Composing for a New Brand of Horror with Nathan Whitehead and ‘The Purge’

By  · Published on May 30th, 2013

We all have those moments whether we are stuck in traffic or at the end of an un-moving line at the airport/post office/DMV where you just want to lash out at everyone around you. It’s human nature. But would the world really be a better place if we were allowed to give in to those momentary impulses rather than keeping our emotions in check?

The Purge is a new kind of horror film that not only indulges in the expected slasher terror as a home is overtaken by a group of sociopathic “purgers” hoping to get some release, but goes one step further and becomes a comment on our society and how allowing this kind of controlled “Darwinism” would come down to those lucky enough to have wealth and protection versus those who do not. The strongest are not necessarily the ones who would survive and at the root of The Purge is this question of what happens when those who are easy to “pick off” because they cannot afford a fortress to hide behind are eliminated and only the rich remain?

I spoke with the film’s composer, Nathan Whitehead, about his thoughts on the film’s unusual concept, how that inspired his score, and whether he thought silence could be scarier than sound.

What was the first thing you thought when you heard the concept for this film and were approached to create the score?

Well, I actually knew nothing about the concept when I sat down to watch the movie for the first time! As is often the case, there wasn’t a lot of time to write the score. When I got the call about The Purge, I almost immediately went to the cutting room and watched the film without having read the script or having talked about the premise.

This was actually a really great way to get introduced to the film, I think. It was nice to have very little knowledge going in and just let the film speak for itself. The first thing I thought was, “This is a terrifying idea” and then, “Wait, could this really happen!?” The more I thought about it, the less far-fetched it seemed and that slow, creeping question of “What are we really capable of?” made it much more frightening.

Did you immediately begin coming up with musical concepts to fit within this intense world or did those ideas come later?

Since my first encounter with the story and the concept was actually watching the movie, I started coming up with musical ideas immediately after that. I remember I watched it on a Friday night and my head was kind of spinning trying to soak in this intense story and also trying to think, “What on earth is this going to sound like?” I basically locked myself in the studio over that weekend and just thought about this world of The Purge. I had some moments of panic thinking, “Can I pull this off?” and then eventually started churning out ideas. Nothing to picture at this point, just trying to capture ideas as they popped up to see if any of them felt like they belonged in this film.

The Purge is the first theatrically released feature film you have composed on your own – how was your process different from collaborating with others?

I think the main difference is that there is more freedom in creating the overall shape and tone of the score. I’m obviously collaborating with the filmmakers on this, but it’s solely up to me to execute that musically. Aside from that, I don’t think the process is that different. I’m still basically watching the scene, responding to it and trying to tell the story in a way that feels right to me. That part doesn’t feel very different if I’m the sole composer or if I’m collaborating with other composers.

What was the best part about working on your own? What was the most challenging?

The best part is it just allows me to be more involved in the film and more in touch with the whole story. I’m not just writing the action scenes or something. I get to work on the entire musical arc, and I love that. I also feel like as the sole composer I’m able to work more closely with the director and the editor. I really enjoy that collaboration. I think the most challenging part is that I have to do the whole thing! That can be terrifying at times, but I love the challenge.

Having now had this solo experience – what are some of the things you learned?

This experience just reinforced the idea that my job is really always about collaboration, and I love that about it. Whether I’m working with a director one-on-one or if I’m working with other composers, it’s always collaborative, and I want to do my best to contribute to that in an honest way. I love hearing ideas from the director and from fellow composers. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t, but I think healthy collaboration really allows the best ideas to come to life.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to get to collaborate with amazing composers, orchestrators, music editors, etc. and that has been incredibly educational. We’ve all heard it so many times before, but I think it’s true that there really are a lot of things you just don’t learn in school. So, it’s important to acknowledge collaboration every step of the way. We are all working to create something that is the combination of our different talents, ideas, and perspectives, and I think that’s a beautiful thing about filmmaking.

As to what I prefer for my own composing, right now I am very excited to do more work on my own. I look forward to being able to really shape ideas from start to finish over the course of a project, keeping in mind that collaboration will always be a critical part of the job.

The Purge is certainly a horror film with people being attacked, but it’s almost more of a thriller by turning the normal horror trope of not knowing who is after you on its head – this family knows there is evil out there, but now they have to contend with it rather than simply ignore it as they had in the past. How did this genre hybrid affect how you approached the score?

I totally agree. I think this is really more of a thriller in many ways and that had a huge effect on how I approached this. A lot of the classic horror instrumentation and orchestration didn’t seem to fit that well. We tried it in some places, but it just didn’t feel like the world that we were in. I think the thriller nature, as well as the near-future sci-fi elements, really steered the music into these grittier textures and more processed sounds (see: “Lockdown” and “Who Needs A Car On A Boat?”) There are certainly some more traditional horror moments, but even those are viewed through this gritty lens of 2022 America and are manipulated one way or another so that they feel like they belong.

The film’s trailer featured a patriotic song to convey the idea that this is a new, albeit incredibly dangerous and threatening, America – did you infuse this idea of patriotism into the score?

Not really, I think the score is really about this 12-hour slice of time, and we are immersed in the world of the Sandins. We are in their house, we see them making their way through this night and we also see their burden, the inner turmoil they are dealing with surrounding The Purge. I think The Purge makes them question themselves; are they good people? I feel like the score really speaks to these internal elements more. Opening up in a sort of grand, patriotic way didn’t quite feel right for the film.

Most audiences are trained to tense up when ominous music starts up since it usually leads to a scare, but sometimes silence can be much more frightening – how did you navigate when to use music and when to leave things quiet?

You’re absolutely right, it’s extremely tricky to find the right balance to make foreshadowing, silence, and scare moments all work well. It’s something that I just have to feel my way through, especially with scares. I have to score the moment, then step away and work on something else, and come back to it later for a fresh listen. Usually when I come back to it, it’s fairly apparent if the moment is working for me. Letting a scene play with no music is very similar. Often it’s easier to just score the scene because it works okay even though leaving it silent would actually be much more effective.

It is a tough call to make. I think it’s just a process of both getting immersed in the scene and then zooming out and trying to see the scene in context, in order to understand where we are in the overall story. I don’t think there are strict formulas for success here, it’s just trusting your gut and doing your best to understand the story you’re telling at that moment.

The Purge certainly deals with the fear of being attacked or threatened with no one to turn to for help, but it also looks into the idea of what you would do if you could get away with anything. In the trailer, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) explains to his son how the purge allows people “a release” – do you think there is any truth to that idea?

Personally, I’m not sure that allowing people a “release” would be helpful. I want to believe that people are guided by more than what is simply legal or illegal. I think these are the questions that The Purge invites us to ask. Does participating in The Purge really “cleanse your soul”? Does that “release” work as they think it does?

The soundtrack for The Purge is available through Back Lot Music.

1. “You’re Number One?”
2. “Let’s Growl”
3. “Timmy”
4. “Charlie’s Secret Room”
5. “Lockdown”
6. “Family”
7. “I Came To See Your Father”
8. “Emergency Services Will Be Suspended”
9. “This Night Saved Our Country”
10. “The Purge Is Working”
11. “Who Needs A Car On A Boat?”
12. “Zoey’s Gone”
13. “Be Careful, OK?”
14. “You Need To See This”
15. “Toodaloo Sandins”
16. “Charlie Watches”
17. “James And The Stranger”
18. “That Will Be Thee”
19. “There Are People Outside”
20. “I Am Not Dying Tonight”
21. “Nothing Is Ever Going To Be OK Again”
22. “I Bid Thee Farewell”
23. “Are You Hurt?”
24. “Release The Beast”
25. “Your Soul Has Been Cleansed”
26. “Neighbors”
27. “Thank You”
28. “Ours, Not Theirs”
29. “Blessed Be The New Founding Fathers”
30. “No More Killing Tonight”

The Purge hits theaters Friday, June 7th.