previously scored “The Immigrant” and “The Lost City of Z” and consulted on other films by the director. The musician shares that he loves the “open conversation” that they share, noting how the filmmaker never “hesitates to tell me what he really thinks.” He also describes the writer-director as “extremely funny… the funniest person I’ve ever met” and as someone who “never, ever quits.”
WATCH our exclusive video interview with Banks Repeta, ‘Armageddon Time’ actor
One of those open conversations took place early on about how the music for the film should sound. “The two of us together were of the same mind,” shares Spelman, emphasizing how they both felt the score should be “fairly spare to reflect the nature of the relationships.” As for his approach, the composer shares his goal for the score was for “the music to reflect the delicacy of a child’s emotional world… as kids, they’re insecure, vulnerable.”
The relationship between the main character Paul (Banks Repeta), who is loosely based on Gray, and his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) immediately resonated with Spelman. “What I was most drawn to was the intimacy of Paul’s world… the close connection that Paul has with his grandfather,” explains the composer. When watching the scenes, he felt “the warmth that Anthony Hopkins conveys on screen,” and the performance touched him personally. Since he knew Gray when the director was in the seventh grade — Spelman was once Gray’s teacher — he said, “To think of him having somebody in his life like that was really very meaningful to me.”
WATCH our exclusive video interview with Andrew Polk, ‘Armageddon Time’ actor
Another pivotal relationship in the film is Paul’s budding friendship with his classmate Johnny (Jaylin Webb). The two become fast pals in public school, but their differences become more transparent and challenging to overcome when Paul transfers to a private school. In one heartbreaking scene, Paul dismisses Johnny when he comes to visit him at his new school, which Spelman beautifully captures in a track called “At the Fence.” “You can see that Johnny both does perceive what’s happened, but doesn’t want to admit to himself what’s happening,” describes the composer, who notes that he wanted to capture this “tragic reckoning of something really wounding” in song.
The climax of the film finds the two friends caught committing a crime in an intense sequence. Spelman scored this moment with a swell of strings to immediately establish tension and a sense of dread. “It was clear that that scene was going to be the first step toward disaster… It’s the point of no return,” reflects the musician. He wanted to convey a “disquieting effect” in his scoring by using “harmonies we haven’t heard before” and “semi-dissonant harmonies” to communicate the sense that “the world has suddenly taken a turn on its axis.”
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