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‘What Does the Memory of Music Sound Like?’: An Interview with the I’m Thinking of Ending Things Music Composer

Jay Wadley shares the secrets to crafting the sounds of Charlie Kaufman's latest film

Like most of Charlie Kaufman’s films, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the surrealist new feature from the enigmatic director (Synecdoche, New York) and screenwriter (Being John Malkovich), is concerned with nothing less than the inner workings — and warpings — of the human mind. At first glance, the film (which premiered on Netflix last week) appears to be a relationship drama about an ambivalent woman who accompanies her new boyfriend on a road trip to meet his parents on their isolated farm. But nothing is quite what it appears to be, and as the film burrows deeper into boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) unsettled mind, perceived onscreen realities start to crumble.

This particular head trip is full of musical excursions: an extended dream ballet sequence that occurs within a character’s mind, a musical homage to Oklahoma!, even a 1950s-style jingle for a fictitious ice cream stand. In reality, this musical universe was built by Jay Wadley, a New York-based composer and music producer with a background in academic classical composition. Wadley has also scored film and TV projects such as Netflix’s The Innocence Files and the recent Sundance hit I Carry You With Me, but it seems fair to say that I’m Thinking of Ending Things has been his strangest assignment.

We spoke with Wadley about how he approached setting the film’s creepy, unraveling dreamscape to music and about revisiting his home state’s unofficial musical, Oklahoma! (Be warned: this interview contains numerous spoilers regarding the ending of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.)

SPIN: Were you a fan of Charlie Kaufman’s previous movies before this?
Jay Wadley: Pretty much anything he had made. One of my favorites was Synecdoche, New York. That film was so intensely moving; I guess I identify with a lot of those themes and fears of existence and death. Sort of the same things Charlie plays with in all of his movies. It’s just like, the human condition and terror of existence.

What was your reaction when you learned that Charlie Kaufman wanted you to create music for this film?
I feel like I blacked out [Laughs]. When I got the initial call to probe me if I was available and interested—from Anthony Bregman, one of the producers—I jumped for joy. It was like five different emotions, all simultaneously, of, like, extreme excitement, disbelief, terror, and then ultimately the weight of having to live up to what a Charlie Kaufman score requires. Obviously, we had to have an initial discussion to see if we were on the same page about the approach.

What was that initial meeting like?
It was a great initial conversation that was largely about conceptual elements. At this point, we weren’t sure how much actual post-scoring there was going to be, if any at all. There was definitely going to be this jingle. There was going to be the pastiche rom-com. They were licensing the Oklahoma! tunes. It wouldn’t have worked to use the ballet from Oklahoma! because we would have had to rearrange all the themes and redo the whole thing. So we decided to do it all  [as an] original score, the concept being that it needs to be a part of this fabric, and what does the memory of music sound like? Or the misremembering of music?

[We were] playing with some of those concepts in the ballet by making it a piece that sounds like it could be from Debussy, or from Ravel or Stravinsky. But definitely feels like it could be something Jake would have heard at some point in his life, so that when he’s imagining this entire romantic ballet sequence that’s sort of representing this life unlived, what music is he imagining accompanying this thing? It’s all fabricated in his head and part of his imagination.

What was your first impression of Charlie Kaufman?
He’s a bit quiet, as you would expect. But super generous and interesting to bounce ideas off of. And he wasn’t overly prescriptive and trying to tell me how to do my job. He was very clear that he did not want this to be a horror score and that we’re not making a horror film, to steer clear of anything that places us too squarely within those genres. He was very open with how we approached that as long as we were not dipping into the horror stuff too much.

What’s your interpretation of what’s happening at the end? Are we realizing that the girl only existed in Jake’s mind and he’s an old man now?
Yeah, my interpretation is that it’s all the story of the janitor reflecting back on his life trajectory and a life unlived and a relationship that didn’t really happen, but something that he imagines. What that could be like if he had a relationship such as this with this woman he once met in a bar at trivia. Later in life, as a lonely older man working as a janitor, he’s imagining a different outcome for himself, is the way I think of it. [He’s] imagining a scenario where he brings his girlfriend to dinner, but she actually just experiences his childhood and his entire upbringing with his family in one dinner setting.

He kind of chooses to end his life. So that whole section, leading from the ballet, where he literally kills the younger version of himself, he’s starting to imagine all of these different outcomes. What that ultimately leads to is this fever dream of memory and hopes and dreams that were unrealized. So that trajectory from there to the end is sort of all those things misfiring and synthesizing together into this alternate perception of his life coming to an end.

How do you approach creating music when the music is meant to be imaginary?
It’s just thinking about the perspective of that individual and what is realistic for them to have heard. If we had done something where the ballet was extremely modern, and sort of “now” and experimental, it would not have been really plausible that he would be all that interested [in that]. It’s more plausible that he would have heard some of the classics, like Stravinsky.

How did you approach writing the jingle for the ice cream shop?
Charlie sent me a couple of different references of old, animated jingles for ice cream parlors and other things. They’re just super creepy, but that one came quick. I wrote it in one night and sent it back to him. There’s sort of this blissful 1950s sunny persona, paired with some strange black-and-white visuals. It just has this effect to it that is rather unnerving. Rose-colored glasses on music without acknowledging what, in retrospect, looks kind of terrifying.

At some point in time, they thought maybe it would be playing on a TV or somewhere else diegetically in the film. But I think as a hallucination, it’s that much more effective and unnerving.

During that part of the film, we also get some fragments of the score that are being played in reverse. Can you talk about that?
That whole concept at the end, in that fever dream sequence, is supposed to be all these memories rushing back to him. We get flashbacks of interactions with his parents. Drives down snowy roads. As he’s starting to shiver and what we perceive to be him ultimately freezing to death—that kind of sets us off. There’s a bunch of ballet elements in there that are run backward, run through a tape, slowed down, reverbed out, with some other textural score elements on top of it.

There are also elements from the musical Oklahoma! Why Oklahoma!?
Well, those were Charlie’s decisions. For him, there’s a lot of thematic material in Oklahoma!, and specifically the character Jud, that in ways parallel [this story]. That song, “Lonely Room”—it’s a very dark moment for Jud’s character. It’s a dark moment for Jake, in the film. It’s the unrequited love and relationship that didn’t come to be. And then, very literally, in the dream ballet sequence in Oklahoma!, Jud falls on his own knife. And in our dream version, Jake stabs himself. But it’s actually the older version of Jake killing the younger version of Jake that still has some potential to have a better life.

Also, as they’re driving, Jake talks about how the school performs Oklahoma! every several years. That resonates with me, because growing up in Oklahoma, we always performed that musical it feels like every single year of my life.

You’re from Oklahoma yourself?
I am. It was kind of a crazy, serendipitous part of it.

Is that really Jesse Plemons singing?
It is!

He has a pretty good voice.
He does! I brought him into the studio. It was awesome, watching him perform. Because that’s a difficult scene at a really heavy, pinnacle point in the film. And he was just as much in character in our vocal recording session as he appears onstage.

Jay Wadley
CREDIT: Courtesy of Jay Wadley

The film is obviously released on Netflix, but it’s also being released in the middle of a pandemic. Do you think something is being lost when people are seeing this film at home instead of in a theater?
I do think so. Because this film really requires a fair amount of attention to detail to comprehend all the references and what’s going on. Part of the beauty of Kaufman’s filmmaking, I think, is that it’s so multilayered, but it’s not something you can watch on your phone. It’s not something you can watch on your laptop and maybe be texting or thinking about something else. It really requires you to engage with it in order to appreciate it.

I hope at some point there’s some love for it and maybe there’s a possibility for it to have some type of retrospective release.