Afterlife Composer Rob Simonsen Talks Bridging the Spiritual Gap Between 1984 and Now
When Jason Reitman decided to make a ghost hunters film which will follow directly on the first two films carried out by his/her father, Ivan Reitman, the scenario writer knows with whom to address for the musical part of the spectral company: Rob Simonsen. The composer had previously worked on Reitman’s two previous feature films: tuly and The lead runner (both released in 2018).
“I think on this one it was important…to make sure I ‘got the mission,’ to use TikTok parlance,” Simonsen says of the project that would eventually become Ghostbusters: Afterlife (currently playing in theaters). “With all the department heads, he was saying the same thing, which was, ‘You kind of have to step aside and be of service to this movie that we’re trying to make. “”
***WARNING! The following contains some spoilers for the movie! ***
Set in modern times, Life after death hands the franchise over to a whole new generation of spiritual exterminators: Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) Spengler, estranged grandchildren of Egon Spengler (the character played by the late Harold Ramis to whom the project is dedicated) . With that general pitch in mind, Simonson went ahead and whipped up an 8-minute demo for Reitman.
“Life after death does things that the original never did in terms of scope, action, tone, and wit,” he explains. “It tended to swing between scary, totally apocalyptic, and comedic. And that kind of nostalgic wonder and discovery and youthful innocence and also, just big, fast-moving bits of action that didn’t really happen in the movie. original. So that was the conceit of the demo.
He added: “I sent it to [Jason] and he was right over the moon about it. I think that’s what really sealed the deal and we said, ‘Okay, we understand how we can do this’. We weren’t looking to do a modern reinvention as much as going back to the original and then moving forward in these clothes.
Naturally, the process began with Elmer Bernstein, who scored the 1984 original. Simonson. “Look under the hood, look at the sheet music and see what kind of vocals he used and how he used them.”
Fortunately, he was able to count on the comments of Elmer’s son, Peter Bernstein, a composer in his own right.
“He orchestrated the original for Elmer and he orchestrated a lot of his dad’s movies,” Simonsen says. “We reached out and asked him if he’d be willing to join us and help be a scoring consultant and kind of a keeper of the flame. Peter came on board and we formed a great friendship. He was making suggestions about, ‘Oh, you know, in the 80s with my dad, we would have added this’ [or] “We would have added that to an eardrum for that.” Just a few orchestration suggestions that were really great.
Another member of creation ghost hunters brain trust was Ivan Reitman himself (as a producer on Life after death under its Montecito Picture Company banner).
“I think the most shocking thing Ivan said to me…was that he originally wanted to be a composer,” Simonsen recalled. “I think he started school with the intention of being a composer, then moved on to movies and [obviously] had a distinguished career in this field. But he has a great ear so his suggestions were incredibly specific and I really appreciated that.
In addition to drawing on the first two ghost hunters films (released in 1984 and 1989 respectively), Life after death also owes a debt of gratitude to 80s classics like The Goonies, HEYand support me — films that refract the poignant loss of innocence through the prism of the extraordinary. This palpable sense of supernatural wonder became a major cornerstone of Simonsen’s score, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Steven Spielberg/John Williams film of the era.
“We really thought about the action/adventure films of the 80s, of which there are so many. A lot of these scores have become very famous and so loved by everyone,” he says. “There is a spirit in these films and I think it was a spirit that was alive and well in 80s America. It was a much more innocent time and there’s a fiery sense of how the action is approached and a sense of fun and a sense of wonder and awe and just kind of action.
Nowhere is this philosophy more palpable than in Life after deathThe moving final minutes of where the main characters – including surviving Ghostbusters played by Bill Murray (Peter Venkman), Dan Aykroyd (Ray Stantz) and Ernie Hudson (Winston Zeddemore) – get a chance to briefly reconnect with a benevolent ghost version of Egon (Ramis was briefly brought back to life using modern CGI techniques).
Following this incredibly touching reunion, Egon’s spiritual aura dissipates into the night sky, causing the heroes to look up in awe. It’s enough to bring tears to your cheeks.
“I think the [most] difficult scene was probably the very last,” admits Simonsen. “Just because we knew there were big shoes to fill in terms of musical expectations and music had to take people to a certain emotional place…and be big and uplifting and full of wonder and yet , keep it with just enough dissonance that it didn’t sound too straight. That it didn’t sound too syrupy because I think you might lose people.
He continues, “I think the ending is really this mixture of some of this new material that I wrote for Life after deathaccompanied by a very sweet interpretation of the ghost hunters theme and the ghost hunters melody played in a way we had never heard before and re-harmonized.
Originally slated for release in summer 2020, Life after death has been repeatedly delayed by the global COVID-19 health crisis. While it’s certainly a bummer for Reitman and his team to continually push back the title’s theatrical debut, they’re just happy that audiences can finally enjoy the movie they worked so hard to make.
“Like a ghost hunters fan, as a kid growing up in the 80s and having seen this movie so many times, it’s good that fans of the franchise are excited and excited about the movie,” Simonsen says. “Because we all went to great lengths to really embrace the original and feel like it landed in a good way for people, it’s really nice. It’s really exciting.”
Since the movie’s post-credits scene lays the groundwork for a sequel, I ask Simonsen where he’d like to see the music go if he’s lucky someone else returns for another episode.
“I think it’s such a fun world and I think if a new team of Ghostbusters embarks on new adventures and faces new enemies, then let the music do the same,” the composer concludes. “Let it grow, but just come from the same mind – come from the same place and perspective and have fun with it.”
Co-written by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now playing in theaters everywhere. Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bokeem Woodbine, Annie Potts and co-star Sigourney Weaver.