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Robert Ouyang Rusli’s unsettling score brings Problemista to life

Less than 20 minutes into ’s surrealist comedy, , wild-eyed art critic Elizabeth () is trying to find a photo of her begonias. Frantically searching through her iPad to show her new assistant Alejandro (Torres) her garden in Maine, the atmosphere grows increasingly tense, as her mounting frustration turns into a series of violent jabs against the display.

Already a ball of neuroses, Elizabeth only grows more and more terrifying with each swipe, close-up shots of her screen punctuated by a series of quick, disorienting cutaways to her messy loft. Except it isn’t the blinking red light of her disconnected modem, or the pile of plastic bags in the corner, or the phone charger tangled around a stiletto heel that creates a sense of mad chaos. It’s the stomach-knotting score, created from a slurry of unintelligible whispers and the persistent creep of an unsettling chromatic melody, all in perfect time with the watch-tapping of an impatient wood block. That was exactly the point, as Problemista composer says.

Do you know FileMaker Pro?

“Yeah, I played that for a friend who stopped by when I was working on it,” they say. “So I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And she goes, ‘It sounds like the soundtrack to Hereditary.’”

It’s not often you come across a surrealist comedy about a toy designer from El Salvador who makes sexting Cabbage Patch Kids feel reminiscent of a horror film that invented telephone pole trauma. But with an eccentric plot and a cast of melancholic characters this unhinged, Rusli says it was natural to come up with an imaginative score of 53 tracks that run the gamut from enigmatic to euphoric to otherworldly.

Rusli is classically trained in 18th century Romantic-era composition and takes inspiration from rappers like , , and they’re a longtime admirer of sample-based production by  and . But what really informed the score of Problemista was their love of experimental ambient minimalists like and , who realized that not all forms of repetition are the same.

“What I loved about this film was knowing I was allowed to go there, so I just had such amazing time writing these melodies and letting them soar in certain places and loop in others… combining all these disparate sounds,” Rusli says.

Adding that they’ve always wanted to create something as “strange” and wonderfully weird as Problemista, Rusli explained that Torres’ off-beat brand of comedy meant it “lent itself to being versatile,” so getting experimental “works with Problemista and [Torres’] direction, because in certain situations those sounds could be really corny.”

“In combination with how I was reading the script, I was like, ‘Oh my god. I have to do this,’” they said.

Inspired by ’s scores for films like Under the Skin, Rusli decided to use this opportunity to test the boundaries of film scoring, mainly through the hair-raising use of the Devil’s Interval balanced out by grounding samples of organic instrumentation, like the low rumble of a didgeridoo and or the ethereal spiral of an Indonesian gamelan.

You can hear the latter morph into a specter that haunts the slow-paced sci-fi horror of “Bureaucratic Limbo,” a combination of keyboard clacks, filing cabinets, and a menacingly pitched-up recording of Rusli singing “meep meep meep meep meep,” which soundtracks Alejandro’s attempt to escape a labyrinth of cookie-cutter offices, connected by air vents and trap doors. Or the sinister “This Is Craigslist,” with its threatening murmurs and low, earthy woodwinds that imbue an otherwise dreamlike scene, that envisions the platform as a gooey, glittery pink entity, with a menacing sense of looming dread. And armed with a collection of hundreds of sounds and synthesizers, Rusli was able to adapt the score to whatever the narrative — with its volatile moods, plot twists, and clashing characters — needed to counterbalance each extreme.

While it was a difficult task, Rusli explained that they were able to express these ideas in a sonically cohesive way thanks to another unconventional sampling technique that started with Rusli wanting to focus on treating “the music like a character in the film with these Greek chorus-like voices.” Featured in almost every track from the score, these choirs would chant melodies made up of rearranged syllables, taken from words related to each characters’ “deepest fears and desires.” Like “cabbage” and “visa” appearing as “ba cat age” and “si va” to form a sort of gibberish that’s both playful and foreboding, akin to a sonic version of the uncanny valley.

“Throughout the score, you can hear these chants of the syllables depending on which character we’re following. I wanted this feeling of like a Greek chorus that’s propelling each character through their life journeys,” Rusli says. The idea was to give the entire soundtrack a retro-future groove by blending the voices of the choir with synthesizers from the ‘70s and ‘80s to create something that sounds “really alien-sounding and strange” in what seems to be a warped optimism toward the future, represented in the film as a cryogenics company that doesn’t know how to unfreeze their customers.

“This choir is this character floats in and out, accenting [and reacting to] things, drawing them out,” they continue. “Like when [Elizabeth] first mentions that she might be able to help him with his visa…. these big moments are when the choir works so well.”

But aside from the occasional exaltation or a chintzy harmonic run that brings Walter Mercado to mind, the Greek chorus concept mostly haunts the score with a latent sense of distress and anxiety. You can feel it even on lighter tracks like “Smart Phone for Cabbage Patch Kids,” with its combination of harp strings and a -like piano trill creating that vintage showroom sparkle. The kind of discomfort associated with the banality of filling out a never-ending pile of forms or sitting inside a sterile cubicle for nine hours straight, which is fitting given that Alejandro is navigating the bureaucratic nightmare that is immigrating to the U.S. the entire film is riddled with more roadblocks than solutions, paintings of eggs and bank card fees and hourglasses that stand in the way of Alejandro’s search for financial stability and his ability to stay in the U.S.

So it makes sense that Rusli’s strange and surreal score spends most of the film in a frenzied agitation, treating toys — a symbol of childlike naïveté — in an unexpectedly nerve-wracking way. toys are the entire reason Alejandro is stuck in processing purgatory in the first place, where Rusli says it doesn’t really matter whether the “annoying, monotonous, mechanical repetition” comes from the squeak of a filing cabinet, or the tik-tok of an old office clock, or “the song that never ends… the one kids sing when they’re young.”

“It’s the stuff that’s just driving you insane. And it’s going in endless loops to reflect the narrative,” they says.

But what if you’re able to break the seemingly endless loop? Well, that’s the “beauty of propulsive anxiety,” Rusli says. It takes a moment to realize that they’re talking about the relief that comes after it’s over.