David loved the music I made for FEZ and reached out to me via e-mail. Our initial discussions were straight-forward. We talked logistics and expressed our interest in working together. David touched base right before he started filming and then we fell out of touch for a year. When he came back to me, prepared to start scoring, I had a lot of work underway and did not have much time. I turned him down at first, but he could tell that I wanted to work on the film. After much discussion, I gave in to his persistence. I’m glad I did! We at first talked about exploring an aesthetic with guitars and other acoustic instruments. Over time, we realized that synths had the versatility we needed.
Early Process / Skepticism
I read a script early on and was on the fence at first. There is not much direction to a script. The acting, timing and cinematography all have to manifest in your brain. It can feel a bit flat. I was skeptical of my judgment too because I had not seen a screenplay come to life before. I wanted to dive in with David after I saw his last film, “The Myth of the American Sleepover”. I knew he was masterful at bringing out a sense of humanity in his characters. The first cut I saw was silent, but even so I knew right away that this was going to be something great. I found David’s deliberate style opened up a lot of space to explore as a composer. He later presented me with a version that featured a temp score. This tool gave me help with direction and compensated for a short turnaround schedule. The film got into the Cannes Film Festival, and we had weeks instead of months to finish.
For my first feature, I chose not to write much until I saw the film. The first thing I did was sit at my piano and try to come up with a theme. I wrote a piece I am proud of, but never found a spot for it in the film that made sense.
Collaboration with David
The score was an absolute collaboration. I think David heard something in my approach that he thought could be unique in a horror film. For me, I found his naturalistic style gave me room to play. David’s first impressions were strong and encouraging. He pushed hard to have themes and recurring melodies, and we did a bit of that in spots. I think the temp score and his love for FEZ gave me a well-rounded sense of what he wanted. We had some creative disagreements at times, but that’s a routine part of collaborating. I wanted the sounds to be warmer and rounder in certain spots. He sometimes yearned for brighter, more digital tones. I think we are both quite content with how things turned out, though. David was in the driver’s seat when it came to the musical direction for 'It Follows’. He had a very strong vision for the tone of the music and I was happy to defer to him in certain ways.
Dial it Back
The opening scene of It Follows is the first for which I wrote music. Earlier versions of the track had so much distortion in them that Christian suggested we were going to upset theater owners. I was pushing the clipping effect of tape saturation well past 11, to the point the sound began to deteriorate with a sonic characteristic not unlike that of a speaker slowly blowing up in your face. I distorted the low-end so harshly that he feared we were going to destroy peoples' subwoofers. In the end, we managed to find a comfortable balance that still has quite a lot of distortion, but never to point of complete and utter deterioration.
The Old Maid
There is a scene in It Follows, immediately after 'Hugh', Jay's conniving boyfriend, ties her to a wheelchair to present the unusual STD they share. Before Hugh unceremoniously ditches Jay on the street outside her house, her friends are playing the card game 'Old Maid' on the porch.
When David Robert Mitchell was testing out music cues for the film, he had a little piece of 'Spirit' from the FEZ soundtrack synced over the shot of the playing cards, which I found a bit curious. When I asked him about why he had placed music there, he did not have a particular reason. He placed it on instinct. It seemed to suggest a relationship between the 'Old Maid' and something else in the film. A few scenes later, Jay is at school and has her first encounter with 'It', an elderly woman in a robe, walking slowly but purposefully towards her across the courtyard. I instinctively made a connection between the woman and the card, the card implying a future encounter with the 'Old Maid'. When I told David about this, he laughed because he had never thought of that before, but he liked the subtle suggestion that it was hinting at something, and so we decided to run with it. This is why the music from the school scene is called 'The Old Maid.' I've never had anyone bring up this connection to me before, so I thought it would be interesting to share.
In talking to David, I learned that the game of Old Maid was analogous to the STD. It represents something we all want to pass on to someone else. It represents loneliness.
There is an alternate version of Detroit in the film that is not on the soundtrack. It plays during an establishing shot at night of the kids at home, brushing teeth and clipping nails, waiting for dread to reach their door. Usually, people notice these sorts of details and demand their copy of the evidence, but I have not heard a peep. I think I'm used to video games. They bring out the OCD in people slightly more.
The Pool Fails the AB Test
The music during the big finale at the pool does not pass the AB test in comparison to its soundtrack version. We iterated over the sound for the pivotal scene of the film many times, and, in honor of chlorine-drenched appliances, threw everything AND the kitchen sink into that cue at the very last minute.
My Acting Debut
It was the eleventh hour, and I was at the film mix sessions with David and Christian, our engineer. We were scrambling to put the piece together, and David was especially stressed, trying to close out such a big undertaking. We realized we were missing some dialogue for minor background situations. There's a rotating shot in a school hallway that called for a loudspeaker announcement. While Jay contemplates her situation in the aboveground pool, there's a TV report about a wildfire in the background. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is wing it, and so we recorded these parts ourselves. I starred as 'High School Announcer', and 'News Chopper Reporter.' I also convinced David to be the News Anchor in that fire bit, despite his reservations. We pitchshifted our voices down. IMDB has not officially credited us for our profound contributions, and I know David is relieved about that. In light of official proof, you'll have to take my word for it.
In the three weeks I wrote the score, I tried to get up every day and have a somewhat chill morning so I wasn’t too stressed out. Once I got my morning routine out of the way (meditation, exercise, food, some reading), I would dive in to work, usually around noon and work til’ midnight or later. David and I had a lot of back and forth during that time and I think tensions were running a little high because we were up against the clock. It was tough and a little stressful at times but I think it worked out great. Finally getting to hear the film on a soundstage was incredibly satisfying.
David and his editors created a thorough temp score that became my bible for the film. John Carpenter, Penderecki, and John Cage were all present. Some of my tracks from FEZ were also part of the temp score. For scary scenes, I tried to make the music as dissonant and weird as possible. I pulled out as many stops as I could to one-up the temp cues in every way. For tracks like “Detroit”, I was channeling the ominous arpeggios of bands like Goblin.
I wasn’t thinking about video games when scoring the film. I rarely think about that. Games and their music are just an undeniable influence that I wear on my sleeve. I think that that relationship comes out in a subconscious way. David had a definite affinity for the music from FEZ. We took steps to honor that aesthetic but also bring something new to the film. We ended up using some of the music from that game as a template. David developed a serious case of ‘temp love’ for those pieces. It was difficult to steer him away from what he felt already worked well. At first it was strange to hear those tracks in the film, but I adapted to it. We referenced material from other composers as well, and I feel that I learned a lot. I love to get into the depths of other peoples’ music. Referencing music I wrote many years ago was one of the trickier parts of the project. That said, I am quite pleased with how everything turned out. Working with David was a satisfying experience.
Synth music was all around me growing up in the 80’s. By the time I was working on FEZ, I had a sense of what they could do and what I wanted them to do. I don’t think that came from any particular artist, but more from a high level of exposure. When people told me that FEZ sounded like Vangelis, I was not all too familiar with him. I had seen Blade Runner once and knew he wrote the “Chariots of Fire” theme, but I had to look him up. And yet, his style seems like such a staple now. For me to that he and music of that ilk did not influence me would be dishonest.
I’ve straight up avoided horror films until recently. But their culture is omnipresent. If I said I was not influenced by it I would be lying. I’ve been listening to Goblin for many years but was never big into horror. I think I can count the horror films I’ve seen on one hand!
My exposure to horror was minimal. I don’t think I could name more than five horror films that I’ve seen in my entire life. Despite that, I had a curiosity about the aesthetic and the form. I wanted to take part in the process.
Pretty much everything is custom, except for some of the percussion. I made a lot of synth patches for this film; at least a hundred I would say. Making patches is one of the most effective ways for me to get the sounds I’m looking for.
The temp score cues were scary and high energy. We talked about making them even more intense, and so we tried to push that level even higher. We hoped that having that attitude right from the first shot set up the film in a certain way. We wanted you as the moviegoer to always wonder when that scary moment is going to come again.
His music is dark, simple and effective. We used some of his music in the temp score for the film. As a result I used a few of his pieces as direct reference. I am not well versed in the music of Mr. Carpenter, but I appreciate what he has done.
We wanted the music to play an active role, as if it was a character. The music serves as a hair-raiser in scarier moments. In calmer scenes, I think it helps engage the moviegoer by adding emotional weight. We often use melodic cues to underline character and plot development, as well as segues between larger sections of the film. We tried to pick our spots. We always took care to give the film and its dialogue the space it needed.
The music tries to build empathy for the characters. They seemed quite real to me already, but I tried to help how I could. In the scarier moments, I was more focused on creating a twisted landscape.
I tried to be loud, wild, and unpredictable.
For a lot of the cues, I tried to use my synth chops to make weird, dark, obnoxious pieces of music. I find that thru-composing to picture feels natural. I enjoy the freedom it provides in making subtle, time-sensitive adjustments. The elephant in the room for me was the FEZ soundtrack. That music was a direct influence on many of the melodic pieces. I tried to honor those and make David happy while also doing something fresh. It was tough! I think I managed, for the most part.
Don’t be afraid to do weird, unorthodox things. Make unpleasant sounds. Timing and dynamics are crucial to the music but also in its correlation to the screen. At some point, the process became more about intuition than anything. I’d watch the same scene over and over and its connotation to me would change. The visceral reaction subsided, and it became more about the intellectual aspect. It becomes a matter of analysis. Why is this scary? What could push that emotion even further?
I’ve never been a fan of horror films. So maybe that lends some perspective to how unprepared I was. As a kid, I was a chicken. I wouldn’t even go on the Snow White ride at Disney World because of the witch. But working on It Follows has invigorated my appetite for scarier films.
I designed most of the sounds in the score with Native Instruments Massive. Massive is a versatile synthesizer that I have used a lot over the years. It was a natural choice for creating a synth score on a short timeline.
After I completed the score, we spent a week mixing the film. Christian Dwiggins mixed the film at Tunnel Post in Santa Monica. Hearing the score on a surround system for the first time was fantastic. Christian pushed the film’s energy over the top, by suggesting we add more elements. He helped the music jump out of the screen. There are cues in the film that became downright obnoxious in the best way.
Working on such a tight deadline was stressful. Trying to reference my own material became an exercise in ego management. I can be ruthless about not treading old ground. At the end of the day, I had to make a few creative sacrifices. I think if we had more time, I could have written some better cues. I struggled with the similarity of some of the music to that of FEZ. I am a perfectionist though, and these are all minor issues in the grand scheme of things.
I am proud of what we have accomplished as a whole. It was an intense period of work, and there was a lot of back and forth. We managed to do something unique and in not much time. I’m hoping to have more time in the future! Three weeks was tough.
The Beach Scene
In that particular scene, we didn’t think it’d be immediately apparent to everyone that the Yara walking up from the grass was not in fact Yara. So we waited an extra shot or two, when it’s quite clear that Yara is in fact in the ocean, before starting to bring in the music.
The Film’s Appeal
I think it approaches the genre in a fresh way. I think we tried to do something new while honoring great horror films of the past. The premise is horrifying without needing lots of gore and jumps. The characters are funny and easy to relate to. They’re young people written in a believable way, and I think that goes a long way.
Does it Scare You?
I feel the music works well, but I have to approach it from an almost academic perspective. I’ve watched the movie so many times at this point and first saw it with no music and no post FX. I saw the potential for it to be quite scary. But I think at this point, I’ve been too involved to experience it that way.
Not jarring per se, but when it was satisfying and gruesome, that’s when I knew it was ready to go. When you work on something like this, there is a tendency to become a bit desensitized to it. Even while mixing the film, we were unsure how people would react. We just had to go with our guts.
The reception has been overwhelming! It feels great to have so many people say they appreciate my work. I also find the parallels folks are making to be a great education. I am learning a lot about the talented artists who have worked in horror over the years.
My experience working with Christian on the film mix was stellar. He masters records too, so it was an easy choice to bring him back on to master the soundtrack. As a rule, I never master my own records. I find putting someone else’s ears on my music helps me to let go and move on.
Pool Setup Music
I think my favorite musical moment is the pool setup scene. That piece started as a pretty close reference to “Formations” from Fez, but I feel like we were able to bring it to a really cool place. I love how that one turned out.
Jay’s theme is probably the closest thing to a Fez track on the score, and that was a late edit. I had written a different theme for Jay that was warmer and more melancholy, but David thought we needed something a bit brighter and retro, so we switched it up to make it more like a reference track from Fez. That was a bit tough for me at the time but I had to go with David’s gut and we didn’t really have a whole lot of time to try a bunch of different things.
it's kind of a Morricone-type of thing. That's what I was thinking of when I wrote it. What if Morricone did an evil western or something?