Child’s Play

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Chucky, the demented doll and horror icon with the devilish little face, peered out at me from a torn VHS cover at my local video store and haunted my dreams as a kid. Now, thirty years later, I found a surprising opportunity to contribute to his cinematic legacy, by scoring director Lars Klevberg’s imaginative new spin on the classic, Child’s Play. This film gave me the chance to assemble a unique “toy orchestra,” use my own voice to create a “kids choir,” and collaborate closely with legendary actor Mark Hamill, who sang my tune for the film, “The Buddi Song.” Child’s Play opened theatrically this week, and my soundtrack album is available now!

When I first watched the new film in an early cut, I was shocked by its sophisticated and surprisingly emotional storytelling. Stripped of the original film’s supernatural voodoo origins, this version of Child’s Play drew from contemporary fears of cloud-based computing, automation, loss of privacy, corporate irresponsibility, and the risks of smart-home convenience. The film drips with tonal references to many of my favorite 1980s films, incorporating Verhoeven’s satirical humor, Spielberg’s childhood wonder, and Kubrick’s existential dread – equal parts horror, science fiction, thriller, and classic Amblin-style childhood adventure. With these influences in mind, I dove into creating a musical voice for this new vision of the classic tale.

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Godzilla King of the Monsters

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PROLOGUE

Godzilla has permeated global popular culture for over six decades.  His first cinematic appearance in 1954’s Gojira launched the kaiju film genre, “kaiju,” translating literally to “strange beast.” This summer, he has returned to the big screen in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and I am honored to have composed the score for this next entry in cinema’s longest running franchise. Like many fans in the West, I knew Godzilla through television broadcasts of Japanese films and ubiquitous media culture. However, the film that actually introduced me to Godzilla and Ghidorah was not one of the Toho Co. classics scored by Akira Ifukube, but Peewee’s Big Adventure, a quirky American comedy scored by my childhood hero, Danny Elfman.

Nearly thirty years later, Godzilla would emerge into my life again and once again Danny Elfman’s music was playing. I invited a few friends to join me at the Hollywood Bowl performance of Danny Elfman’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, with Elfman himself on stage singing the songs. One of those friends was Michael Dougherty, with whom I share a mutual love of all things “scifi, fantasy, horror genre.” That night, Michael told me he was writing and directing the new Godzilla film, the sequel to the 2014 film, Godzilla, and I thought Warner Bros. and Legendary could not have picked a better guy to expand their “MonsterVerse” cinematic universe.

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Two years ago, my friend, director Michael Dougherty, invited me to join him as composer for his film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the sequel to the 2014 Legendary / Warner Bros. film, Godzilla. Instantly, an idea struck me: this film could give me an opportunity to produce a new version of my favorite Blue Öyster Cult song, “Godzilla.” Moreover, I could realize it with some of my favorite musicians from the rock and metal community, including Serj Tankian from System of a Down and the rhythm section of the metal band Dethklok. “I’m in,” I told Michael, setting in motion a creative journey that would change my life in more ways than I could guess.  Now, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has opened globally, supported by not only by a sweeping orchestral score, but an end title sequence blasting the version of BÖC’s “Godzilla” that I imagined during that fateful phone call.

To chronicle this creative venture, I chatted with many of the musicians who brought it to life, including lead singer Serj Tankian, guitarist Brendon Small, bassist Bryan Beller, drummer Gene Hoglan, backing vocalist Brendan McKian, co-producer Jason LaRocca, as well as Buck Dharma, the Blue Öyster Cult rock legend who originally composed it.

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I was raised by a novelist, Laura Kalpakian, who instilled in me a deep appreciation of the written word. As a toddler, I would frequently stumble into her office, my footsteps concealed by the relentless cadence of her fingers clacking on the typewriter, and try to get her attention by knocking over one of the many stacks of dusty, hardbound books that formed a labyrinth on her floor. Among those towers of tomes were many editions of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford was a part of my childhood in even more direct ways. I lived there as a child with my family, when my father was a researcher affiliated with Wolfson College. While we were there, my mom picked up the official Bodleian library board game, which would become a staple of our Sunday evenings for years to come.

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As a I grew up, I quickly realized that musical notes, not words, were my personal favorite form of self-expression. Three decades after living in Oxford, I learned that The Professor and the Madman, the film adaptation of Simon Winchester’s gripping book The Surgeon of Crowthorne, was looking for a composer, and my mom was the first person I called. Breathless with excitement, I struggled to finish my sentences. I felt as if this score were already bursting out of my mind. This week marks the culmination of that journey, as now the film has been released theatrically, and my score album is now available.

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Happy Death Day 2U

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2017’s inventive horror-comedy Happy Death Day told the story of a college girl named Tree who keeps reliving the same day in a perpetual time loop, only to be murdered each night by a baby-masked serial killer. This year’s sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, added even more genre influences to the mix, incorporating elements of science fiction, comedy, and heist films, while pumping up the action, comedy and drama. Returning to composing duties here, my challenge was to retain and adapt thematic material from the first film’s score, and to help support the film as it expands into even more disparate genres.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD: My score to the first film was built on a foundation of solid orchestral horror techniques, with snarling brass screams, aggressive low string ostinatos, and creepy high string clusters. However, upon that framework were placed the musical components that made the score unique. I represented the main character, Tree, with poppy, upbeat synths, and I supported action scenes with marching band percussion evocative of the film’s collegiate setting. Perhaps the most iconic sound in the score was the theme for the baby-masked killer, built from manipulated audio samples of my daughter Sonatine! I chronicled that experience in this fun behind-the-scenes video:

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Outlander: Season 4

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Outlander Season Four chronicles a dramatic journey: from the bustling streets of colonial era Wilmington, across vast stretches of Appalachian wilderness, to Cherokee and Mohawk lands. This journey leaps from the modernity of the 1960’s to the simmering pre-Revolutionary tension of eighteenth-century America. These settings present a challenge for a composer, because each era, culture, and geographical location offers potential musical influences for the score. My goal was to assimilate all these ideas into a score that helps the audience follow the various narrative threads and still supports the drama. Oh, and I wanted to use banjos now too!

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My work began as I set out to rearrange a new version of “The Skye Boat Song” for the season’s Main Title. Changing a series’ Main Title is relatively rare in television, and yet this marks the sixth, arguably seventh, iteration of the beloved folk song I have produced for Outlander. (The previous were Season 1’s original, Season 2’s “French” and “Jacobite” versions, and Season 3’s “After Culloden” and “Caribbean” versions. I also produced an “Extended” version for the Season 1 Volume 2 soundtrack album, though it was never used in the series itself.)

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Welcome Home

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“Welcome Home,” the new erotic thriller starring Aaron Paul, Emily Ratajkowski, and Riccardo Scamarcio, gave me the opportunity to compose a sinister, lyrical, and melodic score. In the film, Bryan (Paul) and Cassie (Ratajkowski) vacation at a rental home in the Italian countryside, and gradually suspect their neighbor, Federico (Scamarcio), might be a threat. Their strained relationship buckles under pressure as their paranoia ratchets up. My score crescendos, powered by a war between a viola da gamba and an upright bass!

LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD: While the film is anchored by intense performances from the three leads, it was actually the cinematography and location that first fueled my musical imagination. My initial creative conversation with director George Ratliff took place over Skype while he was still on location in Italy, finishing principal photography. Even at that early stage, it was clear the titular “Home” was one of the most important characters in the film. The way Ratliff and DP Shelly Johnson glided the camera through the old building’s candlelit stone halls gave the entire house a strange sense of being alive, as if it were watching the drama unfold. (Spoiler: it is!)

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I Still See You

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What would a score sound like if it were a collaboration between late-70’s John Williams, late-80’s Danny Elfman, and late-90’s Björk? This question ran through my mind as I composed a moody, thematic score for “I Still See You,” a new supernatural thriller starring Bella Thorne that is available now on VOD and in a limited theatrical run. While my work inevitably falls very short of the greatness of my heroes, I like to think that soundtrack fans can pick up on my influences.

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Hell Fest

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I have always loved Halloween mazes and slasher horror films. I had the opportunity to combine those thrills by scoring the new Lionsgate / CBS Films feature, Hell Fest, which opened theatrically last weekend. For anyone who has been to a Halloween maze, this film’s central premise is quite disturbing. Structured like a classic slasher, the story is about a group of teenagers who go to a traveling Halloween maze, Hell Fest, only to become the latest prey for a masked killer who continually strikes and then disappears into the crowd of costumed freaks. 

Hell Fest allowed me to work again with several of my favorite creative partners, including director Gregory Plotkin, with whom I collaborated as the editor on last year’s phenomenal Happy Death Day, and Gale Anne Hurd, the inspiring producer who brought me on board The Walking Dead nearly a decade ago.

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2018 has blasted by in a flash! The last few months have been a whirlwind, and I realize I’ve fallen a bit behind with my blog. With this update, I plan on catching up on a few of the projects I’ve scored that have come out this summer, and I will look ahead at what is over the horizon for the rest of the year.

AURORA – QUEENDOM COME

First up, I was thrilled to collaborate with singer-songwriter AURORA to produce a Celtic-inspired version of her track “Queendom Come.” The single was used by Electronic Arts for the official E3 reveal trailer for Unravel Two.

Last spring, I got a call from my friend Steve Schnur at EA who said that the marketing team really loved this particular AURORA song, but wished it had a more acoustic, even Celtic, sound. Somehow, Steve thought of me as someone who might enjoy doing music in this style! I listened to her song and fell in love with it immediately. The harmonic progression was satisfying, the melody and vocals were haunting, and the lyrics were nostalgic and moving. I knew right away I would have a blast working on the track.

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