The horror genre has come a long way since the early days of Universal and the cinematic black and white tales of Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and other unspeakable and chilling horrors. The genre in more recent decades has also brought to the screen examples of horror stories that had a predominantly black cast. I am not going to get into the political rights, wrongs and whatever’s in Hollywood and the film industry in general when it comes to casting black actors in leading or minor roles in a movie, but I am going to look briefly at a handful of Horror films that have black actors in the principal roles. I suppose it is best to start back in the late 1960’s when racial tensions were at their height in America and were dominating the news in a number of other countries which also included, I must sadly say the United Kingdom.
One of the first horror movies that I personally noticed a black actor cast in a prominent or leading role was the 1968 Zombie picture The Night of the Living Dead, which was brought to the screen by filmmaker George A Romero. The movie centres upon a group of seven people who find themselves thrown together and trapped in a farmhouse that is under attack from undead corpses. Actor Duane Jones takes the lead being what I suppose is the hero of the piece and is to be honest the glue that holds the production together.
The film is now considered a classic that was ground-breaking at the time because of its positive and selflessly brave portrayal of a Black man in a role that was not centred around his race or colour. The film was more effecting and chilling because it was filmed in black and white which gave it a realistic persona. It was a movie that spawned several sequels, imitations, and spin offs and is I think a pre-cursor and inspiration for the popular TV series The Walking Dead, as well as setting the stage for motion pictures such as the Evil Dead seriesand more recent horrors such as World War Z. The plot is a simple one, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny visit their father’s grave in a remote cemetery and are suddenly set upon by zombies. (I have this trouble daily). Barbra escapes the clutches of the undead and hides in what she thinks is an abandoned farmhouse. She is soon joined by Ben (Jones) who stops at the house in the hope that there could be fuel there for his vehicle. It soon becomes apparent that they are trapped there and are surrounded by the Zombies who have designs on attacking and devouring humans. Ben sets to work and starts to secure all the doors and windows in the hope of keeping the flesh eaters out. They manage to listen to news reports which tell them that the creatures are everywhere, seemingly rising from the dead in search of humans. Barbra and Ben discover that they are not alone and find five more people hiding in the basement of the farmhouse. Harry, Helen, Karen, and a young couple, Tom, and Judy.
Dissension soon sets in with Harry deciding that he should take charge with the group’s situation becoming steadily worsens all of them realising that their chances of surviving the night is lessening by the hour. I think this film is so frightening and unsettling because there is some sort of a scientific or partly rational explanation offered as to what is going on and because the horror and the dread is being inflicted upon ordinary people. The horror in the storyline is not happening due to something supernatural or linked to any legend or myth such as werewolves or vampires, the location of the farmhouse in Ohio too helps greatly as it is something that audiences can relate to rather than a grand old creepy mansion, the location the acting and the music becoming important and integral features. The performances from some of the cast because they are at times so bad becoming more believable, thus adding much to the overall atmospheric aura of the production. The score was not an original one, with much of the music being re-used from stock/library music cues written by composer Fred Steiner and others and culled from 1950’s B horrors such as Teenagers from Outer Space etc. Romero utilised music cues from libraries because he was on such a low budget that it did not r.un to a composer writing an original score. The music from the movie was issued on LP record in 1982 by Varese Sarabande and has received a few re-issues which came in varying colours, the most recent being the 2018 double LP set on the Waxworks label.At the time of its released it was a movie that was met with mixed reviews, but it is now most certainly a classic horror.
We go to the seventies for the next example of Black Horror as it was dubbed, Ganja and Hess also star’s Duane Jones as one of the titular characters Hess Green, who along with his fellow anthropologist Dr Matara, uncover the remains of an ancient African tribe who are bloodsuckers called the Myrthians. When they unearth the ancient place, they unleash an evil force buried for centuries beneath the ground. Matara, is possessed by the spirit of the Myrthian queen and attacks his partner with an ancient knife and then kills himself. After the attack Hess decides t return to America, but soon discovers that he has acquired an insatiable thirst for blood. He seduces Matara’s widow and soon has her craving the same. Together they begin to lure innocent victims into a trap, leaving a trail of bodies that are all drained of blood. Although this is a movie about humans drinking other human’s blood (Renfield’s syndrome) the word vampire is never mentioned, so is it a vampire movie? Well, the elements are all there, but officially no it is not. Duane Jones, is excellent, and comes across as sophisticated, and charismatic as the bearded Dr. Green, and Marlene Clark does well in her difficult role.
The film’s soundtrack makes great use of an African chant that entwines itself through Hess’s consciousness when he is craving blood. And talking of craving if you are looking for fangs, crucifixes, holy water, bats fluttering around and capes you may find yourself disappointed, but in the end will reap the rewards of this classy and interesting movie that deals with addiction, possessiveness, and African American sexuality.
Directed by Bill Gunn and Lawrence Jordan, it was released in 1973, and contained a score by composer Sam L. Waymon, who also made an appearance in the movie. Waymon was born on August 16, 1944 in the USA. He is a composer and actor known not only for his score to Ganja and Hess (1973), but also for his work on Just Crazy About Horses in 1978 and Personal Problems in 1980. He is the brother of Nina Simone. The soundtrack from Ganja and Hess is available on Howlin’ Wolf records.
Staying with the 1970’s and the vampire theme we go back to 1972 and Blacula. Now this was different if nothing else, and if you are looking for sophisticated well walk away now. The movie is set in a contemporary time-period, but it also had a black Vampire character lead in the form of Shakespearean actor and Opera singer William Marshall. Who although did have his failings made an imposing Vampire figure.
The story begins with an African Prince (Marshall) going to Transylvania where he meets and is bitten by the infamous Count Dracula. Cursed with the name Blacula and entombed in Dracula’s Castle after he fails to convince the Count to support him in his cause to end the slave trade. Two hundred years later, a pair of interior decorators, transport Blacula’s coffin to L.A. where he awakens with an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Blacula then begins to pursue a woman who resembles his long dead wife.
The woman’s brother-in-law, a pathologist becomes suspicious of Blacula and decides to investigate the events that seem to be following the vampire around. Sounds interesting does it not? Well maybe, the problem was the movie was attempting to bring the Vampire into the 20th Century, but instead of bringing just the horror it also attempted to give the story a Shaft like vibe and one thing that Blacula certainly was not is hip. Blacula could have been a good movie, the ideas were there but they just did not develop them enough to make it step up to what it was certainly capable of becoming.
The film was mildly successful and because of this a sequel Scream Blacula Scream soon followed in 1973, which was even more of a disaster. Many saying that it was probably the worst horror movie from the 1970’s, well that’s a matter of opinion I suppose. Blacula had a score by composer and arranger Gene Page, with the sequel being scored by Bill Marx, to tell the truth the best thing about both movies is their musical scores.
I will go out on a limb here and say that Bill Marx, did a great job and his score was more in tune with the action on screen and set the scene perfectly, whereas the Blacula score by Page, was more like a collection of disco tracks both vocal and instrumental that had been tracked to the movie, at times being out of place and sync,
I think that the idea was to make some money out of the score as Page was a big name in the popular music industry at the time, working with the likes of Barry White, providing the arrangements for various Motown works, as well as working with Johnny Mathis & Denice Williams, Whitney Houston, Peaches & Herb, Kenny Rogers, the Righteous Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, the Whispers, Gladys Knight, and many others. As well as having hits in his own right with a disco version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the floor filler Satin Soul which was released on Atlantic records.
So, the producers of Blacula hoped that the score would become a cross over hit with many disco-goers and soundtrack collectors alike as scores such as Shaft by Issac Hayes had done two years previously. Page also scored Brewster McCloud in 1970 and provided the score for Mother Juggs and Speed in 1976. He died in 1978. Blacula was released on LP back in 1972 and is now available on digital platforms The score for Scream Blacula Scream is sadly at this time still not released, but maybe one day it too will see the light of day.
The 1970’s was also a decade in which we were treated to Blackenstein, I feel that this really needs no explanation, or maybe I just don’t want to talk about it? But suffice to say that Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff would not have been amused by this little flick. The movie had a score by Cardella Di Milo who was an actress and composer, known Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999) and Dolemite (1975). And contained music by Ukrainian composer Lou Frohman, who scored numerous movies including Slime People in 1968. Moving on swiftly, to another Black Horror which starred William Marshall, and was a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist, or at least had a story that was similar. Abby, was released in 1974, it focused upon a marriage counsellor who was living with her pastor husband, and her deeply religious mother, her uncle (Marshall) is an exorcist and after travelling to Africa he releases a demon who follows him back to his home in America and duly possess Abby the demon of sexuality is an unholy Nigerian deity and after the demon enters her body Abby becomes a violent, obscene, and a sexually obsessed vessel of raw evil, nothing it seems can stop her or the entity that commands her.
It is then down to her uncle to attempt to free her from the evil. Music was by composer Robert O Ragland, who penned a serviceable score that underlined and punctuated in all the right places.
The movie was not that bad actually and fared better than most Black Horror’s from the 1970’s at times being referred to as a cult classic. The end sequence where the demon is expelled is explosive, literally, but its one of those moments when your not sure whether to laugh, scream or just look on in disbelief. Try and catch the film on Blu-ray or on you tube if you can, no soundtrack was released.
From the 1970’s to something more recent, and to US which I have to say is one of my favourite horrors in the last few years. I am not what you would call a horror devotee as I am too squeamish to go for the gore and the real horror stuff, but US intrigued me and my interest was fed even more by the highly effective score that composer Michael Abels wrote. Abels is in my opinion one of the most talented film music composers around today, his work is not just inventive and original, but it also works so well within the context of the film and also has to it a great entertainment value away from the images. The movie itself was an intense roller coaster ride of events, written and directed by Jordan Peele, this is a slick and classy horror, and one that you can’t stop watching even if you’re brain is telling you too, addictive viewing in other words. It’s also a movie that makes you stop and think which is always a good thing.
The plot focuses upon the Wilson family who decide to take a holiday in Santa Cruz, the plan being to stay with their friends and spend time with them. The family have a day at the beach, where their son Jason almost wanders off, which makes his mother even more protective of her family than she normally is. During the night four people break into the mother’s childhood home where they are staying, and to the families horror they see that they are strangely familiar as in they look like them, but have grotesque and malevolent personalities and are out to do them harm.
The action is fast paced and at times violent, harrowing, and blood spattered, but it is still a movie that seems to draw one in and once you are drawn in you cannot stop watching. The score is integral to the storyline and the composers use of eerie and virulent sounding voices is masterful.
The score is available on digital platforms. Abels also scored the excellent horror Get Out, which was also directed by Jordan Peele with the music also being integral to the plot and adding greater depth and atmospherics to an already affecting piece of cinema. The score is available on digital platforms.
John Ottman holds dual distinctions as a leading film composer and an award-winning film editor. Ottman has often completed both monumental tasks on the same films. Such remarkable double duties have included The Usual Suspects, X-Men 2, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, and Jack the Giant Killer. He has also held producer roles on several of these films, as well as directing, editing and scoring Urban Legends 2. From an early age in San Jose, California, Ottman began writing and recording radio plays on cassette tapes. He would perform many characters with his voice and adding some sound effects, and called upon his neighborhood friends as extra cast members.
By the fourth grade John was playing the clarinet and continued doing so throughout high school. But his real concentration turned from audio productions to making films. He turned his parents’ garage into a movie studio, where multiple sets were interchangeable to accommodate productions – invariably some sort of science fiction film. By high school, his films evolved to hour-long productions complete with large sets and lavish scores edited together from his favorite soundtracks.
In 1998 you scored Apt Pupil for Bryan Singer. I love this score. You also edited the movie. Were you involved as an editor or a composer first on the picture?
I was always part of the equation on a Singer film to do both tasks. When TheUsual Suspects was being cast, I told Bryan I just wanted to write scores, but he insisted I edit his films in exchange for scoring them.
This was my deal with the devil, so to speak. So henceforth I was always tasked with double duty – and often triple duty as producer since my editing often went far beyond that of a normal editor. I’m glad it’s a favorite score of yours! Apt Pupilwas a personal accomplishment indeed. There was really no music that worked for temp scoring the film. I knew the score had to be like 2001 (A Space Odyssey) meets 1941. So, I just wrote what came into my head. The result was great satisfaction on my part that it was so original. I love writing deep psychological scores. I wanted the music not only to be disturbing, but very emotional and reflective, which, in turn, made it even more deep and disturbing.
As a composer what would you say is the role of music in film. And the same question as a director or editor?
Well, I always say that the score is the soul of the movie. The score is there to bring out or create subtext. Its purpose is basically to involve the audience, suck them in, make them believe in the world of the film. And, of course, on a functional level, the score can help sections from dragging in the story and clarify story points via motifs, etc.
Having said that, scores can also ruin a scene or even an entire film’s potential. Less is more. A scene played raw can often be far more compelling without score. I remember the China Syndrome was riveting because it felt so raw and real much in the way Chernobyl did because the score was most often indiscernible from the sound design. A standard score would have destroyed that reality. Maybe stories about nuclear power plants should have no score!
The editor is the film’s architect. The final rewrite of the film is in the editing room. Editors are masters of illusion. Some Actors’ performances are often saved, enhanced and/or manufactured. Some editors are given total reign, and others have directors who hang out down the hall.
Those with free reign – or given the burden of that reign – are involved from the beginning and essentially the overseers of all departments, be it visual effects development, guiding the sound people, debating and diplomacy with studio execs over all aspects, including test screening scores and resulting actions, etc.
The editor can start as early as the script stage; making notes about things he/she fears might be problematic (and blowup in your their later), or working with previs artists (animated storyboards) and the second unit director and/or director to design sequences, if it’s that kind of movie.
As the shoot begins and footage starts flying in, it’s a race to get scenes cut together initially, because the editor is always getting phone calls from producers asking if they can tear down a set or strike a location, asking if the editor has everything or if they need to get pick-up shots etc. Usually these calls come in before an editor would have any realistic time to assemble a scene. And this is where the discipline of a good editor comes in. The inclination would be just to start desperately cutting something together without having seen all the footage; perhaps just using the last takes etc. Everyone works differently, but I’m of the opinion that there’s a huge payoff to watching every frame of footage, all the set-ups from the first take to the last before even beginning to edit a scene. This enables you to watch the evolution of how they shot a scene. Sometimes the best choices were the early takes before they changed their mind and over-thought things. An early take might’ve had an eye flutter an actor did involuntarily, and that micro moment could be the genesis of inspiration, a cool morsel the editor would have missed had he/she not looked through every frame. Personally, I just couldn’t go to bed at night knowing I cut a scene not knowing everything that was there. I want to believe that my initial version of the scene is the best one possible, except tweaks down the road.
Most importantly, the more the editor keep’s watching the footage and the different setups over and over, the scene starts to form in their head. That is when they actually start to put the scene together, and already know what they want, rather than slapping things against the wall. The analogy for this discipline goes back to composers writing out their themes before jumping in and scoring a movie. It just makes for a much better score to envision it first, as much as that is possible. The editor must also see things in a macro sense. Often people praise a snazzy or effective sequences the editor created. But the editors’ major contribution is when he/she sits back after the assembly and shapes the story as a whole: its rhythm, its emotional arc, what scenes are superfluous, what additional photography may be needed, vfx needs, etc.
An editor’s job can span between one and two years. And it’s more than pushing buttons. The editor manages the entire creative angle of post-production. The editing and re-editing never stop until the last nanosecond. There are test screenings, looping the actor’s lines, potentially hundreds of visual effect shots to manage, lots of politics debating with the studio, the sound design, on and on.
It’s too bad that we have the term “editor,” as it implies a person removing material. An editor really is a composer of visuals and story, which is probably why the AVID editing system is referred to as a “media composer.” The editor is often one caught the middle. The art of diplomacy – the ability to argue for things coherently and non-defensively, is critical. It’s also critical to be open to new ideas. The inclination is that notes from executives are insanely stupid. But even the janitor down the hall might have a good idea. We should always be open and not defensive. The film editor is a film-making partner, at a minimum.
The director is the person who should have an over-all vision of the film (although more times than not, that vision changes as the realities of the film set in.) The director is the initial salesperson who has to convince the powers that be to make the film, or convince talent to be attached, etc. The director helps shape the script, make casting decisions (or fight for them), the director hires main department heads – costume, make-up, cinematographer, etc. (Although it is the editor who often hires the postproduction supervisor and has a big say in hiring the sound designer.) A good director needs to communicate with the actors, comfort them, manage them, in a way. The director needs to be passionate but pragmatic in terms of what is realistic to shoot both for time and budget. A good director has a plan for the shoot – storyboards and shot lists, and who has gone over the scene for the next day with his cinematographer. (Although there are plenty who just wing it, which causes hardship and chaos on the shoot and delays.) The director, along with the editor, oversees all aspects to ensure his/her aesthetic is preserved.
You scored Superman Returns in 2006, it includes the now iconic theme by John Williams. Was this something you felt had to be included on the score because it is such a familiar movie theme and associated with the character? I ask because later movie versions of Superman excluded it.
I’m a big believer in continuity. It’s why I like to hear the James Bond or Mission Impossible themes in all iterations of those movies. The 1978 Superman, to which this was a direct follow up, is not only the greatest superhero film ever made, but one of the all-time greatest films ever made, period. So, we felt a real reverence for everything that was the 1978 version, for better or worse.
In fact, Bryan Singer was surprised just how many nods I made to the theme throughout the 120 plus minutes of score I wrote. At first, I was crippled creatively stepping into William’s shoes.
But then I just had to let that go and score the film confidently with my own sensibilities, which, of course, were largely influenced by Williams and Goldsmith. I didn’t want to try to sound like anyone. I wanted to be me but nodding to William’s theme. Aside from the opening titles, which, of course, was his theme entirely, his music probably comprises 10 minutes out of all the original score I wrote.
You have collaborated with director Bryan Singer several times. Does he have specific ideas regarding the music as in style and where it should be placed, or does he generally let you get on with things and then after hearing your ideas add his?
My design of the temp score would usually define the style of score that I thought best for the film. Once he felt comfortable with that approach, that’s the kind of score I’d write. When in the score-writing phase, I’d play for him my mock-ups of a few cues to be approved. If they emulated the same feelings of the temp, he’d be happy. The real leap of faith was when areas of the temp just weren’t right or where I would try to convince him that a different approach would work far better or be more profound. The temp is easy to lose objectivity over. And when writing the actual score, I trained myself to be objective in order to open myself up to epiphanies that diverged from the temp.
Many films I scored, such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Apt Pupil, House of Wax, Unknown, etc, either had no temp or such a bad one that I was able to convince the filmmakers of a new approach.
Those scores are very satisfying for me, as they come directly from my soul as opposed to having a temp be the guide.
You directed, edited, scored, and had a role in Urban Legends-Final Cut. How difficult is it to juggle all these different duties on a film, and when you’re the director and the composer is that more difficult than working as a composer with a director on a movie? By this I mean are you thinking of music when you’re behind the camera directing or in the editing stages?
It’s always difficult to juggle these mammoth tasks. The directorial and editorial demands aren’t just put on hold so I can write the score. It makes composing far more challenging just from a time aspect alone. Those demands continue as I’m simultaneously trying to find ways to write.
The task of directing and editing (such as assembling the picture) is so overwhelming I rarely have specific music ideas early on except for the style I think I want it to be. As editor, I may know that a sequence will be a musically driven one, so I’ll open up that sequence dramatically for the future score. When Keyser Soze shoots Arturo on the boat, I just stayed on a shot pulling out from the porthole because I knew this would be a big musical moment. But I had no idea what the music would be yet, except I knew what the music had to say and feel like.
Your scores are filled with great themes even when the music is action led. Do you feel that melody or themes are important when scoring movies? And what composers or artists would you say have inspired you and maybe influenced the way in which you score films?
Thank you. It takes discipline. Themes and motifs are the threads that pull a story together and remind us of the stakes, the characters and the identity of the movie. I first write out my themes, which can be an agonizing process. But that effort pays off tenfold when writing the score because I’ve a well to draw from which just allows for a better score to tell a story, opposed to just function on a surface level. A gripping action scene is motivated by character goals or stakes. Themes and motifs remind of those stakes. Otherwise, those kinds of sequences just feel soulless, empty and masturbatory. This goes for underscoring psychological cues as well. Notice how Goldsmith keeps his theme surreptitiously alive as he weaves it through a very long interrogation scene in Basic Instinct.
Some new composers today may not even have the vision or skillset to do that, and instead simply put in a throbbing beat to keep the scene going, but rendering the scene empty.
The masters influenced me, such as Goldsmith, Williams, and others. But I also grew up on the original “Star Trek” which was extremely thematic and scored like movies. They couldn’t afford to score every episode, so the music editors reused motifs which gave the show terrific cohesion and identity. That influenced me greatly.
There’s this misconception these days that a thematic score means a dated-sounding score. This, of course, is a cop out. There’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The art of composing modern scores is the having the skill set to keep motifs alive while being relevant. But too many times, newer composers have no idea what fully developed themes are because they grew up on scores that are nothing more than ostinatos and “buahs.”
Superman Returns is a grand sounding score. What size orchestra did you have for the score?
It was recorded in a magnificent large stage in Studio City, CA called Todd-AO/CBS Radford. This is where Horner would record many of his scores. The orchestra was about a hundred musicians. Unfortunately, the CBS/Radford stage no longer exists. Abbey Road in London is the closest to that sound, and actually exceeds it.
Was being a film music composer something that you always wanted to be, or did the editing role come first and the composing follow?
I was always a film music fan and would use film scores in the movies I made as a kid and into college. When midi technology came along in the early 80s I put together a little set up and learned how to use it by rescoring my friends’ student films. Soon it became a hobby and I realized how effortlessly themes came into my head and how I had a knack for scoring to picture. But I had never set out to be a composer. I had played clarinet, so I knew music, and I internalized years of watching/listening to film music.
Your first score I think was Public Access, which was a film that you were editing for Bryan Singer. How did you also end up scoring the film?
That was a dark psychological film. As the editor, I knew the character in and out, as I helped create him. The composer was doing straight up sinister music that had no depth, irony, or pathos. We were up against a hard deadline to submit the film to the Sundance Film Festival. I told Bryan I could write what the film needed. He was leery at first because most of the music I had written in my hobby was more positive and light-hearted. But he also knew I understood the film more than anyone. I had much of the same ironic sensibilities as he did – and his back was against the wall. It was all done on synthesizer. Someday I’d love to get it performed live.
You edited Bohemian Rhapsody. Were you also asked to provide the movie with an original underscore at any time?
I was contracted to score the film, as it’s always the package I come with. Even my initial main title sequence that I created had me in as composer. Scenes such as Freddie’s diagnosis and break-up with Mary were slated to be scored. And, frankly, if I’d scored the film, the royalties would have been huge. But I just didn’t think it was right to have score in the film, as bad as that was for my bank account. The film just wouldn’t have been as smart or timeless. It would have been reduced it to just any other film.
So, I used the stems from Queens music to “score” certain areas. For instance, when Freddie gets his diagnosis, I manipulated tracks (stems) from “Who Wants to Live Forever.” When he breaks up with Mary, I used “Love of my Life” which was a part of a concert playing on the TV set in the background. I carefully edited and mixed the concert to coincide with moments in the scene to devastating effect. Score could never do what that live concert did in the background, especially when the audience sang it with Freddie.
So, I found more profound ways to make it emotional by either utilizing layers from Queen’s music, or using opera music, such as when Freddie talks to Mary on the phone. I researched and discovered that Freddie loved opera, so those scenes held even more meaning. If there’s a way to not use score, explore that avenue first.
As a composer are you conscious of certain sequences in a film when it is better to leave things with no music?
Too many films are over-scored. It’s as if there’s a fear the audience will run out of the theater if there’s any moment of raw sound; but their involvement in some scenes would be heightened by the gritty reality of a scene with no score. A good story needs peaks and valleys. And in too many films, it’s all climax. A climax just isn’t as satisfying without foreplay. A film beginning at level 10 has nowhere to go and tends to push us away more often than suck us in.
Music other than score can make a film far more profound — like scoring against the grain, having an opera play over a murder scene, or playing beautiful music over a scene of genocide. But source music should be used carefully, as it can date the film. Source music should be from or prior to the film’s period, and like in the 90s, it should not be placed there simply to sell songs to the detriment of the movie.
Score too can be ironically and profound. When I chose to write oddly beautiful music as Verbal gets away in The Usual Suspects, it completely transformed the ending from something commonplace (which it was when temped with action music) to something satisfying and classic. Another example is when I composed a beefed-up version of Mozart’s requiem to the opening Nightcrawler attack in XMen 2. When I temped with action music, it was just any ho-hum action opener. The Mozart gave it gravitas and made the sequence famous.
When you started editing film, did you cut the film and build the scenes or was there some form of digital process available already. If not, how have things changed since you have been working in film, both in the editing and scoring departments?
I edited Public Access, The UsualSuspects and much of Apt Pupil with a splicer on a reel-to-reel console called a Steinbeck flatbed. (I transitioned to digital midway through Apt Pupil, which is a long crazy story.) Editing on film really trained editors to not only have an incredible memory of all the moments they catalogued from the dailies, but also trained their imagination to foresee the scene in their head before editing it. Threading up film and putting it on reels was laborious. I just couldn’t easily throw stuff up on the editing screen until something jived. I had to first envision the scene, what may have been jelling in my head as I watched every frame of film shot.
When finally diving in to create a scene, I might encounter landmines that would alter my idea; but at least my main design was preconceived. This singular editorial vision and discipline got lost when digital editing first came into existence. But editors who began on film maintained their sensibilities when shifting to digital. Of course, things can be done so much faster now, and there’s so much flexibility. I’d never go back, but there was a romance to it. A dissolve was indicated by a grease pencil mark over the print. It was so exciting to get the rendered effect back from the optical lab!
I guess there are many similarities to scoring. Changing things wasn’t easy as it is with now with modern music writing programs. Even though I was writing on a music sequencer, digital picture didn’t exist, and it was too laborious to keep rewinding and locking up the video tape to the scene. So, I’d go through the scene and mark in the computer what bar each event happened and mark it; such as, “Tom walks in the door.” Then I’d score the scene based upon that event list. Once I wrote out the sketch, I’d play it back with the synced video to see how it worked. So, you had to preconceive more often, which may have forced composers to write thematic material ahead of time and think more in their mind’s eye about a scene as they scored to the event list and based upon their memory of the scene.
The X Men series of movies you have scored have been successful at the box office. Do you have a set way in which you work on big features such as these, by this I mean do you begin with a core theme or a central theme and build the remainder of the score on this foundation, or do you prefer to tackle smaller cues first and then begin work on the larger cues or action themed pieces?
I’d be completely lost – and terrified – if I didn’t write out my main themes first. A good score tells a story, so it’s like plotting out a symphony, laying groundwork and having themes blossom later. The overture to Xmen 2, for example, was my personal “sketch” to layout my ideas to draw on. If I hadn’t written that first, I would have no guide as to what my musical journey was going to be. Yes, you discover as you score, but without themes written first, I would have lost countless opportunities to create and evolve threads to tie it all together. Having said that, discoveries do happen. I hadn’t thought Pyro would have a theme.
But at 3AM I was scoring the scene in the X-Jet where Magneto passes the flame to Pyro and stumbled across a couple chords, played them on a choir patch and had a Eureka moment for the character. I then went back to my overture and incorporated his motif.
I heard that you wrote an article a few years ago called Do, Do, Do, in which you basically said whoever comes to you and asks can you do this or do that, just say yes and do it. Do you think this is why you are able to multi-task so well, because you took on different roles in the industry?
Well, since grade school I was always muti-tasking when making films. I guess It was part of my DNA. But yes, this philosophy helped me for sure. For instance, I was asked to do sound design on a peer’s film at USC. Sound wasn’t what I set out to do, but I did it well and forged new relationships as a result. Then, after another filmmaker saw that film, plus my directing class reel, he asked me to re-edit his problem-plagued film. It was on that film that a PA had a bird’s eye view on how I re-told the story, did the sound design and supervised the score. That PA was Bryan Singer.
Did you come from a family that was either musical or involved with film of any kind?
Not at all! My dad was an engineer and my mom a nurse. I’d wake up singing melodies as kid, which puzzled everyone. Who knows where that came from? My dad was creative though. He’d often do voice impersonations of people and tape funny one-man interviews doing all the voices. I grew up similarly to Spielberg, who was also making films as a kid; and we even both played the clarinet. But I diverged into editing and scoring, where he was able to jump straight into making films, which I always envied. I dreamed of working with him in some capacity.
The temp track is something that composers either find helpful or distracting. As an editor, do you install temp tracks at all to enhance various moments in a movie, for the producers or director to see how a certain style of music might help?
Yes, I design it. But people are surprised that when I edit a movie, I first create it completely dry of music. I don’t put in any temp score until I’m completely done with my first cut. Temp music can fool everyone for a long time that a scene is working, only to later realize the scene has issues. I didn’t have the luxury to rejigger too many scenes later, as I had other responsibilities. So, I wanted to face those issues up front by experiencing the film dry. And if it’s working with no score, it’s just going to be magnificent when scored. Plus, I love doing sound design and creating the world of the movie before music is added.
My process also helps not to overscore it. Lastly, it also makes for much more cohesive temp score when the music is added after the entire assembly; otherwise, it gets chopped up repeatedly during the weeks and months of editing of the movie.
Many times, temp scores seem so cool because they’re merely the first indelible association people have on a scene. The editor, who may not be a musical storyteller, may just slap on music to sell the scene. So there are indeed instances when temp tracks can hurt a film. But that’s only the case if no objective person down the line ever raises their hand and says, “hey, we may all think this is what’s right for the film, but it’s a placeholder that really misses the point.” And if no one realized this, the composer walks in, perhaps not having a strong opinion or clout, and is told to rip it off. What results is yet another bastard child of another generic or soulless temp, which was mostly likely the bastard child of previous temp.
But a temp is invaluable if there has been lots of thought behind it and serves as a rough example of the type of musical score there will be to avoid shock from execs later when they hear the real score. A temp is necessary to test the film, as the real score is almost never ready at this stage.
You have scored shorts, TV projects and animated movies. Is the process different when scoring an animated feature as opposed to a live action movie?
You can certainly wear more emotions on your sleeve when doing animation. The music tends to be more expository and freed up. Since I love writing themes, doing Astro Boy was right up my alley, and one of the most joyful experiences in my career – until it bombed, of course. There are also far fewer picture changes in animation, as many of those changes have been figured out earlier. It’s just an open canvas for a composer who loves being lyrical and letting themselves loose.
On Nice Guys you collaborated with David Buckley, the score had to it a funky/retro vibe, which evoked music from movies like Shaft and Our Man Flint. Was this a collaboration on every cue or did you both contribute separate pieces for the score?
I scored about three reels of the film before having to go to Montreal for X men Apocalypse. So, I had already written the main theme and was hoping they’d do an animated opener to it like they did to my Kiss Kiss Bang Bang theme.
After I left, the film got so heavily re-edited that David had to alter, adapt, or rescore sections in the first three reels, plus carry on for the rest of the film.
He would send me cues and I’d make my notes or tweak them. He did a fabulous job adapting my thematic material. Once he got into the groove, he had some fun, I think! It’s blast writing that style of music. I didn’t think I had a knack for it until I stumbled upon the idea for the vibe to be retro in Kiss Kiss.
Do you work on your own orchestrations if you are able to and have time, or is this something that is not always possible?
The score may be the soul of the film, but orchestration is the soul of a score. Not orchestrating my own work would be like someone surprising me with the color to my house and the bedrooms, choosing all the furniture and décor, and designing the landscaping. The music is part of my soul as an extension, so I can’t leave the orchestration to someone else aside from perhaps dividing string parts and such. I do it all down to the most minuscule glockenspiel ding. One cue can work ten different ways depending on the delicate art of orchestrating and arranging for picture. Many times, the orchestration IS the cue. Besides, mock-ups have to be so detailed these days, that you almost have to orchestrate your work by default. I guess others could do mock-ups for me, but they just wouldn’t sound like they were me.
This is why scores coming from teams of composers lack the special identity of the composer. When you hear a Barry, Goldsmith or Williams score, despite their incredible range, you hear them. I’d like to say it’s that way for me. My orchestrators do have a horribly laborious task though; and that is making sense of my time signatures. I don’t want to be encumbered by whether I’m in 3/4 or 6/8. I just want to write with a free flow of ideas that I compose to a click track. Sometimes I’m off the beat a bit or sloppy; and this is their nightmare to faithfully reproduce my mock-up!
Do you conduct at all or is it better for you to have a conductor for the sessions so you can supervise, and do you ever perform on any of your scores?
My great excuse for not conducting is that I can indeed hear more in the booth without the click track in my ear and have the benefit of hearing how any accompanying synth tracks are jiving. This excuse, is, of course valid. It’s why any composers stay in the booth. But the truth is also that I’d be a horrible conductor. I never became proficient at it. After composing a piece I’m really proud of, I find myself frustrated that I’m not up there at the podium. It can be frustrating. But with severe time constraints and more control over people’s opinions in the booth, its far better to be in the booth. I play the clarinet, but not well. I’d be a hindrance to the session! I love writing challenging parts for much better musicians than I.
Your scores for Orphan and Invasion have a more synth-based edge to them. What percentage of the scores were realized by non-conventional or symphonic instrumentation?
It would be when I felt a synth or non-conventional approach was appropriate. I’m not sure what that percentage is. Even Days of Future Past was decidedly a more modern approach, so I incorporated more synth elements into the orchestra.
I really wantedInvasion to be bizarre, so I experimented with “bendy/stretchy” analog sounds as a motif, along with other stuff to try to think outside the box. Even so, there’s still a use of orchestra.
There’s a little-known score of mine, Point of Origin, which was completely synth for both budget and aesthetic reasons. The fun in that one was sampling the parts of a typewriter and incorporating them throughout the score, as it was about an arsonist who was writing a book laying out his crimes. It seems that in most of my scores there’s a small addition of synth elements whether it be for style, or for budget. Even Usual Suspects had synth choir and some synth percussion purely for budget reasons. It all depends on the vision of the score and what will work.
Sometimes no music works, sometimes orchestra works, sometimes a blend; and sometimes the film needs score, but an orchestra would be all wrong. So an all synth score is wise in those cases not for budget, but for the right feel.
Jack the Giant Slayer, I think you worked on for about two years. Was there any particular reason as to why the project was such a lengthy one?
No, not one reason. Many! Motion capture and development takes time. But the over-riding reason was that the studio greenlit a dark fxxxxx-up fairy tale (in a good way), and then got cold feet when the goods were delivered. Mainly the marketing team wanted to change the film into something that would make their jobs easier.
The worst situation is when they try to change the DNA of a film after it’s been made. It was similar to when people were claiming to be tired of goofy Jim Carey; so, the studio greenlit a super dark comedy, The Cable Guy that Ben Stiller delivered wonderfully. Then the studio freaked out and tried to bend it into something more overtly goofy. It still turned out to be a fun dark movie.
But it was so much more deliciously dark before they watered it down. Jack was even a worse situation. Suddenly this delightfully dark story (albeit crippled by bad casting), had to be changed to be made for young children. This meant reshoots with a fairy-tale prologue and other scenes. Then what followed was an endless slew of test screenings and debates, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for yet more test screening that might get another point, and on and on.
It’s a longer saga, but that’s the nutshell. I was very burned out but eked out a rousing score. Knowing we were going to London with a huge orchestra was a shot in the arm and added inspiration to get me through. The score was relatively unaffected by the drama, but I do remember music reviews with execs where I had to play back what I recorded to certain scary scenes to make sure the music wasn’t “too” scary. Even in a Disney film, when there’s a scary scene, the music is scary! That’s part of the fun.
Fantastic 4 is another franchise you are involved with. The music seems to be constant throughout adding mood and giving support. How much music did you write for the Fantastic 4, Rise of the Silver Surfer and does all the music make it onto any soundtrack album release. If not, do you have a hand in deciding what tracks will make it onto any release?
The Silver Surfertheme is one of my favorites. Oddly it just popped into my head when I was on a plane, and then I raced home to do the sketch. Those scores were a lot of fun to write, but the studio editorially raped both films so badly in post after I’d scored them, that the music was chopped up into a zillion pieces, lacking the breadth it had to the original scenes.
I can’t remember how much of the music made it to the album, but yes, it’s the purview of the composer to decide what goes on the album and how it’s presented. For listening purposes, the cues are usually arranged out of film order so the listening experience is more engaging.
Then years later the extended albums (if there are any) end up putting in all the cues, and in film order.
What is next for you if you can tell us?
Although I’ve found joy and great creative accomplishment with my projects, I’ve also been through hell and back having done so many simultaneous tasks on those big tentpole movies. My plan was to get to a place where I could retire if I want to, but still seek out things that make me happy or make me want to get out of bed. And that’s where I am now. I’m smelling some roses, as we only live once: and I’m also developing my own projects to direct. Directing a film is hell on earth, so why destroy yourself unless it’s something that you really believe in, something that gets your soul and energies stirring? Well, unless you’re 30 years old, poor and thirsty. That’s not where I’m at. I’d love to be 30 again though! I have a couple features in development.
Any film can fail in the development process, but I’m hopeful to get one off the ground. I’m also itchy at times to score films, but the film must be something I’m passionate about and with good people working on it. I don’t want to have to conform to the flavor of the day. If someone wants me for my film scoring and story-telling sensibilities, and it’s something that touched me, then I’m there! Unless, of course, I’m off smelling roses.
So many great soundtracks around now, and a lot of them have been released digitally by the Swedish soundtrack specialist label Movie Score Media, I have said it many times and will probably say it again and again, that this label is a hive of activity and releases scores that would ordinarily probably not see the light of day. They are a label that I will always support and always look to for innovative and sparkling film score releases. Their release programme is it seems unstoppable, but unlike other soundtrack labels in Europe and in the United States they never seem to release reissues, which for me is fantastic, because one knows that any release will be something fresh. The label has in the past year or so brought lesser-known composers to film music fans attention and at the same time also given them hope that the art of film music is still alive and well.
So, let’s look at a few of these more recent releases. The label has recently released The Cellar by Stephen McKeon, which is a dark and chilling work, a complex and also an unnerving score that sends tingles and shocks through one when listening.
Although it is a score that many would say is largely atonal in its musical make up, it still contains a rich thematic quality, yes its edgy, its shadowy and filled with dread most of the time but the apprehensive sounds are interesting and also alluring in a strange way. It’s a work that I am sure you will enjoy, overflowing with a foreboding and fearful persona, which at times for me evoked the music of Chris Young in the Hellraiser soundtracks that he worked upon. McKeon first came to my attention a few years ago in 2018 when he scored Pilgrimage, which again was filled with dark and fearful colours and textures, but also like The Cellar was an interesting and entertaining listen. That score too was issued by Movie Score Media and is available on digital platforms such as Spotify.
Then there is Ruben De Gheselle’s brooding yet sensitive score for the documentary A Cops and Robbers Story, which is about a New York cop whose career is threatened by revelations about his former life when he was a member of a gang. The score adds much to the film and lends a tense, serious, yet intimate sense of drama to the storyline.
Again, available on digital platforms everywhere, it’s a work that you should not overlook, yes it’s from a documentary and not a feature film, but the music is superb and underlines punctuates and enhances throughout, plus it is well worth listening to away from the film as it for me at last was an entertaining and enjoyable listen. In 2018,
Movie score Media released Wildwitch by composer Flemming Nordkrog, this year the label has issued one of his recent works from the movie Ogre which is a fantasy drama, the composer combines symphonic elements and styles with soundscapes to create a work that is inventive and totally consuming.
The score contains the simplicity of a child humming, a whistler and utilises solo performances throughout to fashion an alluring, beautiful but also an unsettling sound. Again, it’s a score that you should check out, the tantalising and haunting style will remain with you long after you have stopped listening to it.
Swedish composer Oscar Fogellstrom has written an atmospheric and mostly electronic horror score for the Yam Laranas film, Rooftop, which tells the story about a group of friends who experience terror because of a prank that goes horribly wrong. T
he score is wonderfully effective in the movie and has to it various quirks and sounds that at key moments evoke the work of John Carpenter, the composer introducing sinister sounding synth-based stabs and motifs throughout the work. It is a dark and unsettling score, but also has to it glimpses of lighter more pop infused cues that occasionally break through. Well worth checking out. As is the composers score for Greed, also on Movie Score Media and available now.
I thought how potent that this score was when I first heard it and returned to it a few times after my initial listen. Powerful, affecting, and thematic, I think just about sums this up, at times commanding and grandiose with lighter and more fragile interludes complimenting and further enhancing the proceedings.
Why not have a Fogellstrom fest and listen to them back-to-back, which will also give you an idea of just how talented and flexible Fogellstrom is as a composer. Recommended.
Composer Timothy Williams describes the movie/documentary Have You Heard About Greg? as “Astory of struggle, courage and love“. The score is a work by three composers Timothy Williams, Chad Cannon, and Jessie Carmichael (Maroon 5).
This is such an affecting score, with an abundance of delicate and fragile airs, that at times totally wreck one’s emotions and play with the senses. All I can say is please take a listen to this, because if you do not experience this amazingly sensitive soundtrack then you will be poorer for it.
The label have released many scores this year, and a number of them have already been reviewed here at MMI, but it wont hurt to remind of some of the titles, such as Hostile Territory by John Koutsilinis which is excellent, also The Exorcism of God by Elik Alvarez and Yoncarlos Medina, which is one of the most atmospheric and scary scores I have heard in a while, then we have composer Liam Bates’s fun and grandiose sounding score for the spoof horror comedy Let the Wrong one In.
Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds by Manel Gil Inglada, which is an enjoyable romp of a score filled with proud themes and romantic nuances. Plunder Quest by Massimo Sammi, which I find difficult not to listen to everyday now.
The list it seems is endless, and let’s not forget The Drovers Wife, The Road Dance, Jump Darling, and The Last Film Show. All of which are soundtracks that ooze quality and inventiveness. So if you have not savoured any of the titles I have mentioned now is the time to do so. Quality and quantity going hand in hand rarely happens these days but with Movie Score Media its something that is the norm.
Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavours — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films. Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here. Herdís was nominated for The Icelandic Music Awards for her score in The Sun Is Also A Star.
How did you become involved on The Essex Serpent?
Both Dustin (co composer Dustin O’Halloran) and I got the scripts and were really into them, we had never co-composed anything before and this felt like a perfect project for both of our voices combined!
You Interned with composer Johann Johannsson when he was scoring the movie The Arrival, in 2016, what was he like to work alongside and learn from?
It was really inspiring and interesting. I think Johann’s score for Arrival is one of my favourite scores of recent times. It was super cool to see his sessions and how he composed and worked with sounds, I definitely learned a lot from it. It was also the first time I got to see the process of scoring a film.
Your style is very inventive and original, you blend voices, with synths and live instrumentation, what composers aside from Johannsson would you say have influenced you as in film score composers and also from other genres of music?
I am very influenced by a lot of music that is not film music, everything from hip hop to classical. Some of my favourite composers are Ligeti, Penderecki, Messiaen and Debussy. I love Ennio Morricone and watching some of the films that he scored was the first time I got interested in music for film! When I’m scoring film’s I rarely listen to film music for inspiration!
Y The Last Man, is an interesting watch, how did you become involved on the scoring of this and was it something that was different for you and was there a temp music track on the film?
There was no temp music, and I wrote a chunk of music not to picture while they were still filming! It was the first time I worked on a story with an apocalyptic world and definitely found myself in that world!
Staying with Y The Last Man, I felt that the opening theme particularly had to it a kind of western as in cowboy sound, was this something that you set out to do?
The wild west was an idea from the director and was a way to interpret the lawless world that forms within Y and takes us through the journey and road trip in the story.
Was it a score that you found to be difficult to get into, because there are several complex characters in the story, so did you have a starting point for the scoring of the project as in a scene, a character, or maybe a line of dialogue or a location? Or did you already know the story and begin writing before seeing any footage?
I started out finding a sound for the world of Y, and started focusing on the day it all happened and developed the sound of the world from there! Later I looked into some of the major characters like Agent 355, Yorick and Jennifer Brown. Finding a sound and theme for them helped me then continue developing sounds and themes for the show!
Did the producers of the show have a lot of involvement in how the score should sound or where the music should be placed?
I was very free in creating the music for Y which was great and inspiring. I guess I got lucky finding a sound and themes early on that they liked!
Was writing music for film a career that you had decided upon from an early age, or was it initially music that you were interested in and the film scoring came later?
I started with studying general composition but in my studies, I started collaborating with dancers and theatre students in my school. That’s when I became more interested in collaborations like that. Combining music with visual material etc. After my B.A. in Iceland, I applied for a film scoring program at NYU and got more interested in writing music for film.
Film music has evolved and altered over the past decade or so and the soundscape has it seems come into its own, your scores are a combination of soundscape and thematic, do you think that the opening theme in movies will one day return in the form it was?
Film music is always developing, and things go in and out of fashion, you can say that both in film making and music. I think anything can work and happen when it comes to films!
What would you say is the role of music in film?
It’s helping tell the story and sometimes adds what we don’t see on the screen, it’s like the 4th dimension of the film.
Do you perform on your film scores?
Yes, I recorded myself playing the piano and electronics, I also tend to use my voice quite a bit!
Do you have set routines when scoring a movie, or does every film differ in respect of the scoring pattern?
It has always been a different approach for me, so far, all my projects have been very different. I never know what I’m going to do before I start a project!
Are there any genres of film that you would like to write for, a western maybe?
I’d love to score a western one day but mostly I want to work on good stories that inspire me!
When spotting a movie how many times do you like to see it before starting to formulate ideas regarding sound and structure of the score?
I normally read the script and watch only once before I start! I like to try not writing to picture in the beginning. But as it progresses; I go deeper into certain scenes!
You have worked on features, TV projects and shorts, what would say is the most challenging type of project to work on?
It really depends on the project. TV scores can be challenging because there is a lot of music and often a tight delivery schedule. Films can be challenging too as there is often more details and less repetition of the music!
What is next for you?
I’m starting a new feature which is a thriller/horror and then I’m working on my solo record under the name Kónguló. First single comes out on June 10th!
The Essex Serpent is a recent TV mini-series on Apple Tv that follows newly widowed Cora, who, having been released from an abusive marriage, relocates from Victorian London to the small village of Aldwinter in Essex, intrigued by a local superstition that a mythical creature known as the Essex Serpent has returned to the area. The story explores the scenario of religious superstition and a more rational understanding examination of the superstition, both views colliding and contradicting each other over unusual, mysterious, and unexplained events. The series which is now in its fourth episode intriguing is a well-paced account, that has a strong and flowing script that is delivered wonderfully by the leading actors and supporting cast, which includes the multi-talented Tom Hiddelston and the excellent Claire Danes. The series has to it an attraction and a beguiling, persona which is mainly down to the performances of the cast and the arresting cinematography courtesy of David Raedeker, with the cameras being positioned and deployed at odd angles and at low levels especially when the filming is over the damp, desolate, and forbidding marshes.
Its a storyline that does throw up some surprises which makes me wonder if the conclusion will be a rational explanation as Cora (Danes) is suggesting, or if it will be a mystical route that brings the tale to an end? We will have to wait and find out. The music too plays a major factor in creating a mysterious, romantic, and unsettling atmosphere. The score is the work of two composers, Dustin O’Halloran and Herdis Stefansdottir, who have collaborated to create a score that is more than just supportive of the storyline but becomes an integral part of it. As yet there is no soundtrack release but with a series such as this and also with a score of this quality then it is only a matter of time before the music is released. The music is realized by an array of instrumentation, I would not label it as being grandiose in any way but it is certainly an affecting work, the music hinting at what the serpent is or could be whilst also having to it a personal and more intimate style and sound when applied to the central characters in the series, but the themes are not strictly attached to the characters but more to the emotions or feelings that they are experiencing either at the time or in their past. The music and sounds also work well with the various landscapes and settings within the series, colouring and adding depth to the proceedings. The composers creating two differing musical worlds for the rural settings of Essex and the busier locale of London.
Essex having to it a more solid and down to earth style and London being given a slightly softer and delicate persona, but still sounding somewhat rural. The instrumentation is interesting with the score utilizing cello and violin in most cues, the composers also introducing interesting sounds and adding textures and layers to the score which are fashioned via found instrumentation. It maybe a score that is not yet available, but I am hoping that it will be issued very soon. Worth watching and listening to.
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