Scoring Horror Presents:
An Interview with Christopher Young (Part 2 of 2)
by Barry Lee Dejasu
Part Two: Sinister
Young’s latest film score, SINISTER, is his second collaboration with director Scott Derrickson (2005’s THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE being the first). In this film, a true-crime writer named Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his family have just moved into a new house; for Ellison, there is an ulterior motive to this move: the previous family had been coldly murdered…and he senses a chance to write a new hit book in which he solves their mysterious deaths. Upon running across a box of innocuously-named home movies, Ellison soon discovers that they are in fact films of the murdered family—and others—in their final, brutal moments. As his fascination begins to turn into obsession, Ellison soon starts realizing that these cold-blooded murders might not have been committed by human hands…and that the horrors of the past are far from over.
SINISTER has an unusual score in that the music is mostly dark ambient and/or electronic, with lots of unusual sound effects and samples throughout. What brought about that musical direction?
Well—did you just listen to the movie or the (official film score) CD? The reason I ask is because the CD is different than the film.
Really? How so?
It’s essentially the same material, but it’s structured differently. Why, you may ask? I think when you’re dealing with industrial music or sound design-oriented score music, that generally means is one of two things: either, through some twisting, pulsing idea, or extended pads or clusters of sonorities that can hold for long periods of time. Where they might work incredibly well in the context of the movie, if you take them away from the picture, they lessen the listening experience, because in fact, they’re not utilizing those same (elements) that a tonal film score uses when it’s made of melody and harmony. The minute you start writing a score that’s got melody and harmony, there’s certain laws that sort of fall into place without thinking, because it’s been around for so long that you subconsciously resort to those things that you know will work. There’s certain logic in that kind of writing that governs tonal music. But in sound design and industrial music, that all gets flushed down the toilet, and anything goes, really. So what I decided for the CD, I was going to rework it, and use a lot of the same material, but add new material as needed and restructure it, so I thought it would make a much more fascinating and digestible listening experience. With a lot of these industrial sound design CDs, they don’t play well for me; after the third or fourth track, I’m kind of like, “Well, I don’t know about this anymore,” and maybe you experience the same thing. Now what I’ll say about the CD, like it or not, I’d like to think that it’s trying to doing something a little different; it’s not your average score, it’s not even your average industrial or design-type score; it’s totally different.
Number two, in answer to your question, why did that language come about? Because Scott Derrickson, the director, turned to me and said, “You know what? Even if we had the money for an orchestra, I don’t think I would want you to do an orchestra soundtrack to this movie.” He’s the one that planted the seed; he’s the one who said, “let’s go off and do something different. Let’s do a sound-design score, an industrial-type score, or whatever we use, one that is not orchestral, one that doesn’t utilize those orchestral -isms.”
I was thrilled, because this was something I always wanted to do, but ever since HELLRAISER, really, when I get hired to do a horror score … they’re usually looking for something that’s somehow connected to HELLRAISER, and if it’s a romantic thriller, it’s somehow connected to (my score for) JENNIFER 8 (1992). I’ve humorously said that a lot of my scores to romantic thrillers since JENNIFER 8 can be called Jennifer 9, Jennifer 10, or Jennifer 11; they’re very much like that score, but that’s what I was being asked to do; that’s okay, that’s fine. And it’s the same thing with the horror films; they always want a big orchestra, because big orchestras sort of like improve the production value. Film scores are a dime a dozen. “We hire Chris to give us a big fat orchestra score, because it’ll make our film look really high-quality.”
Anyway, this was the situation: we didn’t have the money for a full orchestra, (Scott) encouraged me to go electronic and sound design and industrial in attitude, and that was something I’d been wanting to do, but I hadn’t been able to unleash that part of my musical personality. I alluded to it many years ago in a lot of my early stuff; and there’d be instances along the way when I incorporate electronic sounds into the orchestra; I could name some of those. I did a score many years ago for the Tobe Hooper remake of INVADERSFROM MARS(1986), which I was thrilled to be a part of, man; (I was) working with Tobe Hooper! It got totally thrown out. It was experimental; it was orchestral music, which was totally traditional, and there was the electronic stuff, which was pretty damn experimental. I was pre-sampling sounds of acoustic instruments, primarily percussion instruments, creating masses of sounds by modifying through tape manipulations. But I’ve often said humorously what they were ultimately looking for in the final analysis wasn’t music from Mars, but music about Mars. It was pretty out there, and it got thrown out, and that sort of cooled my jets in trying to do something that hadn’t been done before.
So I’ve been dabbling with that, working in the world of sound as being the ultimate determining factor; taking dramatic sound, manipulating it in a way that only a composer can, and creating a unique score. Flash forward to SINISTER, and I’m re-tapping into that part of my musical personality; now being encouraged, and the language is different because the technology is different, so it’s really not any different from the crazy stuff I was doing in the early days; some of the crazy stuff I still do, with electronics and more manipulations of acoustic instruments. It’s just now, the technology’s improved, (so when) we do all-electronic stuff, it all sounds different.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) discovers strange home movies in the attic of the house his family is renting in SINISTER.
Just what the heck were some of the sounds used in the score? (Namely, that low, warbling vocal track?)
That moaning sound? That utilizes the concepts that go way back to those days; that’s a modified instrument called the duduk. It’s a Middle Eastern wind instrument; it’s kind of popular in movie scores, but I modified it, transposed it, played around with it, and turned it into something that sounds like a banshee moan or something. That was supposed to be that distant call, that siren’s call, from… Again, I’m talking about that black space that goes on forever, and it’s the moan, the cry, that’s coming from within that black space, and in this movie, it’s all this stuff, the invisible which will become visible in time, called Mr. Boogie, the bad guy, the bad guy that exists there somewhere. You see his picture, his likeness in freeze frames of Super 8 film; and he’s there, he’s out there, existing in the dark somewhere. That’s what the duduk was; I tried to capture that. “What’s the sound for this?” And as it turns out, that’s the duduk thing; that’s one of the predominant sounds.
There’s a number of other sounds which are used in this score; there’s a very long list, and I’m only going to point out one of them, because it involved me, it just popped into my head. I just did a session where I screamed, you know? It was just moaning and screams, and they were utilized backwards and stuck into the picture. (Gibbering sounds.) You know? I tried to sound like the devil vomiting, or something, and then it was manipulated. I did such a long list of sounds, I couldn’t tell you (but it would go on) for the next three days, but those two came off the top of my head. Right at the beginning, when (Ellison) looks out that window and he sees that tree, the hanging tree, that’s the sound that kicks off the score, and it keeps reappearing, and it has that nice screaming sound a number of times in the picture.
Ellison begins to get obsessed with the disturbing films he has found, in SINISTER.
SINISTER, on its own, has such a voyeuristic quality, with Ellison watching all of these films of terrible things happening. When you were watching the film, did you feel at all like that?
I would have to say yeah, yes; from the safety of my own room, watching a film of someone watching a film. There was that distance that made me feel safe; having said that, indeed I tried my best to get inside his head, and imagine what that moment must have been for him, witnessing something that was so awful, so awful, that slowly but surely, he loses himself; again, parts of him are in pursuit of getting his celebrity back, but even more than that, you’ve opened a Pandora’s box thing. It’s like, once you’ve opened the box, you want to dig deeper and find more and more, but evil things await. I did get into that part of it; that knowing behind the curtain, there’s something terribly evil, but not being able to walk away.
Ellison can’t stop watching.
With so many horror films that you’ve worked on, have you ever gotten scared of them?
(laughs) No. I get scared on every movie I’ve worked on; that I’m not going to do a great job, in the time that I’ve been given, is what scares me. I’ve seen it all; I really have. Most of the horror films that I’ve worked on have gratuitous violence, or have some nutcase on the loose who’s going around killing people, right? A lot of those films (like that are) not my kind of thing, and I can see someone getting ripped to smithereens, like in HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988), someone ripping themselves to smithereens with a razorblade; you know, that’s probably the grossest thing I’ve ever seen. And I know (director Tony Randel)wanted me to score that “sympathetically” or something, and I’m like, you gotta… I can’t… (laughs) It doesn’t work! You can’t score that sympathetically, you can only illuminate the insanity of this with music that is so messed-up. Anyway, yeah, I’ve seen enough of that so that it doesn’t scare me.
But I’d say that SINISTER did, and there are some that do, and they’re the ones that deal with cerebral terror. Those kinds of movies that, like a great ghost story, talk about the invisible world again; the things that can’t be seen, the things that can only exist as we believe they are to be seen. I’m a great classic English ghost story enthusiast, and I’ve got tons of books, and (there’s nothing quite like) a great ghost story or a film that’s a pretty damn good telling of a good ghost story. So, ones in which our minds are being played with—those are the kinds of films that can scare the crap out of me. They have to be challenging, they have to have some wisdom and wit; they have to catalyze our imagination, because indeed, it’s about us imagining the invisible, as opposed to dealing with the visible.
The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, they’re great, they’re fantastic; how lucky I was to work on one of them (Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, 1985) that was a dream come true; that’s about the metaphysical world, about dreams, and Freddy himself is extremely visible, when he’s doing his evil deeds, he’s right on screen, right in your face, doing it. THE HAUNTING (1963), from Robert Wise and based on the book by Shirley Jackson, that’s horrifying; I still watch that every Halloween, or right around Halloween; each year I’ll watch that movie or read the book, because that is done so well; we never see these ghosts; we never see them!
So yes, I do get horrified by films, but it’s usually the types that are playing with my mind.
Mr. Boogie is watching you.
And horror is so subjective.
At the end of the day, let’s face it, who likes horror movies? A very select few. Enough so that. Come this time of year, the months of September through November, companies are going to make tons of money to finance their dramatic movies. (Horror films are) the illegitimate bastard sons of Hollywood, and they like to forget about them, by November, they’re going to pretend that (all the horror movies) didn’t happen; they’ll try to sweep them under the carpet, and move on to dramatically and artistically and more meaningful stuff that gets the Academy Awards.
So, I have a feeling that most people who work in horror have a love/hate relationship. There are certain things that a composer can do in horror films that you can’t do anywhere else. The score I did for SINISTER—you can’t do that in any other kind of movie, not really.
No, not easily. You’d have to find someone who’s really game for doing something weird in playing it against the picture. And by doing that, all of a sudden, “Wow, this is new, this is different.” You get to do things that you can’t do anywhere else, and that’s exciting. Because I fell in love with that whole sound/mass way of thinking, and I was fascinated with sounds in general, and in that quest to define the voice of the darkness, so to speak, I was able in these kinds of movies to unleash that; of course I love it. I do love it.
But at the end of the day again, there’s not many people who like to (acknowledge the genre); they’re not really remembered films. It’s funny, every time I go to meet someone at a party or something, or a social gathering, I’m asked, “Oh, I heard you do music for movies?” They go, “What have you done?” Just the other day I was asked that, and I said, “There’s this new movie coming out called SINISTER.” They said, “Oh, that sounds kind of scary!” I said, “Well yeah, it’s a horror film.” And I know exactly what they’re gonna say.
They sum it up with one word: “Oh.”
Exactly! It starts with “Oh,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, I know where this is going.”
They’re distancing themselves from that yawning void of the uncanny that you’re meanwhile so fascinated with.
I am, I am. And fortunately, there are a lot of people that see things in a similar way. That’s why a film like SINISTER made $18 million over (its first) weekend; it only cost $3 million to make, so that’s a pretty good sign, and I’ve been very blessed, because I’ve never seen a score line get so much attention.
The nice thing is I feel like my mind is as sharp as it ever was; my musical mind, I think, after all these years, it’s got so much to say, and is still dying to try new things. I don’t want to do another HELLRAISER; I think they’re going to do that, I think they’re doing another HELLRAISER movie, aren’t they?
They are. There’s one in development.
I don’t see myself doing that; I mean, I don’t know. I’m not lusting to do the next HELLRAISER. If I’m going to continue to do horror films, it would be, after this movie, the people, the directors would go, “My god, I didn’t think Chris could do this! We thought he only did orchestra stuff! That’s too old-fashioned! We don’t want any orchestra stuff in our horror film!”
Nothing made me happier (than the reception for SINISTER). I get a chance to reinvent myself, and guess what? I haven’t read one review (or) heard anyone say, “This score stunk!” (There were) maybe those who didn’t like it, but certainly no one thought it was inappropriate. And certainly anyone who knows my music in horror films would have to say, “You know, I don’t know anything about music, but this sounds different than HELLRAISER.” And even Jason Blum, the producer on the movie, said the third question he was getting when he was doing pre-release screenings was “What the hell is… Who did this music?”
I am not going to get an Oscar for this, that’s for sure, because it’s a horror movie; it won’t even get nominated, because it’s a horror movie, but I can get another horror film because of it. I’m all for that.
But you now have lots of fans out there drooling for more music like this.
You know, I hope it happens. Hopefully I will still be getting calls until I topple over, and if that’s the case, then you’ll hear more in that style.
Sinister is in theaters now. The official film score is available for download and on CD. Give it a listen…and then just try to sleep with the lights off!
Interview © Copyright 2012 by Barry Lee Dejasu