Composer Christopher Young: 'Horror Film Is the Idiot Bastard Son of Hollywood' (Q&A)
The veteran composer discusses his creepy score for the hit thriller "Sinister," why he keeps returning to the horror genre and how he finds inspiration in Jack o'lanterns.
Christopher Young, an Emmy and Golden Globe nominee who won the BMI Richard Kirk Career Achievement Award previously won by Danny Elfman and John Williams, tries some new sounds in a familiar genre in his soundtrack to Sinister, the Ethan Hawke-starring horror film that surprisingly opened No. 1 at the box office on Oct. 12. He tells The Hollywood Reporter about what inspires him, and how Sinister’s soundtrack differs from his Sinister CD.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve done movies as diverse as the jazzy The Rum Diary and the romantic The Shipping News, but you keep coming back to horror. Is that because you like it or people keep asking you to do it?
Christopher Young: Both. I try to stay away from horror but the calls come, and I’ve worked with these directors and love it. A lot of people who work with horror have a love-hate relationship with it. As a kid, I had a Beatles poster and a Bela Lugosi as Dracula poster, so both worlds always appealed to me. Horror allows you to do things as a composer than you’re able to do in no other style of movie. The music has to be aggressive. You can’t tiptoe around. It has to be incredibly focused dramatically – no time for second thoughts. It needs to generate a kneejerk reaction. Last night I was in the audience at the premiere of Sinister, and I was excited at those handful of moments where they actually jumped out of their seats. But at The Shipping News, there’s no more rewarding moment than to see women on my left and right with their dates in tears. The ultimate excitement is generating an immediate and well-defined emotion.
THR: You like using orchestral music, right?
Young: I’m a fan of 20th century orchestral music, the experimental avant-garde composers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. In horror movies you can write music that if it was performed on the concert stage would have the audience running out of the room with their fingers in their ears. But in a movie all of a sudden it becomes incredibly accessible and appreciated. Last night the director and producer said they’d been taking Sinister around to screenings and festivals, and after the audience asks about the movie, the first question they ask is, “What is this music?” It’s noticed in horror movies.
THR: The score can scare you even in a dark room. It reminds me of being a kid hearing Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and being too scared to go down the stairs to turn it off.
Young: For sure. I remember seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and hearing György Legeti’s Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, and Requiem and going, “Is that what it sounds like in outer space? Is that what I can expect to hear on the way to heaven, or wherever the hell I’m going?” Because I don’t think if I was going to heaven there’d be a bunch of angels strumming harps playing pretty music in C major. Even as a kid, hearing this Hungarian composer, I thought I’d just seen God. Or heard God for the first time. That’s where it started, the Polish and Hungarian school, Ligeti and Kshishtof Penderetsky and that Greek, Iannis Xenakis. All these guys experimenting with sound mass and clusters. When we’re kids on the piano, what’s the first thing we do? We bash it with our fists. We make clusters because we don’t know any better, and we all smile. So these guys took the same concept of clusters and made it meaningful. You’ll notice in horror scores a lot of it is dominated by big masses of nontontal sounds. That’s what I do in these movies. You can’t have clusters in romantic movies, you get fired on the spot. They want a melody. Let’s face it, horror films are not known for their wonderful melodies. Well, there are moments. Moments of romantic interest, where we’re asked to care about the people about to get diced and sliced. And the only Oscar Jerry Goldsmith won was for The Omen score.
THR: But that’s unusual.
Young: That’s the only time a horror score has gotten an Oscar. It’s just something that could never happen. Horror film is sort of the idiot bastard son of Hollywood. This month, all the studios are going to be celebrating the fact that horror films are an important part of the viewer’s diet, because they make tons of money – to support the films that get the Oscars. Come November, it’s time to clean up their act and rapidly forget they ever did horror. That’s where the love-hate comes in. People who work in horror know they are contributing to a genre that has always been loved and will always be loved – privately. It’s the forbidden evil working behind the curtain. My job scoring a horror movie is like being the barker at a carnival. A good barker can get anyone to walk into the roped-off tent. Especially with the main title, my job is to convince the audience to take the leap into the film even though their better sense is telling them, “I should put my popcorn down and get the hell outta here!”
THR: How long do you spend on a score?
Young: You get as long as you’re given. As little as two weeks or as much as three months at the most.
THR: Do you compose from the script?
Young: I’ll read the script before I go in for the interview, but I’ll want to hear what the director says, that usually changes a lot of stuff, but I won’t write anything until I see the film. Everyone is the same way, except in Europe, where most composers I guess will write a score based on the screenplay before it’s shot. Horror music would never work in America unless it’s frame specific.
THR: You write in a room full of Jack o’lanterns, right?
Young: That is true. Fifteen years ago I reconnected with my obsession with Jack o’lanterns, from back when you had to carve them, and on Halloween night there were millions illuminating porches all over America, no two the same. I’m afraid of telling you how many I’ve got.
THR: What’s the importance of orchestral scoring in horror?
Young: 99 percent of the time, when I get hired to do a spooky movie, the director will say, “We’ll have this done with an orchestra,” because it lifts the production value up. I discovered this on my first movie at UCLA, The Dorm That Dripped Blood. They paid you free pizza and Pepsi. When I worked for Roger Corman, I was able to get a pretty damn big sound for a small buck. Corman said, “Chris, what this movie needs is a rock’n’roll score, something the youth of America can relate to.” I said, “Gee, Mr. Corman, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but what I think this film needs is a big orchestral score.” He turned to Clark Henderson, his right hand guy, who said, “Yeah, I think he’s right.” The sign when you’ve done a good job for Roger Corman is not whether they use your score, because they were gonna use it even if it was bad. It was how many other movies they used the score in – like four.
THR: Did Corman give you your start?
Young: That opened the door for me. I became the in house guy for New World Pictures, and did Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street for Bob Shaye at New Line. My thing was, hire Chris, because he’s gonna be stupid enough to spend all the money we give him on the score. It paid off in a major way.
THR: But you don’t always use orchestras.
Young: I have on occasion experimented with nonmelodic scores, more electronic sound design or industrial-type scores. That’s very popular now in horror films. Orchestras are becoming less popular. Most are done in a home studio situation. The scores are not like they used to be in the days of Psycho or King Kong. It’s more about sounds and sonorities, not melody. It’s the cluster concept, but it’s now extended into electronic sounds.
THR: A lot of sampling.
Young: Yeah, exactly. And that’s what Sinister is. Sinister is the first score I’ve done in which there’s no orchestra in it whatsoever. There are traditional instruments I sampled, then manipulated so you don’t even recognize the source anymore.
THR: What about the whispering voices you hear?
Young: That’s just on the CD, not in the movie. I reworked the material for the movie on the CD to make it even more experimental. For the bad guy, Mr. Boogie, there’s this moaning sound. It keeps reappearing throughout the movie. That’s actually an instrument called a duduk, a wind instrument, then modified by transposing it and playing it backwards, making it lower. It’s a high-pitched instrument, it sounds like a banshee. Like a moaning animal. A hound. A sick-minded dog.
THR: What’s the key to horror scoring?
Young: In horror films the best numbers are gestures, memorable gestures, not big sweeping melodies like Tara’s Theme in Gone with the Wind. Simple figures and motifs, going back to King Kong, the first horror film with wall to wall music. Nearly every time King Kong arrives, it was descending half-steps: “BOM-BOM-BOM.” Flash forward to the ‘70s, Jaws is a half-step, but going up now: “Dee-DUP-dee-DUP-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM.” How simple can you be? That’s boiling musical substance down to a molecule, an atom. Michael Myers in Halloween – it’s just “Dut-dut-Dutduhduh.” I know Harry Manfredini, who did Friday the 13th. His big contribution was not the pitches, it was getting down to basics: just the syllables “ma” from “mother” and “ki” from “kill”: “Ma-ma-ma-ki-ki-ki.” All that is is two syllables put through delay. You don’t need much. It’s the littlest gesture that can create the most terror in the listener.
THR: Why is the Sinister CD so different from the movie?
Young: Sound design or industrial-type scores can work well for the movie but taken away it’s a tough listening experience. It’s not utilizing the same logic as tonal music. So to make it more listenable, I restructured stuff in the first 11 tracks, like the whispering stuff. Track 12 is for diehards into buying a CD of the film’s actual score, a ten minute suite of tunes from the movie. Even that I modified a little. The last track is a really weird one, a remixed dance track of one of the themes.
THR: What are you doing next?
Young: I’m starting very soon on a Robert De Niro/John Travolta thriller called Killing Season. I’m getting into the thriller mode with directors I’ve worked with before, and a black comedy that isn’t signed. In a week I can probably tell you the names. Don’t wrap the present ‘til the box is filled.
THR: Why is Sinister so different from your previous scores?
Young: I’m trying to walk through a familiar home, the house of horror, and redecorate it. I’m trying to reinvent myself. The worst thing that can happen to anyone is to work consistently in one genre. If I’d been exclusively a horror guy by now I might not be working because I would’ve burnt myself out. Thank the lord I do other genres!