For composer Jongnic Bontemps, scoring music for film, television or video games is driven by one thing: authenticity. The in-demand composer carefully considers how to create music that is true to the people, communities and cultures represented onscreen, bringing their stories to life.
As a classically trained composer, Bontemps studied music at Yale, Berklee College of Music, and the University of Southern California. The self-proclaimed “big tech nerd” pursued a career as a software developer and entrepreneur before focusing on film scoring, acknowledging that music composition enables him to inhabit a world that he loves, in an amalgamation of hardware and software. A natural collaborator, Bontemps enjoys working with directors, writers and other musicians — relationships he says are built on mutual trust and brutal honesty.
With scores for more than 50 projects including films (The Land, Creed II), documentaries (United Skates, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story), television series (4400, Boomerang), and video games (Call of Duty WWII, Redfall), Bontemps’ music is heard on big and small screens around the world. BMI chatted with Bontemps upon the highly anticipated release of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which he scored. Bontemps shared how he approaches the scoring process, how he incorporates multiple musical genres into his work, and how his childhood piano provides an endless source of inspiration.
Your project Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, was released this month through Paramount Pictures. How did you become involved with this film?
I wish I could tell my pre-adolescent self, “The toys you’re having endless hours of fun with will one day be a movie series, and you’ll write the music for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.” That might have kept me out of a lot of trouble. I actually cried when I was hired for the film as I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of contributing in such a significant way to this beloved universe. Then, that emotion was soon replaced by, “Oh crap — now I have to write this music!”
I met the director, Steven Caple Jr., when we were both at USC. I scored his first short film there and we have worked together ever since. When he was tapped to direct Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, he put my name on the list. Eventually, Paramount called my agency asking for a reel. My agent, Sarah Kovacs, strongly suggested that I write a 10-minute demo, get it recorded in L.A., videotape the entire recording process, and hire a professional editor to put it all together with footage from the past movies — and my voice-over introducing myself to the project and what I can bring to the table. Oh, and she said I need to have it all done in two weeks!
I knew the demo needed to sound like a Transformers score; a hybrid synth and orchestral score that can support a wide range of emotions. I was already a fan of Steve Jablonsky’s music from the past movies, but I did a deep dive into those soundtracks and used them as a guide, and I got to work. When the dust settled, we had a pitch video. We sent it in, and six months later I was hired!
What was your approach to the score and the recording process?
The story is set in the ’90s and starts in Brooklyn. For that section of the film, I wanted the score to embody the sound and bounce of hip-hop, specifically with the use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. This is not a hip-hop score, but I hope audiences will feel the influence of Brooklyn and the era in the score. When our story goes to Peru, it was important that the score authentically reflected the sound of Peru, specifically the rhythms, meter and syncopation of the Afro-Peruvian tradition. So, audiences will hear that influence in the score during this part of the film.
For the recording/production process, we went BIG. We had a 25-member brass section with 12 horns, six trombones, three bass trombones, two cimbassi/tubas, one tuba and one tubax, a contrabass saxophone. The tubax added a menacing growl to all the low brass hits that really amped up the aggression. Our string section was equally beefy with seven basses and 10 celli. We enlisted Pedro Eustache on woodwinds, the legendary Abraham Laboriel Sr. on guitarron and charango, and Alex Acuna for the Latin percussion fire. I also enlisted Anthony Baldino and Nathan Matthew David for custom synth programming and sound design. Nathan’s 26-tube Knifonium synth can be heard all over the third act of the movie.
Early on, we also did sound-capturing sessions with a multitude of low instruments — bass and contrabass clarinets, upright bass and bass guitar, etc. — which Anthony manipulated into a wide variety of hits and textures that were used to create the sound for Scourge and the Terrorcons. And last, but not least, Hal Rosenfeld commissioned a drum kit made out of rubber tires, which can be heard in a lot of the Autobot cues.
In addition to the new Transformers, you’ve worked on a number of exciting projects with director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II, A Different Tree) How would you describe your working relationship?
Collaborating for over a decade now, Steven has become one of my best friends, which allows us to be candid and brutally honest. He doesn’t need to pull any punches with me and can give me his honest reaction to the score. This candor and trust have become invaluable because after our playbacks I know what I need to do. Also, having worked together so long, I can tell from his facial expressions and body language alone how he is receiving a piece of music. He doesn’t even have to tell me it’s not working or if he is into it; I can feel it from him. There is mutual trust and safety, so I can take big swings and try crazy things, and he knows I will keep working at it until I get it right for him and the story.
Jagged Mind will be screening this month at the American Black Film Festival before its debut on Hulu. Could you tell us about this project and how you approached writing the score?
I’ve been waiting for years to work with director, writer and actor Kelley Kali, who I met in 2017 at a USC function. I watched her career skyrocket from the sidelines as she won a Student Academy Award in 2018 and was a festival darling with I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking). So, when my phone lit up with a call from her, I was more than excited.
Jagged Mind is an erotic, supernatural thriller set in Little Haiti in Miami. My father is Haitian and I grew up with Haitian Kompa playing in the house, so I was ecstatic when Kelley said she wanted to bring the sound of Haiti into the score. I decided that sound would come from the tradition of Haitian voodoo drumming. I hired an expert in this style, Jeff Pierre, and we recorded him at Skywalker Sound in Marin County. He set up five drum stations and overdubbed every part, and it was glorious! At the end of our day together I had an authentic Haitian drum library, which I then used to write the score.
So, every time the “good” voodoo magic is protecting our protagonist, these drums and rhythms are in the forefront. I also wanted to incorporate the voice in the score, so I worked with Paul Beaubrun and Sabina “Sweetrice” Charfauros to create vocal textures and melodies. I also found a lot of inspiration and sounds/textures from Spitfire’s Lea Bertucci — Xtended Vox library.
You’ve worked on a wide variety of different projects, from action films to comedies, hard-hitting documentaries and shorts, to television series. What’s been your driving incentive throughout all these different works?
Authenticity. I strive to write music that authentically represents the story and the people/culture onscreen. That could mean incorporating hip-hop, jazz and R&B into the score or collaborating with musicians and composers who can bring that authenticity. For example, I co-scored two movies with South-Asian composer Raashi Kulkarni: Netflix’s Wedding Season and Disney’s World’s Best. Both movies required a hip-hop-based score with some South-Asian seasoning. Our combined experience as people and composers allowed us to deliver that with a high level of authenticity.
What do you love about being a composer?
I really believe I was called to do this. It took me a long time to find this calling, but now that I have, I never plan on letting go. I love telling stories and enjoy using the medium of music to tell a story. I’m also a big tech nerd, so the amalgamation of hardware, software and sound is a world I love inhabiting.
Can you give some insights into your creative process? How do you find inspiration when starting something new?
It usually starts with finding those melodic themes that evoke the feeling I want. Finding those melodies usually starts at the upright piano my parents bought when I was around 7. That piano has traveled all over the country with me and has been an endless font of inspiration. It’s the embodiment of the sacrifices my parents made to have a new life here in this country and how much they invested in their kids.
You’ve frequently infused hip-hop, jazz and gospel into your scores. What are your thoughts on “genre-bending” and how do you go about exploring the interaction of different musical and cultural elements?
I am an avid fan of hip-hop, jazz and gospel. That’s what I listen to in the car, around the house — especially when cooking — and have studied and performed over the years. So, I think I have those genres in my ear, and applying those sensibilities to underscore feels natural to me. Whether it’s the hip-hop-based scores for United Skates to World’s Best, infusing gospel into College Behind Bars and The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, or using jazz harmonies in My Name Is Pauli Murray, it’s all in service to creating a score that feels like the communities, people or environments of the film. Incorporating the proclivities of each genre’s chord progressions, instrumentation, rhythms and voicing into the underscore as an element — the seasoning — gives it the flavor while still serving up the drama of the story.
Is there a distinction between writing music for a narrative feature and scoring a documentary in your creative process?
For documentaries, I find that writing suites of music away from picture very early in the process and then handing it over to the editor as they unearth the story is extremely effective. I create many pieces of music based on our agreed-upon concept of the score that they can use as building blocks and temp as they are editing. This usually means I deliver a complete mix and stems of the music so they have some flexibility in crafting the music as they work on a scene. Then they hand the sequence with the music back to me, and I either clean up what they did or use that as the foundation for a new cue. By giving the editors a toolkit of music early on, I find that the music informs the cut, and the cut then, in turn, informs the music. They come up together and become a cohesive unit.
For fiction narrative features, I try to do the same — write suites of music away from picture, but then I am usually the one taking that music and throwing it up against picture. Then, once I have something I like, I present it to the filmmaking team for feedback. That’s probably the biggest difference from a process perspective. Almost all my scores though start the same way, finding and refining those themes on my longtime friend, my childhood piano.
What role has BMI played in your creative journey?
BMI has supported me since day one. While I was at USC, I was asked to pick up our guest speakers in the USC golf cart. One of those speakers was Doreen Ringer-Ross. She asked me to tell her my story, and from that day she became one of my biggest supporters. BMI supported me with the Sundance Institute Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker, the BMI Conducting Workshop, a BMI Film and TV Award for Netflix’s Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, and the Composers Diversity Collective, of which I am a founding member. BMI has continually amplified me and my work and I am grateful for all their support over the years.