Scoring Horror Presents: An Interview with CHRISTOPHER YOUNG (Part 1 of 2)

Scoring Horror Presents:
An Interview with Christopher Young
by Barry Lee Dejasu


Film composer Christopher Young

In a career spanning over twenty-five years, film music composer Christopher Young has dabbled in every genre, from horror to adventure to romance.  Some of his more popular titles include HELLRAISER (1987), VIRTUOSITY (1995), ROUNDERS (1998), THE SHIPPING NEWS(2001),THE GRUDGE (2004),WHEN IN ROME (2010)…the list goes on and on and on.  “I’ve been very blessed in that my mind needs, and seems to comfortably be able, to move from one musical vocabulary to the next,” Young says.  “I’d like to think that I’m not failing in any of them, per se.  I mean, everyone hates being typecast, no matter what their discipline is in movies and in life, and most everyone who talks about it never gets the opportunity to really break out of the mold.  I’m one of those lucky guys who has.”

I was lucky enough to spend an evening chatting with Young about his career, his music, and his latest score, that of the new horror film SINISTER.

How do you go about adapting to such a variety of films?

I think that when I do get calls back on those films that don’t fall into the suspense/horror/thriller (genres), it’s because I seem to be able to do it with conviction.  It’s because my mind is as comfortable in really pretty much anything; I am pretty fluent in different musical languages.  I don’t struggle with them; I get it; my brain is structured that way… (If) I’m thrown a situation where, it’s a language that I’ve never worked with before; the musicological side of me will step in and be excited about the opportunity to research that music.  And then, after a circuit of time, and (some) detailed research … I’ll try to embrace it and try to admire the language while at the same time (have to keep) thinking, “By the way, this is a Hollywood movie.”

I often will say to the director, that I believe there is a perfect score for his movie; and I’m going to find that.  I’m trying to become the vehicle for which that score is realized. I’ve had that opportunity on occasions where directors come up to me and hug me in the recording sessions.  They go, “Oh my god, I had no idea!”  You know?

What was your first instance of having that occur?

The first time that I can recall being really collectively taken with a director, with the editor, with the post-production supervisor … was with (Clive Barker’s) HELLRAISER.  That was a new movie, and we were in a tiny little editing room; it couldn’t have been bigger than the size of a bathroom in an Amtrak train.  That was back in the days when they didn’t have the money to record with picture projection, and so I’d go in and the orchestra would record with the digital “click” metronome.  I’d have to talk about what was going on with the scene, to remind them, “This is when this happens, that’s when that happens,” and they’d go, “Okay, okay,” but it wasn’t until the music was cut into the movie that you were really able to get a sense of how it was going to play against the picture.

So there’s a scene in HELLRAISER when Julia, the main character (played by Clare Higgins) has a flashback to when she first met the bad guy … whose name is Frank (played by Sean Chapman), rather than her husband.  She’s walking around in the house that they’ve just moved into, as she’s having a flashback: she sees him coming to the door, and then she walks into the room where they (had previously) made love…  There’s a cue that I wrote for that, and I remember one of my instructions from (writer/director) Clive where he goes, “Okay Chris, remember, even though this is a horror movie, what this is is a very, very, very sick love story,” about a woman so obsessed with a guy who she knows in her heart is the worst person she could have in her life, because he’s so intrinsically evil; he’s abusive, (yet) she’s so obsessed with him (that) she’s ready to go out and kill people for him, so he can come back to life.  “The music needs to win the audience over in the sincerity of her affection, as sick as it is, for this character.”  So, I wrote this emotional cue—it wasn’t a scary cue, it was an emotional cue—that kept rising and rising and rising while they’re making love; the scene is cutting between them making love, her remembering it, and her husband and these two workers moving a mattress up a set of stairs, and it ultimately ends with the husband cutting his hand on a nail.  Again, I (had) the music change as we move from the memory of the love affair she had with Frank to music for the husband and the workers walking up the stairs.  I paid no attention to what was going on on the staircase; I was thinking about her, I wasn’t thinking about that.

We played that scene for the first time in this tiny little bathroom-sized editing room, and we’d been up all night; we were all exhausted.  After that scene played, there was an absolute dead silence in the editing room; no one said anything; and then I remember standing up and hugging (film editor) Tony Randel; I’m pretty sure I hugged Clive, but I remember we were all in tears—they were crying.  Their jaws dropped, and they said, “…Perfect.  Perfect cue for that scene.  Perfect.”  And it was really that moment that something went on in my head, and I thought, “You know what?  Maybe I really am supposed to be a film score composer, after all.”  Because at that time, I was sort of on the fence, but I was taken; I was even surprised by what it did to the scene—I had no idea that it was going to be that effective, because remember, back in those days, before you did mockups (digital music demos), you just had it in your head, you put the notes on paper, and it’s whatever you had in your head that was recorded.  It was at the beginning of my career (and) I wasn’t entirely secure with what I had in my head.  It’s not like when you’re writing a script; you’ve got the words and you can read those words on the page, and that’s it.  With music, it means nothing until it’s performed and recorded, (or) it used to mean nothing, but now it’s perfect.  You can do mockups, I could’ve heard it, and it would’ve played against the scene, the director would’ve made his comments, he might not’ve liked it and I’d have to go back and rewrite it—it’s a whole different thing now.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked so extensively in so many horror films.  What is it that draws you to them so much, as a genre?

Why is it that those in a position to hire me gravitate towards my home?  The answer to that is pretty simple.  In fact, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you when I was a kid, I thought Halloween was the coolest day of the year.  I didn’t sit around watching Roy Rogers or (other) kinds of films that most of my peers watched; I connected with monsters; Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman… The Universal horror actors and their successors were my buddies.  I kind of really “got” what was going on with them, and I was always really fascinated by the mysteries (of) that which cannot be explained in the ways of the universe. (Laughs) That’s not too bad!

What do I mean by that?  I mean, I’ve always loved daytime, of course; that was always wonderful, being able to celebrate life, and be able to see what was going on, but at the same time, I thought that there was something even more fascinating in many regards, of peering out into the sky at nighttime and trying to wonder, “What is this really all about?”

As H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest emotion known to mankind is fear,” I’m paraphrasing, “the greatest kind of fear is that of the unknown.”  I always thought that there was something really wonderful about trying to look into the darkness and try to make sense out of it, and to be inspired through that sense of fear and wonder that one will have when being ill-equipped to rationally explain a moment in time.  Part of me was always searching for an opportunity to write music or come up with something about sound, like, “How do I turn this into something that can be experienced (audibly)?”

As a little kid, the only music I knew about was what was the music on the radio, (and) what was on the radio was Top Ten Pop Hits (and) rock ‘n’ roll—the three “B’s” of rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds.  And that was it; that’s what I thought music was all about.  So lo and behold, I was really, really young, and I remember going in the theater and seeing 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, for the very first time and hearing the music (and) even as a kid, going “Oh my god!  WHAT IS THIS?”  It was describing this, this… face in darkness that I’d been trying to reach all my life, and to me, this was God, this was the voice of God.

What now makes people scream in the movie theater (are) clusters, the same kind of clusters that Kubrick used from György Ligeti in 2001 and Krzysztof Penderecki in THE SHINING, which keeps it kind of vague and bunched together in groups like grapes, and then squished; but that stuff now is, to Hollywood, the voice of terror.  To me, it wasn’t the voice of terror; it was the voice of God.

What are you doing next?

I have two films; one is set, (and) one is nearly set.  There’s one called THE KILLING SEASON, with Robert DeNiro and John Travolta; that’s my next movie.  The other one may be happening, but I can’t be sure, that one is called DARK SKIES, and that’s got Keri Russell in it.  I’m not on that film yet, so I can’t say it’s a slam-dunk.  It’s likely.  Both directors I’ve worked with before.  In the case of the DeNiro movie, Mark Steven Johnson, with whom I did WHEN IN ROME, and then before that, GHOST RIDER (2007).  In the case of DARK SKIES, Scott Stewart, with whom I did PRIEST (2011).  So that’s good; they’re returning guys.


Interview © Copyright 2012 by Barry Lee Dejasu


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