Happy Death Day
What would happen if you were stalked and killed on your birthday, only to awaken back in the morning on that same day, seemingly doomed to live it all over again? This Groundhog-Day-meets-Scream concept is at the heart of the new light-hearted horror comedy from Universal and Blumhouse Productions: Happy Death Day. I was thrilled to collaborate with director Christopher Landon, and to score this film that has become a surprise October hit.
After I read the enticing script, I met with Chris and editor Greg Plotkin at the Blumhouse offices last spring. I was immediately struck by their delightful and friendly personalities, and knew these were guys I wanted to spend some time with. They showed me the film, and we fell into an enthusiastic conversation about the near-infinite musical possibilities presented by a time-loop-horror-comedy set at a college. I was brought on board the film right away, and my mind raced.
MODERATE SPOILERS BEYOND: The first act of the film introduces the protagonist, Tree, and shows what appears to be a typical day in her collegiate life. We observe dozens of elements that will come to repeat again and again throughout the film. The musical approach that made the most sense to Chris and I was to write a theme for Tree, and have that theme repeat and distort as her day loops, increasing intensity with each loop, following her descent into panic.
I wanted to create a schizophrenic, dual personality for the score for Happy Death Day, with light-hearted comedic scoring on one end, and genuinely terrifying soundscapes on the other. The comedic elements in the score are firmly rooted in Tree’s Theme:
Tree’s Theme has a youthful energy, and is frequently surrounded by the kind of music a character like Tree might enjoy. I wanted her theme to evoke contemporary pop music. Electronic mallet percussion and a simple breathy synth beat pop along in the background behind her melody, a tune performed most frequently by synths and keyboards. These textures are supported by electronic high hats, kicks and clap snares. I wanted her theme to feel like it could break out into an auto-tuned pop song at any moment. This sassy attitude in the score best represented Tree at the beginning of the film: confident, cocky, and self-centered. (For a great example of Tree’s theme in its primary form, check out the first half of “Day One” from the soundtrack album.)
Introducing her theme in this way gave me plenty of room to expand it later, following her character arc. Tree becomes more self-reflective as her time loops progress, and wonders if she should become a better person. Her theme, too, gradually warms up. I eventually showcase her melody in warm orchestral strings, acoustic guitars, and an intimate solo piano. Over the course of the film, her theme’s superficial pop aesthetic develops emotional weight, as she grows emotionally.
One of the most fun aspects of scoring the film was twisting and manipulating her theme for each of her repeated mornings. Every time she wakes up, the score plays the same material, but it becomes increasingly urgent. “Day One” introduces her theme in the most casual way possible. In “Day Two,” things get a little weird. The string orchestra bends further out of tune, while the synths playing Tree’s melody bend pitches wildly (I was going crazy on the pitch bend wheel for these scenes!). The score drifts in an out of tune as she questions her reality. In “Day Three,” I introduce an urgent string ostinato, and the orchestra begins to overshadow the innocent pop groove of Tree’s Theme. By “Day Four,” Tree’s theme is nearly buried beneath chugging strings and wailing brass clusters.
For a sense of how each morning evolves, skip across the soundtrack album, listening to the first two minutes of the first four tracks. I arranged the record so that each of her first four days got a full track, to give the album experience the inherent repetition of the film’s narrative structure.
Tree’s Theme is the basis for only half the score, however. There is another theme for an equally important character: the Baby Mask Killer. This killer is a fantastic antagonist! Because the baby is the mascot of Tree’s college, the mask is sold on campus, making it possible for her killer to be literally anyone in the film, thus heightening the tension and mystery. I was inspired by the mask’s creepy design. The big baby eyes and toothy grin are at once comical, and disturbing. I was especially struck by the fact that the killer never speaks, so his “voice” would need to be provided entirely by the score.
In striving to find a voice for the antagonist, I stumbled upon an idea so obvious, so silly, and yet so potentially effective, that I had to try it. I thought I could use the voice of an actual baby to create a signature sound for the Baby Mask Killer! Thankfully, I have a vocal little baby in my life, my daughter Sonatine.
I set up a microphone in my studio and brought Sonatine in to record vocalizations. I forgot that, at two and a half, just trying to get her in one place for more than thirty seconds is a fool’s errand. She ran all around the room, squirmed out of my lap when I tried to sit down with her, and refused to stay near the microphone! Eventually, I coaxed a few words out of her. She whispered the word “pasta,” and picked up her favorite Baby Godzilla toy and made it roar. She spoke in Baby Godzilla’s little voice and squeaked “Yes, I am a baby!” For one brief moment, she chanted a little song, singing “Up! Up! Up! Up!” in ascending pitches. Then, she giggled and ran to the door. After fifteen minutes, Sonatine was anxious to go play outside, so I called it a day, feeling fairly disheartened. All these sounds were adorable, but not anything I could use in a horror movie… or so I thought.
Later that afternoon, I went back into my studio to check out the audio. To my surprise, the microphone picked up more than I thought. As Sonatine squirmed and wiggled, she made tiny vocalizations, little murmurs, whispers and whimpers I didn’t notice at the time. I edited them down and threw them into my sampler. From there, I pitch shifted, harmonized, and added distortion, delay, reverb and other effects.
I quickly stumbled upon a handful of sounds that I realized might have potential. There was one little warble that I pitch-shifted down three octaves. What started as little whimper became a huge, bass-heavy earthquake. There was also a high-pitched whine that seemed to have musical phrasing built into it. I shifted it down an octave and threw a cathedral-like reverb on it, and the result evoked a distant shrieking banshee.
These sounds were cool, but I still needed to know if they could work in a legitimate horror score. As a proof-of-concept, I tackled the scene in “Day Three” where Tree suspects the killer is hiding in her room. Sonatine’s low warble rumbled my subs as Tree searched her room, and her piercing whine added a terrifying scream as the killer appeared behind her. I also found surprising places for other Sonatine sounds in the scene. I chopped up her “pasta” and stacked the whispered syllables on top of each other to create a spine-tingling breathy texture, leaving them without reverb the distorted little voice is whispering right in your ear. With a wash of added delays, I even tucked in Sonatine’s ascending “Up! Up! Up! Up!” as Tree reaches towards the shower curtain, fearing the killer is lurking behind it.
To my shock, and almost horror, I could not believe how truly terrifying the sounds of my daughter’s voice became. Before I showed the scene to the director, I showed it to my wife, Raya. When Sonatine’s tiny little voice first whispered into the soundtrack, Raya was overtaken by a look of true fear, an expression of unease that deepened as our daughter’s voice expanded into creepier textures. I never anticipated that these baby vocal samples would result in arguably the most effectively scary score I have ever created. The question was no longer “could these sounds be scary?” but now “are these sounds TOO scary?”
Once Raya assured me it was ok that our daughter would be featured in a horror movie, I sent the scene on to director Chris Landon. Chris loved the approach, and from that moment on, Sonatine was the voice of the Baby Mask Killer in Happy Death Day. (In case you missed it above, definitely check out my video blog about this process!)
The two primary themes in the film, Tree’s and the Killer’s, are both built out of distinct electronic sounds. While I used these unique colors for as much of the score as possible, I knew they alone would not be enough to propel this cinematic story.
I would ultimately describe Happy Death Day as an orchestral score. I used different orchestral families to fulfill various narrative needs. I employed the strings to create warmth, emotion and drama. I also used them for old-school horror eeriness, relying on their abilities to play microtonal pitches, bending slightly out of tune, to add dread and delirium where needed. I used the brass almost exclusively for urgency and action, with trilling French horns screaming in their upper registers as the Killer pursues Tree through dark hallways.
While percussion plays an important role in this score, it is in a non-traditional manner. The vast majority of the percussion in Happy Death Day is derived from chopped up samples of a college marching band drum line! I wanted to use marching band percussion to represent the collegiate setting, drawing from my many fond memories of high school marching band. There’s something so distinct about marching band percussion: the loose snare drums, distinct quad toms, and clunky bass drums. These sounds are immediate and unmistakable. Using them in this film add a layer of irony and bleak comedy to the action scenes. The baby mask represents the school’s mascot, so as Tree is being chased by the killer, the percussion is essentially acting like the marching band cheering him on as he tries to kill her!
I went further than simply sampling marching band drums, however. I also used the foley of the instruments getting prepared as musical loops. We recorded the players setting up, music stands being stamped into place, scooting chairs, sticks clicking against each other, and drums being tuned. I grabbed various excerpts of this random room noise and turned them into tempo-synced loops. From the aural chaos of musicians getting ready, arose bizarre loops, with unexpected repeating patterns. This act of quantizing random noise resulted in musical percussion loops that I could never have otherwise imagined. (Check out the end of “Day Three” or “Hospital Pursuit” on the album for a great example of these sounds.)
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I armed myself with all these creative tools as I set out to score Happy Death Day. This is a film that allows its audience to have fun, and I felt an adrenaline rush as I composed it. I laughed a lot, and felt exhilarated as Chris helped me dial in the specific thematic developments that each day (both in and outside the film) brought.
Beyond the creative satisfaction of writing a score I am proud of, I was further thrilled last week that Happy Death Day would bring me yet another reward: my first film to open #1 at the domestic box office. I have dreamt of this for my entire life, and it finally happened, on Friday the 13th of all days! I am also excited to say that my score is available on soundtrack as well, from Back Lot Music, available both digitally and on CD. Exclusive signed copies are coming soon from La-La Land Records, so follow me on social media for more details about that.
So many people were a part of this score, and I am grateful to everyone who contributed their time, energy and talent to making this music possible. Huge thanks go out to Chris Landon for his visionary leadership and friendship, as well as to Jason Blum and his team at Blumhouse for trusting me with this crazy cool film. I also want to thank Steve Kaplan, Ed Trybek, Jonathan Beard, Michael Baber, and everyone at my music team at Sparks & Shadows, in particular Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, Sam Ewing and Zachary Lucia for contributing additional music. Thanks to James Fitzpatrick and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra for their dynamic performance of this demanding music. The soundtrack album would not be possible without the endless enthusiasm and support from Mike Knobloch, Nikki Walsh and everyone at Back Lot, and my producing partner Joe Augustine. I also want to thank Richard Kraft, Laura Engel and everyone at Kraft-Engel Management for their help and encouragement.
I hope you guys check this movie out, and dig the score. I also hope that one day, when she’s old enough, Sonatine might watch this movie and smile to see her first screen credit in a major motion picture. She certainly achieved it much earlier in life than I did!