Music - Thelma : An Exclusive Interview with Composer Nick Chuba

By Mulder, Los Angeles, 02 july 0002 to 02 july 2024

Thelma, a poignant action-comedy from Magnolia Pictures, tells the story of a 94-year-old grandmother, played by June Squibb, who embarks on a daring quest for revenge against phone scammers. The film has garnered widespread acclaim for its clever blend of humor and heart, highlighted by a nostalgic score that draws from iconic 1960s and 1970s soundtracks. We had the unique opportunity to interview Nick Chuba, the film's composer, whose innovative blend of electronic production and live instrumentation has added a rich, textured layer to the movie's dynamic narrative.

Q: Thelma marks your debut as a solo composer for a studio film. How did this opportunity come about, and what was your initial reaction ?

Nick Chuba: I got involved pretty early because my friend Josh directed the movie. I've known him since high school, so he brought me on when he finished the script, even before he started shooting the movie. We were talking about music and thinking about the score from the beginning.

Q: Can you walk us through your creative process for scoring Thelma? How did you approach blending electronic production with live instrumentation ?

Nick Chuba: It was a pretty organic process. We started with more electronic stuff, but it didn’t work for the whole movie. We then started treating it like an action movie, using more bongos, flute, and other organic elements, combining the two worlds together. It evolved over the course of production and post-production.

Q: You’ve mentioned drawing inspiration from iconic soundtracks of the 1960s and 1970s for Thelma. Which specific works influenced you the most, and how did you incorporate those elements into your score ?

Nick Chuba: I love those old soundtracks. The biggest influences were the scores by Lalo Schifrin, who composed the original Mission Impossible theme. He also did a movie called Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, which uses a lot of flute and was a big inspiration for Thelma. Additionally, Chinatown and Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love were significant references for the more emotional parts. The movie Klute was another great score we sometimes referenced, particularly for the antique store sections.

Q: Recording percussion for Thelma in the same studio where Lalo Schifrin created the Mission: Impossible TV theme sounds incredible. Can you share what that experience was like ?

Nick Chuba: It’s a really famous studio. The Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra also recorded there. It’s called EastWest Studios, formerly known as Western Studios in the 60s. It has a great timeless sound, and it was amazing to record percussion, flute, and saxophone there. The studio’s soundproofing and acoustic setup haven’t changed much, preserving that classic sound.

Q: How did you balance the comedic and action elements of Thelma’s story through your music ?

Nick Chuba: It took a long time, with a lot of trial and error. It was a big collaboration between me, director Josh Margolin, and producers Zoë Worth and Chris Kaye. We had many discussions about the tone, ensuring the music was always from Thelma’s perspective and not making fun of her. We focused on her journey rather than the audience’s perspective, avoiding a mocking tone.

Q: June Squibb’s character, Thelma, is a 94-year-old grandmother on a quest for revenge. How did you reflect her unique perspective and journey in your score ?

Nick Chuba: The concept was to tell the music through her eyes, ensuring it never mocked her. We imagined what movie scores she would hear in her head, drawing from older film scores like Chinatown, Bullitt, and Mission Impossible. These became our reference points for her soundtrack as she navigates her journey.

Q: Working closely with writer-director Josh Margolin and producers Zoë Worth and Chris Kaye, what was the collaborative process like for creating the film's score ?

Nick Chuba: It was very collaborative. I started by sending them material based on the script, which they used as temp music while editing. From there, we developed the vintage spy movie sound, requiring studio recordings. It was a year and a half of collaboration, discussions, and back-and-forth refinements.

Q: Thelma has received critical acclaim, including a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. How do you feel about the reception, and what feedback have you received regarding your score ?

Nick Chuba: It’s amazing and has surpassed our expectations. Some people really like the score, and it’s gotten a few mentions. I’m glad the music for the comedy doesn’t feel cheesy or overly broad. I’m excited that people are enjoying it.

Q: You’ve co-scored several projects with Atticus Ross, including Shogun. How did your past collaborations with him influence your work on Thelma ?

Nick Chuba: I learned how to score movies by working with Atticus Ross. He’s my biggest influence, teaching me to think about the story, the character, and how to create something appropriate for the movie. It’s about thinking like a filmmaker, not just a musician.

Q: Thelma features the final performance of Richard Roundtree. Did his role or the film’s legacy influence your approach to the score in any way ?

Nick Chuba: Some of the 70s reference points definitely come from his movies. His legacy influenced the music for sure.

Q: The Thelma soundtrack has been released by Milan Records. Can you talk about the selection of tracks and how they contribute to the overall narrative of the film ?

Nick Chuba: Every piece of music in the movie is on the soundtrack. We tried to follow the arc of the movie, starting with the opening and ending with the last track. This natural progression was the best way to construct the album. We added some extra arrangements and extensions to make it more interesting as a standalone album.

Q: Tracks like "Scooter Chase" and "Night Walk" are standout pieces in the soundtrack. Can you delve into the inspiration and creation process behind these specific tracks ?

Nick Chuba: "Night Walk" was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s use of the waterphone in Chinatown, which creates an eerie sound. We also used a scraped piano, similar to Goldsmith's technique. "Scooter Chase" features the main bassline from Thelma’s theme and is inspired by Mission Impossible, with bongos, a driving drum beat, and bassline.

Q: In addition to Thelma, you’ve worked on scores for projects like Dr. Death, The Girl from Plainville, and Operation Varsity Blues. How do you adapt your scoring approach for different genres and formats ?

Nick Chuba: It’s about thinking about the story and characters and letting that guide the music. While those projects are dramas, Thelma is a comedy, which required a different tone. It took some time to adjust, but ultimately, it comes back to the story and characters.

Q: You’re also part of the experimental electronic duo VWLS. How does your work with VWLS influence your film scoring, and vice versa ?

Nick Chuba: They’re pretty much the same. In VWLS, we try to find interesting sounds and do something cool with music. Without a picture, it can be harder because there’s no direction, whereas a movie guides you on what works and what doesn’t.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while working on Thelma, and how did you overcome them ?

Nick Chuba: One of the biggest challenges was keeping the music suspenseful without making fun of the situation. For instance, when Thelma is climbing the stairs, it needed to feel like a thriller without being overly tense or mocking. Finding that balance was crucial.

Q: With Thelma being such a unique film, what are some of the key lessons or experiences you’re taking forward into your future projects ?

Nick Chuba: I met some great musicians while working on this, like drummer Jake Reed and flutist Tim McKay. Building relationships with them will be valuable for future projects.

Q: Looking back at your career, from studying at USC’s Thornton School of Music to now, what do you consider your most significant milestones and why ?

Nick Chuba: I haven't really thought about it much, but working with Atticus Ross was significant as it kickstarted my career.

Q: Your ability to blend traditional and modern techniques is often praised. How do you stay inspired and innovative in your compositions ?

Nick Chuba: Writing music every day keeps me inspired. If I stop, it takes longer to get back into it. Consistency helps in finding inspiration and makes the process easier.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring composers looking to break into the film industry ?

Nick Chuba: Write music every day and make connections. Focus on what you’re naturally good at so when an opportunity arises, you can impress and excite people with your work.

Q: Lastly, what upcoming projects are you most excited about, and what can your fans look forward to in the near future ?

Nick Chuba: I’m working on a few documentaries, though I can’t reveal much yet. These projects will focus more on my roots in electronic music. I’m excited about the music we’re creating for them.

Nick Chuba, a Los Angeles-based composer and musician, is rapidly emerging as a dynamic force in the music industry. Known for his innovative blend of electronic production and live instrumentation, Chuba has carved a niche with his genre-defying sound. A graduate of USC’s Thornton School of Music, he honed his craft under the mentorship of renowned composer Atticus Ross. Chuba's career highlights include co-scoring the critically acclaimed series Shogun and making a remarkable solo debut with the film score for Thelma, which drew widespread acclaim for its inventive integration of 1960s and 1970s soundtrack influences. With a talent for creating emotionally resonant and sonically rich compositions, Nick Chuba continues to captivate audiences and push the boundaries of contemporary music.

Synopsis : 
90-year-old Thelma Post is duped by a telephone scammer posing as her grandson. She embarks on a particularly perilous quest to recover what has been taken from her.

Written and directed by Josh Margolin
Produced by Zoë Worth, Chris Kaye, Nicholas Weinstock, Benjamin Simpson, Karl Spoerri, Viviana Vezzani
Starring  June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, Malcolm McDowell
Cinematography : David Bolen
Edited by Josh Margolin
Music by Nick Chuba
Production companies : Zurich Avenue, Invention Studios, Bandwagon
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures
Release dates : January 18, 2024 (Sundance), June 21, 2024 (United States)
Running time : 98 minutes

We thank composer Nick Chuba for answering our questions.