From his first film score, Smoke Signals(Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy winner) to horror Master Tobe Hoopers final movie Djinn, composer BC Smith’s work can be heard in an incredibly broad range of acclaimed and award winning film and television projects. Whether working with modular synthesizers, multifarious ensembles, large orchestras, peyote singers, aleatorics or electronics, BC is one of those rare talents who effortlessly traverses eclectic worlds of diverse musicality.
Where were you born?
I was born in Richland Washington. It’s an idyllic small town on the Columbia river that originated as housing for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the site of the world’s first full scale plutonium reactor. It’s a strange place full of scientists and artists. My father was a jazz musician that ended up working in the critical mass lab of the reactor. When I turned 18 I moved to Seattle for college and to play in a rock band that had drafted me out of my high school.
Howlin wolf records have just issued Djinn on compact disc, can I ask how you became involved with the project?
I received a call one evening saying the the movie was in post and the filmmakers were feeling it wasn’t scary enough. They asked me to demo a scene for a meeting the next day. I anticipated something big and dramatic, but they sent over the very mild cocktail party sequence that segued into what seemed to be hallucinations. Clearly the test was that if I could make this benign sequence suspenseful, then I’d probably be well suited to tackle the whole film. I set to work composing, and by the end of the eve I’d managed to even scare myself. I emailed my music and heard nothing for months until I got the call to fly to Abu Dhabi and spot the film.
Tobe Hooper directed DJINN, what was he like to work with and did he have specific ideas when it came to the style of music he wanted for the movie?
DJINN had been in and out of post for quite some time with major revisions to the edit and special effects. I came on very late in the process so I missed the traditional window of director and composer working alone in a bubble together. With the production based out of Abu Dhabi, and a very short timeline to score, all feedback regarding music cues was done via email. None of that is an uncommon situation for me. I do a lot of work from around the world, so I’m quite adept at making those scenarios work.
The filmmakers wanted the score to be modern, synth based and reflect some of the spare but brutal sensibilities of K and J horror films. Sound plays a big role in all Tobe’s films and I created a sonic pallet that blurred the line between music and sound effects. The score also needed strong emotional themes as DJINN isn’t a typical horror film, but rather a supernatural tale about two mother’s grief. Though the story is set in the UAE they wanted to minimize any use of regional musical elements beyond the traditional lullaby that permeates the film. The Djinn are part of Islam and it was also very important to not have the central character, Um Al Duwais devolve into a Freddy Kruger type villain or monster. The film’s premiere was in Abu Dhabi at the same time my son was being born, so unfortunately I never got the chance to meet Tobe in person before he died. That was part of my decision to pursue having the score released. It’s kind of my little tribute to him.
You scored WEST OF REDEMPTION in 2015, who is the solo voice performance by on the opening cue?
I was very fortunate to have Carina Round from Puscifer sing on the score. She is amazing.
You have worked on a few horror or drama movies, do you think these types of movies need more music or maybe not as much, by this I mean can an un scored section of film be just as scary ?
My sensibilities for horror and drama tend to lean toward a less is more approach. I try to treat silence as a part of the composition and really put a lot of thought into the ins and outs of score. Breaking from score or having it coalesce with the natural sound can create a very intimate space in quiet, suspenseful moments, or starkly amplify the terror at the apex of a horrific moment. If set up properly with score, scoreless sections of the film can be very powerful. In post production, music and sound effects creation happen concurrently and independently of each other. When spotting the film I have to watch the movie objectively and take note of the moments where I believe the SFX guys are going to be getting creative or hitting it at 11. I’ll try to work with that knowledge rather than compete with it. Every movie is different, but I’ll often try things a few ways and if the director approves, I’ll even reach out to the SFX guys to share my ideas. I hate the director having to make some sort of Sophie’s choice between score and SFX on the dub stage.
How many times do you like to see a movie before getting any fixed ideas about where music should be placed and the style of music?
From the very first viewing I’ll have strong opinions, but I usually like to watch the film several times and let those ideas percolate before I start writing. I try to do the heavy lifting in my head first and not just dive into composing. I take a lot of notes and write out my thoughts. I identify any problem areas and how score can help to overcome them. I try to get into the head of the director and really understand what story they want to tell.
Creating the sound pallet is also a big step for me. A lot of composers use the same sound sources and template on every film. Personally I like to take a more bespoke approach. I create a new sonic pallet and template for every film. I’ll often spend the first days on a film just simply making sounds or procuring new instruments and reconfiguring gear. I don’t like to rely on any existing sound libraries. I have many of them but only want their usage to be a creative choice rather than convenience. For me there is that heavy thought and prep for the first days, but then I just start writing. I’ll work directly to picture and away from picture. I really try to immerse myself in the story to see where it takes me.
Many of your scores are electronically realised, do you utilise soloists and live performances within these as well?
I do! I try to make all my scoring decisions based on what will best enable the score to help tell the film’s story. Sometimes that’s all electronics, sometimes it’s a live orchestra or smaller mixed ensemble. Usually it’s a mixture of electronically realized and live, but ideally that is a creative rather than budgetary decision. As a general observation I think most scores benefit from having as many live performances as possible. A film score is all emotion and there is no better way to convey that emotion then with a human being performing the part. I’ll try to take that approach even with an electronic score, recording the part, effects and manipulations in real time.
Going back to DJINN, how much time did you have to write and record the score?
About 6 weeks.
What involvement do you have on the compiling of any of your scores that get a CD or digital release?
The issue of soundtrack usually falls to the films distributor and it often seems to be an area that gets less focus. In the past I’ve rarely had any involvement with a release. When Tobe passed away, I took the initiative and personally reached out to Howling Wolf after a friend’s recommendation. Wall from Howling Wolf really encouraged me to be heavily involved in all the creative aspects. Writing the liner notes was something that I initially dreaded, but the trip down memory lane of having to articulate the experience proved to be a very rewarding challenge. The whole experience has made me want to be more proactive in releasing my future film scores as soundtracks.
Do you have any opinion on the use of temp tracks by film directors, is it a useful tool and can it help the director and composer understand each other as in what type of score is required?
I think temp scores can be useful as a discussion tool for quickly establishing what could work or doesn’t work. It helps the composer immediately get a gauge of the director’s musical perceptions as they are referencing something very tangible. Beyond that initial conversation I hope all parties put the temp away for the duration of post. If a temp is heard too often it can morph warts and all into something that hinders the scoring process. I witnessed this early on in my career when I was asked to provide temp music for the editor on a commercial I was scoring. I was busy on multiple gigs and after clearing it with the editor, I simply sent over a click track. When the project locked picture they brought me back into the fold and I composed the score per our discussions. In the music approval meeting the client turned to me and said…”yah man, I like what you’ve done here.. but there was something about that first piece of music you gave us.. that BAM BAM BAM!!! It just worked with the cuts so well…”. I was stumped of course until I released he was speaking about the click track! He had fallen in love with the click!!! Let that be a cautionary tale to all of the power of a temp track! It’s funny though, as I often get hired on films that can’t find any suitable temp music. It’s a good feeling to be able to come into that situation, start writing and have everyone say “Yes! That’s it!”.
What musical training or education did you receive?
My father was a jazz pianist and I started lessons as a kid. By age 15 I was playing in rock bands and performing in clubs 7 nights a week much to the horror of my teachers and mother. After graduating high school, Stan Kenton’s arranger Dave Barduhn took me under his wing and I studied with him at the local college. He was the 2nd most published arranger in the country and I very much liked his approach to dissecting music and reimagining it in various forms. I looked to further my studies at several music schools but ultimately grew frustrated as I was very into synthesizers and modern composition for orchestra. I dreamed of writing for film and there didn’t seem to be a path for me to get to the type of music I wanted to write or get any of the technical experience. Ultimately I left college and went directly to various professors, and professionals to hone the skills and compositional tools I wanted in my tool box. When I wanted to learn about writing for orchestra I went to one of the guest conductors of the Seattle symphony, when I wanted to learn synths I went to the owners of the only scoring for picture system in Seattle. I also spent a great deal of time studying under Jerome Gray. He is a legend in the Seattle music scene as a near mythical musical virtuoso and recluse. His ideas on harmony and composition were very inspiring to me. About that time I became good friends with producer Ric Parashar and he gave me a room in his studio in the hopes I’d be able to bring in scoring to picture work. It was an amazing time for me, as he was producing what would become some of the seminal bands and albums of the grunge scene: Pearl Jam 10, Temple of the Dog etc etc. Though unorthodox, for me it was all a conscious effort to gain as much musical education and experience as possible.
What do you think is the purpose of music in films?
In film, it’s all about the story. Music exists in film solely to help tell that story. I believe the score is most effective when it conveys something that isn’t being shown on screen at the moment. It needs to speak of the deeper motivations and backstory of the characters. The power of music in film is amazing. It’s fascinating to see how even altering a few notes or timings can completely change the scene.
What artists do you feel have had an influence upon you or made an impression upon you?
I’m a fan of film music and love the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, and many of the greats, but I’m also very interested in where film music is headed and I tend to gravitate toward some of the aesthetics of artists that push the envelope, like the late Johanne Johansson. I’m not only interested in their music but in the way their music works within the film and helps tell the story. I also liked Johanne’s ability to compose beautiful, emotional music for one film and electronic noise based textures for the next. I try to cultivate that same diversity. My music is different for every film. No two scores are alike.
Do you score a movie in any order ie from main title to end themes or do you score sequences and scenes out of the running order?
I tend to bounce around the film as I score. Early in the process I will often score scenes multiple ways to give the director options until we’re really solid on the direction. I’ll also rough out several scenes or sequences to make sure I’m getting the overall flow right. It’s important to keep looking at a scene in the context of how it fits in the overall film. Once I get the themes or textures established and a few key cues in place, the score tends to come together pretty quickly.
What are you working on next?
I’m scoring Hood River for director Steven Cantor. It’s a wonderful film about a boys soccer team that is a microcosm of some of the current troubles we’re facing in the US. The score has some interesting synth and guitar work. I’m also scoring a pretty heavy family drama called Language Arts directed by Cornelia Moore. This will be a contemporary orchestral score. I also have a very cool collaboration with Alessandro Cortini from Nine Inch Nails. They’ve just wrapped up their tour, so we’re considering our next scoring projects together.
In my spare time and just for fun, I’m also an amateur magician and member of the Magic Castle here in LA. (It’s a fancy private club for magicians.) I perform small, intimate shows of eclectic close up magic, combined with some spooky illusions and a séance. Lastly, revisiting DJINN reminded me how much I enjoy scoring suspenseful and spooky films. I think I’d really like to focus on scoring more movies in that genre.
Thanks to B C for his time and patience, also many thanks to James Anthony Phillips for his information on the composer and to Wall Crumpler of Howlin Wolf records.
DJINN SCORE RELEASED ON HOWLIN WOLF RECORDS and available now.