Scoring Horror Presents
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN MACPHAIL
By Barry Lee Dejasu
Toronto-based band Blitz//Berlin (Martin MacPhail, Dean Rode, and Tristan Tarr), known for their own musical work, are also quickly becoming a rising force in cinematic music. They have scored such films as EXTRATERRESTRIAL (2014) and THE NORTHWOODS (2015), shorts, and even trailers, including THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016).
With THE VOID (2017), Blitz//Berlin have teamed up with the directorial team of Jeremy Gillespie and Stephen Kostanski (who also directed 2011’s FATHER’S DAY and MANBORG), creating not only a musical score, but adding a whole other dimension (so to speak) to the very sound of the film.
Martin MacPhail was kind enough to take some time out from the band’s busy studio schedule to discuss THE VOID.
BD: How did you approach this movie, creatively?
MM: For us—right off the bat, actually—we created what we were calling a “sketchbook track” in the beginning. We’d seen some footage and some artwork, and we spoke to Jeremy about the mythology and the occult nod to Lovecraft kind of themes and all this stuff, and then we basically created a six-minute piece of music that explored a bunch of music that, deep in our minds’ eye, seemed to reflect the journey of the film.
So, keeping in mind the drone-y, scary, atonal, almost like sci-fi/horror elements, but also wanting to infuse some memorable melodic moments; a little bit of piano, a little bit of strings, (and) trying to find a balance between them. We used the sweetness of the familiar instruments and made them kind of feel like they’re lost in another world, almost like the characters themselves; so we used a bit of that familiarity and pushed them into a realm where they are seemingly less and less familiar, and more distorted and more kind of submerged in the textures and things.
That’s how we started, and then basically (the filmmakers) ended up really liking all of the elements of that, and then when we had the film as a whole to sit down, we had this great, whole template, and we all agreed on the breadth of the film, methodically, so we would draw a lot from that, and obviously cater to each scene; the characters, the story, the dialogue, but we had this capstone to come back to each time. That’s something, for this film, that we hadn’t really done before, but we found worked really well, especially when we were trying to create something that’s really not a typical Hollywood score; something that is much more of a… really trying to create its own world. If we’ve our jobs right, when you hear the music in THE VOID, you’ll feel like you’re really in the Void.
BD: Some websites have listed the band Menalon as being a part of the musical team behind THE VOID. Was this a collaborative score?
MM: Not necessarily collaborative, I would say. Jeremy is a composer in his own right, as well; I think during the first half (of the film’s development), he created a lot of sound elements that he felt like were part of that world, and then he had some help from Menalon creating some elements, as well, and then we ended up scoring the majority of the film, as far as like the main theme and melodic movements and stuff. So, collaborative, I guess, is technically what you could call all of us in (the overall score), but we weren’t sitting in a studio together.
I think we all have a very different approach to the music, too, so I think it’s kinda neat how THE VOID sounds, because our leanings are more melodic and orchestral and stuff, whereas Jeremy’s tastes are much more noise and soundscape-y. He’s a big fan of the band Lustmord, which is a lot of (similarly) very atonal, drone-y type of stuff, so I think you get a combination of both worlds in the score for THE VOID, which I think really works for the meat of the film,, actually. I can’t speak for Jeremy and Steve, but I think that was part of their inspiration for using a few different sources for the music.
BD: I would imagine that for a movie like this, the sound and music has to be as immersive as the visuals.
MM: Yeah, which I think is a great way to describe this, and very much a part of our goal, in later acts of the film, not to spoil anything, but it does get very dark and hopeless, so we wanted to capture that, almost like you’re drowning in the soundscape of the film. And one of the interesting elements of, like you just mentioned, this is one of those films where sound design and music, and the line between them, gets pretty blurry. There were certain things in there—we loved some of their onset sounds, and would end up recording and sampling them, and adding distortion and moving them around, and in the end sort of creating elements where it would feel like the music was expanding from the environment itself, so it kind of adds to the horror in certain elements (and) to the surreal feeling.
BD: Did you approach this movie more for the mood and feel of the movie itself, or more for the emotional, character-driven aspects?
MM: I wouldn’t say we struggled, but it’s something we paid attention to, from the outset, because a lot of the ideas in there, between Jeremy and Steve, a lot of the mood stuff sort of seemed like it was going to be easier to agree upon. Our tastes tends to be a little more melodic, a little more cinematic. We love assigning character themes as a device, but typically the tastes of the directors were leaning away from that, so it became this kind of approach of subtlety, of still making sure we could build those moments, those bits of character familiarity, even if it’s stand cues or subtle melodic movements that didn’t feel too in-your-face and Hollywood for the guys, but also would still create an emotional connection for our lead character and his relationship with the nurse, and they’re all very heartbreaking and very dark, but I think a big thing we tried to pay attention to (was to) create some tenderness in the refrain. His performance in the movie is incredible, I thought. It was very inspired by what he was bringing in that role, and I wanted to expand a little bit on that, the unspoken things between the characters.
BD: Can you talk more about creating the sounds of the movie?
MM: There’s a couple of specific pieces of equipment that we (worked with). There’s this wicked distortion plugin that we wanted to mess with called Driver, and there’s also this great pedal that I think Jeremy owns called Total Sonic Annihilation, and both for me are, in most kinds of music, borderline unusable, because they are so distorted and so noisy, they kind of just do whatever they feel like doing whenever you turn them on, but some of what we ended up experimenting with was creating something more familiar tones of soundscapes in movies, and then it was always the next step, like, “Okay, now let’s put it in THE VOID, and let’s distort it like crazy, and see if we can add elements that just feel overwhelming and even scary, even if they’re sounds that we recognize, let’s push them into a place that’s very unfamiliar and kind of shocking at times.” That was a big part of process for this film that’s been different from others; there’s sort of no such thing as “too distorted,” almost.
There were several of the scenes where we would feel like we were pretty much done, and there’s actually specifically a moment (again, without spoiling anything), this great hallway scene that’s incredibly gory and involves an axe, and we delivered a piece that we felt was basically finished for that, and then the actual finishing touch was like, “Yeah, that’s great, but what if we put the whole thing through distortion?” That was always the next line of thinking. We let the distortions do their thing, they’re so unpredictable, and record them, and we find we just make sounds that would be really difficult to create intentionally. It was exploring the depth of how much we could make these sounds glitch out and find certain moments that felt really signature; especially in that hallway scene, I think there were a few that jumped out that were really effective; it really just makes it feel like the world is falling apart, or something.
BD: Was your creative process on THE VOID different than on other movies?
MM: I suppose that’s a bit of a misnomer; I don’t’ know if there’s a “usual way.” I think a lot of things we learned from THE VOID in terms of creating that initial sketchbook and kind of almost scoring a film that didn’t exist yet, and creating this world that we could all find some common ground with, that’s something that we found very useful for this project, and kind of really inspiring to create the original music. So, that’s something that we’ve found ourselves doing since THE VOID, as well. It’s kind of interesting, this new film we’re working on, we actually created an original score for it based on the script, and there’s this one little piece of music that, because the directors had it before shooting the film, they had one of the actresses humming it under her breath in one of the scenes, which is the kind thing we’d never be able to do; a kind of inception into the movie.
I feel like every film we work on is a learning process in this way; that original kind of creation session is something that I think we’ll do a lot of, going forward. It’s also kind of a way to not get too sucked into the edit or the specific characters or performance or anything like that, to have a clear mind of the concepts, without being tied down to what the film is yet. It’s more of an opportunity to add an original voice to a film.
So, when I say, “our usual process,” I don’t know if there’s such a thing, really. (laughs) It’s all pretty different, depending on what’s going on.
BD: This must’ve been exciting and fun to work on.
MM: Yeah, it was a pleasure to work on. Jeremy and Steve, they’re both have great taste, and a really unique vision for what they wanted to create. We were fans of their films before we got to work on it, so it was pretty cool for us to be in a room with the two of them and to also be creatively (involved) on the same page, kind of going back and forth and getting really excited about it. It was a really pleasant collaborative experience with those two.
BD: Now, let me ask you: with all the comparisons THE VOID has been getting to the look and feel of John Carpenter, did the sounds and music of his films come into play for you guys?
MM: Actually, it’s interesting you mention that. This was pretty much a discussion between me and Jeremy. That’s something we tried to pay attention to, to actually avoid. We made conscious efforts (not) to make this score too referential; it seemed like the vibe of the film, the way it was shot, doesn’t lend itself to any specific time period; in fact, even in terms of the technology, there’s nothing (in the film) that’s like, “this is modern day,” or “this is early ‘90s,” like it all just kind of exists in its own realm, and so early days in this conversation, we brought up films like IT FOLLOWS (2015) which has very cool, but also very referential, scores, which feel like an homage of sorts to the ‘80s kinds of horror scores. Right away, it was something Steve and Jeremy were like, “We don’t want to do any of that,” which we were happy about, as well. We want to create something that feels like it’s in a realm of its own. There’s definitely some good synthesizers and stuff in there, but we were never approaching the film trying to create something that felt intentionally like an ‘80s movie or like a ‘90s movie, or anything other than itself.
BD: How did you come to work on this movie?
MM: (That’s) a pretty funny story. As I mentioned, we’d been fans of the guys’ previous works, movies like MANBORG are movies we all love. (Myself and) my fellow composers, Tristan Tarr and Dean Rhode, we’ve been making music together as long as we can remember. Tristan was actually walking in a park with his dog, and met Steve, who had recently adopted a dog, and that was literally how the connection came about: small talk in a dog park. Steve was like, “Oh, you make music? Cool, we need music!” No joke, that’s how we got the job! (laughs) That is actually a great case for adopting an animal. It’s a good thing to do, but you also might get to score a movie.
BD: What’s next for you?
MM: We’ve been lucky enough to work on a variety of projects in the past couple of months, and we’re in the middle of one right now, a pretty cool horror film. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about it, but you’ll see it soon, a movie called STILLBORN. (We’re also working on) a couple of movie trailers and things as well. Our big thing in 2017 is we’re going to be making an album again, which we haven’t done in a little over a year. It’s time to take a step back from film and make a full record.
BD: For you guys, was this movie more “fun scary,” or does it cross the line into being truly creepy?
MM: I would say this movie is genuinely horrifying. There were sequences in this which were, honest to God, difficult to work on. Steve and Jeremy are brilliant with practical effects; that’s one of the things they’re so known for, and some of the effects of this film—even though we’ve watched them a bunch of times over to create creepy music for them—there are still parts where we want to minimize the window to not watch them again, because every time, they would make you cringe. There’s body horror elements, and it’s gory, and creepy, and it’s got that vibe, but it also really reaches a level of existential horror by the end of it.
Being as close as we are to the project, and seeing it develop, it’s always tough to say from an audience’s perspective, but the premiere we attended at Fantastic Fest (I was lucky enough to be in the audience for that), there are several moments in this film where something would happen, and the audience would either like, gasp, or shield their eyes, or make the I’m-gonna-throw-up sound (laughs), so that’s my biggest measurement; I think there’s some legitimately haunt-your-nightmares sequences in this film. I don’t think that’ll disappoint at all, which is a cool thing to find, as a musician, because what’s onscreen already, with no music, is horrifying; like it barely needs help. We’re doing this, trying to help what’s there, like what they were doing in the first place is so effective, and so scary, so that’s always a treat.
BD: Will the film score be available?
MM: That’s a good question; with these things always in the hands of the production companies, we don’t really get a say in the release schedule, but I will say that on our most recent instrumental record, which is called MOVEMENTS 1, we were lucky enough to be nominated for a Juno Award, which is like the Canadian Grammy (laughs). It’s on that record; in fact, our original sketchbook for THE VOID is on there, as well as some other movements from this film (and) some original score elements from other films, as well as some original pieces. So, in terms of a proper, original THE VOID soundtrack, I’m not sure, but if you want to find some songs, they’re on that record.
BD: Would you like to add anything else?
MM: THE VOID is honestly a really cool movie that’s (also) really scary, so if you’re a horror fan, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It was a pleasure to work on something that was so original and really delivers on every front. I think you’ll really like it.
BD: Thank you very much, Martin!
MM: Thank you!
THE VOID is in select theaters now.
Check out more of Blitz//Berlin’s music on their website: http://www.blitz-berlin.com
© Copyright 2017 by Barry Lee Dejasu