GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE Composer Talks ’80s Influences and Legacy

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Ghostbusters movie debuted on big screens. The story of four unexpected heroes taking on the paranormal has been delighting audiences for decades. And now there’s a new Ghostbusters movie in theaters. Ghostbusters: Afterlife plays the fine line between originality and nostalgia. There’s a magic that shimmers and feels like the best of the family movies that we grew up on. Much of that is thanks to Rob Simonsen’s brilliant Ghostbusters: Afterlife score. To celebrate the release of this new installment, we chatted with the composer about his influences, the legacy of Ghostbusters, and what it was like to score that reunion.

A still from Ghostbusters: Afterlife shows four kids standing looking with flashlights
Columbia Pictures

Nerdist: Coming into this, were you a fan of the original Ghostbusters movies?

Rob Simonsen: For sure. I was a kid of the ’80s. So it was one of the big ones in the canon of ’80s films. I saw it a lot growing up and quoted it. I still quote it. So it was really amazing when [the film’s director] Jason [Reitman] said that he was gonna make a film and we sat down to talk about it. I read the script and got the idea of what he was doing and how he wanted to approach it, which was really exciting.

Aside from the original movies, where did you look for inspiration? What did you look to when you first read that script, before you’d seen any of Ghostbusters: Afterlife?

There’s a lot of films in the mid-’80s that capture this youthful wonderment. ET, of course. Back to the Future. And I would even say Explorers and Gremlins. All of these films, I watched so much growing up. And John Williams was just all over my childhood; Superman, Indiana Jones. So I did a lot of study of how these films were scored and tried to get into the headspace. Cocoon is another one, a great film and I love the score to that. Flight of the Navigator. The Last Starfighter, Craig Safan with a great score. Even Peter Bernstein, who was on our team as a score consultant, scored the Ewok movies. It’s in the pocket of all that stuff.

That’s not how I’ve scored films in my career. If we’re doing something that’s in a certain kind of vein, I tend to absorb what that is and respond to it in a way where I’m hopefully trying to mix it up a little bit or do something that I haven’t personally heard yet. Like on Nerve, doing a synth-wave score but using a children’s choir. But this was straight up ‘No, this is not a Rob Simonsen thing. This is like being a custodian, a keeper of the legacy and a protector of it.’ So it was a great puzzle to really dig into the score. We knew that we were going to use themes from the original but we needed to kind of go in new directions.

There’s a lot of emotions that are in this film that weren’t really in the original. There’s a lot of more nostalgic, quiet moments. And mystery moments. So it’s really been just such a treat to go back and watch all of these movies from the ’80s and to be a student of them. This is really my love letter to those movies and the sound of my childhood. I was born in 1978, so I was there for all of it. The whole decade I was the most impressionable that I was ever going to be in my entire life. Ghostbusters coming out in ’84, that mid and late ’80s stuff, it really left its mark and probably had a lot to do with me pursuing film scoring.

Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) grins with delight as she fires a proton pack, while Podcast (Logan Kim), wearing a pair of night vision goggles, cheers her on in Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
Columbia Pictures

You spoke about being a custodian of the old legacy, but this is also a film about a new, more youthful, contemporary generation. How did you go about building those two aspects together or did you see them as one and the same?

We knew that there were going to be moments that we could cover with the original material that made sense. And then we knew that there was going to be some new material. There were still question marks in the film that we needed to figure out.

Some of the themes that emerged, they actually weren’t deliberately written as themes. Just little moments that were in a sketch that really caught Jason’s ear and he put that sketch in different places and loved how that was playing. So that started making it into the compositions as I was working my way through the film. And it just evolved, so then it became like a Spengler theme. So if you go back and search for the breadcrumbs of that particular line you’ll hear it on a piccolo up high and it actually moves down the register through the film until you hear it playing at the end triumphantly. So that was different for me because usually you set out to write a theme. But sometimes there’s just something in the background and you water it, grow it, and then it does something.

The original Ghostbusters will play at AMC Theaters on reopening.
Columbia Pictures

As a fan who loves these movies, what was it like for you to get to not only score a Ghostbusters movie but to score that reunion of the original Ghostbusters at the end?

I mean, it was pretty incredible. The whole film is about passing the torch, both in the film and behind the scenes with Ivan and Jason. I knew that this was a very big franchise that was beloved by many people that was being put in our hands. I have to credit Jason for just knowing that this is a film for fans. I respect that. I think it’s so hard to make a sequel or do something new when the reason that everybody loves the original is that it’s this ineffable, hard to quantify recipe of stuff.

I think that Jason—because he lived this, because this was also his childhood; he and I are almost the same age—but this was literally his upbringing. The first time that I went to his house, he had a proton gun on the wall. It looked all burnt and chewed up. And Jason was like, ‘Look, I know you see the dog chewed it up. But it was my toy growing up.’ So, you know, I loved the fact that it was a family affair. And I was really excited that the original cast was on board to make an appearance. This was really a job to study the ingredients and to do my best to make a new dish, but that has all the flavors of the original that you want.

Featured Image: Columbia Pictures

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