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Robert Ouyang Rusli Interview On Scoring Problemista

Got to chat with the incredible musician and composer Robert Ouyang Rusli, who scored Julio Torres' recent surrealist comedy film, Problemista, out now via A24.

Written, directed, and produced by Julio Torres, the film stars Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Greta Lee, Catalina Saavedra, James Scully and Isabella Rossellini. I saw it a couple weeks ago and highly recommend it!

Without further ado, Robert talks about synths, the scoring process, Miyazaki and more...


Synth History: So when did you start getting into making music?

Robert: My parents played in the community orchestra, so I started playing the violin very young and played in school orchestra. Later in high school, my cousin got me into learning how to record and produce music in GarageBand and Logic, and that's sort of where that took off for me. I'm really thankful that I had that influence, because so much of film scoring and my personal music is production and DAW work. That was kind of the progression of that.

Synth History: Did you always know that you were going to score films, or were you making music first, and that led you to scoring?

Robert: I was always making my own music, a lot of rap beats. That's kind of how I got into production. In college, I was into writing musicals for the college musical theater. It was sort of a natural progression of storytelling through music. I think I just sort of fell towards film music, because I felt like it was a lot more adventurous than musical theater. Then, I had friends that were film majors who needed music for their films, and I knew the software for it; I could do it in Logic. And so I just sort of fell into it, writing music for my friends’ films.

Rob and Julio at home studio.
Robert Ouyang Rusli and Julio Torres.
Robert's home studio.
Robert's home studio.

Synth History: What was the first film that you scored?

Robert: One of the first films was the… you know, in high school, it was like the senior yearbook video.

Synth History: Oh nice!

Robert: My friend Steve asked me to write some music for it. So that was kind of something. And then he kept making films. I scored my friend’s 80s slasher thesis film in college. Just all kinds of stuff. I’ve scored so many short films in the past 14 years.

Synth History: I saw Problemista last week and I really liked it. I knew I was going to interview you, so I was especially paying attention to the score of course! I wanted to ask - do you remember the synth you used for the arpeggiated sounds?

Robert: I score a lot with VSTs, so this one was a modified patch in Omnisphere, in combination with… I saw that you interviewed the composer for The Curse?

Synth History: Yeah!

Robert: That composer [John Medeski] also worked with Randall Dunn and Circular Ruin Studios. That’s where we mixed the score and did some recording. I brought in Randall, because I know he’s a major synth head - it’s such a synth heavy score. It has all these elements to it, and synth is a huge element. So he really helped me bring some of these sounds to life. So that arpeggio is Omnisphere mixed with, I believe an Ensoniq Fizmo.

Synth History: Cool!

Robert: We did a lot of sending the MIDI back through analog [synths], and then sort of mixing - sometimes replacing - but often mixing the virtual synth and the analog synth 50/50 to get a nice, wide sound.

Randall Dunn.
Randall Dunn.

Synth History: Do you think there’s something that analog hardware synths can add that VSTs can’t?

Robert: Well, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like the sound difference is so obvious, and sometimes, I think I can tell, but I can’t [laughs]. It really depends on the virtual synths, I think. I do like how analog synths can go slightly out of tune just from how hot they are, and for this film especially, I wanted there to be this synthesizer sound… like how Bobby is frozen, going into the future. The whole aesthetic of the film is sort of like a mishmash in a way, the future made of cardboard. I wanted this synthesizer sound that was from the 70s and 80s, where they’re doing this really “futurist” work and imagining the future, but when you think about it now, it sounds like an old take on what the future would look like. It seems like a retro-future.

Synth History: Yeah, totally.

Robert: That’s sort of how I imagined the audio representation of how the future is portrayed in this film.

Synth History: I loved it a lot, I thought the movie was great. What was the process like for scoring it?

Robert: I jumped in super early. I often will jump into a film once they have a rough cut at least. With this one, Julio and I were talking really early; I think it was November of 2021. I was at my residency in Pioneer Works in New York, I had a month long residency there, but then my agent at the time called me and was like, "We have a Julio Torres project, are you interested?" I was just like, “Absolutely.”

I’m obsessed with Julio’s work. So I ended up spending my entire residency pitching on Problemista, because I was like, I have to score this film. After I read the script, I knew exactly what it was going to sound like, I could just hear it. So [laughs], I didn’t get to work on anything on my own that residency, I was just pitching on Problemista.

Synth History: [laughs]

Robert: I was in there right as the edit started, which was fun, because I got to temp out the whole film essentially and really dictate the sound of the film with Julio and the editor. Which is kind of rare. That’s why I’m super happy with how this score turned out. It feels very cohesive to me. Even though there’s all these different sounds coming in; there’s choir, there’s synths, there’s sort of a John Adams orchestral score, there's more experimental elements involved and some sound effects. It all works together, and I think a lot of that is jumping in so early and honing the sound with Julio. He’s very trusting in the process, where he doesn’t really think in instruments, it’s more just like, emotions. As long as the music is doing what the scene needs, I can do it. There’s like a hundred different ways to score a scene and I really had a lot of freedom to dictate that.

Problemista Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Problemista Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

Problemista Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.
Problemista Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Synth History: I feel like being able to creatively do what you want must feel nice, because sometimes...

Robert: It can be rough.

Synth History: There can be a rough temp that [a director] wants you to sound exactly like, so that’s really cool that you were able to creatively do what you want.

Robert: I don’t know. At the same time, I get it. Like, if I were a director, I would probably be one of those directors [laughs]. I’d be like, I fucking love this song that I put in, just make that. But yeah. It was a very long editing process, though. It took a year to edit and it also took a year to score. It was pretty intense, where it was just changing so much. But I think through that whole… It was such a rigorous editing process of the music along with the film that it became so sharp, and [we] spent so much time on it that everything works so well. Everything is timed very specifically to a footstep, or a doorbell or something, because a lot of it is slapstick-ish comedy.

Synth History: Do you have a favorite moment in the film that you scored?

Robert: I really love the ending. I don’t want to spoil it. That’s where I figured out Alejandro’s theme song; scoring the ending and working backwards. It's actually a melody from one of my own songs that I repurposed for the film. I wrote so many themes for him, and it just wasn’t working. But then I was like, wait, I think I’m sitting on something that is perfect.

Synth History: Cool!

Robert: And then [spoiler ahead] that scene with the mom's speech as the shapes are appearing near the end. That montage, the music in that, I really loved writing that, and I’m so happy with how that turned out.

Synth History: Yeah, that part’s amazing; I’ll put a spoiler alert for it. [laughs]

Robert: [laughs] I don’t know how to talk about it. Yeah, I really got to use so many influences that I’m obsessed with; like Ryuichi Sakamoto, like Joe Hisaishi, who scored all the Miyazaki films, and Takeshi Kitano, Yakuza gangster films. I just really love how they use marimba. So I think there’s a lot of influence there, in those composers.

Synth History: Do you have any favorite film scores of all time?

Robert: Well, you can hear the influence in this one, but Akira, the anime. I just love it. I’ve always wanted to include choir in a score ever since watching that while I was younger.

Problemista sheet music.
Problemista sheet music.

Synth History: That's awesome.

Robert: Like chanting… I got to do all that in the score, which I had so much fun with.

Synth History: Was the choir a soft synth or did you record people singing?

Robert: Yeah, we recorded two days of choir.

Synth History: Oh wow!

Robert: There were 12 people; it was so fun. I invented a language for the choir to sing in, because I didn't want there to be actual words and I didn’t want it to just be like, “ahh.” So I took Julio, and I came up with word clouds for each character, their deepest fears and desires. Then I took those syllables and rearranged them into nonsense.

Synth History: I was wondering about that!

Robert: Yeah. During the score, depending on which characters are on the screen, the syllables change for them. So there’s sort of this Greek chorus that’s cheering on each character through the film. Every once in a while, the syllables will realign into a word that's recognizable. I just wanted to have these little easter eggs in there. For Elizabeth, every once in a while, the words will line up, and will be like “hydra” and little things like that. And for Bobby, it would be like “blue egg.” I had the choir pronounce things so that they were a little alien-ish. Kind of inspired by Bulgarian choir and children’s choirs. But a little different.

Synth History: If you had one tip you would give to other composers who are just starting out, or potentially to yourself when you were just starting out, what would it be?

Robert: I would just say, write a lot of music. You just learn so much from producing… I don’t know, I feel like in the past, I’ve scored a lot of films, and some of them aren’t good. I’ve made a lot of my own music that’s just really bad and will never see the light of day. I think it’s just really important to keep creating instead of trying to focus on a masterpiece or something. Because everyone just needs practice. Putting reps in is really important I think.

Synth History: Last question. What is inspiring you the most right now? It could be an instrument, a book, a movie you just watched. Anything.

Robert: Hmmm. There’s this musician in Brooklyn, whose name is Ka Baird. I think they’re releasing an album soon. My friend Matt Evans, who I used to live with, and who is also a composer and a percussionist, introduced me to their music. It’s just so out of this world and amazing. They do a lot of work with contact mics and distorted sounds and sounds with their voice. It’s so experimental and percussive, but also really accessible in a nice way. It’s just a really different way of making music, I want to listen to it like a thousand times and think about it.

Problemista art by By Justin Liam O’Brien
By Justin Liam O’Brien

Catch Problemista in theaters now.

Also, head over to A24 to pick up the soundtrack on vinyl - which features original paintings by Justin Liam O’Brien (including this amazing foldout mural poster)!

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.

Transcribed by Connor Gilbert.

Photos provided by Terrorbird.


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