When it comes to dynamic duos, composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli are in a league of their own. Both extremely talented and versatile composers on their own, sheer musical magic was created when the two joined forces. After successful collaborations on films like M.F.A, Darling and Two-Bit Waltz, the pair reached new heights with their critically acclaimed scores for Netflix’s The Witcher and Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs.
To catch a glimpse into what makes their partnership work, all one really needs to do is witness a conversation between them. Feeding off each other’s energy with ease, they finish each other’s sentences and interrupt without ever overpowering. Sparks fly within their dialogue creating a palpable feeling of passion and cohesive synergy. And despite their different backgrounds, cultures and musical specialties, they combine it all into their own unique brand of creativity. As inspiring as they are inspired, Belousova and Ostinelli embody the absolute magic of filmmaking with resounding success. I recently had the absolute privilege of speaking with both composers and we talked all about their contributions to the genre of horror, The Witcher and of course, their unexpected rise to #1 on the Billboard rock charts.
“[…] what we found out is that when we combine [our influences] together, we don’t compete with each other. Instead, we complement each other really well.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: You both have very different backgrounds with music and came to film scoring in different ways. What is it about the field that you love and what attracted you to it?
Sonya Belousova: I was born in Russia and I was always exposed to great classical Russian education, but I started playing piano when I was 5 and started composing when I was 10. I was always composing and I participated in a lot of different international competitions. I got the Russian Ministry of Culture Award when I was 13 years old so, composing was always a part of my life. But I was drawn less to the concert music and more to the music that was telling a story. I was drawn to that storytelling element that was in the music. Which is why film scoring happened for me so naturally. It was just a natural evolution.
Giona Ostinelli: For me, I grew up in the Italian part of Switzerland. And I started by playing drums and piano, playing in bands. But since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated with films. I remember trying to shoot some short films with my friends. Trying to recreate scenes from famous films like Indiana Jones and Star Wars. So I was fascinated with films, but especially musical films. And when you’re a kid watching Indiana Jones or…
SB: The Goonies!
GO: …or Back to the Future and that music is what gets you excited with all the action that’s going on. It was so fascinating for me. Growing up in Switzerland where there is no movie industry. I always loved what film can give you in terms of opportunity creatively. There’s so many diverse opportunities. And you can have so much fun! You can inspire so many other people! You can have the audience feeling sad for a second and then feeling very excited. So I was very drawn to that. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to do what I was looking at.Like what Alan Silvestri was doing with Back to the Future or like John Williams with Indiana Jones.
NOFS: Do you feel your different backgrounds work to your mutual advantage?
GO: Oh, totally.
SB: 100%. And it’s actually very interesting. The way we started working together was when Giona was working on a David [and Clara] Mamet film (Two-Bit Waltz) and he called me one day asking if I wanted to do the film together because it required a very eclectic score. Everything from electro-pop to bluegrass and virtuosic classical piano, which was the whole reason why he called me up.
GO: Yeah, because you know, I play piano…but I am no virtuoso. And I knew Sonya and knew she was a great composer and a virutosic piano player so I was like, ‘Hey Sonya…’
SB: So he called me up and we both envisioned it as a one time collaboration. But what we found out is we were having so much fun in the process. Exactly for the reason that we come from such different backgrounds. Me growing up in Russia exposed to the great Russian classical background. And Giona growing up in Switzerland playing in rock and pop bands. And what we found out is that when we combine it together, we don’t compete with each other. Instead, we complement each other really well.
GO: And we have a lot of fun sitting down at the piano…
SB: …or the hurdy-gurdy or the harp…
GO: …and tackling the puzzle. What to compose. What to do. Which direction to go. Together. Because of the backgrounds, we come up with such creative ideas.
SB: The final result always ends up being so much more creative. Because maybe I come up with an idea, but then Giona takes it in a completely different direction that I wouldn’t even think of. Or vice versa.
“We were in this really unique situation that we were able to actually explore and develop the sound of The Witcher before we started working to picture.”
NOFS: Your work on The Witcher is so crucial and intricately entwined into the show. Was that always part of the plan? At what stage of production did you get involved?
SB: That’s a great question because The Witcher was a very unusual project. We got involved very early on, before they even started shooting. Something like that really doesn’t happen, especially in television. And the reason for that was that we had to write a lot of songs that had to be shot. And we had to write a lot of different dances to be choreographed. For that reason, we began to work on the project in October 2018. We also love starting every project by writing thematic suites for main characters. So in the case of The Witcher, we wrote ‘Geralt’s Theme’, ‘Yennefer’s Theme’, and ‘Ciri’s Theme.’ All of that material was written before we started working with picture.
GO: We started working with picture in late April 2019, and by that time we already had so much thematic material developed. And the producer and developer really liked it. So once we started working with picture, we already had the songs and dances and it was very nice to wind all this thematic material together.
SB: We were in this really unique situation that we were able to actually explore and develop the sound of The Witcher before we started working to picture. Which, was very important in this particular case, because there is so much music in The Witcher. We have 8 episodes. And every episode is one hour in length. And every episode features abut one hour of music. So that’s songs, score, folk tunes. It’s a lot of material and being able to start that as early as we did gave us such a fantastic advantage.
GO: For example, the song ‘Toss A Coin To Your Witcher.’ We have the song climaxing at the end of the episode, but the theme and motif of the song starts early on in the episode.
SB: It was very important to us to make sure all this material was connected rather than completely disconnected. So the material of the song appears basically the moment we meet Jaskier [the bard]. But it happens as part of the score. And we develop it throughout the whole episode. So in this case, when ‘Toss A Coin’ comes in as the full song at the end of the episode, the audience (even though it sounds completely fresh and new), they have already been prepared for this material.
NOFS: That song blew up! Were you surprised by the response at all?
GO: You can never predict something like that.
SB: The response that we received, it was like, wow. Oh my god. Seeing the amount of covers…
GO: …and the love that the fans have for it.
SB: Covers in so many different genres. From a folk choir to rock to metal…whatever you want it’s out there. It’s mind-blowing.
GO: I remember when we were writing it we had it stuck in our heads, I mean, we still have it stuck in our heads.
SB: (singing) ‘Toss a coin to your Witcher…’
GO: (laughs) I remember going to yoga trying to relax and just having it stuck in my head. It’s always a good sign when your own song gets stuck.
SB: That means there’s something to it and it’s worth developing. I think we expected the fans to notice the song, because it occupies a significant place in the episode.
GO: But to this extent…
SB: Hell no! I don’t think any of us were expecting that. When the song came out and we immediately charted on Billboard, #1 in the Rock category! I had to refresh the page like, ‘Hang on. Is that correct!?’
GO: It makes sense because between us we make fun that Jaskier is the Freddie Mercury of the continent so it makes sense that he’s charting in the rock category because, he’s a rock star!
“For [The Mist] score, it was very important to us to use a lot of live and organic instruments, but transform their sound.”
NOFS: Let’s talk about some of your other amazing work. I definitely wanted to talk about M.F.A. I love how the score consistently clues us in to Noelle‘s (Francesca Eastwood) inner dialogue. How did this execution influence what you created?
SB: I must say, we love that score. And you said it correctly. We are really exploring the inner dialogue of Francesca’s character. And what was very interesting was that as soon as we saw the first cut, and we heard Francesca speaking, she has such a low voice.
GO: A great melody.
SB: It has this rich timbre.
GO: And I remember discussing with the director Natalia Leite this internal…
SB: …struggle that the character is going through. So once we heard her voice and the beautiful tone to it we thought, why don’t we sample it?
GO: Why don’t we try to turn this into an element of the score? The phrases that she says in the film are important and we made them a part of the score. And we tried to influence the audience somehow.
SB: So basically what we did was we sampled her dialogue. And that reflects her inner struggle, what is going on in her head and all the different directions she’s trying to go.
GO: And we had a lot of fun doing that.
NOFS: Alright, next up. The Mist television series. The Mist itself is its own unique character. What were some of the unique ways you created its spooky, sonic identity?
GO: Oooh The Mist! So, before we started working on the show, I remember Sonya and I spent a week with our upright piano just creating weird textural sonorities. Like, we threw batteries on the strings, we recorded the resonance of breath going through the piano…
SB: Basically the train of thought was, how can we create different sounds with piano that wouldn’t be created by just pressing the black and white keys. Something completely different and unique. We experimented with everything possible. We plucked the strings with coins, with keys, we threw lithium batteries on the strings.
GO: We bowed the strings.
SB: We breathed onto the strings. We did some percussive sounds and played it like a percussion instrument. So we spent a week exploring all these interesting sonorities.
GO: So then we could have this ‘inside the piano’ sound featured in the score, but it doesn’t sound like a piano. It sounds like a very different type of instrument. Very otherworldly. Which makes sense with The Mist because, where does The Mist come from!? [laughs]
SB: For that score, it was very important to us to use a lot of live and organic instruments, but transform their sound.
GO: And the whole idea was getting a different perspective on the instruments. Because when you’re in a small town and this mist, this fog comes in, it transforms the environment. It gives you a different perspective.
“In case you didn’t notice, we love experimenting.”
NOFS: Ok. Last one. Darling. I especially love the blend of electronic and acoustic elements in this score as it really effectively blurs the lines between reality and madness.
GO: One important aspect about Darling is that there’s no dialogue in that film. I think there’s maybe 8 minutes of dialogue in the whole film so the music has to be really…
SB: The music has to be really at the forefront and driving the narrative. Guiding the audience without overdoing it.
GO: And I remember, when we did that score, we basically wrote the score in a week and a half, two weeks. We just secluded ourselves inside the studio. We barely got out.
SB: Not like we’re normally getting out a lot. (laughs)
GO: And not that there was any exceptionally tight deadline, but it just came out in one breath. We just started with the theme and after a week and a half, we basically had the whole film. 99% of what’s there came out of that crazy rush of experimentation.
SB: Also, with Darling, there were a lot of experimentation with instruments as well. Remember there was the waterphone? And the ondes martenot?
GO: Oh yeah! So, the ondes martenot is kind of like a theremin. And it has a very interesting, ghostly type of sound. So we were like, how can we make this creepy and more modern? There are very few examples of this instrument in the world. It’s a rare instrument and normally you find them in some type of conservatory. So, it’s very hard to find someone who plays it. But luckily, we have a friend who lives in France and has access to a conservatory and he could play it. So we sent him the theme and had him record the audio and from there we transformed it and made it very ominous and distorted. And you have those hallucinatory sounds every time there’s those beautiful shots of New York.
SB: We applied a lot of effects, plug-ins and distortion. So sometimes you hear it in its more pure form, and other times it’s completely distorted.
GO: It became almost a howling kind of sound. And we also messed around a lot with the waterphone which is like a bucket made of metal with spikes coming out. And you can bow the spikes.
SB: It’s a very funky looking instrument. And you control the sound with the amount of water.
GO: And you bow it with like, a cello bow and this very otherworldly sound comes out.
SB: It’s very ghostly and sounds, not like a musical instrument, when in fact it is a musical instrument.
GO: We had a lot of fun. And there are moments in the score where it was just us pouring water into the instrument and creating textures.
SB: In case you didn’t notice, we love experimenting.
NOFS: You’ve both proven to have extremely versatile styles and abilities. When beginning a new project how do you decide which direction to go? Do you ever disagree?
GO: Oh, absolutely. She’s Russian, I’m half-Italian I mean, come on. It’s like a nuclear explosion every time we’re in the studio! [laughs] It’s always about trial and error when we start a new project.
SB: When we start a new project, first of all, we read the script. And from that, we already paint a certain picture in our heads of the direction we want to go.
GO: We really like starting by reading the script because it’s like reading a book. You just let your imagination run wild. You let your brain paint the character how you’d like to see them.
SB: You can see the canvas in any color you wish.
GO: And this gives us a lot of freedom and inspiration for what to try and not to try.
SB: The next step is we have a conversation with either the director or the showrunner to see what they’re thinking. And sometimes it might be a very detailed conversation. For example, with The Romanoffs and Matt Weiner. He had a very particular and clear idea of how he envisioned that score. Or other times it might just be, run free and let your imagination loose and explore! After that we usually come back to the studio and by this point we usually have a very good idea about what we want to explore.
GO: And we have instruments around in the studio so we maybe Sonya starts playing harp or hurdy-gurdy. Or I start playing a woodwind or percussion, contrabass or guitar.
SB: Right now, believe it or not, we don’t have any space in our studio because it’s full of instruments. So many different instruments. And for The Witcher, when we started writing, it was literally just picking up an instrument. Whether it was a hurdy-gurdy, or the harp, or dulcimer or harmonium, or an ethnic woodwind…you name it. We’d experiment with these instruments and try to come up with something particular.
GO: There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Maybe I start messing around with an instrument, and I’m going nowhere, but then I do something that inspires Sonya. And vice versa.
SB: That’s the beauty about us working together. We come up with these creative ideas, that on our own, I don’t think we would have necessarily come up with.
“That’s the beauty about us working together. We come up with these creative ideas, that on our own, I don’t think we would have necessarily come up with.”
To hear more of Sonya and Giona’s work in The Witcher, you can find Season 1 currently streaming on Netflix. Vinyl fan? Well you’re in luck on that front too. Pick up the recent 2xLP vinyl release from Milan records, available now at your local record store! This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Have you tossed a coin to your Witcher lately? Have a favorite score from Sonya and Giona’s incredible body of work? Chat with the Nightmare on Film Street fiends on Twitter, Reddit, and in our Facebook Group!