Chris Hajian on scoring music for ‘The Infiltrator’

Pablo Escobar has been a popular topic lately. From ‘Narcos’ on Netflix to Andrea’s Di Stefano’s underrated ‘Escobar Paradise Lost,’ cocaine and greed can’t get anymore bombastic in the entertainment zeitgeist. Yet with director Brad Furman’s (The Lincoln Lawyer), The Infiltrator, the infamous Columbian drug load plays only second to agent Robert Mazur (played wonderfully by Bryan Cranston), the man who brings down the world’s largest cartel. It’s a refreshing angle on the subject matter with stellar performances (most notably John Leguizamo’s radically different and award-worthy role) to match.

One of the biggest highlights of the film is that of film composer Chris Hajian’s (First Position, Yonkers Joe, The Take) score. Hajian manages to keep the film’s music subtle, but with gravitas to capture the heaviness of the situation at bay. It plays to the trend of synth percussion, a popular sensation seen everywhere from Cliff Martinez’s score in Drive to Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Stranger Things. Sure it plays to the trend, but doesn’t get lost in it. Hijian has the ear to work with modern sound, but keeps disciplined by incorporating instrumental sounds that grounds the film, but at the same time keeps it constantly moving.

What really gravitated you towards composing for films?

Chris Hajian:  Well, I started out – I won’t go too far back. My dad was a professional trumpet player, so I started playing trumpet at five, and I went to Performing Arts High School, and I went to Manhattan School of Music as a performance major. Love the trumpet. I now consider myself a recovering trumpet player because it’s a hard instrument, and I guess I always was connected to the visual aspects of the music and how visual classical music was. Like, I’d be playing an orchestral piece or an impressionistic piece, and I was always like, wow, why does that sound that way? Why does that make me feel that way?

So I got to a certain point in my musical life where I guess I lost the desire to perform. I wasn’t as interested in performing as I was more about creating the music. So I’m doing my second year at the Manhattan School of Music, I figured, let me try out for their high school composition department. I mean, I was writing on my own always, and I got in, and they said to me, “You’re very raw, but you’re good, and we want to have you as part of the department.” So then I studied classical composition. John Corigliano was one of my teachers, among others, and I guess was always very connected to film music because in my world, you know, The Godfather score, Bernard Herrmann, early John Williams, all that stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing with it, but I understood the power of music for film.

So when I got out, I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a concert composer, and that was around the time in the late 80s when all the equipment – like, you have to know the equipment. You had to know the technology, so I just like took all the money I had, borrowed some from my dad, and bought all that crazy stuff and learned all the equipment and got very involved in commercials because in New York, that was a really vibrant way to make a living. What the commercials did for me was A, it gave me a boot camp into what being a professional is, working under deadlines, learning the technology, becoming a better producer, and working with some amazing musicians. So I did that for a few years, and then slowly with my eye always on developing contacts in the film world, just started making my way into that, and I did two films in the 90s. One was called Ten Benny and had Adrian Brody in it and went to Sundance, and the other was called Mr. Vincent that went to Sundance, and so I kind of had a little back-to-back film festival hits, films that did well there. I was just very hooked on the whole thing and writing long-form, and that’s kind of where my career started.

Now, talking about the indie film genre, do you feel like that score is more particularly important to get that message across in indie films as opposed to more mainstream?

Chris Hajian: Yeah. Well, I feel that if you come from that, and I always feel that indie films in general, documentary scores, both are some of the hardest genres for a composer because I feel like A, they’re not as conventional, B, you’re not as reliant on big moments. You know, I’ve always said, as a composer, writing those big themes is not, for me, the hardest thing to do – or for any composer, because you can just go for it, you know, and you’re not necessarily as concerned about the nuances, where I find that in indie films and documentaries, the nuance and subtlety is key. If you can work well and create meaningful melodies and emotions in a small context, I think it serves a composer better in the big picture, when they start to develop their own style and sense, and when you feel comfortable in that arena, you can also then take that to the next level and still work in a kind of nuanced way. What I tried to put in The Infiltrator is not necessarily go for the most conventional or the most clichéd approaches.

Right, and I definitely got that appeal. For me, I felt like your score was very subtle and got under your skin a little bit, but wasn’t overbearing. Sometimes, I feel that movie scores can really heighten a moment but to an extent that is too distracting, whereas I found that yours was right there.

Chris Hajian: Thank you for that. It’s something I’ve always been conscious of, and Brad Furman, the director who I am very close with, trusts more than anything that creativity and temperament is much more that way, so we’re really a good fit that way. But especially in this film, like, when you have Bryan Cranston and all these actors and this film directed the way it is, the last thing a composer should be doing is overstaying that moment or doing something that is taking away from that. I need to find something that is internal, that is bringing in a subtext or something different that makes the audience just go further into what he’s created visually. So that’s what I’ve tried to do, and I’m proud of this score in that way, that we stayed pretty true to that.

And I think you succeeded.

Chris Hajian: Thank you, man, I really appreciate that.

So getting into this film, what really attracted you to this project? It seems like the concept and the topic of Pablo Escobar has really gotten a lot of attention nowadays. With the series on Netflix and major films last year, was that content matter something that drew you on to this project?

Chris Hajian: Yes, that was an initial impetus. It’s like, this is cool, this is topical, but when you watch the film, as you know, it’s way less about cocaine and the cartel and much more about this guy’s journey and relationships, and that’s what I was ultimately drawn to. I felt like there have been a lot of movies about cocaine and cartels that have been done great, that are edgy and really violent. And even though that is part of obviously what is in this film, to me what really connected me to it – and this is also knowing how Brad Furman directs and what we have together – was how I address the relationships in this film. I wanted to tap into what goes on in the mind of someone like that. Why would someone go on this journey? Why do they do this? What gives them the strength of conviction to keep going? And then the second half, equally as important, is that he becomes friendly with this character Alcaino, played by Benjamin Bratt, and he has a real conflict in knowing that he’s going to ruin this guy’s life by setting him up to be turned in. So that was a really strong impetus for me to say this is something I could really do that’s maybe a little bit different in this context, in this world, to play up that end of it.

I noticed that there was a lot of mixture between score and soundtrack. You have some other music elements to that too. What played into that decision-making?

Chris Hajian: Well, Brad the director, he is very, very astute at song and music in general, but he is very connected to songs, and he always kind of starts out with a general playlist from the time that he’s even shooting the film. He just wants to get an idea, and of course, you get into money and licensing, and you can’t always get everything you want, but he likes to get the tone of that. I think he thinks of certain sequences, knowing there will be songs or montages. So for us, the whole combination on this was, for me, get into the world of the 80s. I wanted to tap into the fuel of the 80s, and I used the synths in that way, but I did not want it just to feel like a throwback score, and I didn’t want it to just be 80s synths. I wanted it to be 80s synths combined with my sense of ambient textures, modern ambient textures, and then the live strings, which to me adds a big part of the emotional depth to the score. So I wanted those all to be combined in my own way and in a way that the audience doesn’t really know when it’s going from one to the other.

What are your upcoming projects?

Chris Hajian: StartUp is a ten-episode series on Sony Crackle. Martin Freeman, Adam Brody, about a start-up company in Miami, and these four main characters all get involved with this company and with dirty money, and it’s very intense drama. So I’m having a lot of fun working on the score.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on TumblrEmail this to someonePrint this page

Christopher Clemente

Chris Clemente is a screenwriter and reviews the arts out of New York City. Over the years, he has contributed to such online publications as SoundonSight, Popoptiq, and NY Theatre Guide. When not glued to his laptop, you can find Chris walking around the NYC film festival circuits, like Tribeca and NYFF at Lincoln Center. He's a recent graduate of UCLA's Professional Screenwriting Program, and is currently working on his next feature. Along with writing, Chris has an extensive background in graphic and web design. Chris hosts the podcast 'Movie Lovers Podcast' with his wife Katherine, and guest reviews film on 'Legends TV' as part of the 'Unger the Radar' segment. You can also follow and contact Chris by visiting