“Scoring Horror” Interviews THEO GREEN

SCORING HORROR:
Theo GreenTalks About HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET
By Barry Lee Dejasu

Film composer Theo Green

“Films that play effectively on fears are a fascinating, frightening experience,” says composer, Theo Green.  No stranger to horror and other genres in film, Mr. Green’s resume includes DREAD (2000), PROWL (2010), and a previous collaboration with HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET’s director, Mark Tonderai, 2008’s HUSH.

“Audiences get these very real physical reactions from the tension, shocks and fear when watching movies like that.  More so than they do on a rollercoaster where they really are being physically thrown about. And the music has the instant ability to connect a viewer emotionally to a scene or a character, which is a part of producing those reactions. So that’s a big appeal, to be able to connect to an audience in such a visceral way.

When asked to talk about his experiences and thoughts in scoring this film, Mr. Green graciously obliged—but was wary of divulging certain aspects of the film’s plot.  “It’s the kind of film where one accidental answer might spoil the plot for everyone,” he said, “so I’ll try not to do that.”

Alright then, so how does the film end?
Nice try! It definitely doesn’t end with an alien invasion… or a zombie shootout.

What is it about the horror genre that you are drawn to?
Well, I love all kinds of movies and genres, but most of all I love it when films have the power to truly shock—I don’t mean jumps and scares, but deep emotional shocks that take days of thought to fully process. I think that can be a healthy, cathartic thing.

I’ve always been in awe of 70s films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), Italian Giallo films, and also oddities like THE WICKER MAN (1973), since way back when I was too young really! Maybe for that reason it’s hard to find films that have much surprise for me anymore. The scenes and ideas that get me most scared these days are often not in genre horror films.

Hard to think of a perfect example. But… you know the scene with the guy having what appears to be a sudden stroke behind the Twinkies cafe in David Lynch’s film MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)?  Well, the whole movie is soul-chilling, but that moment—with its context in this limbo world somewhere between sanity and insanity—uses the sound design and score to give you a virtual heart attack, and it shakes most people up pretty badly! In a horror film that scene probably wouldn’t have that strong effect on me. And it’s the same musically: small doses of various things you weren’t expecting can go a lot further towards scaring people than shrieking, pounding noise throughout.

So I relish the surprise of those moments of horror in films that are not totally in the genre. And I love it when a film you thought was going a certain way suddenly twists and goes in a new, darker direction, explaining the questions you have been asking yourself all along.

It’s what Nigel Kneale, the writer who created the early sci-fi horror series QUARTERMASS (1979) referred to as a “revelation of terror”—that moment when you realize the full truth, and your uncertainty becomes terror at the revelation of how big and dangerous the real horror is.  HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET has some great moments like that. I suppose I seek out films like that both to watch and to compose for.

Theo Green’s latest soundtrack was composed for HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET.

Most of the films I’ve worked on so far live in between psychological thriller, drama and horror, rather than relying on extreme violence for their fear factor. Many of my favourites like Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) and Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” films like THE TENANT (1976)  have this effect of shock and horror, but they build up to it stealthily. Then they hit you hard where you least expected! You follow the characters and begin to feel for them. Eventually you descend into the horror of their insanity or folly. That approach still has the power to terrify me.

Recently I think French shockers like INSIDE (A L’INTIEUR, 2007) and MARTYRS (2008) showed a great mixture of some old-skool stealth and surprises, a bit of modern gore, but stylistically they are right up to date, with very modern textural scores.

While blockbusters and other big-budget films often feature voluminous scores, genre films often rely on silence as part of their presentation.  (Just look at the original Dracula in 1931—which featured no music whatsoever.)  Where does House At the End of the Street fit in this range?
It fits in between, with 60% or 70% of the film accompanied by score, roughly.

I think in Tod Browning‘s 1931 DRACULA, it was partly the difficulty of syncing music to early film reels that left it without score. Sometimes they would play records over the openings of films like that!

One of the better long-banned horrors, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) was completely without score. I’m sure there are other examples of horror without music post-1970s, but it’s unusual.

It tends to work best not to have music in scenes where an extra dose of realism and voyeurism is needed, which is perhaps why it worked so well for I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.

The thing is, music can help people suspend their disbelief, wrapping scenes in atmosphere to suggest surroundings that maybe only exist in fiction. So the heavy presence of music in blockbusters makes sense, as their settings are often costly fantasies. But overusing music to convey pace and atmosphere can come at the expense of a sense of truthfulness you get when a director lets you experience something, without score there to assist you. Being left alone without music can be more disquieting than even the scariest score—it’s as if the person who has been reassuringly holding your hand throughout suddenly leaves you on your own in a dark room!

The stars of HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET

Some films without a first-rate cast use music in every scene partly to help underscore and reinforce the actors’ performances throughout their dialog. But with actors of Jennifer Lawrence, Max Thieriot and Elisabeth Shue’s calibre that was obviously not a consideration. So HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET has a full range, from dramatic scenes without music, to music that plays a real role in guiding and suggesting responses to the characters…. to music that makes you experience utter panic!

Then the main theme, starting as a distant female vocal, is hinted right at the start and throughout the early part of the film and it comes out more clearly later. It relates to the main mystery of the film. And it functions as a very subtle clue to what’s going on. And that’s as much as I can say!

Did you have a hand in any of other sounds in the film (e.g., effects)?
Only little things—I made one or two scary sounds, and sequences like the introduction, which is an audio-visual assault I had a hand in assembling.

But the talented guys at Deluxe were responsible for the fantastic sound mix and design, which has already got them an award nomination!

What, if any, were some of the challenges in scoring this film?
The film needed a bit of a split personality musically. There is a mother-daughter thread, a romantic aspect, a thriller mood and also plenty of sheer terror. It can both be softly menacing with strings and bass guitars, or it can be a murderous rampage of percussion.  So the challenge was to find ways to fit those two worlds together, to suggest a bit of each in the other.

Then it lives somewhere between independent horrors and blockbuster thrillers, which as you noted, are musically often very different worlds. I have not only the director, Mark Tonderai, but also Relativity, FilmNation and A Bigger Boat who produced, to thank for supporting and encouraging the solutions the director and I used to address those challenges, as it paid off and achieves that stealth effect.

Did you employ any unusual or experimental methods, instruments, sound effects, etc. for this film?
Yes, although less experimental techniques on this than some movies I’ve worked on. Mark’s first film (HUSH, 2008) was a thriller set on the road with a trucker as the antagonist…. The score for that film featured processed sounds of brakes squealing, hydraulic drills, rusty metal being twisted… which made for a very industrial soundtrack. This film has more complex emotions, more characters to describe. So, subtle melody and unsettling string textures were important in parts. That said, the ways I got the orchestra to abuse their precious instruments, smacking objects against the cello strings… that could be described as unusual. Or do I mean unpopular! No, they were great about it, and no actual lasting damage was done…

Do you know if there are plans to release the film score as an official soundtrack (online or on CD)?
A soundtrack album release might be in the works; if so it would be released by Relativity Music.

Who were some of your biggest influences, filmic and otherwise, upon your work?
Some of the films I mentioned earlier are an influence in general, but not so much on this.

Hmmm… I think the biggest influences, the things that made me want to do my job, came first of all from school teachers with a passion for music or film. A teacher played the JAWS (1975) soundtrack to our class when I was 7, explaining to us how the different moods and textures affected the viewers’ responses to what they were watching. Straight after that lesson I begged him to lend me the cassette of the score and wore it thin listening to it. Good teachers are so important. Especially ones who forgive mangled cassette tapes.

Two years after that I got the chance to see James Horner at work on one of his first scores, BRAINSTORM (1983) —I was one of the kids he chose from a school choir to sing the scary harmonic clusters throughout! It’s a good score, much more experimental than his later blockbuster style.

Mark Tonderai, who has a musical background, always plays me tons of stuff to listen to, so I can get a rough idea of what he’s imagining. That’s much better than just hearing one or two things he likes, as those could then become too strong an influence. I prefer listening to saturation point, then rinsing it all out of my head before starting the work for real. That way I can sense the right ballpark for the score, without having any pieces of music stuck in my head.

Are there any particular films in the works that you would want first dibs on scoring?
I wish first dibs existed on film scores! I don’t know, I used to think it would be amazing to compose for the great directors whose films I always loved, when they made a new film. But now I’m not sure it would be the same as meeting them and working together on their first films… I’d rather be developing what I do alongside the next great directors, finding ways of working that suit us, finding a shorthand that we can use to discuss and try ideas out with. I think some of the people I’ve done that with, like (2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES director) Rupert Wyatt and like Mark Tonderai, are very much in that next wave of directorial talent, and I’m very proud to have worked with them early on in their careers.

Let’s say you had the chance to score an older, pre-1970’s film, even one that’s well-known for its music.  Which one(s) would you choose, and why?  (And what might you want to do, specifically?)
I’m sure I’ve thought of some good ones before… but now I’m asked, I can’t remember many!  You’ve heard Philip Glass’s new score to that 1931 DRACULA, right? Perhaps Tod Browning’s other classic, 1932’s FREAKS would be an interesting one to attempt. I sort of like how it is though.

I wouldn’t want to redo something known for its music; that would be tough.

THE WAGES OF FEAR (1957), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot is a great adventure thriller.  I can’t remember the music if there is any, but I remember thinking it would be fun to score an old movie with a nervous pace like this one. Tangerine Dream did a great job on the 1970s William Friedkin-directed remake, SORCERER.

THE HILL (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet, doesn’t have a music score nor does it really need it! Sean Connery being broken in a military prison camp is drama enough. But it would make an interesting test, for anyone without a film to score, to try this.

Those are all films without real scores…. a more recent film that I love is the Dutch horror-thriller film “SPOORLOOS” (THE VANISHING, 1988, directed by George Sluizer)…  the soundtrack is effective, but very much of its 80s time. Whereas the film itself is absolutely timeless. That one would be interesting to attempt.

What’s next on your professional horizon?
I’m working on a score for a great British thriller starring Paddy Considine, called HONOUR.

Would you like to add anything else?
Hmm – as this interview is for Cinema Knife Fight – there is this brief moment in HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET with a knife, that gives me chills every time. It’s one of Mark’s signature shots—he has a real eye for unusual camera angles that bring you closer to the action—and together with the score, the moment just rings true, which is a surprise in itself. When knives and guns turn up in movies, they often seem a bit derived from other films. This little moment convinced me that it would be just that way in reality. Enjoy it!

Thanks for your time, Theo!
My pleasure.

© Copyright 2012 by Barry Lee Dejasu

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