Music for a Mockbuster: Scoring the Other Battle of L.A.

BattleOfLA prod still (1)
Battle of Los Angeles

Millions of dollars and years of pre-production planning, filming, and post-production refinement went into the massive sci-fi blockbuster BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, currently storming theaters across the country; only a small fraction of that expense and time was lavished on its pretender, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES. Arriving on home video today after a March 12 premier on the SyFy Channel, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES was made by The Asylum, a movie production company known for making “mockbusters” – low-budget films synthesized quickly to capitalize on the release of the larger films they are imitating. Unlike some of its brethren, however, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES brought its own style and entertainment quotient to the small screen, like it or not.

The Asylum’s mockbusters are mostly denigrated as quickie knock-offs – in which Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS begat The Asylum’s H. G. WELLS’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, Stephen Sommers’ VAN HELSING begat The Asylum’s WAY OF THE VAMPIRE, Peter Jackson’s KING KONG begat The Asylum’s KING OF THE LOST WORLD, Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS begat The Asylum’s TRANSMORPHERS, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 begat The Asylum’s 2012 DOOMSDAY, Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES began The Asylum’s SHERLOCK HOLMES, wherein the master detective battles robot dinosaurs – and so on. Despite their frequent critical lambasting, the recurring comparison of The Asylum and SyFy Channel original movies with the B-movies of the 1950s is an apt one, and these cheesy new features fill a place for low-rent cinema among an eager audience of undemanding moviegoers and monster fans.

One area of The Asylum’s films that can usually be admired is that of music. While synthetic and artificially created, their musical scores are notable for their epic verisimilitude and ability to build excitement even in the midst of hackneyed dialog, less than stellar performances, and bargain basement CGI. With BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES, the high-energy and broadly played musical score of Kays Al-Atrakchi and Brian Ralston gives the film a great deal of its muscle and energy.

Kays Al-Atrakchi

Born in Florence, Italy, Kays Al-Atrakchi grew up in Orlando, Florida, switching from an early career in rock and roll and a songwriting partnership with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas into what he felt was the more secure job field of film music. He moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and has maintained a productive scoring schedule ever since with more than forty feature films, shorts, documentaries, and video game scores to date. His music for CUTTING ROOM (2006), Ian Truitner’s serial killer comedy, earned the Best Soundtrack award at the Milan International Film Festival, and his moody scores for ALIEN RAIDERS (2008) and MIDNIGHT SON (2011) have also been favorably noted.

“I’ve been involved with a lot of horror films and thrillers, but these films generally want an intimate type of scoring and often require what I would describe as a ‘sound design-y’ type of scoring,” said Kays. “BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES offered a great opportunity to just go nuts with a full orchestra, to really let loose and do something that quite honestly I don’t get to do very often.”

BrianRalson-Color72dpiBrian Ralston actually started out with a degree in biochemistry, working for a neurologist until he discovered his true passion lay not in the chemical processes of organic matter but in the compositional processes of original music. He put his degree on the shelf and began studying film music at the University of Arizona under film/TV composer Jeff Haskell, completing his graduate studies at the University of Southern California with composers such as Christopher Young and the late Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, and Buddy Baker. Brian was called in by composer Robert Kral to compose additional music for the fourth season of TV’s ANGEL in 2002, which led to a small handful of feature film scoring assignments, with BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES being one of his most significant so far.

“The Battle of LA score is a very different score than anything I had done in the past,” echoed Ralston. “It also was an opportunity to spread my wings a little bit compositionally, and to try to do some things that I hadn’t done before. There’s one thing I don’t want to do is get typecast into a very specific genre of film. I need to develop my sound as my career develops, but at the same time I don’t want to always be known for one genre of film. So doing a sci-fi action movie that’s pretty bombastic was an opportunity to do that.”

BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES director Mark Atkins had known Kays Al-Atrakchi for some time, but they hadn’t had the chance to work together until Adler got the green light to bring Kays into The Asylum’s version of BATTLE. Knowing the amount and type of music needed, and familiar with the abbreviated timeline the Asylum production would afford him, Kays brought in his friend Brian Ralston, suggesting they collaborate and score the movie together.

“I think it actually was a blessing that we had each other to cover everything, because it is pretty much wall-to-wall music,” said Ralston. “I think it’s a 90-minute film with 89-and-a-half minutes of music!

“I also felt very strongly that my style and Brian’s style were very complementary,” added Kays. “I thought that we could work together because we could probably create a score that seamlessly blended from one cue to the next without feeling like it was two separate composers.”

Working together on BATTLE seemed to replicate the process by which classic Universal B-movies of the 1950s like THIS ISLAND EARTH and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE were scored, with a team of composers banded together to create compatible film music on deadline. Universal’s composers usually were assigned to score specific reels of film, with two or more composers leapfrogging through the reels until all work was done; Al-Atrakchi and Ralston, on the other hand, tried to integrate their work so that each of their efforts would seamlessly permeate the soundtrack.

“For the most part we tried to space out our cues so that it wasn’t me doing a reel and then Kays doing a reel,” explained Ralston. “There were sections in the film where I might have had a very long section or a cue and Kays might have had another very long section or cue following it, but for the most part we tried our best to alternate what we were doing so that my creative input and his creative input were splattered throughout. And that gave the score a lot of balance, as opposed to the first half being one person and the second half being another person.”

Although BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES was made under the shadow of Jonathan Liebesman’s big-budget Columbia Pictures of BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, the composers never referenced or discussed what was happening with that film or its large-scaled score (composed by Brian Tyler), nor was there a temporary score that either of them had to face in determining their approach to scoring BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES.

“I didn’t even know that there was a studio-produced BATTLE OF LA until we were well into this project!” said Kays. “That shows how out of touch I am! Then I saw a billboard somewhere and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’”

“The Asylum has a business model that really works for them,” explained Ralston. “A lot of their films are made because their distributors and the channels that they distribute to are asking for that. So they are able to quickly respond to what they’re being asked to make. Whereas something like BATTLE: LOS ANGELES has had years and years of development and preproduction and finally production, the distribution chains in the foreign territories that Asylum is dealing with has been sold before the film has even been made. So then they have to quickly turn around and make the movie by the deadline that they agreed to.”

The pair began working on the film right in late November. At that time they only had two weeks to provide their score, since The Asylum had given them a mid-December deadline. Well into post-production, a deal was made with the SyFy Channel so that the cable channel would broadcast BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES as a SyFy Original Movie rather than having it released direct-to-video, in the manner of  The Asylum’s other productions.

“We got a locked edit on the first half of the movie around the first of December,” said Ralston. “We fully had the intent to finish scoring the film by December 15th. When the SyFy movie deal happened it changed our production schedule. Not only did they go back and throw more effort and money into the effects and the edit, they put us on about a one-month delay because the second half of the film [would not be] locked until sometime in February.”

“We were in a holding pattern while they got more footage,” added Kays. “That did give us the time to get our basic ideas down. But as far as working with a locked picture cut where we could actually match the cuts and hit all the dramatic points, that came fairly late into the game.”

Like most Asylum and SyFy Channel film scores, BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES is a fully sampled score, without any real, live instruments. The orchestral music was created synthetically using sounds of symphonic instruments sampled into a digital computer, but treated and mixed in a way that gave the score a fairly credible orchestral sound.

“Kays and I both always prefer to have live musicians when we can, because it just brings a whole other element to the score that a computer can never replicate,” said Ralston. “Having said that, because the turnaround time was so tight on this movie and because the music budget was certainly not what Brian Tyler had on BATTLE: L.A., we didn’t have the resources available to give it the live orchestral 80-member orchestra that it really needed.”

When the two composers first began talking about scoring the film, certain scenes appealed to each of them as a starting point for composing music.

“I remember telling Kays that there was a scene in the middle where Karla comes out with her katana sword, and I really wanted to do that scene!” said Ralston. “And Kays said okay, and I think I’m going to take this scene over here! We didn’t really score in order; we just started going with the scenes that spoke to us first. And then in the end we worked out who was covering what. We did collaborate by writing in a similar key so that if our cues were going to be butting up next to each other they wouldn’t completely clash tonally.”

That scene with Karla, for example, gave Ralston the chance to soar musically with an eloquent heroic theme, while sharing the propulsive, rhythmic drive that Kays had composed for his main title sequence. Kays also wrote the music for the scene with the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) blast, while Ralston was responsible for the 11-minute epic climax at the end. However, most of the score integrated the work of both composers, even though for the most part they were working alone in their own studios.

“We worked separately and we actually used somewhat different programs,” said Ralston. “I used Digital Performer and Kays writes in Logic and we had to deliver in ProTools. So I would write and record it and mix it in Performer, and send it to Kays. He would do the same in Logic, and then he assembled it.” In addition to composing, Kays also served as music editor, taking his and Brian’s cues and assembling them into the ProTools session that would have to be delivered to the sound mixer.

“I think what really helped for us to create a really smooth process of working together is the fact that we use a lot of the same sound libraries and a lot of the same plug-in effects and things like that,” Kays added. “So even though we were working in different sequencing programs, we could really reference each other’s sound quite easily. I could see that Brian was using certain types of sounds, so I could make my own cues compatible so they sound like they belong in the same score.”

One of the challenges in working on a movie like this, noted Kays, “is that it literally goes from balls-to-the-wall action to even more balls-to-the-wall action! There are not a whole lot of peaks and valleys from a character development or a musical point of view. What does happen, though, is that you get to progressively learn a little bit more about the aliens and why they’re invading Earth. In the early part of the movie, we’re mostly following the humans, so it’s fairly militaristic. We’re following these jet fighters and these soldiers on the ground as they’re trying to make sense of this situation. As the score progresses, we both started introducing textural elements into the music, which represent the aliens. So for me the score goes from a very traditional take on an action film to something that recalls a little bit more of the style that I’ve applied on horror movies, where I start using a little more sound design elements and a little more kind of unusual textures.”

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“I think what makes a composer’s contribution really great is that the composer has to be a film maker themselves,” said Ralston. “They have to understand character and character arc. When a director hires a composer, it’s not just that his liked their style of music, but that he or she is hiring someone who gets filmmaking, understands story, and understands character development. For the music to be effective, you have to understand that underlying message of what’s being said in a scene.”

“Something like BATTLE OF LA doesn’t need much musical subtlety and it didn’t really need much mood-setting, because it’s a very intensely visual film,” Kays concluded. “Right from frame one, you’re pretty much thrust into this world full of space ships and laser blasts and aliens and gunfire. So the role of the score in this type of a film is not so much to build the mood as to reinforce it and to add to the excitement and the kinetic motion of the film. You’re already very primed and excited to see these guys fighting for their lives against aliens, and the music is just reinforcing that.”

For more information on the composers, see:


The Asylum’s DVD of BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES hit store shelves on March 15th. The Blu-Ray will follow on March 22.

From Killer Crocs to Road Kill: The Horror Music of Rafael May

Blackwater (2007)

Australian composer Rafael May has made down-under horror cinema his own, with a trio of very powerful, very persuasive, and very scary Australian horror movie scores. He made a significant splash with his second feature film score, 2007’s BLACK WATER, an intensively suspenseful and powerfully directed film about a rogue saltwater crocodile, threatening three vacationers in the Australian outback after overturning their boat. May’s score is marvelously textured and claustrophobically atmospheric, giving the literate and well-performed film much of its tension. He did the same for 2010’s ROAD KILL (recently released on DVD in the Fangoria Fright Fest series), about a rogue truck terrorizing the South Australian highways, and has just begun work on THE REEF, about a rogue shark munching on trapped divers on the Great Barrier Reef. His music is modern and compelling, building a provocatively scary attitude over which these films play their stories.

May’s background included the normal piano interest as a youth segueing into a classical education, which gave him the background for the variety of music he would be accomplishing today. In his late teens he began to get commissions to write electronic music for a small theatre company, and found himself setting music to drama. “A lot of this was fairly intense music for plays like Equus and Caucasion Chalk Circle,” said May. “I then built a business as a music producer and composer for commercials. The first chance for a feature score was a nightclub/youth film called SAMPLE PEOPLE. The next and better chance was when commercial turned feature producer, Michael Robertson approached me to do the score for BLACK WATER. Our previous work together had won the London International Advertising Award for best music.”

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In BLACK WATER, a trio of young folk – a married couple and their younger sister – set off on a backwater sightseeing expedition, which turns very bad when their boat is overturned by the crocodile, which eats their guide. The trio takes refuge up a mangrove tree in the swamp, but with the croc hanging around, have no where no go. The thrust of the story is how each of them musters the fortitude to work together – or alone – to survive and escape. May’s score opens with the breezy atmosphere of cello and dobro, which sets the group off in a benign mood. It doesn’t last long. When the croc strikes, the score overturns along with the boat. May creates an severe amount of suspense and panic with clamorous, rapid fire drumming, sudden, sliding strokes of strings, howls of abrasive, rushing synth, reflective squeaking noises, steel gongs, a rising wake of increasing sound mass, and other threatening noises evoking a propulsive, queasy tension that makes the scene quite real and threatening.

“The two directors’ vision was originally that there should not be a music score in any recognizable way,” said May. “Their ideas were based on the documentary feel in which they shot BLACK WATER. Once we had a cut, I argued successfully that we needed a stronger music thread; also that the music nature had to have an organic element and not overpower the scale of the images and story. I wanted an electronic background with a solid identifiable core. We agreed that cello fitted the emotional bill – though never any violins or viola.”

Once composer and directors had agreed on the necessity of a cello core, May spent some time creating the rest of his pallet of sounds with which to construct the score. “I didn’t want to be playing standard synth patches,” May said. “I took samples of electric guitar feedback and plucks and experimented with playing them down two or three octaves. There is a repeating element of unsettling weird bells every time the characters descend into the water which is those electric guitar plucks played beyond recognition. There are a set of moaning sounds which are similarly displaced Indian flutes. The cello provided the lyrical content with dobro and acoustic guitars which were played as keyboard parts and then replaced by real instruments just before the final mixing. I scored the cello as mostly three part close and sliding harmonies that were extremely hard to play but gratifying and claustrophobic.”

May’s ominous, underplayed sonic tonalities generate an increasingly potent amount of visceral suspense, maintaining a persistent awareness of the growing danger of the crocodile when it’s off screen with a continually sustained tonality of menace, dappled with occasional shimmers, tones, and audible glimmers, with escalating wails and extruding synth tones. His recurring cello motif, very organic and emotive, evokes the human anguish felt by the surviving sisters.

“The music is critical to the emotional response,” said May. “Most of the effective parts of the score are so embedded into the picture that people feel the fear or horror and don’t hear that the music is there and guiding the way. The sense of scale was always at the heart of BLACK WATER. You had to believe you were stuck there in a small and ever-more dangerous environment with a creeping sense of dread. I found that any overplaying of the score broke the sense of belief and that most elements of the music had a sense of brittle delicacy and humanity. On the other hand when the crocodile attacks were imminent, the music could be extremely on edge and loud, and still be accepted as part of a natural sonic environment.”

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For ROAD KILL (originally titled ROAD TRAIN), May contrasted the vast, dry country of South Australia with the harsher, industrial menace of the supernatural vehicle as it roared, DUEL-like, across the highways and menaced a group of vacationing teens. Like DUEL, there’s a sense of the supernatural evoked in the presence and behavior of the three-trailered truck, which eventually captures the teens and trapped them in its careening, driverless cab. “I wanted a strong music character for the ROAD KILL, a sort of possessed and possessive giant truck,” said May. “It needed discordant metallic resonance. There is a continual grinding metallic unease from the moment the ROAD KILL starts taunting and attacking the characters on their backpacking holiday in the middle of nowhere. There is a strong dirty pop element as a language in the film featuring bleeding distortions and vocal manipulations.”

May crafted an intricate instrumental texture to enhance ROAD KILL’s propulsive suspense and terror. “I grabbed a bunch of metal industrial oil drums and dragged them into my studio to be hit by metal pipes,” he said. “At one point I unbolted the front gate of the house to be used as additional percussion. Most of these sounds were recorded and distorted. There were keyboard sounds also fed into a raft of different and ever-changing distortions to become the character of the ROAD KILL. The director had strong views on bringing out the sub text of the narrative requiring a love theme of sorts: a lyrical, distressed piano which feels more and more pain as the film progresses.” Added to the mix are some showpiece tracks meant to come out of the truck’s cab: one of them is “an abrasive trucker’s ode played on very cheap, detuned guitars, recorded into a cheap amp with reoccurring manipulations of screaming and distorted maniacal laughing.”

May was just starting to score THE REEF when I spoke to him. Directed by BLACK WATER’s Andrew Traucki, the film is about an overturned sailboat whose occupants are gradually picked off by a hungry shark, â la OPEN WATER with a reef landscape. “So far (and it is a little early), it looks like there will be a lot of strings in the score with a slew of gentler elements that start taking a sinister turn,” said May. “The film starts at a point of beauty that turns sour, through to terror with an emotional thread.” Aware of the standard set by JAWS and concentrating on avoiding any similarities, May is focusing his score not on the predatory fish but on the tense, personal situation surrounding the characters as they are attacked. “The precedent is a tricky one. I don’t think that the shark will have a musical motif: more the situation surrounding the characters as they are attacked and get taken one by one.”

RafaelMayMay has found each of these scores challenging but feels he has been able to come up with an approach that offers the genre something new, musically, while giving these films the right kind of music necessary to enrich their emotional impact. “The first track you produce does so much to frame the film,” May said. “Everything that you can do is propelled from that. In BLACK WATER it was find an emotional language that you wouldn’t question belonged to the world you were in. For ROAD KILL it was more about creating a new sonic world of dread.” While both scores challenged him, when completed they provided him with a sense of satisfaction. “The rewards are about creating the seamless connection between score and visual story,” said May. “The satisfaction is closing a chapter in what’s possible for each new project. “

May’s film music output has so far found itself concentrating on horror subjects; time will tell if this will remain the case of if opportunities will expand to further cinematic horizons. “I’ve really enjoyed these films so far,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the range of musical possibilities are huge for horror. The music is rarely benign and often foreground. I think that these films and their scores speak to the depth of the human condition and human fears. Having said that, my journey as a composer won’t be complete without working on a wider pallet of films to see what other senses I can evoke.”

The Tuneful Tentacles of Sharktopus: Composer Tom Hiel

sharktopusOriginal movies airing on the SyFy Channel (formerly The Sci-Fi Channel) have gained a reputation for being the equivalent of the Roger Corman exploitation movies of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, only with better special effects thanks to the wonders of CGI. SyFy’s seemingly endless parade of killer critters and mega monsters perhaps reached its pinnacle recently with SHARKTOPUS, the sensitive saga of a genetically combined hybrid of octopus and great white shark, which made its debut last September 25th.

Cheerfully embracing its scientific illogic, SHARKTOPUS swamp, scuttled, and tentacle-walked across the seas and shores of sunny Mexico consuming swimmers, sun-bathers, boaters, bungee-jumpers and various other species of eye candy, ruthlessly shedding its origin as a military weapon to munch on the local populace like so much popcorn chicken. Meanwhile, name star Eric Roberts chews up similar amounts of scenery as the hybrid monster’s creator, who harbors his own hidden agenda even while trying to recapture his escaped aquatic Frankenstein. Directed by SyFy Channel alumni Declan O’Brien (ROCK MONSTER, MONSTER ARK, CYCLOPS), the film flaunts the sheer audacity of its titular monster, which was clearly intended to out mega any MegaShark and out size any Giant Octopus previously seen in the cable channel’s oeuvre. Enthusiastically promoted, SHARKTOPUS became the talk of the ‘net for months before the movie actually premiered.

It was somehow poetic that SHARKTOPUS was produced by Roger Corman – the latest of several that he has provided for SyFy. The film revels in its absurdity even while lampooning its own formulaic inconsistency to achieve the sense of undemanding fun Corman is best known for. One aspect of Corman’s films as producer, from 1954’s MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR to 2010’s DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR and the hundreds in between, have been supportive and effective musical scores that often made up for their film’s lack of story excitement and believable special effect. In many cases, the music provided that extra dynamic that helped audiences forgive discrepancies in the internal logic of their scripts, in deficiencies of performance by their casts, and in the insufficiencies of set design or special effect – all while providing a layer of inexpensive yet effectual musical support that gave these films their needed dimension of emotive expression and excitement.

Quite so, SHARKTOPUS. Like those musical maestros of Corman’s AIP years, Les Baxter and Ronald Stein, who could work wonders with the barest of orchestral and electronic essentials, SHARKTOPUS features a powerful score that gives the film a wonderful sense of gravitas and energizes its drama while adding a good deal of coherency to the story.  The main and end titles surge  with a splendid rock tune written by New York rock band The Cheetah Whores, but it’s the dramatic underscore by composer Tom Hiel that really gave this torrid tale of teeth and tentacles its expressive ebb and flow.

Sharktopus composer
Composer Tom Hiel

Tom Hiel is an award-winning composer best known for his work on the television show, THE PRACTICE (2000-04). He began his career working as an assistant for composers such as Mark Mothersbaugh and Michael Giacchino, while also finding some movies to score on his own. One of the first scores to gain Hiel some notoriety was SWIMMING WITH SHARKS (1994), starring Kevin Spacey (a perhaps ironic counterpoint to his experience sixteen years later when swimming with Sharktopus).

Hiel’s first science fiction score was Erik Fleming’s CYBER BANDITS (1995), although his next foray into the genre came a dozen years later with the made-for-video movie DOOMED (2007), a futuristic story about death row inmates given a chance for freedom by becoming contestants on a SURVIVOR-style reality show on an island full of zombies. “That was just straight ahead pseudo-orchestral music,” Hiel recalled recently. “There were a lot of percussive loops and various atonal figurations you can use to accentuate the horror. Nothing deeper than that.”

As with most of the SyFy Channel film scores, budgets do not accommodate actual orchestras, requiring composers like Hiel to rely on synthesizers and sampled symphonic wave files in order to closely if not perfectly replicate a live orchestral performance on his keyboard. This approach gives films like SHARKTOPUS the dynamic of a full-blown symphonic score without the expense, and also takes advantage of the synthesizer’s ability to create unnerving and unusual musical sounds.

Original reports from SyFy back in February, 2010, suggested that Roger Corman would both direct and produce SHARKTOPUS, but the film went before the cameras with Declan O’Brien at the helm, Corman serving only as producer, along with his wife Julie.

“I never knew about Roger directing it,” Hiel said. “Declan told me there was another guy who was directing or maybe co-directing with Roger, and he quit. That’s when Declan got called in because he had worked with Roger on the CYCLOPS movie; Roger loves that movie and thinks it’s one of his better efforts.” Hiel had scored both of O’Brien’s previous original movies for the SyFy Channel, ROCK MONSTER and CYCLOPS (both 2008), so they already had a successful working relationship that allowed Hiel to launch right into the music for SHARKTOPUS.

Hiel produced a well-crafted fantasy-horror score that gave the CGI-enlivened carcharodon-cephalopod a vivid sense of reality. When the sharktopus first escapes its captivity, the music builds to a rising tide with its central motif, surrounded by tentacular eddies of swirling accentuations.

“SHARKTOPUS is a little more of a straight drama except for the horrific elements when it attacks,” said Hiel. “There are also some straight ahead dramatic themes coming into play as they’re looking for the creature. In a way it’s a low-budget JAWS. I don’t necessarily think the music’s reflecting that; I think there is a throwback to straight-ahead orchestral scoring in this one. Due to the budget, of course, it was all done with electronics.”

Hiel’s SHARKTOPUS score is rooted in a recurring 4-note, rising motif that is heard each time the Sharktopus is threatening or about to attack.

“Many times I was able to build that motif for a while as the attacks became imminent. When the Sharktopus did attack, I tended to use rising chromatic stabs over brass chords (alternating from lower brass to horns and trumpets) and heavy percussion loops. Also I used glissando effects and sampled sounds (a garden rake across metal) to accentuate the horrific elements of the attacks. After the attacks or when the action was slow, but where I wanted the audience to think Sharktopus might be around, I used this electronic pulsing loop that really adds another sonic dimension of creepiness for me.”

Sharktopus Bryony Shearmur
"I always score it straight," says Hiel of working on low-budget sci-fi.

That pulsing synth loop in SHARKTOPUS becomes Hiel’s JAWS ostinato, a recurring measure that adds a strident undercurrent of menace as the story plays out. That loop was actually created for a demo score Hiel had written in 2002 when he was being considered for the TV series, WITHOUT A TRACE. The studio wound up going with a different composer, so Hiel held onto his demo music until he found a suitable project for it, parts of which gave SHARKTOPUS much of its powerful propellant.

Hiel also provided a vivid action melody in the horns, punctuated by a string and wind ostinato on top, along with a driving percussion beat to push the action when Eric Roberts’ and his crew try to recapture the creature. For Roberts’ character himself, Hiel used a repetitive motif in the lower strings and brass along with another percussive loop which emphasized his own relentless pursuit of his own ends – inevitably Roberts’ theme and that for the Sharktopus merge, enhanced by electric guitars, as the two have their final encounter at a yacht harbor.

All of these elements come together nicely and give SHARKTOPUS a rich musical backdrop, not to mention an added production value for its otherwise simplistic story and scope. In addition, SHARKTOPUS’ vigorous orchestral sound belies the fact that its score is wholly electronic. Nowadays, virtual music libraries, which can be licensed or purchased, give composers the sonic sensibilities of renowned symphony orchestras at their fingertips and, though not conveying the true fidelity of acoustic performance, nevertheless provide a fairly persuasive approximation of symphonic sound. With SHARKTOPUS, Hiel took advantage of his experience in helping Mark Mothersbaugh and Marco Beltrami compile temporary mock-ups of their scores for director approval.

“These mock-ups have to sound very realistic, and I learned how to do that when I worked for them,” said Hiel. For SHARKTOPUS, he used a combination of sound elements from the East West Platinum sample library, the Vienna Symphonic Library, some music he’d inherited from Beltrami associate Buck Sanders, and original electronic material he’d created himself to give the score a sense of originality.

“For the melodic strings I used an old Roland string sample,” said Hiel. “It was made for the Roland 760 and I still use it for the long string sections.”

The process of composing a movie score for computerized music files – versus having an orchestra full of real players performing at a recording session – creates a different kind of challenge for composers like Hiel.

“You have to be more inclusive in your composing,” Hiel said. “When you know you’re going out to an orchestra and you know you’re going to orchestrate it yourself or you have an orchestrator do it for you, a lot of times when you’re in the writing process you can just say, ‘Oh, make sure to double the cello lines with bassoons’ or ‘double this with whatever,’ but when you’re actually doing this type of thing with samples you have to go back over and synth-orchestrate as you go, as it were – adding to the cello lines some French horns or bassoon, just things you do when you’re orchestrating to make it sound as thick as possible. You really have to be more in tune with that. I also add electronics – for SHARKTOPUS I was given free reign, thankfully, and so some of those pulsing electronic pads come in and they add so much.”

Sharktopus - watch out!Hiel said his biggest challenge in scoring SHARKTOPUS was simply  getting the right feel for each of the creature’s attacks.

“It’s easy to be heavy handed,” he said. “Each attack tended to be different enough where you couldn’t cut-and-paste the same motifs. Sometimes you needed a building progression – I would use that chromatic ostinato thing – it’s in the dive sequence, for example, where the strings would play in clusters, and that goes on for a while sometimes, where he’s dragging the body off. But that ended up being fairly challenging, just finding the right tone for each attack.”

Hiel’s scores have thus far remained in the low-budget realm – although, with the rise of computer graphic imagery and computerized music, low-budget movies look and sound a lot better these days.

“I think the stigma has come from low-budget music for low-budget films that has traditionally sounded hysterically bad,” said Hiel. “I think it’s come a long way from that now. Now, you can write music and record music even at a low-budget level that sounds pretty believable and big-budgeted. That’s the goal, anyway. It’s a little tricky to make it sound like the real thing. Half the battle is just to make the synthesizers sound the same as what you’re going to be doing orchestrally. We all have tricks of the trade that have been in play for awhile now.”

Putting those tricks to play when a film is clearly less than stellar provides its own challenge, although composers like Hiel give each assignment their best effort.

“I always score it straight and just try to pump it up,” said Hiel. “In SHARKTOPUS, for example, sometimes the monster was bigger than life, other times it looked more the size of a normal shark, so there were some size and spacial issues going on. But I didn’t score those scenes any differently – it’s just a big monster and he’s trying to attack. I just tried to make it as believable as possible. There’s a scene where Eric Roberts dies, and that whole scene takes forever. But I got a little chance to do my thing there, and I just scored it straight.”

Hiel recognizes the part that music can play in making even the lowest-budgeted movie expressive and involving, and especially in enhancing films of science fiction and fantasy.

“Music plays a huge role in helping the audience with their suspension of disbelief in these movies,” he said. “In ROCK MONSTER, it’s the big, fantastical music that really accentuates the whole storytelling aspect of the movie. There’s definitely more music in these films – I had something like seventy minutes of score in SHARKTOPUS; CYCLOPS was wall-to-wall. I think music plays a strong role in film in general, but it’s really going to accentuate science fiction and fantasy. It has to be carefully crafted, though. The wrong music, or cheap music, can lessen the whole experience.”

For more information on Tom Hiel, see:

Of Superheroes and Predators: John Debney Returns to Sci-Fi

predators iron man combo

Comedy has always been contrapuntal to chillers in John Debney’s career. The composer began in the early 1980s scoring Disney television and cartoon shows like SCOOBY-DOO and features such as JETSONS: THE MOVIE.  These lighthearted scores were offset against Debney’s darker side, which revealed itself in such venues as the relentless horror music of THE RELIC and KOMODO, the vividly swashbuckling CUTTHROAT ISLAND, and the cataclysmic speculation of END OF DAYS.

Now, after many years during which he focused on comedy films, along with the occasional profoundly heartfelt drama such as THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, Debney has returned to heavy action and adventure with his scores to IRON MAN 2 and PREDATORS, both of which allow his more energetic expressiveness to come to the fore.

Debney was actually was considered for the first IRON MAN, since he had established a working relationship with its director, Jon Favreau, on the films ELF and ZATHURA. Circumstances didn’t work out on the first IRON MAN, but Debney was thrilled to be called in for IRON MAN 2.

“It was a joy to be working with Jon Favreau again,” Debney said. “I knew going in that IRON MAN 2 was going to be a different scoren and it was. IRON MAN 2 is a more complex, layered film than the first one, so the music had to play a different role. There were also many more characters and the music had to highlight these new characters.”

Click to purchase
Click to purchase

Following the lead, if not the themes, of Ramin Djawadi on the first IRON MAN, Debney’s score thunders with iron and steel – bolstered by heavy metal guitars and a thick, orchestral vocabulary, while also recognizing the beating heart within the metal. Debney’s music becomes the sheet-plated, iron-wrought, clamped-on metallic suit that gives the movie its life, just as the galvanized garb keeps Tony Stark’s heart beating and endows him with enhanced strength.

“I enjoyed the first score but the second score had to be different, per the film. The two scores share a common pedigree but are generally different,” Debney said. “They are different scores with different results.”

What they share is a similar pedigree of rock and roll which is powerfully integrated – like sizzling molten metal dipped into a smooth liquid fluid – through the role of the electric guitar, which continues to evoke the prowess of Iron Man and his metal suite, as it had in Djawadi’s score. Guitarist Tom Morello, best known from the bands Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, came in to perform the shredding for IRON MAN 2’s soundtrack. The score integrates Morello’s electric guitars with Debney’s large-scaled orchestra and choir material to both evoke the characters and support the film’s action – while all the time leaving room for the AC/DC songs that were to be prominently displayed throughout the movie.

“Being a huge fan of Morello, I knew we had to work together on this film,” Debney said. “Jon is a friend of Tom’s and asked if I’d be interested in working with Tom. I, of course, said yes, and Tom was an absolute joy and wonderful collaborator. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.”

The main challenge for Debney on IRON MAN 2 was to compose a theme that captured the duality of the Tony Stark/Iron Man character while providing an original flavor in view of the many large-scaled superhero movies produced recently, each of which needed very dominant, muscular themes.

“IRON MAN 2 was odd in that there were not a lot of places where a true superhero theme could be played,” said Debney. “Tony Stark is uber cool even as Iron Man, so, musically, we couldn’t state a full-blown superhero theme. The strains of Iron Man’s theme are heard only in a few spots by design. I’m hoping with future films, Iron Man might get his full-blown theme played aggressively.”

Available for purchase August 1
Available for purchase on August 1

IRON MAN 2 was followed by an equally aggressive score for PREDATORS (2010). This sequel to the original 1987 PREDATOR used an array of instrumental flavors that includes Tibetan long horns, Shakuhachi flute, a battery of ethnic wooden and metal percussion, and a phalanx of specially-engineered synth sounds and voicings, providing textures of the truly alien and mechanical to this relentless battle music.

“The ethnic instruments create a tribal feel while the metallic sounding motifs represent the predators,” said Debney. “They are both alien yet tribal.”

Debney’s most important decision on this score was to include music from the first PREDATOR, integrating Alan Silvestri’s original conceptualizations and combining them with Debney’s own music to match director Nimród Antal’s  vision of the story. The result is a unique partnership of musical ideas spread 23 years apart, yet seamlessly integrated into the sound design as if they were the product of a single composer.

“I knew going in that I wanted to incorporate Alan’s themes for this film,” said Debney. “PREDATORS is a true sequel in my opinion, and thus, I thought it right that we included Alan’s material. I wanted to pay homage to Alan Silvestri’s original PREDATOR score, but I also wanted to add my signature. Alan is a friend, and I feel he is also a brilliant composer.”

Debney said that he enjoyed extrapolating musical elements from Silvestri’s score, and creating his own vision of what the music should sound like for this new incarnation of the story.

“I love scores from the ‘80s and I felt we had a score without the highly synthesized, overproduced scores we sometimes get these days,” he said. “So by design, I wanted to harken back to the days of big scores and much orchestral fireworks.”

In recent years, a man epic action/super-hero/spectacular science fiction films have tended to follow (or composers have been asked to follow) the hybrid rhythm-based example established earlier in the decade by the music of successful films of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the like. A composer even of Debney’s stature cannot help being mindful of this contemporary vogue even while seeking to proffer his own voice.

“There are a lot of truly unique scores out there and some that aren’t,” Debney said. “Of course for action movies, a film may be temp-scored with the type of score you describe. I like to listen to the temp for the emotion the director is trying to convey and, hopefully, write something that is unique. In the case of PREDATORS, I used an approach where I paid homage to Alan Silvestri’s original score as well as incorporated an original score.”

With nearly 140 film scores in thirty years, Debney has explored every genre and every style of music making, yet the fantastic genre continues to raise its growling head on his filmography almost every year.

“It is a joy to work on a wide variety of films,” he said. “If one does only one thing, it can get very stale. I love working in these non-comedic areas, as it is great to explore the darker side of my personality.”

Debney has gone on to add another action notch on the side of his baton with an iconic score for MACHETE, the feature film based on the faux trailer of the same name in the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaboration, GRINDHOUSE, with Danny Trejo as an ex-Federale known for his coat of many scabbards, seeking revenge against his former boss. Another turn for Rodriguez will follow next year with SIN CITY 2.

Thanks to Ray Costa and Andy Perez at Costa Communications – and to John Debney for taking time out of an increasingly busy schedule to chat with me about these scores.

The Score: Robert Carli on Survival of the Dead

Survival of the Dead (2009)

Joining the ranks of Italian prog rockers Goblin and film composers Norman Orenstein, Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek, John Harrison, and a battalion of library music composers whose work has accompanied the walking dead in their nights, dawns, days, lands, and diaries of the dead as brought to shambling life by George A. Romero, is Canadian Robert Carli. His music has become part of a horror film legacy that runs from 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to Romero’s sixth zombie epic, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, now in theaters, underscoring the definitive cinematic zombie myth that Romero has defined and perpetuated for over 40 years with his own definitive presence and a visceral aesthetic.

Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was compiled from library music in the vast holdings of Capitol Records – cues culled from compositions that had graced all manner of low-budget horror movies of the late ‘50s and early ’60s. DAWN OF THE DEAD would have gone the same way had not producer Dario Argento suggested Italian rock band Goblin, who had recently scored Argento’s SUSPIRIA; Romero mixed Goblin’s original music with his beloved library tracks. CREEPSHOW composer John Harrison proved the value of his original score on DAY OF THE DEAD, replacing many of the library tracks Romero had selected in favor of his electronic music. When Romero revisited his shuffling dead things in LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD, he’d become accustomed by then to fully original scores, and had these new films composed by Heil & Klimek (known for their work with Tom Tykwer on RUN, LOLA, RUN, etc) and Norman Orenstein (whose long history in B-moving scoring included sequel scores like AMERICAN PSYCHO 2 and STIR OF ECHOES 2: THE HOMECOMING), respectively.

Robert Carli IMG_0678Thus it came that Robert Carli was brought in to compose Romero’s latest flesh-munchers epic, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, which was filmed up in his territory, in and around Toronto, Canada. The producers had approached several composers and invited them to score three scenes as a demo. “The direction we were given is that George wanted an orchestral horror score, somewhat vague, but I think fitting for the exercise,” Carli recalled. He got the gig.

Since he began scoring films in 1999, Carli has composed some fifty film and television productions, including the popular Canadian detective series THE MURDOCH MYSTERIES. Carli studied at the University of Toronto, graduating with a degree in composition, after which he began performing as saxophonist with The Toronto Symphony, The National Ballet of Canada, and The Esprit Orchestra. He has toured with rock bands and jazz groups across North America and throughout Europe, and he teaches saxophone at the University of Toronto, while continuing to perform with classical and contemporary music ensembles.

Fueding families underly the tension in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
Fueding families underly the tension in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.

Carli worked closely with Romero and editor Michael Doherty on spotting SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD and determining the best placement of music. “My impressions were informed by some direction that George had given me in advance of the spotting,” Carli said. “He was interested in a traditional orchestral score, and Michael had suggested I employ various character themes and motives throughout the score. Also, there is a narrative arch in the film that touches on family (and its possible devolution), so I wanted to come up music that would somehow touch that.”

Early in the process Carli created a number of different themes and sonic textures which he pitched to George. These included a military theme, a “walking dead” theme, the island theme, a family theme etc. “I should note that I didn’t use ‘character themes’ so much,” Carli said. “Rather I used what you might call ‘situational’ themes. While George’s films often use rich characters, I believe that it is the environments and situations in which these characters are used that speak to his style of film making. For example, there are antagonists, but often they are a group of people, rather than an individual.”

Carli said that his biggest challenge in scoring SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD was simply a matter of time. “Like most films, it comes down to time,” he said. “I had very little time to complete the score, but I don’t really mind working in those parameters. It’s nice to have a looming deadline. Also, there was the challenge of trying to create a big orchestral score without a big orchestral budget.”

Survival of the Dead (2009)

The budget demanded few real instruments and most of the score was crafted out of synths and orchestral sampled worked out in the computer. Carli had offered suggestions to Romero about instrumentation to be used. “I wanted to feature the bassoon prominently in the family theme,” he said. “It has a wanton forlorn quality in the upper register that I thought could work. I also had sampled a number of ‘metal’ tools and pieces from a friend of mine who is a metal sculptor, and I thought they would add an interesting dimension to the score. Also, you can hear the saw from time to time in the score, which I’ve always loved and I tend to use a lot, since it can be simultaneously eerie and warm and melodic.”

Carli put together the music using orchestral samples, manipulated on the keyboard and mixed to sound convincingly realistic, sweetened with a handful of live musicians. “On SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, we used 3 or 4 fiddles, bassoon, clarinet, sax, bass clarinet, baritone sax, saw, soprano sax and piano as the live components,” Carli said. “I guess the secret is trying to get the fake instruments do what they do well, and get the real instruments to do what they do well. The next result can be a decent compromise in many cases.”

His experience among the living dead was favorable, and Carli enjoyed taking a journey into the further reaches of what horror music can accomplish. “I did score a psychological thriller called CORD (2000, aka HIDE AND SEEK) that starred Darryl Hanna and Vincent Gallo,” Carli recalled. “It was pretty dark. But generally, I haven’t scored too many thrillers. I loved doing SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, and I hope to do more.”

Carli enjoyed working with director George A. Romero.
Carli enjoyed working with director George A. Romero.

Carli also enjoyed his working rapport with legendary zombiemeister Romero. “It was a great opportunity to work with George,” he said. “It’s curious to meet such a warm and friendly person, and then look at the body of his work, which is anything but warm and friendly. A bit of a disconnect there, but I guess you can attribute that to the magic of film making; the reality on screen really is imagined, and not real at all.”

Carli is now currently scoring Cartoon Network’s first live-action series, UNNATURAL HISTORY (2010), produced by Warner Bros. This youth-oriented adventure series includes a number of fantasy and sci-fi permutations which will give Carli plenty of musical opportunities.


Brian Tyler’s Final Destination

Fourth in the franchise launched in 2000 by former X-FILES writers James Wong and Glen Morgan, THE FINAL DESTINATION (known during production as FINAL DESTINATION 4 and FINAL DESTINATION: DEATH TRIP) is the latest variation on the entertaining but formulaic story about a group of teens who seem to cheat death only to find that death has a way of collecting its due all the same.

The first three films were scored by maverick music maestro Shirley Walker, who provided their palpable musical propulsion. But Walker died in 2006 not long after FINAL DESTINATION 3. After some consideration, director David R. Ellis, who had also helmed FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003), asked Brian Tyler to take over for the fourth outing.

“I was brought on very early in the process by New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, and the director David Ellis,” said Tyler. “They were still filming the movie and called me from the set and asked me if I was interested. We talked about the concept even in that original conversation. We all wanted to respect the tradition of what Shirley had established but also bring its own flavor and grit to this particular film.”

Over the last dozen years, Brian Tyler has established an impressive reputation as a film composer. Emerging after a year of independent film scoring in 1998 with the quirky music to SIX STRING SAMURAI, Tyler gained acclaim for his work on Bill Paxton’s creepy psychological thriller, FRAILTY (2001) and was soon scoring increasingly notable and bigger films, many of which were squarely science fiction and horror offerings. His music to Don Coscarelli’s brilliantly comic commentary on aging and mummy attacks, BUBBA HO-TEP, embraced the almost surreal sense of humor with musical elements that were reflective of Elvis’ country-tinged pop without completely losing thenecessary dramatic edge. A similar swaggering sound was provided for Tommy Lee Wallace’s VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS (2002), a follow-up to JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES, enhancing its Latin locale with persuasively rhythmic accompaniment.

Tyler went on to score large-scaled science fiction productions such as CHILDREN OF DUNE for the Sci-Fi Channel, laid down some eloquence for the exploits of TV’s PAINKILLER JANE series for the same network, Michael Crichton’s TIMELINE (replacing his own icon, Jerry Goldsmith, whose score was ironically deemed unsuitable, after which Tyler provided his own variation of a Goldsmith score for the final release), and CONSTANTINE, requiring a last minute collaboration with Klaus Badelt to overlay some new material on top of Tyler’s finished score (which was, indeed, better than having it Goldsmithed out of the picture entirely). Tyler provided a spooky score for DARKNESS FALLS (2003), chilled the ominous portents of GODSEND (2004), and catapulted the horrific battles in ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007).

In THE FINAL DESTINATION Tyler was prepared to confront death’s scythe itself while musically supporting the action, fantasy, and brutal shocks with a potent mix of ambient atmospheres and progressive, driving propulsion, from the blistering rock and roll of the main theme to the omnipresent chills provided by somber, sustained string chords and relentless, percussive chase motifs.

“I thought there were some dueling aspects of the film that needed addressing,” said Tyler of his approach to the film’s various nuances. “There was the fate aspect of the film that feels supernatural. But of course the propulsive action of these premonition sequences needed musical muscle. It was a fine balance to be sure. And yes, horror was a large part of this score but in a way, not straight up horror since there is no visible killer. In fact, the main character of the film is never seen. Death himself! So it was up to me to provide the voice of death through the music.”

Tyler incorporating Shirley Walker’s main theme from the first three films, which was integrated as Tyler developed old with new to arrive at a musical dynamic that both reflected the legacy of the series while providing something different for this excursion, much as he did with the FAST AND THE FURIOUS series and 2008’s RAMBO.

“Shirley’s theme is still the most prominent aspect of the score,” Tyler said. “There were a few other themes that I composed for this film. One was an upward death motif that only needed a small statement to recognize something was very, very wrong in a scene and about to get worse. Also there is a new danger theme for the most evil moments in the film.”

In addition, Tyler wanted to provide a more emotional and natural theme for the struggles of one of the main characters with his past.

Scoring terror is something that has come naturally to Tyler after several excursions through horror cinema. A score like this needs to drive the roller coaster of scary shocks, nudging the viewer-listeners as they anticipate those drops and curves and, in some cases, flinging them headlong over the side of the rail. Multiple layers of spooky sonorities and progressive riffs of percussion-led synth and orchestral pads generate a fatalistic drive to the characters’ rush toward their inevitable Final Destination, building the anticipation and intensifying the payoffs, while also providing a gentle, breezy melody for the film’s gentler environment.

Recognizing that horror scores, in particular among all species of film music, are by nature manipulative – intensifying emotions, anticipating events about to occur on screen, generating heightened excitement in the viewer – Tyler purposefully geared his music to operate subtly with finesse, or ferociously with propulsion, as the storyline and visual style dictated.

“It’s so tricky!” Tyler confessed. “Sometimes the music would lead you down a path of ‘something is coming’ and sometimes it would lead you down the path of ‘everything is okay’ right before the movie hits you with a hard right to the jaw. It’s all about finding the right moment for the right tone. I just go by feel and try to remember how I felt when I see a scary film that really, really got me.”


The hybrid nature of contemporary film scores – the mix of synths with symphs – have become the norm for modern action films and horror thrillers and almost dictates how a composer will proceed, especially in a franchise like this, which largely depends on following successful formulas and meeting audience expectations. At the same time, composers like Tyler cannot help creatingsomething that strives to make a new or personal musical statement.

“The hybrid style is certainly present now,” agreed Tyler. “I think it depends on the feel of the film. There are films that I score that are purely orchestral of course, and I love their purity. But I always try to make hybrid scores natural. The non-orchestral elements mostly come from instruments that I record with a microphone. The more I can record live the happier I am!”

Tyler has recently been signed to score Sylvester Stallone’s Latin American mercenary action film, THE EXPENDABLES, set for release next August. He is also set to score George Gallo’s psychological thriller, COLUMBUS CIRCLE as well as the next big science fiction invasion thriller, BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, currently filming and planned for release in February, 2011.

For more information on Brian Tyler, see:


The Score: All This and Halloween II – Interview with composer Tyler Bates

In his last few scores, composer Tyler Bates has watched the WATCHMEN and observed THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, spent a DAY OF THE DEAD and survived DOOMSDAY, but as potent – and as diverse – as those scores were, it’s been his work for Rob Zombie that continue to be his edgiest, evincing the most severe sound design and the most potently frightening musical attitudes. Currently, this aggressive approach is audible in HALLOWEEN II, which opens nationwide today.

Bates first hooked up with the head-banging rocker-cum-director in 2005, when he scored Zombie’s second feature, The Devil’s Rejects, a follow-up to 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, which Zombie had scored himself along with producer Scott Humphrey. Bates’ had scored a little more than two dozen films since moving to Los Angeles from Chicago, where he had grown up writing, recording, and playing in local rock bands. Most of his soundtrack work was TV-movie fare, a couple of forgettable sci-fi- spoofs like Tammy and the T-Rex (1994) and Roger Corman’s Alien Avengers (1996), but when his powerful score for Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) came out of the blue like a furious, rampaging dead thing, Rod Zombie took notice. He brought Bates in to score Devil’s Rejects, asking for music that reflected “bleakness.” Bates provided just that, with an array of ambient sounds and layered sonic textures that gave the film a clear sense of malformed naturalness.

“I wanted it to feel like you were underneath a car muffler, because you feel so dirty when you watch the film, because of the visuals,” Bates said. “I wanted the music to reflect some of that.”

Bates continued to provide music macabre for movies malevolent, scoring Slither for James Gunn and See No Evil for Gregory Dark (both 2006), not to mention rejoining Zach Snyder for his epic incarnation of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006), and then found himself in Rod Zombie territory once again. First, he scored the Zombie-directed fake trailer, Werewolf Women of the SS, included in the Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature, Grindhouse, and then he scored Zombie’s pointed remake of John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 slasher film, Halloween.

In revisiting Halloween and its unique piano-and-synth score, which Carpenter had composed and performed himself for the original film (and many of its sequels, later assisted by synthesist Alan Howarth), Bates paid tribute to the original by arranging a version of the Carpenther theme in the darker aesthetic in which Zombie had crafted his remake.

“We would definitely respect John Carpenter’s original score,” Bates said as he was embarking on his score for Halloween. “I’m not really too interested of making it orchestral, but I would imagine you could expect a similar graininess to that of Devil’s Rejects, but a different timbre, ultimately. I create sounds for each movie, besides the few synths that I have. I like to make as many of the sounds from abstract sources as possible for each specific movie. We’ll see where it goes, but it’s definitely going to be kind of grimy and organic. I think that going back and trying to maybe [rework] it in a unique way that’s still within the same parameters John Carpenter had at the time are what makes that music work. He didn’t have all the bells and whistles available to him, and probably not all the skills of today’s film composers, so I think getting as much into that mindset is going to be necessary to make the music pay off, and give people the intense experience that they had when they saw first film.”

Bates’ music for Zombie’s Halloween, released in 2007, was a potent mix of organic and synthetic musical disturbia, effectively washing the film in an undertone of continual unease.

“It was difficult trying to adapt the classic John Carpenter themes into the context of Rob’s filmmaking style,” said Bates. “The nature of those classic themes works really well with an inhuman and sometimes robotic ‘bogeyman’ type character, but in Rob’s films Michael Myers is humanized, which calls for a broader musical palate than the design of the original film. I reworked John Carpenter’s classic theme for Rob’s initial presentation to the studio when he decided to do the first of the two movies, which came together pretty naturally, but when I actually began scoring to picture, the two did not coexist very naturally.”

Tyler Bates’s latest score finds him joining forces with both Rob Zombie and Michael Myers again, on the director’s re-imagining of Halloween II. The film picks up where Zombie’s Halloween left off, and focuses on the struggles of Laurie Strode (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) and killer Michael Myers (played by Tyler Mane). Bates’ score gives due cognizance to the classic John Carpenter theme from the original film, but quickly dispenses with it and delves headlong into even darker and very distressing musical landscapes.

“In the new film we decided to do more of our own thing instead of being reliant on the classic themes as much as the first film. This enabled me to really expand the sonic and melodic scope of the film. I think the end result is a movie that really feels like a Rob Zombie film through and through.”

The new score is thick with dissonance and disharmony, occupying a territory of unusual percussive electronic effects, heavy chords of synth and horn, and multiple processed effects that wash the film in nightmarish tonality that is thoroughly disquieting.

“Like each of my projects, I try to expand the sonic palate on each of Rob’s films,” said Bates. “In this case, my primary goal was to create new ways of sonically unsettling an audience. I approached this score with the knowledge that we would be more reliant on original motifs as opposed to the classic Halloween themes, so it freed me up melodically, and also provided the opportunity to implement different rhythms that aren’t particularly characteristic of the classic themes we all associate with Michael Myers.”

The Halloween II score is viciously bleak, with barely a respite existing within its omnipresent relentlessness. Bates characterized Michael Myers and his unstoppable presence through that aggressive, driving ruthlessness.

“Rob really wanted to imbue this movie with an underlying emotional current,” he said. “There is quite of bit of ‘head space’ music in this film, which is where the emphasis on emotion is most apparent.”

In working with Rob Zombie on this film, Bates was brought in earlier than usual and actually began scoring immediately when footage was available during filming.

“Rob and I had a lengthy discussion about the movie before production began,” said Bates. “The music process started with working up the new version of ‘Love Hurts,’ which is in the end credits crawl. It served as an inspiration piece for Rob. The editor Glenn Garland, sent cut footage to me during principal photography, and I wrote music for every scene that came my way.”

By the time Rob was done filming, the new music served as the temp score for the entire film, said Bates.

“From there, Rob experimented with placing various cues in different spots of the film, then sending me a new cut of the movie to show me exactly how the music worked in the context of scenes I had not scene to that point. This was an unusual process for us, but Rob wanted to edit the film on the east coast for a change of scenery. I continued to work on music as the film took shape, then Rob and I finally got together to finalize the cues in the film.”

In crafting his sound design, Bates has put together an interesting array of textures, sound fragments, percussive tonalities (indeed), and grating sonic intensity. The score is completely captivating in its method of crafting scary music and upping the ante of fear in the film.

“The most challenging aspect for me is to do better than the last one,” said Bates. “I don’t think that is a challenge necessary to overcome. Some degree of dissatisfaction with your previous projects is a healthy motivational tool for doing your best work.”

Halloween II soundtrack by Tyler Bates
Unlike the Hip-O records soundtrack CD currently for sale, the digitally distributed Abattoir album (above) consists entirely of music by Tyler Bates

Bates’ first Halloween score was never released as a soundtrack album (two cues, including his reworking of the Carpenter theme, were included on the Hip-O records soundtrack album). The currently available soundtrack CDs for Halloween II feature only one cut by Bates (the rest of the tracks being pre-existing songs); fortunately, an entire album of his music marks the debut of his new label imprint, Abattoir Recordings, which is digitally distributed by E1 Music. A physical CD release with previously unreleased music will follow later with the DVD release of the film.


The Score: Scott Glasgow Enters The Gene Generation

Composer Scott Glasgow with GENE GENERATION director Tao Perry
Composer Scott Glasgow with GENE GENERATION director Tao Perry

Pearry Teo’s 2008 cyberpunk science fiction thriller, THE GENE GENERATION,  builds an effective futuristic environment, borrowing liberally from BLADE RUNNER, MAD MAX, and other cinematic cyberpunk landmarks, while creating its own unique post-modern landscape. The film is greatly aided by an excellent musical score from award winning composer Scott Glasgow, which provides a great sense of size and scope and expansiveness through massive chords of orchestra and choir, offset with ethnic instruments and vocalizations associated with Bai Ling’s character. The music also emphasizes the underlying intimacy and emotional attachment sought by the characters, especially the pathos embodied in Bai Ling’s Michelle.

Scott Glasgow came to Hollywood in 2001 after having earned his Masters degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He’d been awarded an ASCAP fellowship to study film scoring at the Aspen Music Festival with John Corigliano and recorded with David Zinman’s Conducting Orchestra.

“When I was young I was watching BACK TO THE FUTURE and STAR WARS and all of these great movies, and the scores to those films really inspired me,” Glasgow said, describing his journey into professional film scoring. “I was into classical music very early on, and I think there just was a connection that was made through those two things.”

Since his arrival in Hollywood, Scott began working as an assistant for such composers as Christopher Young, Ed Shearmur, Bruce Broughton, Elia Cmiral, and others, lending a hand on the scores for THE GRUDGE, SPIDER-MAN 2, SKELETON KEY, WRONG TURN, and the like. These experiences were a perfect training ground to refine his skills in the business of making movie music.

“There are so many subtle things that you learn in those environments,” he said. “It’s learning the process in a way that you can’t really get from a book or from a classroom. There are so many little things that you pick up by just being in the room and feeling the interaction between composer and director and just seeing how it works.”

bratislava_orch_backSince 2005 Glasgow steadily increased his exposure and reputation as a film composer in his own right. His first feature score was CHASING GHOSTS, a crime thriller for director Kyle Jackson, for whom he had scored a short film while at USC. The opportunity to use a live orchestra, rather than synth samples, was also a great experience for a young film composer.

“CHASING GHOSTS was a great first time experience,” Glasgow remarked. “We ended up going to Bratislava to record about 35 or 40 strings. I think it is some of my best music so far.”

The next film to come his way was ROBOTECH: THE SHADOW CHRONICLES, a big-screen animated feature based on the Japanese television series that had become popular on American TV during the 1980s.

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“ROBOTECH is a very dense universe with a lot of characters and themes, so I thought a leitmotif type score would really fit this film,” said Glasgow. “It was something that was brought up because of how well it worked in STAR WARS.”

The music for Harmony Gold’s original anime TV series, composed by Italian composer Ulpio Minucci, was not a heavily motivic score; however, Glasgow was asked to include Minucci’s main theme in his music for the feature film.

“There was a time when I rewrote the title with different chords and counterpoint, but the night before the recording session I thought, ‘Forget it! I’m going back to Minucci’s exact notes!’” Glasgow recalled. “I took out his score, copied it out exactly and reorchestrated it for large orchestra, and pulled my changes out. I knew it was one of those things that needed to be as close as possible with some small updates.”

By having specific musical themes associated with specific characters, the score helped keep track of them and their interactions as the story played out.

“Occasionally I’ll bring a character’s theme in who’s not even on the screen yet, but he might be coming up, or there’s some sort of allusion to that person,” Glasgow explained. “There are themes that are not related to a specific character, such as the ‘Hero’s Theme’ that pops up throughout the film. Generally, however, the use of a particular theme is dictated by what is on the screen and that’s what makes the score so integrated with the film.”

Like CHASING GHOSTS, ROBOTECH was an orchestral score, recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. “We went for a lot of the big, classical orchestra sound,” said Glasgow. “There’s a lot of STAR WARS influence; there’s some Holst’s Planets type stuff; there’s a Honegger Symphony No. 3 flavor in there; there’s a Wagner kind of section in there. There’s all kinds of things that influenced this score – but all in my own voice.”

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Glasgow reunited with Kyle Jackson in 2007, when Jackson, who was editing HACK!, a horror comedy directed by Matt Flynn in 2007, suggested Glasgow as composer. Glasgow wrote and conducted a large orchestral score, playing straight man to the film’s multiple parodies.

“The film has THE SHINING and JAWS and THE RING, and so each time I came to those scenes, it was pretty much dictated that this is the music that was gonna be written for that scene” said Glasgow. “The story just weaves in and out between all these film parodies. I still tried to make it my own flavor, though – for example, on the JAWS theme, I just inverted the JAWS theme we are all familiar with.”

The opportunity to conduct a fairly large sized orchestra – still a luxury for an independent film like this – made the experience particularly satisfying for the composer.

“I think HACK! is the only score of mine that was fully realized the way I intended it, and it was mostly recorded live,” he said. “On many of these films, I’m writing orchestral music but we don’t actually get an orchestra to record it, or we get a partial orchestra. On HACK! we went to Europe and recorded the orchestra like it’s supposed to be done, and that’s what came out. In some ways I think it’s one of my best sounding scores I’ve written – it breathes really well.”

Glasgow provided an exceptionally unique score for BONE DRY, first-time director Brett A. Hart’s road thriller about a traveler (Luke Goss) confronted and pursued across the desert by an aberrant gunman (Lance Henriksen). The score broods with wicked intentions and cruel apprehension, its percussive undercurrents echoing throughout the dry, windless landscape of desert desolation. To give the score an authentic, if subliminal, aspect of the desert, Glasgow used the sounds of a plucked cactus as an instrumental color in the score. He recorded various spinal plucks from a barrel cactus he’d bought and brought into his recording studio, then mapped out the sounds to his keyboard.

“I had some that were just plunks, and some that were tuned like a piano, ultimately I had a cactus piano, if you will,” Glasgow said. “I added a delay to it and processed it a little bit. Another sound I created for that score was the use of these rebound knives, as I call them. I literally went into my kitchen, took out every knife I had (even an old 4 foot broad sword), then held them on the edge of my kitchen counter and flicked them so they rebound off the edge of the counter. If you pull the knife in as it’s rebounding, it speeds up, or if you pull the knife out, it slows down. So I created all these kind of crazy sound effects and combined them in the score, and it just worked really well with the desert scenes.”

The sounds, scrapes, brushes, and other manipulata cactile and boinging knife-ends in the BONE DRY score are enhanced by heartbeats, bass drums, and a recurring stinger crafted out of piano harmonics with the piano strings held by a finger to change the sound when the key is struck. The score finds its center in this sonic texture and derives much of its power from the depth of that grain. At one point, the atmospheric music takes on an unassuming tonal cadence until it metamorphoses into brittle and bony atonal textures, slamming percussion, and distorted sonic abrasions, the music continuing to juxtapose the protagonist’s confidence in being able to escape the stranger, and his seeming inability to do so.

The score concludes with an amazing 20-minute orchestral musical sequence performed by the 50-piece Filmharmonic Orchestra of Prague. These stirring climactic movements eschew the score’s previous hybrid texture and in a profound way evoke the bare essence of the film’s emotional human drama via the pure power of the symphony orchestra, performing not melodies but, like the earlier portion of the score, chord progressions and continuous layers of tonality and rhythm. As all forms of temperament and tactics and time and generation are worn away and the final confrontation between the two characters erodes down to a basic human struggle, climaxing with a significant plot revelation, Glasgow brings the score full circle back to the essential tonalities of its opening movement.

The ubiquitous sonic textures of the caryophyllales cactaceae throughout the score provide an organic sensation that worked subliminally to great effect, especially in contrast with the massive harmonic epiphany that blossoms during the film’s climax.

“There was no money for an orchestra,” said Glasgow. “I talked to Brett and said, ‘If I do this with samples it’s just not going to connect. We need to find the money to get these fifteen minutes recorded, because it’s going to have so much more power and contrast.’ That ending, with Lance and that whole reveal, is such a good turn around, and I’m glad that they trusted me and found the money to do it. It made a huge difference.”

From orchestral cacti to strands of DNA helix, Glasgow’s score for THE GENE GENERATION is equally vividly textured and sonically interesting. Glasgow said he had heard about the film and contacted director Pearry Teo via his MySpace page to ask if he had a composer on the film yet. It turned out that he did, an electronic artist from a German band called VNV Nation.

“But that composer had never done a score in the traditional sense before,” said Glasgow. “The producers suddenly started talking about me, and that maybe they should get a film composer to score the film.” It didn’t hurt that the director was a huge anime fan and the concept of having the ROBOTECH movie composer score his film was very enticing.

Bai Ling
Bai Ling

Bai Ling holds THE GENE GENERATION together as the leather-clad assassin in a future age when DNA is sold – and hacked – to forge and steal identities, leaving the former person lifeless and mutated. Because of the Asian ethnicity that runs throughout the film, not to mention with Bai Ling’s character, Glasgow was initially drawn to the erhu, a Chinese violin that has a uniquely vocalistic tonality, and has flavored numerous recent Hollywood film scores from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END and KUNG-FU PANDA to THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM and STAR TREK. But Glasgow wound up using a related instrument called a zhonghu instead, which has more of a reedier, cello like sound.

Glasgow initially conceived of combining a number of ethnic instruments into an integrated, broad orchestral depth, but as he developed his ideas, he also started to whittle the sound down. Ideas for incorporating pipa, a Chinese guitar, or guzheng, a Chinese koto, were considered and discarded.

“All that plucky, guitary stuff just never felt right with the film,” he said. “There are a few samples I did incorporate, but they just provide a flavor without being a featured player. I knew the zhonghu was going to be the main thing, along with the viola da gamba. The Bai Ling character was associated with the zhonghu and the Alex Newman character was going to be the viola da gamba. Granted they’re both low cello type sounds, but they’re different enough that I thought it would work. Ultimately I downplayed Alex’s theme; it wasn’t built up the way I had intended.”

An orchestral crescendo accompanies the film’s conclusion, over an enormous tracking pull-back that reveals for the first time the future world’s particular environment and gives the story a strikingly different twist. Glasgow provided a suitable largess and dynamic scope to these moments.

“For these enormous cityscape scenes, I knew I had to create this giant, gothic choir and orchestra sound,” Glasgow said. “There had been talk early on about doing a BLADE RUNNER type thing and going completely synths, along with the erhu. But I don’t think that works now as much. It works for Vangelis; he’s got a specific thing he does, but when I forayed into it, it just wasn’t working, so I did my hybrid version instead.”

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Another striking aspect of the GENE GENERATION score is the use of voicings as a textural element within the musical sound. Glasgow turned again to his friend Melissa Kaplan, a vocalist formerly with the American pop band Splashdown. Glasgow has featured her voice in numerous scores since ROBOTECH, often inserting just a moment of two of her as a sonic coloration, as he did in BONE DRY and in Alan Pao’s 2008 psychological thriller, TOXIC, to embellish the sound with her intriguing and affecting tonal harmony.

“I treat her voice like an instrument,” he said. “It’s a color, and with Melissa and the way that she does what she does, I don’t really dictate too much to her. I’ll give her kind of a guideline and let her change it. On THE GENE GENERATION, I created a melody and gave her the chords that she would be singing over, but then she created the other harmonies underneath it. She brings so much to the music.”

Most recently Glasgow has had some opportunities to compose music for comedies – things like PATRIOTVILLE and HOLLYWOOD AND WINE – and gritty dramas like BRIDGE TO NOWHERE, but his proclivity toward scoring horror and fantasy seem to keep him from venturing too far away from these genres. His recent score for Travis Betz’ LO, for example, was, like HACK!, a horror comedy. But it wasn’t a specific parody the way HACK! was; rather a dark and quirky drama with comedic elements.

“With LO, you’re in a quirky Danny Elfman zone; it’s not exactly scary but it’s not exactly funny, either. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek,” said Glasgow. “I did some unique things musically with this score. If you bend a nylon guitar string over the other string it creates this buzz tone, it almost sounds like a percussion instrument. It only works on classical guitar and it was just that kind of strange, unique color I needed for this score. I also had this metal bar that was struck then immediately dipped into water to raise and lower the pitch.”

loIn many ways, LO may be Glasgow’s oddest film score.

“It was a difficult movie to score, because there were no sets, just black backgrounds with one guy in the middle of a pentagram with an overhead light on him. It is a very interesting and strange little film. Musically, I took it more seriously, and there are these wonderful violin solos by Mark Robertson. We did a variation on Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre that was used under these ‘cafe’’ scenes. It’s fun stuff.”

Scott Glasgow hopes to continue to write orchestral film scores, although he recognizes that independent film budgets don’t often achieve numbers high enough to warrant an actual orchestra.

“The challenge is always the budget,” he said. “When I write an orchestral piece I want it to be played by an orchestra, not by samples. More and more each day it gets closer and closer to the point where a live orchestra is becoming less and less of a reality, except for the top ten percent. I’d like to be able to move into doing bigger features where the budgets get a little better. But I know, because I was working for those guys that were working on those big films, even at the top it can be a challenge.”

Chanbara Beauty & Chanbara Beauty: Vortex – A Saga of Sword and Skin

A look at a lovely pair of import DVDs from Japan

onechanbaraCHANBARA BEAUTY (Onechanbara, Japan, 2008) is geek paradise: two gorgeous babes and a fat dude wander around the countryside killing zombies. One is a gorgeous sharpshooter who never misses. The other is a samurai in Western hat and serape – and little else save for a fuzzy bikini; she is the title Chanbara Beauty (the term chanbara in Japanese refers to sword-fighting movies; the term beauty refers very accurately to the lead character).

There’s little story save for a predictable and familiar situation in which two rival sisters seek vengeance and/or reconciliation upon one another. The night-time photography is pretty murky and the budget is miniscule, but the film has some cool fighting and gunplay scenes against hordes of zombies, and the final confrontation between sisters Aya (Eri Otoguro) and Saki (Chise Nakamura) is pretty good. For a low-budget exploiter, the story is effective enough, actually. And of course Aya’s appearance and meager dress is enough to keep most male viewers glued to the screen for a long, long time.

Written and directed by Fukada Yohei and based on a popular video game, CHANBARA BEAUTY avoids the overly campy drivel storyline and acting of Takafumi Nagamine’s KEKKO KAMEN series (2004), which also hangs its effectiveness on its heroine’s lack of clothing, but Aya’s bikiniwear is much more alluring that Kakko’s mask and sash, and CHANBARA BEAUTY’s story and performances much less moronic and camp. It’s kind of a mixture of Leone and Miike and Romero and Tarantino without their budget or wit; it’s an entertaining and likeable samurai-bikini-zombie-killing movie that plays out rather well.

onechanbara-vortex2CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VORTEX (Japan, 2009) – the inevitable direct-to-DVD sequel – still has the primary draws of the former film (lots of zombies and swordplay, samurai babe wearing fuzzy bikini aided by younger samurai babe in school girl outfit) but lacks entirely the luster and interest of the first film.

A serviceable new cast takes over the pivotal roles: model Yuu Tehima assumes the title role of Aya; Kumi Imura takes over as her equally sword-capable sister Saki; Akari Ozara is Reiko, whose shotgun virtuosity isn’t given as much time as in the first time; also, model Kawamura Rika is Himiko, set up as the new villain of the piece.

The film starts out promising enough as Aya and Saki dispense with random bands of zombies in flowery spurts of crimson; but then it dispenses with everything that made the first one intriguing (besides its heroine). The amiable fat guy sidekick is gone. Aya and Saki have no strategy in their fighting of the zombies; they just walk into a gang and start flailing swords and spraying geysers of blood. Reiko is diverted to a subplot with a male swordfighter eventually joining up with Aya for some plutonic zombie killing and to rescue a young girl whose blood has the power to control the zombies or something; she is captured by a Countess Dracula type babe (Kawamura), who initially is a kind of partner to Aya and Saki but then becomes the villain when she reverts to her true age and needs the young girl’s blood to restore her youth.

It all comes to a head in a kind of zombie mosh pit inside a warehouse where Saki and Aya’s new guy friend slice and dice the crowds while Aya and Himiko battle it out in a murky conflict whose pacing is slowed by an overabundance of recurring slo-mo, superimposed blood marks riding up the villain’s skin like a revolving barber pole (signifying her infusion of blood), and other stylistic effects that detract from the action and vitality of the sword fight, rendering the action insignificant and reducing the massed zombies to arm-waving bystanders.

The first CHANBARA BEAUTY was inventive, fun, and fairly alluring, it also maintained a kind of post-apocalyptic situational awareness and a sense of emotional connection between characters, while a serviceable synth/sampled score accentuated its drama. CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VOTEX is claustrophobically restrained to small sets and set-pieces; characters rarely communicate; an over-use of showy stylism is counterproductive to its pacing; a heavy rock/metal droning film score proffers zero dramatic intensity to its lengthy final fight scene, and there is a murky resolution to its very austere storyline.

CHANBARA BEAUTY and CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VORTEXT are currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD; they are available on Region 2 imports from Japan.

Eri Otoguro as Aya in CHANBARA BEAUTY

CHANBARA BEAUTY (2008). Directed by Yohei Fukuda. Screenplay by Yohei Fukuda, Yasutoshi Murakawa. Cast: Eri Otoguro, Tomohiro Waki, Taro Suwa, Manami Hashimoto, Chise Nakamura, Ai Hazuki.

CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VORTEX (2009). Directed by Shouji Atsushi. Written by Fukushima Yoshiki. Cast: Chika Arakawa, Kumi Imura, Rika Kawamura, Akira Ozawa, Yu Tejima, Hoshina Youhei.

The Fantastique Film Music of Simon Boswell

Boswell provided music for HARDWARE (1989)
Boswell provided music for HARDWARE (1989)

British composer Simon Boswell has scored films that span a myriad of genres and styles, but it is his work for horror and fantasy cinema that stands out: the mid ‘80s giallo films of Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, Clive Barker’s masterful horror film, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, the chilling atonality of INCUBUS, the hybrid cyberpunk riffings of HACKERS and HARDWARE, the epic melodic orchestrations for the 2007 TV miniseries, TIN MAN. In addition, he has scored films for Danny Boyle, Alejandro Jodorowski, Álex de la Iglesia, Tim Roth, and others.

Boswell was born in London in 1956 and started out in rock music, achieving success in the 1970’s power pop band Advertising. Known for combining electronic elements with orchestral instruments, Boswell’s music has ranged in style and tone since the mid 1980s. With more than 90 film and television scores to his credit over the last twenty-five years, Boswell has dabbled in every genre and every timbre.

Boswell grew up attached to a piano keyboard. At the age of 8, inspired by a BBC Radio program about Mozart, Boswell wrote a theme and variations to it in the styles of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, and Rachmaninov. When he was 12, he learned the guitar after being mesmerized by a television broadcast of Jimi Hendrix. Sharing the two mistresses of classical piano and rock guitar, Boswell spent several young years in bands before becoming a record producer. That brought him to Italy during the early 1980s, where he met horror director Dario Argento.

Phenomena (1985)“Dario had seen me play in a club in Rome while I was touring with my band Live Wire, and he asked me if I would contribute to his film PHENOMENA,” said Boswell. “He suggested that I work with two of the musicians from Goblin, Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli, on this film. I think he was trying to branch out a bit musically at this point in time.”

The collaboration didn’t go as smoothly as expected; after years of breaking up and getting back together, the two remaining Goblin musicians were barely open to working with each other, let alone with an outsider. The final soundtrack was a patchwork affair, padded out with songs from Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and an instrumental track by former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman.

“We decided to split into separate studios to accomplish the score,” Boswell explained. “I contributed about three themes, plus two rock songs.”

With this, Boswell’s first attempt at film music, he created a collage of what he described as “unlistenable sounds” – feedback guitar, violin harmonics, the scrape of a plectrum down the strings of his Stratocaster, and wailing and moaning voices.

“When Dario first sat down and listened to it, the aural equivalent of running your fingernails down a blackboard, he pronounced it: ‘Beautiful!’ I can’t tell you how many avenues opened up in my head at that point in time!”

Working on PHENOMENON (1985) was a huge learning experience for Boswell. Since he’d had no previous experience in films, he had no idea how to actually write a film score.

“When I feel I’m being manipulated, brazenly, by something really obvious, I cringe,” Boswell said. “Being moved by something powerful, emotional, and original is something else. Sadly, this has excluded me from working very much in Hollywood! I was always inspired by the ending of ‘A Day in the Life,’ by The Beatles and have made it my business to orchestrate some of that kind of chaos into my scores.”

After his valuable experience on PHENOMENON with Argento, Boswell scored DEMONS 2 (1986) for Lamberto Bava, son of Italian horror icon, Mario Bava.

“Lamberto gave me complete freedom to write whatever I liked for his films,” said Boswell, who scored these films electronically in England. “I would go to Rome for a couple of days and sit in the editing suite and go through the film, then take a VHS back to UK where I would compose and perform the whole thing on my own in a bedroom in Clapham, London. Sometimes I would take the music back to Rome and supervise synchronizing it on the movieola. There was very little communication.”

Boswell’s music from DEMONS 2 wound up being recycled in Bava’s THE OGRE (La Casa Dell’Orco, 1988) and BLACK SUNDAY (La Maschera Del Demonic, 1989), which were misleadingly titled in some territories to suggest they were DEMONS  sequels, and he wrote or had music in a number of other Bava movies, including GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE (1987), DELIRIUM (1987), and DINNER WITH A VAMPIRE (1988).

“My main recollection is that Lamberto made four films in one summer using the same set – so I can be forgiven for confusing some of them! There’s a rock song on the opening titles of GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE which I wrote called ‘Imagination.’ This song has never been released but has been used in at least 8 movies –on the radio, in the background in a café, etc. I’m still fond of that track.”

After the first five or six Italian films, Boswell would get phone calls from filmmakers he had never met asking, “We’re making a film. Can you write a tension theme? Make it five minutes long. And an action theme – make it five minutes long. And a love theme – ditto.”

Boswell would send this music to people he had never met for movies he has never seen. “One month a horror film, the next a RAMBO rip-off – then a romantic comedy followed by a Kung Fu movie,” said Boswell. “Amazing training for a composer! On average, it took about four weeks to deliver the finished score. On one occasion I was asked to do a whole film in three days! Sometimes I would take the music out to Rome and I have watched editors put it against picture and when it stopped working for them, they would cut to another piece! It had the effect of propelling the viewer through the movie with very broad strokes, like a Picasso painting.”

These Italian horror/giallo films afforded Boswell the opportunity to experiment, musically, just at the time when developments of early synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers were at the same time revolutionizing electronic music and affording new means to make music for films.

“These were the basis of those early scores,” Boswell said. “I pretty much lived in a musical vacuum, but I became interested in producing slowly changing ambient sounds – and also what is, to modern ears, very mechanical, sequenced music.”

Boswell considers the finest film he’s been involved with to be 1989’s SANTA SANGRE (“Holy Blood”), a surrealist fantasy thriller for director Alejandro Jodorowski (EL TOPO), which was was produced by Dario Argento’s brother, Claudio.

“There is a scene where one of the characters has her arms cut off,” Boswell recalled. “I asked Alejandro if he would like this to be a violent piece of music. He said: ‘No! It must be wonderful! Heavenly!’ It was Alejandro who taught me that you can write beautiful music for violent images and, in so doing, establish a resonance between what you see and what you hear. This can give great depth.”

Over his career, Boswell has maintained an ongoing collaboration with director Richard Stanley, a specialist in short films, whose features included the 1990 TERMINATOR-like science fiction thriller, HARDWARE.

“Richard is such an undiscovered genius,” said Boswell. “I’ve written music for everything Richard has done. In HARDWARE we wanted to create an atmosphere for a post-apocalyptic world that was hi-tech but infused with the dirty reality of life stripped of its comforts. I came up with the idea of combining Paris Texas-esque slide guitar with electronic ambience and Stravinsky-ish orchestral madness.”

One of Boswell’s most pervasive scores was for the 1995 horror film, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, written and directed by Clive Barker.

“Clive wanted to make the hero a Philip Marlowe type cop immersed in a world of bizarre horror,” Boswell explained. “So the score is a mixture of cool sax and atonal nastiness.”

Apart from Boswell’s noir-ish saxophone melody for the detective, he concocted all manner of intriguing sound textures, furious surging orchestral measures, and frighteningly strange sounds that gave the film an especially evocative and spooky atmosphere.

“Much of the score consisted of atonal clusters and disturbing textures,” said Boswell. “Orchestrator William Kidd and I worked up some deliberately unplayable sketches for the orchestra in Seattle. We wanted to record the chaos of musicians slowly realizing that their parts were technically impossible. Much amusement was had by all!”

In addition to Boswell’s hybrid score, Barker had asked Greek performance artist Diamanda Galas to provide a song for the soundtrack, and Boswell asked her for some additional vocal weirdness, which she was pleased to provide. “This was woven into the orchestral score,” said Boswell.

Boswell’s score to 2006’s INCUBUS provided a very interesting and spooky assemblage of windy synth tonalities, atonal shuffling, and eerie voicings, which gives Tara Reid’s interminable flashlight-lit wanderings through the dark cavernous hallways a very frightening ambience. It’s a kind of “sound mass” atmosphere, yet Boswell keeps it musical, coherent, and interesting.

“It’s very vagueness allows the audience their own interpretation and it gives the impression of hanging in space, being cut adrift from regular time signatures or pitch,” Boswell said. “So there’s no comfort in it. Ambient sounds fascinate me but I always make sure that there’s some musical element or repetition in there that distinguishes it from pure sound design and in which the listener can take some refuge – or be manipulated by the expectation of something which doesn’t always happen when they think it will. To make the score to INCUBUS, I just experimented with some of the weirder sounds I had collected over the years.”

Boswell’s latest broad fantasy score was for TIN MAN, a two-part Sci-Fi channel miniseries from 2007. The film was a vibrant re-imagining of L. Frank Baum, offering an alternate telling of The Wizard of Oz in which we follow a girl named DG (Zooey Deschanel) into the world of Oz some 500 years after Dorothy’s original visit, and for it Boswell has provided one of his most vivid and expressive scores.

“I was instructed that I could not go within a million miles of any of the music from the original film,” Boswell said. “The music ranges from epic sci-fi to grand, sweeping romantic themes, with a lot of fantasy and tension in between.”

Boswell created a sweeping, bold melody for French horn and other brasses with a flourishing countermelody from violins and a constantly chugging rhythm to evoke Central City, the metropolis that is at the heart of the Outer Zone (OZ). Boswell’s theme is energetic and melodically very interesting, yet fraught with danger. When a storm whisks DG away from her small town home and into the clutches of OZ, Boswell’s Central City Theme blisters for full orchestra amidst a progressive, windblown cadence of choir and rolling percussion.

In contrast to this motif, Boswell’s “Theme from Tin Man” is a yearning melody for strings, captivating in its tangible sense of desire; the music is intensely and emotively romantic, and an effective contrast to the film’s fairly predominant darkness. These two themes form the score’s central core, while other motifs appear during the characters’ journey and set their own statement upon the score’s own progressive journey, from haunting chorale motifs to a mesmerizing musical calligraphy of swirling synths and echoing tonalities, vaporous, reverbed flutes and synths, and rustling percussions.

“When they mixed the movie, my own slight irritation is that they took one particular piece of the main theme and stuck it everywhere,” said Boswell. “This is the fate for many composers. We are not in control of the final outcome and pieces written for different scenes are often transposed to other places. In this instance it made it appear that I had run out of ideas. But it’s a minor quibble and I’m generally very pleased with the thing. Rich Walters, the music editor did a phenomenal job!”

Simon Boswell [Photo: Bryan Adams]
Simon Boswell - Photo: Bryan Adams
While Boswell has scored many different types of films over the two dozen years he has been active in film scoring, he seems to have especially demonstrated an affinity for fantasy-horror films. It’s a genre he enjoys and finds numerous opportunities for musical invention.

“Clearly I have a dark side and find it easy to express this in ever changing ways, so perhaps my excursions into horror were not pure coincidence,” Boswell said. “Fantasy films allow you to be more experimental. I get bored doing the same thing over and over and relish new territory. But being versatile is clearly a disadvantage in the film world. People want to hire ‘that horror guy’ or ‘that action guy.’”

Fortunately, Boswell has done enough in many different genres to keep from being pigeonholed. He is currently looking forward to reuniting with director Richard Stanley on the latter’s new feature, currently in pre-production, a post-apocalypic science fiction thriller called VACATION.