Emile Mosseri: indie rocker turned Oscar nominated film composer

photo credit: John Marsico

Film composer Emile Mosseri was just nominated for his first Oscar, but he only moved to Los Angeles and entered the web of connections that would contribute to his meteoric rise in film music three years ago. 

“You always hear people say, like, go somewhere where there’s opportunities, they make a lot of movies in LA,” Mosseri said during a recent Zoom call. “And for me, it actually happened in this fairy tale way.” 

On a chance night out, he met a producer on the HBO show Random Acts of Flyness who connected him to his current agency, Plan B, and his mentor, Terence Nance. Eventually, he scored his first major film, 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. And, it was at the Last Black Man premiere that he met Lee Isaac Chung, the director of Minari, which is the film that landed him his Oscar nomination. 

Mosseri sits in his laid-back Glendale, California garage-turned-studio while he takes this Zoom call. The room looks ready for an impromptu band practice: An electric guitar hangs on the wall and a drum set idles alongside a velvet blue couch. He renovated this space just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic with his stepfather, and it’s been his workspace throughout quarantine.

Much of Mosseri’s adulthood has centered around those rock ‘n’ roll jam sessions with his indie band, The Dig, but he’s loved film scores since he heard Giovanni Rota Rinaldi’s (Nino Rota) score for The Godfather and Danny Effman’s score for Edward Scissorhands as a kid, and even studied film composition for a couple of years at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He actually doesn’t find film scoring to be that different than playing in bands: At the beginning of the process, he and the director share music back-and-forth, finding their common ground and introducing each other to music as if they’re collaborators in an ensemble. 

“The real magical part is they’ve turned me on to stuff and I’ve turned them on to stuff that we didn’t know, and then your musical consciousness expands because you’re aware of all this other music and inspired by all this other music that you hadn’t heard before,” he said.

Since the beginning of its run, Minari, which chronicles a Korean-American family living in rural Arkansas, has achieved awards season buzz. Mosseri’s score has been lauded for how it feels more like a character onscreen than benign accompaniment. That’s mostly due to the way it was written: Chung gave Mosseri the script before the movie was filmed, and Mosseri began to compose, sitting at the piano and singing at home. He eventually traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the crew was filming, and watched some of the process. It was there he saw fellow Oscar nominee Steven Yeun ride a tractor, and wrote music strategically named “The Tractor.” He sent it to Chung with a subtle suggestion of where it could go, and they ended up using it.

“It was a dream to work this way, because I did a lot of scoring the picture after the fact, but 80% of it, or 70% of it, they adapted the film to fit my music instead of the other way around,” Mosseri said. “It changes the role music plays in the film, because the music has a little bit more room to breathe, a little bit more leg room.”

Piecing together the album version of the score has been a new challenge for Mosseri that he’s worked on throughout quarantine. “I try to make each [piece] an experience that works outside of the context of the film,” he said. “You have a lot of this music written, but then you have to extend pieces, like sometimes you have a 30-second piece of music in the film but as a track on an album, you want to make it a few minutes long.” He re-sequenced the score so that it makes sense as a package, and wrote liner notes to go alongside the Director’s notes, which he found particularly intimidating, since Directors like Chung are professional writers. But the process wasn’t a deterrent, rather, it was a new obstacle to explore.

“It’s fun, it’s your baby, and you really like it. And that’s the way people are gonna experience [the score],” Mosseri said. Minari’s official soundtrack was released in February on Milan Records, and a vinyl edition was released on April 2 on Sacred Bones.

Minari‘s release and rapid rise has launched Mosseri and the cast and crew into a whirlwind tour of roundtables and appearances. “It’s sort of surreal, and the surreal nature of it is heightened by the fact that this is all virtual,” Mosseri said. But he isn’t going through the whirlwind alone — the whole Minari team is like a family, supporting each other through the sometimes-overwhelming experience.

After the 2021 awards season ends, Mosseri’s plate will still be full. On the film front, he’s writing a score for Jesse Eisenberg-directed, Emma Stone-produced When You Finish Saving the World, which stars acclaimed actors Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard. He also recorded an EP with buchla synth-extraordinaire Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and an album of his own, both of which are song-based projects that don’t service a movie. But as Mosseri gets caught up in the fast-paced excitement of awards season and the projects he has lined up, he makes sure to stay true to what all of this is about. 

“You have to remind yourself that the real award is already happening, which is people are connecting with the film and it’s resonating with people,” he said.