Scoring Horror: Interview with NATHAN WHITEHEAD

Scoring Horror Presents…An Interview with NATHAN WHITEHEAD
By Barry Lee Dejasu

It’s that time of year again, folks!  Yes, Purge Night is here, where for twelve solid hours, any and every crime is 100% legal.  So go out there and get your deepest, darkest urges on, and remember: all emergency services will be suspended for the duration of Purge Night.  Good night, good luck – and have fun!

ThePurgePosterThis is the world of THE PURGE, written and directed by James DeMonaco (LITTLE NEW YORK, 2009; also the writer of 1998’s THE NEGOTIATOR and 2005’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13).  In an alternate America where the regulated legalization of crime helps reduce its effects on the populace for the rest of the year, a family is preparing for another long, safe night indoors on Purge Night.  This time, however, things don’t exactly go according to plan, a group of masked visitors come knocking…

The visitors arrive.

The visitors arrive.

Such a grim cinematic tale naturally has to be told with a voice of thorough suspense.  With all things visual and verbal being handled by the actors and the director on their respective ends of the camera, there is the necessity of bringing not only traumatic stimulation to the eyes and ears of the audience, but to subtly introduce tension and empathy to the soul—and for that, the music is key.  For this purpose, composer Nathan Whitehead was brought in to unleash his talents.

Composer Nathan Whitehead

Composer Nathan Whitehead

No stranger to cinematic tales of suspense and action, Mr. Whitehead’s credits include work on LORD OF WAR (2005), TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011), as well as TV and video game work.  Mr. Whitehead was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on scoring THE PURGE.

BLD: How might you describe your score to somebody who hasn’t yet seen the film?  (Or better yet: what kind of story did you try to tell through the music?)

NW: I would describe the score as dark, textural and fairly minimal.  We wanted to convey a sense of unsettledness and dread surrounding what’s happening on this Purge Night, but we also wanted to explore what this means as a society.  What does Purge Night say about us as human beings?  With the music, I think we were trying to tell both of these stories; how can we survive this night and even if we do, what does that say about us?

BLD: What kinds of instruments and/or vocals did you incorporate for the score?   

NW: The score incorporates a lot of synth and sound design elements which are both tools that I love to work with.  There are strings in certain moments and sparse piano but also a lot of synth pads and textures.  Even with the more electronic sounds, I tried to keep them organic and it’s difficult to discern what is an acoustic instrument and what is a synth.  Almost everything was processed in one way or another too, so even if it started as a shaker or something it usually ended up morphing into something completely different.

BLD: Did you implement any unusual instruments or playing methods, or even construct any new kinds of instruments for it?

NW: Yes!  I think “unusual instruments and methods” describes nearly the entire score.  I really love thinking about the emotional content of sounds, especially things that on the surface might not seem to have any emotional content at all.

I was visiting my parents and there is an ancient microwave in their basement.  The door on this microwave had this great spring rattle sound when you closed the door.  It probably rang out for five or six seconds.  I always travel with a little pocket recorder of some kind so I can grab any interesting sounds I find.  So I put my recorder inside the microwave and slammed the door and got these great, growly spring decay sounds.  I took this back to my studio and just started experimenting with them – distorting, filtering, weaving a bunch of them together to create a longer bed.  Eventually I had this unsettling low throb that seemed to feel organic and odd and it became a central component of the score for THE PURGE.  It just seemed to have this nagging discomfort and familiarity that felt right for what was going on.  Most of the synthetic sounds in the score are made in similar fashion from some sort of real-world recording like traffic or wind through leaves or banging on a trashcan.

BLD: What were some particularly favorite scenes that you scored?  (That is, if you’re allowed to be, or are comfortable with, talking about them)?

NW: Well, I don’t want to say too much, but I really loved scoring the scenes that highlighted the internal human struggle going on.  Not just the struggle to survive but more the sinking realization or question of “What have we become as people?  As families?”  There are some great moments; just simple looks between James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Heady), when we feel the weight of how messed up things have gotten—those were really juicy moments to explore, musically.

Lena Heady and Ethan Hawke star as Mary and James in THE PURGE.

Lena Heady and Ethan Hawke star as Mary and James in THE PURGE.

BLD: You’ve worked in a number of genres and mediums.  Do you wish to work more in a particular medium and/or genre than others?

NW: I’ve been really fortunate so far in my career to work on a wide variety of projects.  I love that variety.  I think working in different genres and mediums keeps things fresh and challenging and also allows me to continue to learn new things.  Each project generally informs the others in one way or another, and that’s exciting.

BLD: What kinds of films do you enjoy watching, in general?

NW: It might sound a bit generic, but the short answer is I like films that are good stories.  I love movies and storytelling in general because of their ability to make a human connection, whether it’s entertaining or challenging or terrifying or something else.  I don’t think I can narrow it down to a particular genre; there are too many great but different movies out there!

BLD: What was your first instance of noticing music and sound in film?

NW: I guess the very first was probably RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). It was my introduction to John Williams and STAR WARS, so that’s difficult not to notice.  The theme from the TV show AIRWOLF (1984-1986) also was really exciting to me.  Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN wasn’t first but I remember being amazed by (Danny Elfman’s) music in that movie.

BLD: Who and/or what are some of your biggest musical inspirations, in general?

NW: There are too many great ones to mention them all, but to pick a handful I would say Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Fugazi, NOFX, Operation Ivy, The Cure, Bach, Carter Burwell, Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, the list goes on…

BLD: What led to your film work?

NW: Music has always been very exciting to me.  It has always felt magical or like a superpower.  I’ve also always loved experimenting with electronics and gadgets and computers.  Early on I remember playing with this Casio keyboard that my brother and sisters had as kids.  It was an SK-1 so you could do really basic sampling with it.  We would make either short stop-motion videos or skateboard videos and I would “score” them with the SK-1.  It was a precarious arrangement to record the Casio’s output onto the audio track of a VHS tape and it meant that I erased whatever sound was there before.  (I actually still have an SK-1 which I used a bit on THE PURGE.)  In high school, I had played guitar in a punk band and started putting together a basic project studio. I really loved working in the studio.  I started recording local bands in college and also creating music and sound effects for some short films.  I think it just clicked that writing music in my studio for film (or games or TV) combined all these things that I love, things that consumed my thoughts and imagination anyway, so I should explore doing that for a living.  After college I moved from Tennessee to L.A. and started working for a sound design company while writing music for any project I could get my hands on.  Slowly I started doing programming and arrangements for other composers around town and that eventually led to scoring films on my own.  I have been really fortunate to have some great mentors along the way, particularly Steve Jablonsky.  He gave me some great opportunities and we still collaborate on projects today.  I think there’s a huge part of film scoring that you have to learn on the job and it’s crucial to find those opportunities to learn.

BLD: Are there instruments that you haven’t yet used that you’d someday like to explore and experiment with?

NW: All of them!  I have a pretty insatiable appetite for exploring and experimenting with new instruments.  I am a guitar player but I’ve never used a real dobro; I think that would be fun to work with.  I would also love to experiment with a cristal baschet.  I know Cliff Martinez has one and I’m a huge fan of his work. It seems like such a beautiful instrument.

BLD: If you could re-score any pre-existing film (but preferably older ones, and the older, the better), which would you choose, and why? (Other composers have mentioned NOSFERATU, for example.)

NW: I would choose the original 1954 GODZILLA.  Godzilla has always been one of my favorite monsters and I think it would be really fun to score all that mayhem and drama.  Plus Akira Ifukube (the original composer) created Godzilla’s classic roar with, I believe, a double bass and I think that’s awesome.

BLD: There are tons of films always in the works.  If you could choose and score anything in particular, which would you jump for? (Anything from a new documentary to, say, one of the new STAR WARS films?)

NW: I would love to work with the Coen brothers, Spike Jonze, or Michel Gondry someday and I would jump at any opportunity that came along.  I would also love to score (Steven Spielberg’s) ROBOPOCALYPSE.  The book was great and I’m very excited for the movie.

BLD: Would you like to add anything else?

NW: Thanks for the great questions, this was fun!

THE PURGE opened everywhere on June 7th.

© Copyright 2013 by Barry Lee Dejasu

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