Knowing When A Chainsaw Makes A Better Addition To The Orchestra Than A Violin

We chat with film composers Devin Burrows, Christian Davis, and Ronen Landa about crafting the most effectively terrifying film score.
The Wretched
IFC Films
By  · Published on May 10th, 2020

You’ve already heard this story, but I’m going to tell it anyway: John Carpenter whipped up the soundtrack to Halloween in three days. He wrote a handful of themes blind and jammed them into various places to make the film work. Previously having shown a cut of Halloween to a studio executive minus the score and suffering her nonplused response, the director knew the scares lived or died depending on the aural mood backing them. Necessity is the mother of legend, not merely invention.

Apocryphal tales such as this tend to inflate the importance of horror film scores above all others. The reality is that all films succeed or fail on the spines of their scores, and they all stem from the narratives translated from the script to the screen. Talking to a trio of film composers, one thing becomes absolutely clear: if they don’t connect to the characters and their plight, then they will not produce an effective mood to envelop the protagonists.

Devin Burrows (The Wretched), Christian Davis (Behind You), and Ronen Landa (1BR) are happy to discuss the influences that feed their work. Classic compositions from Ennio Morricone and Jóhann Jóhannsson naturally roll into the conversation, as does a great admiration for what Michael Abels and Marco Beltrami recently accomplished for Get Out and A Quiet Place, respectively. Trying to deconstruct the direct impact of other artists in their new films, however, proves to be a little trickier. Art shapes art, but the tradesmen do their damndest to pull their sound exclusively from the job at hand, ignoring outside factors whenever possible.

“The heart of any score I do compose is found in the emotional connection to the characters,” says Landa. “If you don’t care about the characters, then a bunch of loud sounds aren’t going to move you one way or the other. If you care about the characters, then your emotional state is heightened, and you’re ready to be impacted by all those other elements that we come up with.”

Does that mean Landa only works on films that inspire him? That would be quite the luxury and probably an impossibility for anyone looking to make an actual living in this industry. Not every gig cuts to the soul of every artist working on the film.

“I’ve been lucky to work with really great filmmakers,” Landa continues. “You have to find a pathway for yourself to be able to do your work. You trust in your filmmakers, and in the collaboration, and go forward with your best effort. Always. You have an opportunity to imagine the film that you want this to become, because when you’re scoring it, it’s not in its final state, and you have a chance to help shape it. You try to help it grow into something.”

Composers come onto projects during various stages. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to be there from the beginning, scripting your score as the film gears into production. Other times you’re handed a complete piece and asked to build from a temporary track that’s already sunk its claws into your director. The first steps you make are critical to the success of the whole.

“I just never really know what I’m going to do,” says Davis. “When I start a film, if a director asks me, ‘What are we going to do?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Just give me some time. Let me play with some stuff and experiment a bit.’ [On Behind You], we talked a lot about how the house needs to have a voice, right?”

It’s that old chestnut; the house is a character in the movie. Behind You sees a demon infecting the walls, the floorboards, and the very molecules of a creaky manor home. Throughout the film, the demon is gaining strength, building up the supernatural muscle to transfer itself from the wood of the structure to the tastier, juicer organic material of the film’s heroines. For Davis, finding the voice of the house meant recording the ordinary sounds that live within all our domiciles.

“The orchestra still does the heavy lifting,” he says, “but there’s this tea kettle hiss that I use a lot when I’m crescendoing to stuff. For percussion, there’s me playing spoons on plates and pots and pans, and I’ve distorted all of that. Then I also went ahead and used a chainsaw. You know that ‘VROOOM!’ like when you’re trying to start a chainsaw; because haunted houses always have chainsaws! It sounds like the house is growling.”

These out-of-the-box ideas only occur when the composer plants himself in the script and the narrative being chased by the director. Davis smashed as much music from his home as he could. The genre, and more importantly, the story allows him to get wild with ideas. Resting on the accepted form of what has come before results in rote music. Experimentation is essential to carving new sonic territory.

“It was only a couple of days of recording that stuff,” says Davis. “Playing with it, layering it in, and then presenting it to the director. ‘What do you think of this?’ He loved it, and we kept going with it. Just a few days from the birth of the idea to execution and approval.”

For The Wretched, Burrows was lucky enough to travel out to the location and explore the sets that he would be cementing with score. Shot in rural Northern Michigan, the film pits a child against a thousand-year-old witch living in the body of his next-door neighbor. The Wretched is steeped in classic fairy tale mythology, preying on the audience’s preconceived notions of kids destined for stewpot demises.

“I flew out there just to get a feel for the place,” says Burrows. “The sonic storytelling was about putting people in the place. I went on-site with them and saw where the woods were, and they were shooting the maw where the hag lives. That was really important, and I started creating mockups of orchestra influenced by all the things I saw.”

The hope is that through the absorption of the environment, a cocktail will bubble forth from within. A composer must live inside the story and perform in a way that an actor would. They need to know every inch of their film, and then suddenly, they find themselves on the right track. They know it when they hear it.

“It’s a hard thing to explain,” says Burrows. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to put these things into words. It’s almost like there’s an x-factor. Music can change the tone of the scene completely. It can even change the meaning, depending on the nature of the music, if it’s very somber or high tempo and action-packed.”

Arriving at the right musical connotation occurs through collaboration. Burrows trusts his gut, but he has to double-check with the other creators around him. He has faith in them to tell him when he’s nailed it.

“It just comes down to experimentation and seeing what feels right and what supports the story,” he continues. “It’s a collaborative process, and it’s super important to get other people to listen. There’s a little bit of magic there. You kind of know if something is working or not.”

1BR, Behind You, and The Wretched are all now available on VOD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)