The ending of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a grand, surreal crescendo that’s likely to leave even the most open-hearted movie-watcher wondering: What does it all mean? If the film were a J.J. Abrams joint, it might feel like a puzzle to solve. In Kaufman’s hands, the drama — which grapples with aging, grief, ballet dancing, earworm jingles, tidy Hollywood movies, and the lives we imagine for ourselves — is more of a pop tragedy with room for annotations.
In the spirit of his debut, Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s story of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time is a vessel for the unspoken aches and pains and anxieties of everyday life. The frames are layered with visual motifs, and the drama is never as literal as it seems — although the horror-ish mode makes it even blurrier. As Brooklyn-based composer Jay Wadley told Polygon in the lead up to the film, it’s a movie that uses reference and pause-or-you’ll-miss-it detail to say something larger about the mind. Wadley’s job on the film was to create a sound for the subconscious.
[Ed. note: This interview contains major spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things.]
The final scenes of I’m Thinking of Ending Things find a janitor (Guy Boyd), revealed indirectly to be an aged version of Jesse Plemons’ character Jake, succumbing to hypothermia in his truck. Everything before that moment, it seems, was some kind of extended delusion meshed together from Jake’s memories, dimensionalized regrets, and daydreams.
Music is the connective tissue for Jake’s psyche, making Wadley even more essential to setting the tone than a film composer might typically be. Polygon spoke to the classically trained musician about Kaufman’s musical vision for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and how it speaks to the greater themes of the film.
Knowing the music in I’m Thinking of Ending Things is so vital, where did writing begin for you?
Jay Wadley: It was certainly an exciting call to get and, and kind of the way that [producer Anthony Bregman] initially talked to me about what the needs were, they were pretty diverse. I had to produce a couple songs from the musical Oklahoma!; write a 1950s style jingle; write an original ballet; write a movie within a movie, a rom-com score — it was sort of a wonderful sort of exercise in and of itself.
My conversations with Charlie from the get go were about what the score would be, and mostly what the ballet would be. Initially, we weren’t sure if there’d be much actual underscore, and we added some more later, but the discussions at first were very conceptual, about how the score should elicit the sense of memory and familiarity and be a little bit cyclical and self-referencing.
I started with the ballet and the jingle before they even shot, so I came on really early. And the concept of the ballet was like the world of the film, in how Charlie references literature, references other films, references directors, all these things that he kind of takes and brings into the film and presents as almost Jake’s, our main character’s, own ideas. And so I wanted to continue that sort of thought process with the ballet itself. How could I write a ballet that you think sounds like Debussy? Or maybe Ravel? Or maybe Stravinsky? But it’s actually been brought in by this character Jake and reinterpreted to make his own alternative reality. It’s something that he would imagine, something that he could have possibly heard, a ballet from someone else, and then is making up. So it’s an original ballet, but at times feels like it might be from another composer that he could have possibly heard.
There are so many layers in the movie. Sometimes they’re like direct references of A Beautiful Mind…
How much of the ending is from A Beautiful Mind? The compositions, location, setting all feel like recreations.
The speech itself is from A Beautiful Mind. And that’s the whole concept. Jake, and his world, this life he didn’t live, the achievements he didn’t have, he’s taking from these other things and appropriating them for his own narrative. And so that’s what I wanted this ballet to feel like. He’s imagining this ballet and dueling himself, for this woman’s love, and so he’s maybe drawing from things he’s heard that are outside of his own experience, and he then imagines this ballet based on references [...] but created into one linear piece.
Did you set out to create a core sound for Jake, considering every character is in some way an extension of Jake?
There’s not a ton of score [early on]. We get a little bit of a taste of the ballet at the opening, when it plays as score. And then you get some little smatterings here and there, but they’re mostly fragments of the ballet. They’re like tiny melodic fragments with little textures. And then you get the rom-com score within a score or film within a film, where I was trying to kind of emulate a John Debney vibe.
And then as you get further, it starts to go a little bit off the rails. When she goes down into the basement, that’s all the ballet stretched out, reversed, ambient. So it’s all playing on this concept of memory, reappropriating things and getting inside the mind of it. It’s distorted, it’s fragmented, it’s stretched. And that leads all the way up through after the ballet is completed. All of that stuff is the ballet stretched out with other textures on top of it. Then you get the 1950s-style jingle that’s kind of dropped in there with crazy string textures around it, and then the 1950s-style jingle is reversed and stretched out, run through a tape recorder, fragmented.
And on top of the whole A Beautiful Mind thing, I wanted to do something that kind of felt classic. It’s almost like from his own perspective, in a way. It exists in his own mind, but also out of his mind, and it’s our perspective. It’s kind of hard to describe that whole section in any specific terms, but it’s sort of a fever-dream piece of memory.
That jingle is supposed to be representative of something that he’s heard long ago, and so, as he is dying of hypothermia in the car, this is kind of what is representative of a flashback of his life in this really fever-dreamish way. We get to this point where, in that speech with the sort of “A Beautiful Mind-ish” music, I also kept that same process and thinking, so I ran that on top of itself through a tape recorder — stop and start and rewind. It’s probably hard to hear in the mix on a TV, but there’s a lot of detail in there, trying to create this sense of a layered sensibility with all of these sort of memories that are kind of floating around.
The film is haunting. I’m sure we, movie-watching people, will endlessly debate whether it’s a “horror movie” or not. Did you ever talk to Kaufman about horror movie music?
One of the most specific notes that he had about the score is that he did not want it to be a traditional horror score. Like you said, it kind of dips its toes in it, but it really never fully commits to anything of a horror genre, so we were trying to steer pretty clear that it was mostly keeping it pretty textural and ambient weird. Always melancholy and kind of sad and strange, but just not really leaning too much into the horror aspect of the film.
There was a thrill in seeing Oklahoma! referenced in a way that relies on the viewer to have some knowledge of Oklahoma!. Why was it a pivotal reference for you and Kaufman?
The Oklahoma! aspect of it was something that he had thought about when he was writing the script. It’s kind of loosely set in Oklahoma, you can kind of see that on the back of a car. But he saw a lot of themes in Oklahoma!, especially with regards to the character Jud, that relate to Jake. That sort of unrequited love was part of why he integrated it into that. And it builds on this concept of drawing from outside references and pulling them into the narrative of Jake. While “Many a New Day” exists in reality, the performance of “Lonely Room” does not. That’s just kind of him pulling that into his own personal character narrative.
So there’s always this circular motivation to all the things that he chose to do in the film. I think that was the most interesting aspect of [Kaufman’s] process: Choices are always motivated and validated through some other aspect of the film. There’s never something that’s just dropped there. It always has some other connection or multiple threads of connection in the movie. They’re all subtle. They’re in the background, they’re in the foreground.
Ultimately we had to do an original ballet because, when the idea of doing the Oklahoma! ballet came up, it was like, no, we couldn’t, it just wouldn’t have followed the same narrative arc that we needed our ballet to do. I wrote this whole ballet just based on Charlie’s script notes, the stage direction and scene description. He’s like, “Lucy turns the corner walks down the hallway sees Jake, their representations come and stand behind them, they switch places, they run toward each other and perform pas de deux.” So I’m just kind of imagining all of these things and then timing it out and thinking how long it will take. Once we had a rough idea of the timings and structure and everything like that, I kind of dove into to writing the piece.
Did your typical process mesh with something this referential?
I do a ton of research. I make playlists, just listen down and kind of study orchestration. I did the same thing for the ballet. The ballet is more of what my training is: I studied classical music composition and so I spent a lot of time studying those scores. But I was listening to a ton of Debussy, a ton of Ravel, a ton of Stravinsky, studying the the orchestration of The Firebird, so that when I actually got to that point, because I did the orchestration on it, I could do it as authentically as possible. Like it could be something else.
Did you look back at any of Kaufman’s movies to get a sense of what he might want out of the soundtrack?
I did feel a lot of pressure coming into this, obviously, loving Charlie’s films a lot, and loving the scores to Charlie’s films. I feel grateful that this film kind of allowed me to do something a little bit different for a Charlie Kaufman film. I think if I had built off of what Jon Brion had done for [a film like Synecdoche, New York] it would have been like Jon Brion light. This film was suited for me in a way that I could bring my own voice to it and still hopefully add to the canon of what he’s already created.