A Look Back At AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON

Originally published at Den of Geek on 21/07/2009

Henry Hull. Larry Talbot. Eddie Quist. David Kessler. Four relatively unassuming names that don’t mean anything at all unless you’re a fan of horror cinema, as this quartet are all severely guilty of carrying out carnivorous lunar ac-ti-vi-ties under the light of the full moon.

That is to say, they’re all werewolves.

I originally planned this article as a twenty-fifth anniversary “look back” at John Landis’ seminal An American Werewolf In London, before realising that landmark passed three years ago. Still, you should never need an excuse to re-examine one of the greatest werewolf movies the living, the dead, and the undead have ever seen. So grab a pint from The Slaughtered Lamb, get comfortable in the wolf pen and travel back to a time when werewolf movies were like buses: you wait around for one for years, and suddenly three come all at once.

While it was released in 1981, American Werewolf had an unusually long gestation period, the seeds of which were sown during a gypsy burial ceremony Landis witnessed during the making of Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia circa 1968. The thought of the real-life ramifications of facing creatures actually rising from the grave to cause mischief gave way to another classical myth from the depths of Eastern Europe – the legend of the werewolf.

However, werewolves have never been exceptionally treated by the Hollywood honchos, and Landis – who had infected the script with measures of both horror and comedy – was continuously told over the next ten years that his script was either ‘too scary to be funny, or too funny to be scary’. It was inconceivable back then that horror movies could also be funny, despite the fact that Hollywood’s big productions had already led the way decades ago – just look at the humour prevalent in James Whale’s Universal movies.

Luckily, by the time the eighties began, Landis finally had some clout and two bona fide hits in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House and 1980’s The Blues Brothers, a pair of sterling money makers for Universal, who would then finance his next movie: An American Werewolf In London.

For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film, here’s a synopsis, although be warned that spoilers will follow: Two American backpackers are attacked on the Yorkshire moors by a werewolf; one survives and is brought to London, where he begins a hideous transformation from man to beast and preys on the Cockney populace whilst having sex with Jenny Agutter. Contains mild peril, nudity and Brian Glover.

As mentioned previously, American Werewolf was not the only Lycanthropic opus to hit cinemas in 1981, as it was preceded by two other mainstream werewolf movies – respectively being Joe Dante’s The Howling and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, although whether the latter is actually a werewolf flick is still of some debate. According to Joe Dante, American Werewolf was fast-tracked into production after The Howling began development to stop effects wunderkind Rick Baker working on Dante’s movie instead of Landis’, and as such there was reportedly a bit of bad blood between productions, especially as The Howling would be using make-up effects developed by Baker, under his protégé Rob Bottin.

But American Werewolf is more than just spectacular make-up effects. Landis’ script is brilliant, and is both hilarious and terrifying at alternate moments. Indeed, the film itself is often erroneously called a horror-comedy, and while the film certainly has its fair share of humour, at its core it’s a tragedy, with the spirit of The Wolf Man. As Landis himself puts it*, ‘[American Werewolf In London] is not a comedy. We meet these two boys in a truckload of sheep. This is not subtle! These boys are dead at the end of the movie. This is not a happy story, this is a horror movie.’

Like The Howling, the picture uses humour to justify the concept of a creature like the werewolf believably existing in modern times, poking fun at the subject at most opportunities, such as the wall decorations in The Slaughtered Lamb (‘It’s a pentagram. A five-pointed star. It’s used for witchcraft. Universal Studios and Lon Chaney, Jr maintained that’s the mark of The Wolf Man!)’.

However, whilst the protagonists take the piss at every opportunity, the movie itself treats the superstition dead seriously, so much so that Jack and David are asked to leave upon pointing it out. Even John Woodvine’s very serious Dr. Hirsch pokes fun at the very concept of werewolves with the line ‘If there were a monster roaming around Northern England, we’d have seen it on the telly!’ which is all the more relevant today regarding contemporary catch-all media, so much so that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the forthcoming remake replaced it with ‘If there were a monster roaming around Northern England, we’d have seen it on YouTube!’

Humour is also used heavily where the undead are concerned, with Griffin Dunne’s Jack initially treating death as it if it’s one big tragic joke, before his visits get more and more ominous as the full moon approaches, with Jack and David’s final conversation being in a porno theatre amidst a mock-kangaroo court held by David’s victims, some of which are far too cheery and chipper considering the fact that they have recently been brutally murdered by a werewolf. But the best use of comedy actually runs hand in hand with the best scare in the film, as Jack and David are running on the moors. David slips, the audience gasps, Jack wisecracks, goes to help David up, a werewolf comes out of nowhere and that incredible sound design fills our ears as we fill our pants while watching Jack get torn apart and try to get our breath back.

The film does have some horrific moments, and Landis treats this with a certain matter-of-fact approach that completely alters the tone of the film, but naturally so and not jarring in the least. Landis wanted the violence to be very realistic, and as we see people get torn apart by the wolf there is a lot of blood but very few flashy camera angles. It’s all just there in your face to deal with, although the blood and gore are never really dwelled on, instead allowing our imagination to take hold. One of the best examples of how the film deals with this is in the subway, where Gerald Bringsley has just tripped and sits helpless at the foot of the escalator as we see – in a long shot from the very top of the escalator peering down – the werewolf approaching him, only to cut away a few seconds after it enters the frame.

But yes, one of the main reasons American Werewolf is still so memorable today is the astonishing make-up effects by Rick Baker. Baker had a longstanding relationship with Landis, having created the gorilla suit for the director’s debut – 1972’s Shlock – and worked on movies such as The Exorcist, the 1976 remake of King Kong (playing the title character), and the original Star Wars (creating masks for the Cantina sequence) before reuniting with Landis for American Werewolf, eschewing The Howling in the process (although he still received a ‘Special Make-Up Effects Consultant’ credit on that film) and subsequently having a special Academy Award created for him and his team for their efforts.

The actual transformation scene was understandably jaw-dropping on release and still holds up to this day. There is usually a divide between horror fans on which transformation is better: The Howling or An American Werewolf In London, but Baker’s transformation still holds up better for me, especially due to the fact that it isn’t hidden away in shadow, it’s just there and more the real for it. Both have extensive use of bladders, which was brand-new and the height of technology back in 1981, but American Werewolf’s transformation is a lot shorter and much less obvious that it’s an actual effect, as The Howling’s is a little more raw, though still great. I doubt this great debate will ever be solved, although if it helps sway your mind, Dee Wallace slates the American Werewolf effects on the special edition DVD of The Howling.

The werewolf itself is undoubtedly the best modern-day lycanthrope to hit the silver screen, even though it is rarely actually seen until the end of the film. Baker himself says ‘I think the wolf is very cool. John always said he was never gonna show him and I intentionally sculpted a very extreme expression on him.’ Unusually for most werewolf films, Baker’s creature is a four-legged wolf on Landis’ insistence, and was – amazingly enough – pulled off by adapting the concept of the old school sports day mainstay known as the wheelbarrow race.

But Baker’s makeup also shines with the werewolf’s victims, namely in the grisly makeup for Griffin Dunne’s three appearances as one of the undead, providing three separate stages of decomposition, including a freshly-killed look (with the throat clearly torn out, providing a quite distracting little piece of wiggly flesh), a rotting corpse look, and finally a skeletal appearance, created by making a life-size puppet of Dunne’s head and carving away at it. The results are spectacular, but not in a showy way, and you never watch the film thinking anything other than ‘wow, it’s a guy with his throat torn out’.

But for all of Baker’s effort, his makeups constitute very little of the movie’s screen-time. The film runs at a brisk pace (even brisker if you live in Europe and as such are subjected to the PAL system), courtesy of Malcolm Campbell’s editing, which strips away most of the fat and leaves few scenes that do not really contribute to the story in one way or another. Okay, the ‘Bad Moon Rising’ montage isn’t really necessary, but it’s still a classic sequence. In fact, it’s remarkable how lean the film is, right up to its somewhat abrupt ending. It’s almost a homage to King Kong, only Landis leaves no time for someone to utter a soliloquy on the werewolf’s behalf. It’s simply werewolf dies – Jenny Agutter cries – quick shot of a naked and very dead David Naughton – cue The Marcels.

The music itself is unique, with Landis opting to use mostly already established songs, with only a tiny bit of actual score for good measure. As has been stated many times before, all the songs are moon related (three versions of ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Moondance’, and ‘Bad Moon Rising’), and legend has it that Landis tried to get the rights to Cat Stevens’ ‘Moonshadow’, with the musician apparently turning him down due to the subject matter.

The rest of the film is scored with music by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, who at the time was in his ‘comedy phase’, having scored movies such as Animal House and Airplane!, and would do Ghostbusters a few years later. However, Bernstein’s score is not comical in the slightest, and adds a moody tone to the film. Due to the number of songs, the score only runs just over seven minutes, and as such it was never released as an album. However, Italian disco-maestro Meco Monardo (who hit number one in the States with his cover of John Williams’ ‘Cantina Band’) re-recorded parts of the score and released it – along with some original material and a cover of ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and The Marcels’ ‘Blue Moon’ – as ‘Meco’s Impressions of An American Werewolf In London’, which is actually mentioned on the film’s end credits.

Now as you may have heard recently, American Werewolf is currently on the slate to be remade, courtesy of Dimension Films. Who knows what horrors they are capable of (well, the Scary Movie films for a start, along with countless terrible horror sequels), but it will follow the rich legacy that American Werewolf has left behind, not least the huge injection of comedy into horror that happened in the 80s, which gave way to such classics as Gremlins, Evil Dead II, and, um, Haunted Honeymoon, not to mention Shaun of the Dead.

Werewolf movies since have also been hugely influenced by the film, not least its 1997 sequel An American Werewolf In Paris, which was to the first film as Attack of the Clones is to The Empire Strikes Back. Funnily enough, the film has already been sort of remade with a BBC Radio adaptation that was transmitted the same year as the sequel. Produced and directed by Dirk Maggs, with input by Landis and featuring Agutter, Woodvine and Glover reprising their roles, the play fleshes out some of the scenes and characters, particularly the original werewolf, who we find out did actually escape from a lunatic asylum and is actually Glover’s brother.

So it’s been twenty-eight years ago since Brian Glover told two poor boys to ‘beware the moon’, and like all good monster movies, An American Werewolf In London has never gone away, and still has a legion of fans thirsty for more lycanthropic malarkey, which they’ve slowly been able to get over the years, at least in the form of plastic action figures. But there’s a feature length documentary on its way called Beware The Moon, which will be on the Blu-Ray that debuts in September. So until then, throw some CCR on your iPod, visit a porno theatre with some dead friends, and we’ll see you next Wednesday.

*Landis and Baker quotes from the 20th Anniversary DVD.

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Remembering David Shire’s Zodiac

by Charlie Brigden

There isn’t a lot of score in ZODIAC. Nearly thirty minutes out of a hundred and fifty-eight, which isn’t unknown for a movie of its sort. “It didn’t need a score,” thought director David Fincher, who had already curated a large and personal playlist of songs for the film which both served to reflect the general mood as well as illustrate the passage of time. But then he was reminded of David Shire.

Even today, on the tenth anniversary of the release of Fincher’s masterpiece, David Shire certainly isn’t anywhere near a household name. He doesn’t get mentioned in the conversations that usually take place around the densely saturated vinyl soundtrack market, and his name is rarely brought up in film journals. But he’s responsible for some of the greatest scores in cinema, with an influence that stretches from Broadway to hip-hop, not to mention the deadly streets of Fincher’s San Francisco.

Shire started off scoring Westerns at Universal and independent dramas – one of the earliest pictures he scored was Jack Nicholson’s 1971 directorial debut DRIVE, HE SAID – but his stock quickly rose when he took on a paranoid thriller from Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, with the director fresh from THE GODFATHER. Shire scored THE CONVERSATION as a piano score on instruction from Coppola, to echo the lonely hidden life of the film’s surveillance expert Harry Caul, but worked with sound designer Walter Murch, to alter the texture of the score as the film went on, using the mixing board to modify the piano to match the rising tension of the film’s narrative. The same year Shire created another landmark score for Joseph Sargent’s subway heist picture THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, orchestrating a funk landscape that would go on to make several appearances in hip-hop, in songs by such artists as J Dilla, Mix Master Mike, and Xzibit.

It was sound designer Ren Klyce’s love of THE CONVERSATION that led Fincher to hiring Shire for ZODIAC, placing cues from the score, along with Shire’s music to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, into a temp-track despite having no budget for original music. “Even though the studio was getting a sense we needed a score, I sort of had to do this under the radar,” Klyce said in the film’s original production notes, “I knew my head was on the chopping block.” Shire would look to composer Charles Ives for inspiration, and his 1906 work ‘The Unanswered Question’, which has sections of the orchestra asking musical questions, only to have no resolution, which he felt suited ZODIAC. “This whole movie is an unanswered question,” Shire opined, “Even at the end you don’t get the answer 100 percent; even after more than 20 years and still you question. There is this awe of irresolution about it.”

ZODIAC was David Shire’s penultimate score (his last was the 2009 remake of Fritz Lang’s noir BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT) but he had kept plenty busy over the years, whether it was winning an Oscar for best song for NORMA RAE, adapting Mussorgsky’s ‘Night On Bald Mountain’ for SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, or composing for the Broadway musical adaptation of BIG. One can hope that with the increased reputation ZODIAC has found since its release, the composer might eventually receive the kudos and respect his music has deserved.

Recommended works by David Shire: THE CONVERSATION (1974), THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974), FAREWELL MY LOVELY (1975), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), THE BIG BUS (1976), 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984), RETURN TO OZ (1985), MONKEY SHINES (1988), REAR WINDOW (1998), ZODIAC (2007)

The Interview: Nicholas Britell (Moonlight)

By Charlie Brigden

Nicholas Britell is about to hit the big time through his Oscar-nominated score to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. With the film out soon in the UK, we sat down with the composer to discuss awards, swimming, and chopping and screwing.

CB: Hey Nicholas, how are you?

NB: I’m good, I’m good. I’m, you know, watching this huge snowstorm! [laughter]

CB: First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nomination.

NB: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CB: How did it feel when you found out?

NB: Oh, my. It was really surreal. It was…it has been an unbelievable experience. I think, you know, you can never even dream of something like that happening and, when it did, it felt pretty incredible. [laughs]

CB: Okay. So, with Chiron being such a reserved and almost silent character, was it something you were kind of tasked to do with using the score to provide the facets of the character that he wasn’t able to use through dialogue?

NB: Oh, that’s a really great question. And actually, that was something that I definitely focused on quite a bit. I think, you know, one of the amazing things that music can do, it can bring you into the emotional landscape of characters. And one thought that I did have early on was imagining what is the world like from Chiron’s point of view? You know. Because he’s a profound individual. And he obviously has a huge range of feelings, and thoughts on the world that he doesn’t necessarily express to others. So for me I felt the music could, in a small way, bring us into some of that.

And along those lines, when I first read the screenplay actually, the feeling that I had from the screenplay was this incredible feeling of poetry. It was such a beautiful, intimate, tender, sensitive screenplay. And Barry, in creating the film, he brought all of those feelings to life. So there was a question that I had of “what is the musical analogue of poetry? What is the sound of that?” And exploring musical ideas that felt like that.

Because so much of what I do really is, you know, as a film composer, is trying to translate my feelings into sounds. And then explore how they interact with the picture. So, you know, starting from that basis of exploring the poetry of Moonlight. That was how is started with some of the music ideas and I actually wrote a piece which I sent to Barry called Piano and Violin Poem. That was really channelling the idea of poetry. And Barry loved it, and that actually became Little’s Theme. That is Little’s Theme. So that feeling of poetry, that feeling of getting inside Chiron’s point of view, it was all very linked together for me.

CB: So as you mentioned, the film composer’s usual job is to kind of emphasise the emotions and kind of say what can’t be said almost sub-textually. So was it difficult because even with… Chiron is still, even with his body language, is still so reserved, so trying to draw that character out through the music?

NB: It’s interesting. One of the things musically we really tried to explore a wide range of musical possibilities, because there are certain scenes where there is that feeling of subtlety. This feeling of quiet. Scenes where it’s Chiron by himself, just thinking. And walking and we’re imagining his internal thoughts, his internal emotional landscape. And then there are themes where the music actually really soars. For example in the scene where Juan is teaching Little to swim. That’s a place where Barry, you know, as opposed to the parts of the film where the music was of a more tender character.
The swimming sequence where I wrote a piece called ‘The Middle of the World’ is a place where the music really soared. So actually, in some ways, it felt…I know Barry was trying to have that scene almost feel like a spiritual baptism in a way. Almost like the beginning of the rest of Little’s life. Sort of really speaking to the profundity of, and depth of feeling that is inherent really in all of our lives at certain moments. And I think Barry definitely was so open to exploring the wide range of emotions. So the music was able also to have a wide range of possibilities in that respect too.

CB: So, you said about being very much from Chiron’s point of view, the swimming scene is obviously such an impactful scene. So to me that almost brings up, kind of almost a translation of what Chiron is hearing. And the feelings coming from that, is that what you’re going for?

NB: Yeah, you’re saying almost in a sense of, this music is almost a reflection of what he’s feeling and hearing at that moment internally. I think that, in the swimming scene, because I think we were moving even beyond what I think Chiron knows at that moment. And for me and Barry, I think that sequence was really about the whole world of Chiron at that moment in time. And a way of expressing kind of a depth of feeling, both the relationship that he has with Juan and I think the sense of what is to come, actually.

Because on its own, when I first looked at the sequence, I remember thinking to myself, “oh, this is a sort of touching moment between Juan and Little, he’s learning to swim. There’s Juan there”. But what was really fascinating was to hear Barry’s perspective on it. That actually, he felt that it was this really profound baptism kind of a moment. Where we’re actually looking forward, through the rest of the chapters. It’s almost a prelude to what is to come. And music in that sense is speaking to more than what either Juan or Little I think knows at that moment.

And that scene, I wrote for that piece almost like a violent concerto kind of cadenza, very virtuosic, arpeggios, that Tim Fain, a dear friend of mine, he’s an incredible violinist. He performed those in the film. And that same musical idea comes back in a few moments, in particular in relation to Paula, Little’s mother. So we first hear it with Juan in the sea there, and we hear it again in a different sort of morphed form in the hallway sequence with Paula. And we hear it later in the film as well. So there’s an element I think of that musical idea, which actually relates to Little and his life’s journey. And his relationships with these parental figures, actually.

CB: Yeah. It certainly comes, just from the nature of the scene and the music, a euphoric almost kind of awakening.

NB: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

CB: And certainly where that relates to the two scenes of Paula where that’s played. First of all when you don’t hear her, and then when you do hear her…

NB: Exactly.

CB: …it’s when he wakes up and he’s an adult. Yeah. So the way that works is amazing.

NB: Exactly. And I was just going to say, one of the things that we really tried to do as well, that Barry and I spent a lot of time on, is this question of across the chapters in Moonlight, finding cohesion across the chapters. While also allowing for a transformation. Both, you know, obviously Chiron is going through his life’s journey, but also for the music to in some ways parallel that. And it was interesting though.

There were a few different ways that we actually approached that, where for example ideas that start, for example in the swimming sequence we were talking about, recur across the chapters. But each time they’ve evolved and changed in a way. And in some ways, at some times it’s a question of changing the orchestration. But in some places too, it’s a question of actually applying…there’s a hip-hop technique, in southern hip-hop where you call it chopping and screwing the music. Where chopping and screwing is a style of southern hip-hop where you take tracks and you actually slow them down. And when you slow the music down, the pitch goes down. And so you get this audio texture which is really deepened and enriched and you hear things that you didn’t hear before.

And early on in our process, Barry actually said to me how much he loved that type of music. And we had conversations where we actually said to ourselves, “what if we chopped and screwed the score?” “What if I actually wrote music, and fully recorded it, and then as the second part of the process I started experimenting with the audio of my recordings, and I started bending them and slowing them and experimenting?” And that’s what we did, actually.

So one of the means by which we evolved the musical ideas in Moonlight was by actually chopping and screwing some of the tracks, so in some cases you’re hearing instruments that literally sounded something that wouldn’t be physically playable, at register in real life. In chapter three with what we call Black’s Theme which is a new orchestration of Little’s Theme where it is played on an ensemble of cellos. That piece was actually recorded in D major. And then what you hear in the film is a version of it where it’s actually morphed and it’s pitched down into A major.  So you’re hearing what sounds sort of like cellos, but also sounds like basses. You’re not really sure. And there was something about the sort of interesting qualities of the audio and the morphing of it. It felt like it actually had like a symbolic kind of correspondence with the evolution of the characters in the film.

CB: It’s really nice, a) because you just answered one of my next questions without me having to ask it [laughter] which is fantastic. And it’s great because it’s almost like an evolution of kind of the pattern of film music with the normal thematic and almost the light motif and things like that. But instead of just having the recurring themes, being able to change it in that way is a really beautiful new way of having that effect, I think.

NB: Well thank you. We were really excited by it because, what’s so interesting with film music is that you never really know, until you try something out, if it’s going to work with the picture. There are lots of really interesting music ideas that, as music, can be fascinating. But when you put them up against the picture, they may not work, or they may not feel like they’re part of the movie. And why that is is I think one of the great artistic mysteries of film composing. But what was so exciting for Barry and me was that when we attempted to evolve the musical ideas with this chopping and screwing technique and we experimented and we put it up against the picture, it just felt like it was part of the movie. It felt totally natural to the movie. And it worked. And it felt emotional.

And so that was so exciting, that it both felt exciting on a musical level, but it also felt really functional and potent on a film level. And that was what was so important to us. And as a composer, it really did open up a whole new kind of dimension of exploration for me. Because it think historically when you write music, you’re writing notes, you’re writing tones, writing sounds, that then get recorded. And what’s interesting about this is that recording isn’t the end of the process, when you’re doing something like this. The recording is actually the middle of the process. And then you add this other dimension, where you’re actually exploring the recording itself. And you’re taking that recording and you’re experimenting with it. So, for me just on an artistic level it was really exciting.

CB: Yeah. It actually reminds me of the stuff Jerry Goldsmith used to do with the echoplex machine.

NB: Well, you know, I think in history there are lots of, there are moments when you find certain techniques that unlock new possibilities. And I think that what’s great about those moments is that if they excite and inspire, then they’re just really starting points for new things. Like I think that there are, I’m sure there are so many other techniques that no-one’s yet explored for discovering new sounds and thinking about music. And I think what was really cool about chopping and screwing for Moonlight was that it actually related, not only to Barry’s personal love of that kind of music, but this was music that for example in the film, Black is listening to chopped and screwed hip-hop. There is this kind of correspondence between the technique. The score itself doesn’t actually have hip-hop beats or styles in it per se. But what’s interesting is that the score is crafted with the techniques that southern chopped and screwed hip-hop is made with as well. So that’s kind of interesting. It’s almost like they share a process, in a way.

CB: Was there any score you composed that didn’t make it in for any reason?

NB: Well you know, it’s interesting. There are always ideas in every film that don’t make it in. I think with Moonlight, I think there were certain, interestingly there were certain experiments that we did on some of the chopping and screwing that were very extreme [laughs] and that we didn’t put in the movie. There’s a version for example of Black’s Theme. The version in the film is a perfect fourth lower than the recording. I did a version of that that was much further than that. And it was really interesting but it didn’t feel right for that moment.

There’s a certain point at which, when you’re evolving the audio, where it really starts to change the characteristics and the tone. And actually one cue that does that in the film is the schoolyard fight sequence, there’s a track that we call ‘Knock Down, Stay Down’. And that track is an ultra-screwed version of Little’s Theme, at the very opening. It’s a track where it almost just sounds like rumbling. And occasionally you hear something that sounds like a bell and you hear something that sounds like a bass. And what’s interesting is that cue the thing that sounds like a bell is actually the piano from Little’s Theme. The thing that sounds like a bass is actually a violin. So you’re hearing this completely morphed soundscape in that cue.

And that worked really well there because I think in the fight sequence, you needed to feel this complete, you know, the world’s upside-down almost, for Chiron at that moment. So the musical landscape reflects that. And so it worked there in the film. But when I did some other extreme experiments like that later, it actually felt a lot better inside the film for Black’s Theme to be a perfect fourth away from the original recording as opposed to further.

CB: Well. If you ever want to do another soundtrack album you could do Sketches from Moonlight, and include all your new stuff.

NB: {laughs] Yes, you hear all of our experiments, yeah.

CB: Yes, that would be fascinating.

NB: Awesome, well, thank you. These are great questions, I really appreciate you discussing them.

CB: Thank you, and thank you very much for your time.

NB: Of course. All right. Take care.

Moonlight is released in the UK on February 17th – the soundtrack album is available now

Nocturne

Raiomond Mirza’s score for Saul Pincus’ enchanting indie drama NOCTURNE is a classy affair, a heady mix of jazz rhythms and traditional symphonic music, with haunting melodies punctuated by explosive emotions. The relationship between symphonic score and jazz in movies is a lengthy and historic one, from the the scores of Elmer Bernstein to the use of George Gershwin in Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN, and it’s treated beautifully here. Mirza’s score has elements of tension and danger behind it, but pushing it forward is some beautiful symphonic elements.

Part of NOCTURNE involves the reconciliation of past and future events, and appropriately the album begins with a delicate music box melody before segueing to a reprisal on solo piano (‘Origami’). Suddenly the music box comes back as counterpoint and it’s a wonderful moment, albeit short-lived due to the introduction of the mysterious and alluring theme for lead character Cindy. There’s a suspenseful feel to the theme and with the inclusion of xylophone, it has an ethereal quality, full of memories, shadow and fog.

And there are certainly threatening moments, with the thick tense opening brass of ‘Flying In Dreams’ and the chase music of ‘Daymare’, where the fast modern percussion slowly melds into some fierce string work. There are also some wonderful moments where Mirza introduces a playful waltz using the lower string registers that recalls John Barry’s score for KING KONG. But so much of NOCTURNE is filled with absolutely dreamy symphonic pieces that it’s obvious where its real strength lies.

The lovely and delicate ‘Reflections’ is a test run for this early in the score, and ‘Fast Friends’ starts to hint at it but it’s the shimmering strings of ‘The Aunt’s Legacy’ where it begins to open up. ‘The Perils of Pirate Peacock’ provides a delightful piece including harp, but it’s really set up to slowly build to the tense action cue ‘It Ends Here’ and final score track, ‘Going Home’. The latter is a beautiful track, with a measured solo guitar playing a new, hopeful variation on the main theme, to be joined by a chorus of strings that thankfully don’t overwhelm the melody as they might in other scores. Joining the fray to finish the album is sultry song ‘Heaven’s Midnight’, sung by the lovely voice of Niccie Simpson.

NOCTURNE is a wonderful score. I was going to say little, not in a patronising way, but more in the context of its intimacy. A tone poem may be an appropriate description; the album feels at times like poetry, with the aesthetic that comes with that. Either way, it’s a brilliant way to spend forty minutes.

NOCTURNE is out now from the composer and can be purchased and/or streamed below

Amazon – iTunesSpotify

The Interview: Sascha Dikiciyan, Part 2

With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s fantastic soundtrack now available on digital and 2-CD, Paul Weedon caught up with composer Sascha Dikiciyan again to discuss the intricacies of producing expanded versions of one of 2016’s finest video game scores.

Read Part 1 here

Here we are again! We previously touched on the fact that you worked on the music for Prague in the game. In terms of scoring locations, how do you go about conceptualising the futuristic sound of a city like that? Do you look at contemporary music from the city today and work from there, or is it a more conceptual process than that?

That really depends. There are times when we do mix contemporary sounds of that part of their world with the Deus Ex sound – the Dubai missions for example. Personally, I was purposefully trying to stay away from the cliché – i.e. using any sort of contemporary sounds based on Prague and their history. Deus Ex music is really, at its core, a mood score. It all comes down to the vibe and what the player’s mission or directives are and how does it all fit into the overall story arc. And you go from there.

So tell me a little bit more about the process of working on an album version of a soundtrack. How do you go about condensing a series of tracks that tend to be somewhat non-linear in terms of the way they’re heard, and not only rework them so they work in isolation, but also make them work as a cohesive standalone listening experience?

Good question! I initially struggled a bit with how to approach this for the soundtrack. The music in Deus Ex is implemented in layers. There are many layers that adjust to the interactive behavior of the gamer. For example, if a player decides to play the entire game just by stealth and avoiding combat, they would never even hear any of the actual combat layers.

I mean, I’ve been writing music for games for many years and while I’m fluent in writing cues that require a lot of technical thinking, I’ve never felt comfortable just putting the layers on a soundtrack and calling it a day. So, for Deus Ex, we really wanted the tracks to stick to their original in-game idea but at the same time enhance the pure listening experience.

So how does the process start?

First, I had to go back and extract all my favorite parts from a cue. I would then start from scratch basically importing stems into a new arrangement. From there I’d work more like I would when I’m writing a record. I mean, on one hand, you need to give the players the in-game tracks but I also want non-gamers to enjoy the music. So we added new parts not present in the in-game cues and of course created the arrangements from scratch with a proper start and finish.

Going back to the combat cues, it was great to implement them into the soundtrack cues so that we could present all of the music from the game. Part of the reason why it took us a while was because of these new arrangements. There just isn’t a magic formula for them and it really needs to feel right. We also elevated the mixes for the soundtrack by using my mix engineer Sonny DiPerri, who also mixed my artist record “Doomsday” last year. We mixed everybody’s tracks to give the soundtrack a sense of brotherhood, if you will.

We have Michael McCann’s music of course and some tracks from Ed Harrison, so we wanted to make sure the quality is the same throughout even though we had different composers for different parts of the game. I hope people enjoy the album and appreciate how much work went into the soundtrack. In the end, I’m very happy with how it turned out.

And, when you’re producing an album like this, how important is it to pull in outside support?

I used to think, “Sure, I can do it all,” when, in reality, if you’re reaching for a certain level of quality you just can’t do it alone. It’s impossible. I had a kick ass team – Sonny DiPerri mixing and Dave Cooley mastering on my record last year. They took the whole project to another level and we wanted the same for the Deus Ex soundtrack. Sure, composers master and mix as well but when you hire someone whose only profession is mixing then you know you are raising the bar – period. It also allows me to focus on the creative aspect, which is the actual composing and creating the arrangements. Every top score you hear out there is a team effort.

What, for you personally, is one of your proudest moments on the Extended Soundtrack that didn’t make it in to the game itself?

Well, I was happy to use some of the melodic content we didn’t use for the in-game tracks simply because it would have been too distracting. Yes, scores need melody but again, Deus Ex is about vibe and mood. This isn’t Star Wars where every character has a leitmotif. There are a few sounds and chord progressions that are typical for the Deus Ex sonic universe but overall melody is used pretty sparsely.

For the soundtrack, we wanted to implement a bit more of that because you don’t have any visuals when you listen to it. So it just made sense to bring those elements back. Arrangements of the in-game cues are also somewhat restricted because of the technical requirements. We have proper beginnings and endings now plus the arrangements flow much better.

Obviously, an electronic soundtrack like this also lends itself to remixes, which is something that seems to be happening even more with video game soundtracks of late. Is that something you’re interested in exploring more of – taking your own work and reworking it in to a format that could find an even wider audience?

Well, I love remixing but the soundtrack versions, I wouldn’t call them remixes per se. They are different but still at their core the same tracks.

Actually, one thing I didn’t think to ask you about previously was Quake. You were heavily involved with the franchise for years, picking up the mantle from Trent Reznor, and you were integral in shaping the sound of that franchise as it developed. What did it mean for you to be involved with a franchise like that over such a prolonged period? Is it a franchise you’re keen to revisit?

Oh man. Quake. It’s where it all started for me. I was very young at the time and it was an intense experience. Obviously, landing Quake II as your first gig in 1997 was… mind blowing. I mean, how do you follow up the iconic work of Trent? It was tough. Also, back then the community was very tight and protective. Just because we were not Reznor was reason enough to question everything. We did shape the music a bit more into our direction with Quake 3 but it wasn’t until maybe 10 years later when Quake II and Quake 3’s music reached cult status. I mean, there are still hundreds of YouTube videos of fans playing the riffs. That’s pretty cool. I have composers who come up to me today and say, “You know, I do what I do because well, you inspired me.”

While that’s making me feel somewhat old, it’s actually pretty cool! Having just had the chance to play some of Quake’s music live together with DOOM composer Mick Gordon during The Game Awards, I felt like it would be very cool to revisit that universe again. It’s sort of come full circle. Maybe if id were to go and make a story-based Quake game again. Until then we’ll have to wait and see I guess.

Sascha, thanks again!

Hello Moviedrone!

Hi!

You might have noticed things have changed. As of today, Films On Wax has officially become Moviedrone. I imagine this is confusing, so I’ll try and explain why.

Films On Wax – as good a name as it is/was – was originally chosen in mind with the approach we were taking, which was a focus on looking at soundtracks on the vinyl format (hence the wax). For many reasons, mainly because it’s prohibitively expensive, it’s never been something we were able to keep up, so we decided to let it go, with a new (old – we’d been using Moviedrone for some podcasts) name to show we’re not focused on any particular format or medium, just the celebration of film music.

In terms of the name Moviedrone, it’s one I’ve had percolating in my head long before we even started FOW, and is a tribute to the great BBC television show Moviedrome, where presenter Alex Cox (and later Mark Cousins) would give an introduction to a cult film, providing a sense o0f context for the film that is sometimes needed with older films that newer audiences may not always understand (the show introduced me to films like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE TERMINATOR).

We thank you all for your readership so far, and hope that we’ll continue to have it in 2017 and beyond…

Charlie Brigden

A Tribute To Carrie

With the sad passing of Carrie Fisher yesterday, we put together a short musical tribute to her featuring the three themes from the “Princess Suite” composed by John Williams for the STAR WARS trilogy.