Scoring Horror Presents: An Interview with MICHAEL WANDMACHER

Scoring Horror Presents:
By Barry Lee Dejasu

Film composer Michael Wandmacher

Film composer Michael Wandmacher

 For over two decades, musician and composer Michael Wandmacher has scored a little bit of everything, be it action, horror, science fiction, and comedy.  Just a small handful of his film works include Twin Dragons (1998), Cry_Wolf (2005), Punisher: War Zone (2008), Drive Angry (2011).  He’s also ventured into video games (last year’s Twisted Metal) and television, including the now-defunct Night Stalker reboot, and the Fox comedy Breaking In.  Most recently, he’s scored this year’s sequels to 2006’s The Haunting In Connecticut, and 2010’s The Last Exorcism.

 The Last Exorcism, Part II continues the first film’s story of Nell (Ashley Bell), who is somehow still alive after a grisly supernatural possession.  Nell is trying to get her life back into order, but the demons of her past—literal and otherwise—are far from finished with her…


Michael, you’ve worked in a wide variety of film, television, and even video game genres.  Are there any particular areas that you like working in more than others?

Well, not really.  I like genre stuff because that’s what I grew up with.  So I guess from a comfort level, that’s what I like to do, and it’s easier for me, just because it’s something sort of ingrained in me.  I’ve been watching monster movies and cartoons and reading graphic novels and comic books and things on TV since I was a little kid, and I kept on doing that my entire life, so all those types of storytelling are very familiar to me.

It really boils down to what the musical approach is on a particular project.  Dramas can be fun because they tend to focus more on melodies and fleshed-out musical ideas, so that’s a different challenge.  Comedies are fun because there’s a very broad spectrum of what exactly comedy is; they can range anywhere, from more that actually sounds like doing songs that are produced without vocals, to what a lot of people consider to be classic comedy music—that’s more kind of an upbeat orchestral approach, going back to what was done in ‘40s and ‘50s cartoons, the kind of zany, Carl Stalling-type thing.  It’s really broad, and that can be fun because each one, even though it might be classified as a comedy, it can be a completely different kind of take on what that is, exactly.  I just like different things; I like the variety, because it continues to keep things interesting (and) to not get stale, and you’re always trying to find ways to approach something differently.

Even in your days of working on various Jackie Chan movies, you have brought lots of variation to the situations going on, from screwball to slapstick to action.

His brand of comedy is sort of an evolved variety of the Keystone Cops.  It’s cartoonish, it’s comedic, although the action is played pretty straight.  Depending on the film, there’s sometimes an Asian influence, but most of it is pretty modern, at the time, modern action scoring because it was all based on him being either a cop or a spy or some sort of government operative, and he would go from being in a very serious situation where someone’s wife was in danger, or there’s a big car chase, or explosion, or some chase through a building that was burning down—something like that to being a complete misfit in social situations.  Those scores are challenging, because a lot of times… within a single cue, there was a transition between a big moment in terms of action and it would literally cut away to something that was going on that was simultaneously very goofy and zany, and to sew those two together into one cue was really challenging.  But it’s fun!  It’s great, and when it doesn’t work, it can make you crazy.  (laughs.)  He’s a great physical comic.  He really has a gift for it, and for those stunt people, it looks like it’s easy, but it’s not; the people who can do physical comedy really well are few and far between.

TwinDragonsPosterWhat was your first instance of noticing music and sound in the cinematic experience?  (Including in video games and television?)

I think on TV, the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) was the first thing that I really got into, music-wise.  It was something that I wasn’t even supposed to be watching, but I’d sneak downstairs with my brother and watch it, and that had a big impact on me because the music in that show was something that really added to what was going on.  That show really scared me.


And on the movie side, as with a lot of people in my generation, seeing Star Wars for the first time, because it was coming out on the end of a whole run of films in the ‘70s that were sort of… they were more jazz-based scores.  You go back and see a Dirty Harry movie, or something—all the action movies, and the sci-fi movies even, had very jazzy, very combo-ish type of scores, and that classic, golden age-sound of Hollywood music hadn’t really been heard in a film in a while.  So when you’re sitting in a theater, and you see that very first…that Star Destroyer coming across the screen, and that massive fanfare playing, and everything.  The title coming up, the back story rolling across the screen… There was this huge-huge-huge music playing with a very definitive theme that left a huge impression on my ten-year-old brain.  So that was something that sort of set me off from there, and got me into film music.  At that point, I started collecting film soundtracks, and listening to scores from that time.  I still have a lot of that vinyl, and I still listen to it from time to time.  I was a score collector and enthusiast before I even got into working on them directly.

StarWars1977PosterWhat led to you working in the field?

I guess the straight answer would be… I don’t know; I just liked music, and started out in playing in bands, and I was also really interested in technology.  It was something that I did all through high school, started in junior high, just experimenting with whatever electronic instruments I could get my hands on.  I started playing guitar, and I was listening to film scores at the same time, so I was sort of absorbing both sides of the spectrum, and that eventually led to coming out of college, (when) I started working doing advertising music, just all commercials, network promos, news music, that kind of thing, which was great.  At that time, it was a great learning experience, because you have to write so many different kinds of styles of music, you have to do it fast, and you have to think in terms of music in both five second increments and five minute increments.  So getting all those skills was really good in terms of applying it to film music because I moved into that.  I lived in Minnesota, and I left there to pursue film music, and that’s when I started to get into television and movies.  It grew from doing short films to doing really small independent films, and a couple in California, and as you form relationships, it blossoms into something bigger.  The most important thing you can do, as a composer, is try to form alliances with young filmmakers as you’re coming up the ranks, and hoping that they keep the team together, and continue to work with you; so as their responsibilities grow, they bring you along, and as everyone works together, the projects just keep getting bigger.

Speaking of experimenting with different sounds and instruments, in your score for The Last Exorcism, Part II, there’s such a variety of sounds being employed.  Some of them are more immediately recognizable, such as stringed instruments and piano; however, there were a few sounds that were almost unrecognizable; what were some of the other instruments you used?

For each score, I try to find a different template of sounds.  In the case of The Last Exorcism, I knew, going in, that in terms of the score, it was going to be smaller in sound.  It wasn’t going to be a big orchestral score, or even a big electronic template, like some of the other horror scores that I’ve done.  It’s an intimate story, basically centered around one character, and we found that just using a smaller template was scarier.

It was a long experimentation process.  The film score went through a few iterations, in terms of trying different approaches.  It started out as experimental and very open, and kind of avant-garde and weird, and ended up being much more scene-driven, but there were sounds that we came up with early on using instruments like a guitar vial, and an old baroque instrument called a psaltery, and I used a few traditional instruments that were played in really weird ways.  If you listen to the score, you’ll hear this kind of bending, screaming solo string sound in a lot of the cues, and that’s me doing a kind of random bowing technique on a variety of string instruments, and it’s meant to be sort of a juxtaposition between the two main voices in the film, and that’s Nell’s evil side becoming seduced by the demon presence in the film.  You can hear those two elements are separated, and other cues where they’re sort of coming together into one complete thought.  At moments it can feel really cacophonous, and suddenly there’s a consonance that happens as they sort of consummate with seduction.  It was cool!  It was a very odd, unorthodox sound, it’s not something you normally (use) in a score, and I’ve had other people ask me, “What is that?”  It really came out of a period of sitting here, trying out different instruments, playing things like string instruments with things besides bows, or…I don’t know, just taking a random shot at it and seeing what happens.

There’s been a lot of experimentation going on in film scores, I think, in the past ten or fifteen years.

It’s definitely a trend.  Every composer I know is constantly searching for a new sound, a timbre, a texture, a color, that they can use in a score; (something) that sticks out, that might give some sense of time, place, some particular emotion, that is new.  Even if it’s an instrument that some people would consider traditional, or something used in the past even often, they may find a different way to utilize it.  Some composers build their own instruments.

What I did on The Last Exorcism was basically destroyed a piano in the process of doing the scoring.  I was playing a prepared piano with lots of different things.  I got particularly good effects by using chopsticks that were taped together, and squeezing the strings between the chopsticks, and then either hitting the chopsticks with another stick, or rubbing them up and down the wound strings really, really fast.  It (brings) almost a human quality to the sound of it when it was resonating; it sounded like someone was breathing very shallow and quickly, and (it was) creepy.

The one way that composers can differentiate themselves, try to make the process more interesting and fun for people on the outside, when you’re trying to sell yourself on the job, is that they like the idea of doing something new and different.  (By) taking some chances and find a new sounds, things that are really particular to the films that give it a unique twist, musically, that’s important.  Even in films that are thematic, it can help to have some kind of texture in there, or some tone or instrument that is a sort of really unique color in the whole palette of the film score.  It’s just one part of the process that makes it more fun.

Do you find that everything comes together, depending on what one film requires versus another?  Or do you have a checklist somewhere, of instruments or sounds that you wish to use someday?

It’s both.  There’s always what I call a “mad scientist mode” on a score, where I’ll take two or three days for no other purpose than to figure out a set of sounds that are particular to that project, and I can never say for sure where they’re going to come from.  It might be a very typical source, and it might end up being me banging on the washing machine with a sledgehammer—I have no idea.

I’m pretty much willing to try anything, and I’ll use that, and I have an idea of what kinds of sounds will work in the score, based on what it is.  If it needs to be, say, more fluid, or more legato, or more melodic, or if they can be very percussive, or metallic, or something that’s more soft; it’s something that speaks of wood, or cloth, or something warm in tone—those are just generalized terms that I might be throwing around in my head while I’m looking for particular sounds.

A good example, and every composer goes through this, is, say, small percussion; finding the right ticking sound, or little tiny percussion sound, right when you need to create tempo, or pacing something—you need background ticking sounds.  So many different ways to create that sound, instead of, say, using a shaker, everybody’s constantly looking for little new, cool ways to make a little ticking sound.  I sampled the igniter snap on the range here in the house; it’s that snapping sound of trying to light the gas flame (on our stove).  I recorded that, and cut it up, and used it as a sort of a hi-hat, and it’s got a very short attack and release, but it really cuts through everything; it has a really powerful snap to it.  If you play it back in a mix, it sits in there really nice, but it’s really hard to figure out what it is, because it’s not anything actually being struck, it’s air moving.  I don’t want to get too technical about it, but it’s just a really cool noise, and I never would’ve thought of that, but when I’m in that process of, “What’s going to be cool in the score?,” my ears are open.

So (my wife and I) are sitting there making dinner one night, we turn on the stove, and I’m like, “Wait, that’s cool!” (laughs) “Do it again!”  So I run and get the recorder and stand next to the stove, going, “Okay, start it!” (laughs)

So you must be listening to sounds all the time.

Yeah.  I did a lot of sound design when I was working in commercials.  I’d spend fifty percent of the time I was working doing sound designing, and the other half writing music, so I had a lot of practice doing that.  My brain is sort of in that world all the time, a little bit at least, and being aware of things that just have different tones and textures and might elicit certain emotions very well, even if it’s just a single tone.  You’d be surprised how many mechanical things that are just sitting in the background, anywhere, in an airport or a mall or something, and you just listen.  You go beyond the voices and just listen to the tones of the place, the lights, the air conditioning, the guy cleaning the floor—the things that have more of a drone-y qualities, they usually have a pitch, and I’ll tune in on those things, and then think, “Okay, that sounds really cool, if I can capture that noise I can sample it and put it in and re-pitch it and script it so it’ll work as an instrument.”  And you have something that’s both organic and electronic at the same time, and you often can’t quite place it with your ear, which makes it more interesting.

With so many movies in the works, any number of possibilities of scores could happen.  Which ones would you want “dibs” on, given the chance?

Anything that has to do with superheroes; that’s still something very near and dear to my heart.  I still so totally believe that every single superhero movie, you should come away with a theme that’s so knocked into your head that you’ll never forget it.  What’s sad is that a lot of the (superhero) films that have come out, you don’t have that, at least the newer ones; some of them do, some of them don’t.  I just think that should be very much a (given) for the score.  We need a theme that everybody’s going to remember.  We need the next Superman, that sort of thing.  I need to do that, that sort of challenge-movie, that would be awesome.

I don’t know, I would love to do something that’s more of a sword-and-sorcery-type epic.  A Lord of the Rings type of film would be such a blast, because you get to do so many different types of things.

What would be most fun to do one film that was completely acoustic, very traditional, because those are usually the films that are the most fun to do, musically, and then do one that was completely electronic, where you have to create all the sounds from scratch, or—I was telling the director on The Last Exorcism that I would love to do a horror film just with a choir, and nothing else.  That would be a lot of fun, because I really believe you get the scariest noises with humans.  To be able to use both acoustic choir writing, and then to take the voices and manipulate them into other things, but to use nothing but a forty-person choir for the whole score, would be a blast.  That would be the scariest score of all, because people always respond to in music, if it’s there, the human voice.  If it’s in the cue, if it’s in the theme, singing the theme or whatever, your ear always goes to the human voice first, no matter what.  It’s the most relatable thing, the human voice.

What about scoring the next Star Wars movie?

I don’t know if Star Wars would be (for me). Like, talk about pressure!  Oh my god!  I just don’t think…   My personal feeling is, no-one should touch that.  Even if they have to take the old music and re-record it and re-cut it for the new film.  They got it right the first time, and that’s the most iconic film music of all time, so don’t touch it, don’t try to change it, don’t try to update it.  It’s like trying to cover Pink Floyd—just don’t go there.  I even felt that way with Superman (1978).  That’s another Top 10 theme of all time; don’t mess with it!

What about a Tarzan movie?

That would be incredible!  I especially love primitive instruments doing period movies from the time of the Bible, or the Dark Ages, or Ancient Egypt, or something where you can really go back and use indigenous instruments, get something that’s really raw and primal would be a lot of fun.  Those scores are always a great learning experience, not just from the writing standpoint, but you learn about an entire culture, musically, when you’re doing that, too.

As a composer, you just want to keep skipping around, doing as much as you can.  The biggest problem for a lot of composers in Hollywood is they get pigeonholed very quickly when (for instance) most composers do a lot of action films are completely qualified to do comedies and vice versa.  Or people do a lot of, say, period dramas could do an action film, and vice versa.  They’ve got a lot more ability than people give them credit for.

The Last Exorcism, Part II comes out on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 18th.

© Copyright 2013 by Barry Lee Dejasu


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