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:
As a starting point, I returned to all those musical ideas again in Happy Death Day 2U. I wanted the score to have a sense of familiarity, bordering on déjà vu, helping fans of the first film feel like they’ve ‘been here before,’ when Tree returns to the events of the first film. In early creative discussions with director Christopher Landon, we discussed how often and overtly we would want to reference the score to the first film.
“I think by being more selective with some of the more established and recognizable elements from the previous score made them stand out,” Landon recalled recently. “I think it also signaled to the audience that things were going to be a little different this time around.”
For some scenes, I chose to make a subtle reference to the themes of the first film, as I did at the film’s opening, when Ryan’s walk across campus feels musically connected to Tree’s various walks in the first film. In other scenes, I was more overt, occasionally directly quoting a passage from the first score, for the scenes when Tree recreates exactly moments from the previous film.
Happy Death Day 2U was far from a mere retread of the first film, and as a result, the biggest challenge was in supporting the sequel’s ambitious narrative. As I began collaborating with Christopher Landon, it became clear that the sequel would require at least two distinctly new musical themes.
“I knew I really wanted us revisit themes and elements from the previous score,” Landon said. “But I was also very much aware that we were introducing a science fiction element and a new story about Tree’s mom that both required themes of their own.”
The sequel’s most impactful departure from the tone of the first film is its introduction of science fiction elements to explain the first film’s seemingly supernatural plot device. I wanted to lean the score into ‘science fiction’ comedy territory, with the introduction of expanded harmonies, bouncy ostinatos, fluttering harp and woodwind flourishes, and epic brass writing. These ideas are all present in a new theme, I call the SISSY Theme:
SISSY is the codename for the quantum device created by Ryan, along his friends Samar and Andrea. As it turns out, SISSY is responsible for warping the spacetime continuum and creating Tree’s timeloop, and becomes the film’s central plot device. Like the science fiction genre elements themselves, the SISSY Theme stands out against the backdrop of the first film. Wide, melodic leaps, epic brass colors, and sparkling upper woodwind flourishes, make it feel at home in the sprawling epic scores of Williams, Goldsmith, or Silvestri. These orchestral techniques gave the film an expanded, adventurous tone.
Tree still had her theme from the last film, but I felt that it was too playful to underscore the new plot line that had a surprisingly profound impact on the film. By dropping Tree into a parallel universe where her long-dead mother is still alive, and forcing her to choose between this dimension and her own, Happy Death Day 2U introduces the concepts of grief and loss to what would otherwise be a fun horror romp. I was deeply affected by this storyline, and felt it needed a unique musical theme.
This theme is used throughout the film to support the dramatic arc between these two characters. At the film’s premiere I distinctly remember hearing the gentle piano notes of this tune echo reverberate throughout the theater over the gasps from the audience when they first saw Tree’s mom. Perhaps the theme’s most memorable quotation comes towards the end, where she has emotionally said goodbye to her mom, and they lean in together to blow the candles out on their birthday cake.
“More than any other cue or theme in the movie, I wanted us to nail this one because this is the heart and soul of the movie” Landon said to me recently. “If we could make the audience feel for Tree and what she’s going through, then I thought everything else would feel elevated by that. For me, and maybe you too, I think it was knowing when to lean into the emotion and when to pull back and show restraint. It seemed like a delicate balance and one I think you achieved beautifully in the end.”
Despite juggling epic science fiction elements, emotional revelations, action, kills, suspense, and comedy, perhaps the most challenging sequence to score was the heist toward the film’s climax. In this sequence, Tree and her friends enlist the help of Danielle to distract Dean Bronson while they steal SISSY. Danielle accomplishes this by showing off her acting skills, pretending to be a blind French exchange student. It is classic cinematic slapstick, and its ridiculously effective. Here, I pushed the musical boundaries as far as I could, alternating between hip electronic-orchestral action and, yes, cheesy Parisian accordion jazz!
Christopher Landon and I suspected that the scene would only work if the score underlined how outrageous it is. With the film’s first test screening coming up right as I was getting started scoring, this was actually the first cue written, long before I had composed any of the film’s new themes.
“The French Heist cue is one of my favorites and I realized early on this was going to be a tricky one,” Landon said. “It was impossible to temp due to the specificity of tone and action. And I was most worried that it might feel like something out of a different movie until I think we all embraced the fact that this movie as a whole is a wild amalgamation of genres. There’s a serious Pink Panther meets Oceans 11 vibe here and I think it’s so awesome.”
The SISSY heist scene was an insanely complex sequence to start with, but once it was out of the way, Christopher and I were ready to focus on the rest of the score. And what a huge score it became! Some stand out moments for me are Tree’s kamikaze drive into the electrical substation, Danielle’s comedic scenes, and of course, the show-stopping slow-motion finale.
“My favorite cue in the score is at the end of the movie when we go into slow-motion as Tree and Carter are about to kiss while the Dean is breaking into the lab,” Landon recalled. “It’s so lush and exciting – it manages to have romance and science fiction. We had a temp cue that was pretty cool so I was worried it would be tough to beat, but you ended up blowing it out of the water and exceeded my wildest dreams. I could listen to that cue over and over. It’s magical.”
Happy Death Day 2U was the first direct film sequel I have scored to a film where I scored the original. As such, it was a delightful experience getting to return to, and expand upon, material I had created two years ago.
Attending the premiere was an awesome experience! I savored the crowd reactions, and I loved hearing how boldly the music was mixed into the film. Composing music for media is often a solitary experience, so it was really wonderful to meet other people who worked on the film, including the brilliant costume designer Whitney Anne Adams, with whom I grabbed a great picture on the red carpet!
That weekend I was walking around The Grove in Los Angeles, and glanced up at the marquee to see a film I worked on glowing in lights. I’ve had this experience quite a few times by now, and I must say, I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. It was a thrill!
1. Two Tuesdays
2. Stalker at the Gym
3. The Science Project
4. Monday the 18th Again
6. A Reason to Stay
7. Back to the Hospital
8. Trail of Blood
9. Can’t Save Everyone
10. Solving Equations
11. Electrical Substation
12. Living in the Past
13. Birthday Candles
14. The Heist
15. The Final Confrontation
17. Happy Death Day 2U End Credits
I want to thank director Christopher Landon for his unique creative vision and leadership, as well as Jason Blum, and everyone at Blumhouse, for inviting me to return to the Happy Death Day family for this delightful sequel. Thanks are also due to Mike Knobloch and everyone at Universal Music, and my tireless team at Sparks & Shadows, for making the score’s production possible. Thanks are also owed to Joe Augustine for his contributions to the soundtrack album. I would like to thank Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, Sam Ewing, and Kevin Lax for contributing additional music, Nicholas Steinbach, and Etienne Monsaingeon for additional sequencing, Scott Michael Smith for the awesome mix, and Johannes Vogel for conducting the remarkable Synchron Stage Orchestra. I’d also like to thank everyone at Kraft-Engel Management for their support.
I believe Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U will be remembered for years as a cult phenomenon that pushed the boundaries of the horror comedy genre. I am thrilled to have been a part of this insanely creative horror franchise!