Decades before he scored The Night House, composer Ben Lovett made tons of movies with director David Bruckner that no one will ever see.
“He and I come from a punk rock education of filmmaking,” says Lovett, who also scored the recently released acclaimed possession horror, The Old Ways. “Neither of us went to film school or music school. We just learned to do this by putting people together, finding a camera, and making stuff.”
When The Night House first screened at Sundance Film Festival last year, there was some buzz about how the film successfully deviated from the expected cadence of jump scare-heavy horror.
“We were surprised that the conversation on the internet was centered around [that] aspect,” Lovett recalls. “None of that was in our intent, to design the movie that way—other than what might’ve been subconscious. Maybe it’s instinctual to the process. Bruckner and I have been making movies for 20 years, so I wonder if it’s all just muscle memory.”
By now, Lovett has experimented and accomplished more than enough in horror to fill a list of timeless tips for fellow filmmakers working in the genre. Here, he tells Dread Central five things he’s learned about horror movie music that’ll take your project to the next level. —M.W.
1. Write music while your crew is shooting.
That’s the best scenario for a composer, because the bad ideas don’t have to wind up in the movie. You’ve got time to go through generations of ideas and to find the tone and the style, as opposed to just racing the clock in post-production.
On The Night House, this approach allowed me to get little fragments and bits and pieces to Bruckner on set that he could listen to in his headphones when he’s reviewing dailies. So, he’d say, “Dude, track number 46… I don’t even know where this would go, but this feels like the movie.” Then I’d say, “OK, 46, this is the movie—more of that.” It enables you to cast a wider net for ideas because there’s more time to explore.
2. Use the setting to shape your score.
The sound department’s job is not my job, but sound informs score. I wanted to go to the set of The Night House because the house and its immediate landscape are a big part of the story.
Our main character, Beth (Rebecca Hall), is at home with all these strange things happening in her house. As Beth is investigating the mystery of this house, she has this escalating anxiety.
I wanted to get sense of:
“How close is the lake to the house?”
“How big is the lake?“
“Do you see what’s on the other side of the lake?”
“Does it look like an ocean because you can’t see the other side?“
“Is it a glorified pond?”
“Is it the kind of thing where, when you’re looking in the interior shot of the window, you see water?”
“What does this setting feel like?“
Sometimes, I’d sit on the dock, take out my iPhone, and record to hear what it sounds like over there. Lake water moves in a very specific way. Oceans have a rhythm to the waves, but lake water is this kind of unstable thing that’s being pushed around by wind and boats. It’s never really settled—even when it’s glassy and still, it’s percolating just a little bit. So, that was my point of origin in interpreting the score.
This process is not about recreating the sounds exactly as they are. It’s about finding out how to recreate the feeling of these sounds with instruments.
3. Your score needs to communicate the story.
Don’t approach film music by just writing “music proper,” which one might perform at a concert. That’s not what film music is for. Its function is to communicate the story that’s on screen. Sometimes, as a composer, you’re just trying to back off and help amplify what an actor is doing. You don’t always need to “comment” on a scene with a melody. Just give it a little mood and texture.
4. Don’t tell the audience what to feel.
A composer can totally take over any scene and turn it into a “sad scene,” a “scary scene,” a “funny scene,” a “confusing scene.” The degree to which your score can influence the tone of the scene is tremendous. But you shouldn’t need to convince the audience how they should feel. The real challenge for a composer is to score something in a way that doesn’t make the audience even notice that it’s affecting them.
5. Understand the rules of horror so you know how to break them.
What I love about the horror genre is that there’s an established set of boundaries and guidelines that define what “horror” is. Horror is a bit like folk music. If you said, “This is a rock song,” that’s a very wide net you’re casting in terms of what that could mean. It could mean anything, so it means nothing. But if you said, “It’s a folk song,” then you have a specific idea of what it is and what it isn’t. And if you stray too far outside of that, it’s no longer a folk song… it’s just “folk-y.”
A horror film has a similar set of expectations and tropes. There’s an established set of communication tools and it comes with its own history. And once there are expectations in place, you can play with those. You can manipulate what people might expect—reorient, disorient, misdirect, redirect. Working within creative limitations is freeing. You’ve got to agree on what the rules of horror are so you know how and when to bend them or break them.
The Night House is now in theaters, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.