How Rising Composer Emile Mosseri Landed His Biggest Film Yet

Emile Mosseri
John Marsico

Emile Mosseri

Minari, the moving tale of a Korean family that relocates to Arkansas to follow the father’s farming dream, won both the Grand Prize and the Audience Prize (in U.S. Dramatic) at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The fictional drama, which is based loosely on elements from director-writer Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, is now poised as a leading Academy Award contender, including for best original score.

The film’s 35-year-old composer, Emile Mosseri, whose graceful, emotional score anchors the movie (he also wrote “Rain Song,” the end-title track), says that it’s a bit of a heady experience, given that his first theatrical score came only two years ago with 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. He recalls how he got involved and how the pandemic changed his scoring process.

How did you get involved in Minari?

I met Isaac at the Los Angeles premiere of The Last Black Man in San Francisco through producer Christina Oh. We found out we were neighbors. She had sent him some of my music and sent me his script. It was like being set up on a date.

What direction did he give you for the score?

He made it clear out of the gate he wasn’t looking for an Americana farmland score or a score that referenced Korean music specifically. I started writing music [for the film] before they started shooting. Luckily, it resonated with him — and it helped to have my music in the editing process. That inspired me when they showed me the film [in various stages], so it was passing this ball back-and-forth.

In many scenes, there’s a sense of wonder as we look at the experience through the eyes of the young protagonist, David. How do you score that?

I think that has to do with his script. Isaac’s film is an ode to childhood memory, which is such a visceral [and] deep, deep human experience that is tied into wonder and is almost dreamlike. You have some leeway with the tone.

What instruments did you use to bring that to life?

It’s more about the melodies and how you use the instruments [together] than any specific instrument. I’m singing on the score a lot, so it’s the combo of my vocal and this particular Theremin synth sound with woodwinds, piano and guitar.

What was the hardest scene for you to score?

A cue called “Water.” It’s a scene where Jacob decided to re-route the water from his family’s home to the farm. We realize the weight of what he’s doing, but it’s also very hopeful. Every movie has one cue that haunts your dreams and this was that for me for this film. It was worth the extra pushback from [Isaac] and effort from me to make it work out, but I’ll never listen to it again. PTSD. (Laughs).

How did the pandemic change your scoring process?

I recorded everything in L.A. except for the strings, which were recorded in Macedonia. Just to hear 40 strings play your music after listening to the fake strings for months and months is really profoundly rewarding and one of the purest joys of this job — even if it was over Zoom.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue of Billboard.