Finding That 1980s Sound: Composer Rob Simonsen Discusses Scoring GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE

By J Blake Fichera · @ScoredtoDeath · November 18, 2021, 4:00 PM EST

Rob Simonsen is a composer whose diverse body of work has found him providing music for everything from Oscar-nominated dramas and techno-thrillers to romantic comedies and television sitcoms. His latest project reunites him with filmmaker Jason Reitman [their previous collaborations include 2018's Tully and The Front Runner] and has him filling some enormous Stay Puft-sized shoes.

Scored to Death author J. Blake Fichera spoke with Simonsen about following in the footsteps of film music icon Elmer Bernstein and paying homage to the music and films of his youth while scoring the highly anticipated new movie, Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021).

How did you come to work on Ghostbusters: Afterlife?

I scored Jason's [Reitman] previous two films, and we had a good time working together. So, when this came up, he gave me a shout. I think he was looking at some different people, and I ended up doing a demo to make sure, for both of us, that I was the right fit for the job. I wrote a seven-minute suite, hired an orchestra, and went into Warner Brothers—which is where they recorded the original Ghostbusters (1984) score—and recorded it. I surprised Jason with this polished recording, and he loved it. Then we were off to the races.

Was it intimidating taking on a sequel to not only an iconic movie but an iconic movie with a score by Elmer Bernstein?

Yes. [laughs]

Your score incorporates some of Bernstein's themes. What were the discussions with Jason like regarding using the musical language Bernstein established in the original film?

Right away, Jason knew that with everyone's job—in every department—self-expression came second. The first thing was to protect this legacy and get it feeling like an extension of the original. So, I knew that those were the marching orders, and that was the direction. We had a lot of conversations about using Elmer's material and kind of dressing up in the same clothes as the original, but we also needed to go to new places. I read the script, and we did need to find a tone for the action sequences and the emotional moments because there's no material in the original that is scoring those kinds of moments. And I was excited because I knew that we weren't just trying to carry on the Ghostbusters legacy, but we were also trying to make a film that felt like a mid-'80s action-adventure film. These are the films that I grew up on, so this was an opportunity for me to blow a kiss to my formative years, and these scores by these legends—scores that I would listen to growing up when I was getting excited about music. So, this was really a chance for me to do an homage.

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How did you go about doing that, and which films and scores were you paying homage to?

I think the obvious one is E.T. [the Extra-Terrestrial] (1981), but there were so many films in the '80s that were focused on kids getting into adventures and having these experiences of wonderment. I watched a lot of those. There were so many great scores—[Jerry] Goldsmith, [John] Williams, [James] Horner, and [Alan] Silvestri. It was just great to dive back into those films, and watch them, and study them as a composer to see how they were feeling about these scenes—how they were thinking about these scenes. I knew the marching orders from Jason, and it was very clear from that first conversation. Then I just became a little bit of a student. I did a lot of score study, a lot of film watching, and researched how they recorded these things—where they recorded them, what kind of mics they used, what gear they used. We were trying to get exactly the tone, and it took work. And, I think what we have has the sonic feeling of the original while also filling up modern sound systems in a way that I think the original doesn't.

There wasn't that much bass in a lot of '80s films, and now it's all about the sub-bass. So, figuring out the bass on this film was actually a puzzle because one of the things that I think gives the brass the power is that it's not this big 'tubby' thing. There's not a lot of sub information in the original. It's a lot of mids, and it's kind of harsh and aggressive. As Jason described it, the brass is like 'an angry sailor yelling and spitting in your face.' We were trying to get that, and I think we actually gave those descriptions to the brass players in our recording sessions. [laughs] Working with Greg Hayes—the recordist and the mixer for the film—there were a lot of conversations that went into trying to figure out what they did. And Peter Bernstein, Elmer's son, who orchestrated the original score, came on board as a score consultant. So, we could ask him these questions—'How did you mic the tuba? What kind of tubas were they playing?' He also gave great notes on the orchestration of how Elmer would have done it and how they would have done things back in the '80s. So, a lot of thought went into it, and I was happy as a clam. I love learning, and having a professional excuse to do that kind of study was great.

Well, this is FANGORIA, so I should ask you about horror. You haven't done a whole lot in the horror space. Do you have any interest in working more in horror?

Horror is not a genre that I spend a lot of time in, but that being said, there are amazing horror films. The Exorcist (1973) is one of my favorite films, even though it's really intense and very dark. But, it's such a great film and terrifying. Poltergeist (1982)! That score is great, and there's an elegance to it. The Shining (1980): I could definitely get into that kind of thing. But a slasher movie? We'll see. It would have to be the right one. Not to disappoint the fans of FANGORIA, but when you score a movie, you have to watch these scenes thousands of times. So, watching somebody get shredded with a knife thousands of times, I feel like it would maybe do something to my brain. [laughs]

That's fair. I can understand that. Are there any horror directors you would like to work with?

Absolutely. Ari Aster—I love his work. Trey Edward Shults—I don't know if you can necessarily say he's a horror director, but I love his stuff. Panos Cosmatos! I love that guy. In fact, I just watched Cobra (1986) again—his father's film, which borderlines on being a horror film.


It was a great viewing of that. I watched all sorts of stuff during lockdown and thought, "I'm going to watch Cobra." And then I was like, 'Yeah, that father/son lineage checks out.'

You can especially see it with Mandy (2018)—the axes and the cult aspect of what's going on.

Yeah. The cult stuff is classic B-movie stuff and the fonts for all the different segments. It's an incredible film, and Jóhann [Jóhannsson] killed it on the score. It's an amazing score.

Any parting words on Ghostbusters: Afterlife before we go?

Oh, man. [pauses to think] Only that bustin' makes me feel good. [laughs]

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now playing in theaters.

To read more of J. Blake Fichera's interviews with film music composers, check out his books Scored to Death: Conversations with Some of Horror's Greatest Composers & Scored to Death 2: More Conversations with Some of Horror's Greatest Composers.