A Revealing Asian Psychological Thriller

December 6, 2020

Scoring CHI CHI EM EM – An Interview with composer Jerome Leroy

By Randall D. Larson

Originally from Paris, France, Jerome started his composing career by scoring numerous internationally-recognized short films, including TAKING THE PLUNGE, winner of a coveted Student Academy Award. He then turned to feature films and has since written the music to the gothic romance thriller THE HOUSEMAID (Golden Lotus for Best Score at the Vietnam Film Festival), the fantasy drama A BETTER PLACE, the romantic thriller CHI CHI EM EM, and the action thriller KILLERS WITHIN, to name a few. His credits in the film industry also include Lionsgate’s tentpole movie THE HUNGER GAMES, Universal Pictures’ animated film THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, and New Line Cinema’s comedy A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS. Over the years, he has also collaborated on more than fifty films as orchestrator and score producer.

CHI CHI EM EM (aka in English-speaking territories SISTER SISTER) is a 2019 Vietnamese psychological thriller following the story of Kim, a radio talk show host, who is going through a difficult phase in her marriage with Huy when she offers a room in their opulent home to runaway teen Nhi, unaware that the girl has dangerously ulterior motives. The film is directed by actress Kathy Uyen, making her directorial debut, and produced by Timothy Linh Bui. Composer Jerome Leroy had worked with Bui twice previously so it was natural for the producer to recommend him to Uyen for his new production. Leroy’s score for CHI CHI EM EM would be one of his most complicated and unique compositions.

Q: Returning for a third film with producer Tim Bui, how did you interact with him to determine the kind of music that would be needed for this film?

Jerome Leroy: I knew Tim and he spearheaded the whole production. The director was a first time director, and they agreed Tim was going to be creatively involved. When we first started talking about it, the big question was about a montage that happens about two-thirds of the way into the film which they temped with a baroque piece of music. The concern was how to make it work? Should it be an original piece or should it be a classical piece? The first two-thirds of the film are shown from one point of view, which is Kim’s perspective. You don’t know what all the characters’ motivations are, but everything looks normal… and then you have this moment where you realize that it’s more complicated than that, and the perspective suddenly switches from Kim, who until then you think was the main character. The montage makes you realize there are really three main characters—so that’s what got us started from the very beginning of this creative brainstorming session. Tim had talked to me about this movie called THE HANDMAIDEN, a South Korean psychological thriller (2016) which has an unexpected shift of point of view, when you realize what is really happening isn’t what you thought it was. It has multiple levels and, as you keep watching the film, you realize it’s not just a second point of view, there’s a third point of view as well, and it gets pretty deep. The goal in CHI CHI EM EM wasn’t that deep—it is more of a thriller and so they wanted to have tension and dark moments and things like that, but the idea of the shift of perspective was a critical moment in the story. That’s where I started, musically: how to make that shift work, and it expanded from there to the rest of the score.

Q: How would you describe your instrumental/sonic palette for this score?

Jerome Leroy: I would describe it as a classical orchestral thriller score. It has those modern touches—the electronic base, some pulses, some textures—but we tried to blend that with a classical aesthetic. That’s partly why we decided not to use a licensed piece for the baroque section during the montage: we wanted it to feel like an integral part of the score. And so, while at first, for budgetary reasons, we talked about the score being written mostly for piano and synth pads, we wanted to avoid a modern type of thriller score with electronics that suddenly jumps into a baroque piece. I suggested to start the film with a classical overture—so on the first track you have those four or five chords, very similar to what an overture would sound like in the classical vernacular, before it shifts into a modern aesthetic. I wanted to give a hint early on that this was coming. Then, as the film and the score progress, we have more and more of those classical elements layered in. That way, during the big reveal, those classical elements now made sense based on what we’ve heard before, where we’re coming from musically. That was the concept behind merging those two worlds.

Q: How did you finally deal with that reveal and the baroque music?

Jerome Leroy: For that “centerpiece” (although it actually occurs two-thirds of the way through the film), the music went from the modern-sounding score to something that was fully classical. The main piece is actually an arrangement from a Vivaldi violin concerto [“Concerto #74 in E minor for Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord”). As we kept using more and more of the classical material, I decided that it would be really great to record this with a live orchestra. We hired a chamber orchestra to record this in Budapest: 13 violins, 5 violas, 4 celli, and one bass, along with a live harpsichord, which I didn’t want to be synth because it was important for the sound of Vivaldi, who often used harpsichord on his pieces. Adapting his piece meant having a live harpsichord. It felt important to do it right. We had a full day of sessions in Budapest, one with what we called the “A-orchestra,” which consisted of the strings, along with two horns, one flute, one clarinet, one oboe, one bassoon, and a live timpani. So we had this little chamber orchestra—which was actually big for a baroque orchestra—that ended up giving us that classical sound with the multiple pieces of Vivaldi that I arranged, and then a few more original pieces that sound very early classical/late baroque—one even has a harpsichord solo. It was an interesting part of the score that morphed from kind of a modern sound to something a little more classical sounding.

Jerome Leroy conducting the orchestra for CHI CHI EM EM in Budapest

Figuring out this Vivaldi arrangement was really difficult, because the montage sequence had already been filmed and was fully edited by then, and it was a challenge to arrange the piece so that it fit that specific moment in the film. I basically took a recording of the three movements and started putting them together—editing it until we had something that we felt was hitting all the beats that we wanted to hit. So it’s a completely new arrangement, recorded specifically for this film. It feels somehow like a return to my roots—I’m classically trained; I learned about Vivaldi’s music before I learned about film scores, so having this as the focal point and then starting from there and bringing that sound to the rest of the score was an interesting exercise to do.

Q: How did you deal with the spooky/scary elements of the storyline?

Jerome Leroy: A lot of it comes from what I call “bowed textures,” things like bowed dulcimer, bowed cymbal, a lot of bowed percussion, bowed vibes. Layering those out is not necessarily very original in itself, but because it ends up being on top of a classical music bed there’s an interesting effect that happens. That makes it sound different because you have this really warm sound from the strings and it’s supplemented by other bowed instruments. A lot of the suspense occurs through tension building—it’s not necessarily jump scares. This isn’t a horror film, it’s really more of a psychological thriller, so a lot of the tension that’s being built happens over a longer span of time. The idea was to make it so that you don’t realize the tension is growing. We would start with something very simple in the strings and then eventually we add a little bit of a low beat to it. It’s not obvious at first, it just starts growing and then you have some bowed synth or some bowed acoustic instrument—just a little bit—and then it goes away and comes back… and eventually all this builds to a palpable tension. It’s almost like boiling inside, that was the idea behind a lot of those moments. That’s where the tension comes from.

Q: What equipment made up the electronic palette of your score?

Jerome Leroy: I don’t use hardware synths—it’s all software plug-ins. A lot of them are things that you would find in standard plug-ins like Omnisphere from Spectrasonics, and I use a bunch of custom Kontakt instruments that I would tweak—things like low beats and growls and such. It ends up being a lot of sounds that I’ve customized over the years, or that I’ve liked and set aside for later projects; there are instruments and sounds that I use on this score that I used ten years ago for the first time, maybe something like a bowed lap steel guitar, but it’s newly tweaked specifically for this score. A lot of those sounds are in the bowed/sustained type of textures, like I mentioned earlier. I also used a few plug-ins from a manufacturer named Output. They have really cool low-end, loopy, pulsating type of sounds. What I really wanted to do on this score was to make it so that once the orchestra became something that was going to be fairly present, the electronics could support the orchestra but not necessarily take over—so I would have two or three pulses playing together, creating that low end support, but when you listen to the soundtrack it might not be obvious that there’s a big electronic pulse going on there. I was trying to make sure the two blended in a natural, organic way.

Q: You make an effective use out of what sounds like ringing bowls and water droplets to evoke tension. How did the score support the growing mystery of the story and shape the emotional/suspenseful atmosphere as it played out?

Jerome Leroy: This actually was an idea that Tim suggested. There was something that he found intriguing in the idea of what he called “water droplets,” and I tried for many, many weeks to figure out exactly what he meant by that. Yes, it is metallic bowls, which are blended with a bunch of plucked instruments, pianos, harp, dulcimer, etc. The goal was to find something that was mysterious and doesn’t tell you exactly what’s going on, but you know something’s afoot. There’s something that you haven’t figured out yet. In the story, Kim and Huy are going through a difficult phase in their marriage, and you have this third character, Nhi, who shows up unannounced. She says she’s been abused, she’s just come out of a very bad relationship, but the music is supposed to make you feel that even though she’s fragile and she was clearly hurt somehow, there’s also something that is not right, or that you should start questioning. There’s something more to it. I think Tim’s idea with the “water droplet” was to incorporate an unsettled type of sound, which would not tell you exactly what to feel. That’s the nice thing with that idea of a drop of water, of those bowls: they have a little bit of a ring to them, but it’s not a sustained sound. There’s curiosity to it. Any moment where we wanted to give a hint that something is not quite right, but without really pushing it too much, we would call for that mysterious sound.

For more information om the composer, see https://www.jeromeleroy.com/

A digital soundtrack album of Leroy’s CHI CHI EM EM score is available through amazon and other digital music sources.

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