ScoreKeeper With MY BLOODY VALENTINE (Both Original & Remake) Composers Paul Zaza And Michael Wandmacher!!
Published at: Feb. 3, 2009, 5:08 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here asking you to be my bloody Valentine with a one-two punch that is sure to thrust the ol’ pick axe through your eye.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Wandmacher, composer of the freshly released gore fest MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D (2009), about his work on the film, his history with the original, and a host of other on and off topic sundries.
I first saw MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D (2009) last December and it was one of the more enjoyable modern horror experiences I’ve had in a good while. The 3D was gaudy with plenty of blood, guts, and boobs, to satisfy the most ardent horror enthusiasts. It felt new while still retaining the spirit of the original which I am still quite fond of.
Upon wrapping up my talk with Michael I thought it would be rather cool to follow that up with a chat with Paul Zaza the composer of the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981).
Both interviews are here for your enjoyment.
Will you be mine?
ScoreKeeper: Hey, Michael! How are you doing?
MW: I’m good. I’m all antsy since the movie opens tonight and will be running through the weekend. I’m a little anxious. I’m looking forward to it though.
SK: How many times have you seen MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D?
MW: Well…In 2-D I’ve seen it hundreds of times. In 3-D, I think I’ve seen it three times. Now, I definitely want to go see it a few more times over the weekend. It’s one of those movies where you kind of have to see it in a theater.
SK: Oh, definitely! Have you been able to screen it with a fresh audience?
MW: Yeah. The last time I saw it was at the premiere screening which was in a big room with very good projection and very good sound and the audience was very responsive. That was the first time I got to see it in a really grand way which was great.
SK: I got to see the film at Butt-Numb-A-Thon X back in December which was really fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it screened at like two or three in the morning after watching movies for like fifteen hours straight. It was the perfect movie for this slot. I felt the audience really responded well. They screamed and laughed when they were supposed to.
MW: Cool! That’s good to hear. That was definitely the intent going in. Just make it be entertaining and fun…a throwback to the classic slasher film. That was our number one priority and it seems to have succeeded on that level.
SK: Let’s talk a little about the original. I am definitely not anti-remake. I enjoy it when studios find good properties to remake and I think MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) fits into that category. There are a number of other classic horror films being remade that are more perplexing to me. I’m a fan of the original and when I first heard they were remaking it, it made perfect sense to me. First of all, what are your thoughts on the original film?
MW: I’ve been a horror fan all of my life and that movie came out right around the time when I was at the age where you had to sneak into the video store and hope you could get your hands on an R rated movie. It was the time of TERROR TRAIN, PROM NIGHT, THE BURNING, THE PROWLER, and all these movies were coming out one after the other and I would keep going to video store trying to talk to the one guy I knew behind the counter to see if they would let me watch it. It has a nostalgic value for me for sure.
There’s something about the elements between the cool, yet seedy, score and the kind of low budget small-town gritty vibe that it had. There’s an interesting relationship between the main characters and the killer especially during the ending when he runs off. It sticks with you. I definitely remember it.
I went back and watched it just before I started work on this. It was actually more fun to watch it as an adult than as a kid.
SK: Yeah, I’ve done that too and it should be noted that the original has just come out on DVD this week. I think a lot of folk will be revisiting the original after seeing the new version. It’s a nice combination. They both hold up very well. It would make a good double feature…the old with the new.
MW: I agree. I think it’s cool that Paramount took the effort to put the original gore that was cut out of that version back in. For that time it was actually really good. It was interesting and looked good on screen, was inventive and well executed. They took it out at the last minute. It was kind of a drag.
SK: Where there any elements of Paul Zaza’s score from the original film that you decided to bring over into yours or did you approach it completely from a fresh perspective?
MW: I looked at it completely 100% clean. I just went in with the idea that I wanted the music to accentuate the roller coaster ride aspect of the story and give it a modest forward momentum with a lot of intensity, especially when Harry Warden is on screen.
There’s nothing from the original that I saved it in my memory. I tried to do something new but the approach that I used seemed to fit better with this film. It’s really sort of straight-ahead, more classic, type of slasher film.
SK: One of the things that struck me about your music were the extreme dynamic levels. You had moments where the score was so quiet it was almost non-existent followed by sounds so loud it split my ears open. The level of control you exhibited between the two played into that “roller coaster ride” you spoke of earlier.
MW: Cool. That’s an approach that I like to use when I do horror or any thriller or suspense type of thing. The two devices I’m really into are extreme dynamics and the other is extreme frequencies. I like to combine really high frequencies with really low…kind of blanket the dialogue without getting in the way. Yeah, I like to go for big moments. Definitely. It’s one of those things where you give the audience some kind of comfort level with the music and the just splat it in their face as the second piece of music comes in and really steps on the gas. It gives a better scare and it gives film a better sense of momentum.
I’ve always been a really big fan of that.
SK: How did you get involved with the project. Did you pursue it or did you have a previous relationship with somebody already on board?
MW: It was kind of a windy road getting there but about two years ago – which wasn’t too far ahead of when Patrick (Lussier) had finished WHITE NOISE 2 (2007) – he had contacted me via email because he was a fan of my score from CRY WOLF (2005). I basically just started an email conversation with him whether or not I would be available to work on WHITE NOISE. It turned out the way the film was financed I couldn’t work on it because I wasn’t Canadian. So that relationship started there and we just kept in touch over time and he knew what I was working on and I knew what he was working on and it worked out that when MBV went into production, my schedule was free. We were like, “Yeah, let’s do this”
That’s pretty much how it went down. I’ve been a fan of his work as an editor for a long time and have always wanted to do something with him. To have it work out the way it did was very fortuitous and I am very grateful. He’s a great guy to work for.
SK: Can you elaborate on that? What kind of a collaborator is he?
MW: First of all, he could moonlight as a music editor. He is really good at it and puts together his own temp tracks for films. He cuts music in when he’s editing. He’s super savvy about that and he’s really smart about music. He knows exactly what he wants and as a director he is super easy to work with. He’s also a really great leader and I’m not just saying that because my name is on the movie. I’m saying that because it’s the truth. He has an ability to motivate people in a really positive kind of way. Everybody around him feels a strong sense of loyalty and a strong sense of purpose in getting a good finished product. He’s just easy and fun to work with.
SK: Every film has a doorway with which you enter in order to begin creating a score. Who or what was the doorway to get you into MY BLOODY VALENTINE?
MW: I guess it was two fold. First of all, I knew that Tom Hanniger needed to have some sort of thematic voice…some kind of through line in the film. He is the central character in the movie and the theme could parlay itself into different pieces of music as they related to his relationship to Sarah, Axel Palmer, and everybody else in the movie. That was one that was really important.
The second thing was Harry Warden…the character. I wanted to use the music to make him as big and as imposing of a screen presence as possible. I wanted the orchestra to be very big and very aggressive. I used natural elements in the score like the sound of power tools. Then we took samples of things out of the environment. I destroyed an upright piano and sampled the whole process and used that in the score. I wanted to combine those elements to give him a very “Oh my god!” sort of presence whenever he was on screen. Very relentless, very maniacal, and very intent on killing you with a pick axe.
Those were the two main keys in getting the score going.
SK: There is a seamless mix between the acoustic and the electronic elements in the score. Which comes first in the creative process for you and how does one feed off of the other?
MW: It depends a lot on the particular cue. I think in the case of this score, I had an orchestral template early on that I wanted to use that was very beefy. In terms of the electronics, I wanted to have something that was really aggressive and could also be very suspenseful and eerie at the same time but still coming from the same source. As I created that, I would start to write and then throw in orchestral elements and see how they were blending together. Then I would modify the electronics so that the line between the two would be more seamless. It was a trial and error thing. It’s the way I like to work.
SK: It’s a nice blend. These elements don’t ever feel forced.
SK: What about the scare gags? There are only so many ways you can say “Boo!” How do you keep each one fresh without getting redundant?
MW: I thought through each one as I went through the film. There are some that are very obvious. We call them “Boo!” moments. Like when somebody suddenly shows up on screen and grabs somebody else. It’s very sudden and very classic. There’s a handful of those in the movie. Some of them we hit and some of them we didn’t. It would depend on whether or not it was being book-ended by something that was already really intense. We figured we could get the most mileage out of that type of moment if it was book-ended by silence or something very quiet.
If you were going to plaster it on every single moment like that, it would get tiresome. Especially with the score being as big and aggressive as it is. We literally went as though it was a pecking order. It was a balancing act.
SK: Can you recall off of the top of your head how many of those moments there are in the film?
MW: There are less than half of a dozen that are really obvious. I can’t remember exactly off the top of my head, but it seems like I could count them on one hand. The ones that worked were definitely asking for it and I think that if you do that with the intention in mind of creating that moment, then it becomes fun and doesn’t feel too forced.
SK: So break down the score for me in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Can you give me a quick few sentences on how you utilized each within the score?
MW: Melody in this score is minimal. To me, melody is Tom’s theme…“The Prodigal Son” theme and all of the other melodic contents in the score stemmed from that theme. I wrote that one theme and did variations and reuses of that throughout the film.
In terms of harmony, with this film I actually used more dissonance and atonal approaches then I have used in any other movie. A lot of this comes from the natural environment that really don’t have a fixed tone. It was just a matter of creating a dissonant disturbing soundscape even when the orchestra is playing lots of tonal elements. There is a lot of clash going on between all of the areas of the orchestra and the electronics.
Patrick and I talked in depth about making the rhythmic parts as relentless as possible. There’s a lot of builds in the movie…a lot of long builds where there’s multiple things happening at once that come together to one final conclusion. You feel the music start as a pulse and it keeps going and getting bigger and bigger and everything is very deliberate and relentless. That has to do with the killer. Every time Harry is on screen and is chasing someone it’s a relentless unstoppable force coming towards you that had to be reflected through the music.
SK: Going back to harmony…can you elaborate more how you controlled the cacophony or the serialization of the harmony? Are you combining tones for specific colors? Is there a randomizing element to the harmony? Did you have a palette of different sonorities that you worked from?
MW: Whether it be acoustic or electronic, I come up with ideas that seem to fit well within certain frequency ranges. For example…an electronic part of the score…there were some signature sounds created with types of metals being played with bows that were heavily processed. Then I combined that with really high pitches on the piano that were run through pitch shifting plug-ins so that you don’t even realize it’s a piano anymore. I find things that comes from each part of the spectrum and build little groups of stuff for each part of the frequency spectrum. Once I have ideas for the middle and the bottom and the high parts, I just start mashing those together to see what comes out. I have a real effective approach to doing horror music. I don’t want it to sound like shoes in a dryer. It has to have some kind of craftsmanship to it.
SK: That’s an interesting approach…So, Betsy Rue, who plays Irene in the film has a brief but much talked about scene in the film where’s she’s naked the entire time. I have to admit that I don’t even know if there was any music in that scene because I was a little bit distracted by the, uh…visuals. People just don’t understand how difficult composers have it. You had to watch that scene over and over and over again to get the music just right. That must have been hard?
MW: What’s great about that performance though…Betsy killed it throughout that entire sequence! She sells it. She could care less. She doesn’t seem to have any self image problems or whatever. Just like, “I’m naked and I’m doing this scene!” Once you get over that and you see how it unfolds, by the time the scene is done you completely forget that she is even naked. It goes from complete comedy to complete terror. That’s a testament to her doing the scene so well.
At first, I definitely played the comedy but as soon as Harry Warden appears, it was “switch into full blown horror” mode. It doesn’t matter whether she is naked or wearing a snowmobile suit. She is in deep shit right there and that is the approach I took for the music.
You’re right though. I remember seeing that for the first time and telling Patrick, “This is going to go down in horror movie history. I guarantee it!”
SK: Horror scoring tend to put composers into a bit of a jam. On one hand you want to be very creative and think outside of the box. On the other hand there is a very defined expectation for what the music should sound like and what it should be doing. Did you feel the tug-of-war between wanting to be creative, yet maintain a certain status quo?
MW: Definitely! The role of horror music is really tough because it’s generally not a good listen outside of the movie. There are people who definitely like it but I would say as a whole, film score fans don’t gravitate towards horror films first. They tend to be very loud and aggressive and very dynamic and don’t have as much melodic character as maybe dramatic scores do. For this movie, the intent was to make it fun and entertaining and also a throwback to an era that I grew up with and loved. Patrick grew up with these too along with a lot of other people who worked on this film. We wanted to take a more traditional, straightforward, in-your-face approach and make the big moments scary in a way that people are used to hearing. We wanted to contemporize it to a certain point by adding a bit more fresh electronic elements and bigger orchestral sounds but I never really would.
With CRY WOLF for instance – where we went down a completely different path in terms of a thriller – the music was very internalized and claustrophobic sounding. The idea behind MBV was just make it as much of a theme park ride as possible. Make it huge, hard, and in-your-face. That was the whole idea.
A lot of those devices that you are used to hearing in horror scores, they work. I just took them and turned them up to eleven. I didn’t want to go too outside the box on this, because it’s not really what the film is about.
SK: How would you like to see horror scoring evolve?
MW: As a rule I like every score to have some kind of thematic focus. I think that is the thing missing from a lot of horror scores. A lot of them are just noise. They are atmosphere and sound effects. They are more sound design than they are music. I don’t knock that as an approach though because I’m noted as a sound designer. I am still very interested in that .
Ultimately, you’ve got to give the audience something to hang their hat one. Give them something to come back to. That’s why everyone who is making a horror movie for the first time or the tenth time eventually say “Yeah, I want the next Michael Myers HALLOWEEN thing,” or they want “The next Jason Vorhees’ sonic signature” or something like that.
Those are little dinky pieces of music within the grand scheme of the score but it puts in the pantheon of horror music as something iconic. I think that’s been missing from a lot of horror scores. It’s either a wall of noise and dissonance or it’s just drums pounding or something like that. It doesn’t really have a focus. I’d like to see scores going back to having a single motif…something going back to a central idea which the rest of the score blossoms from. It makes it more memorable as a whole especially when you have a slasher-type character that you are trying to build into something iconic.
SK: You scored a horror film pretty well. Are you worried about being typecast as a horror composer? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
MW: It’s funny, because in the videogame world I’m known as the guy who does kid’s games. I just did the MADAGASCAR game this summer and OVER THE HEDGE…I love cartoons and I’ve always been into animation. I have done a kid’s film for Disney and things like that.
I like horror frankly. I like genre films. My first genre experience was sneaking downstairs to watch NIGHT STALKER with my brother back in the early seventies when I was just a little kid. It’s grown from there. I would be happy working within horror, sci-fi, or fantasy realms. I love it. That’s what I grew up with. I would never turn down a job in any other genre.
I think I’ve got enough range across what I have done so far to keep myself from getting pigeonholed.
SK: What projects are you working on now or do you have coming up?
MW: Right now, I’m just working on a short film with a friend of mine from Minneapolis called
“Ana’s Playground.” It’s a cause-driven project that focuses on the issue of child soldiers fighting in world conflicts. Pretty sobering stuff. He’s been working on getting it made for a couple of years and it’s finally in full gear. I want to finish that because it has a good message and I think that he will get a lot of exposure for it.
Other than that I’m just waiting for the dust to settle on a couple of things.
SK: Are they releasing your score for MY BLOODY VALENTINE on CD?
MW: Right now it’s available on iTunes. You can also order hard copies through Amazon.com.
SK: Cool. Well it was a pleasure speaking with you today. I wish you the very best this weekend. Keep in touch and hopefully we’ll speak again in the future.
MW: Thanks! I appreciate it.
Now for the ol’ pick axe in the eye…Paul Zaza is known for scoring a host of classic 80’s horror films like PROM NIGHT (1980), BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), and the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) as well as collaborations with director Bob Clark on many films including PORKY’S (1982) and A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983).
With the release of MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D in theaters and the newly restored original out on DVD, I thought it would be cool to chat with Paul on his thoughts surrounding the new film, the old film and a few things in between.
ScoreKeeper: You know it’s a real pleasure talking with you. After speaking with Michael Wandmacher about scoring the remake of MY BLOODY VALENTINE I thought it would be a cool follow up to talk to the composer of the original.
Paul Zaza: Well, I’m sorry to say that I haven’t actually gotten a chance to see the remake so I have no idea what he did or what it even looks like. Have you seen it?
SK: I have. I liked it quite a bit. It’s different but keeps the spirit of the original intact. I thought it was a very worthy remake.
PZ: Yeah, my career has really been kind of weird. They have remade a lot of the hits – the original ones that I did – like PROM NIGHT (1980) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). PROM NIGHT was a complete disaster as far as I was concerned. I went to see it and I have to say they just totally missed it and BLACK CHRISTMAS was just about as bad.
SK: Do you think you will get around to seeing the new MBV?
PZ: I will. It just opened down here on Friday and I’ve just been kind of busy. I haven’t had a chance to go and see it. I will certainly go and see it and I am only hoping that the pattern isn’t continuing. From BLACK CHRISTMAS and PROM NIGHT – gosh, there was even one other one that I can’t remember. It seems like every time the new guys came along they tried to reinvent the wheel. They went out of their way to do things so differently, because they wanted to put their own mark on it. They kind of missed the point, you know?
SK: I would agree with that. I think MBV is different though. It’s new enough to be new but they kept the classic feel of the original. The audience I saw it with really seemed to enjoy it. Horror is a very picky and selective genre though.
PZ: Oh for sure. It’s not for everybody. Not that it matters but what are the critics were saying? What’s the buzz on it?
SK: I think among the horror remakes we discussed its definitely finding an audience. I have to admit though – even though I’m generally not the biggest fan of 3D – the 3D did make it a more enjoyable theatrical experience for me. It’s a little gimmicky but that made it fun.
PZ: With 3D you certainly can get away with a lot more, can’t you?
SK: Yeah. It’s not one of those subtle 3D movies either. I think one of the reasons remakes are missing their marks when compared to their originals is that they are taking themselves way too seriously. The horror I grew up with there was always an underlying current of being sure not to take this too seriously. I think with MBV, the 3D adds that subtle layer to it.
PZ: Well I’d love it. I’d have to put the glasses on.
SK: So what’s it like for you to have all of these older films you work on remade?
PZ: It doesn’t affect me at all. You have to remember, these were done twenty-five to thirty years ago. I’ve done a lot of movies since then. They are doing a special DVD release of the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE with all this never-before-seen footage. They interviewed a lot of people and I’m actually on camera talking about the original score. I remember thinking, “I really don’t know the answers to all of these questions because that was twenty-eight years ago.”
SK: Does it take you back or is are you so far removed from it that it’s like watching a completely different movie?
PZ: No, I don’t have amnesia or Alzheimer’s or anything like that. I certainly remember the project and I remember all of the politics that went along with the project which I would never forget. The actual details though, like “This scene here in the mine where the killer comes out and sticks an ice pick through his head…” Well, I don’t remember that. That’s a very specific detail. That’s one scene in one movie that was done twenty-eight years ago.
All I remember really about the film was that for it’s time, it was pretty graphic and we had to send the picture to get a rating for the MPAA and all I remember was they sent it back with a great big X across it and said “No way! This is not going to get an R rating. This will get an X rating,” which means you can’t open it. They said, “You have got to tone this down big time.”
It was a big nightmare. All of the scenes that had blood and the guts had to be toned down which meant they had to be shortened. That meant none of the music fit so I had to go back and redo it. If you have seen the original you know it’s pretty graphic even after they made us tone it down. Before that it was way worse.
SK: With the new DVD that just came out some of that footage has been restored. How were they able to handle that as far as your music goes? Obviously these scenes are now lengthened which once again throws off all your timings.
PZ: They called me and they said “Do you still have the music in it’s original form?” and I said “Yeah.” I keep everything. So I sent it to them in LA and they rebuilt the cut scenes and the deleted scenes. They completely reassembled it. It’s just been released and I’m waiting for my copy so I haven’t even seen this thing yet.
SK: Oh, cool! That will be very interesting. I was hoping they didn’t hack up the music even more to make it fit the new length. That’s going to be a real treat.
PZ: Yeah. Usually when a thing is being cut for censors, it’s being shortened, not lengthened, so the music cue would normally be too long and everything would be hitting in the wrong place because they are going to be cutting out graphic scenes. All I remember was that it was a very frustrating struggle going back and shortening all of these cues while still making them effective so that they would do what they were supposed to do which was make the audience jump six feet out of their chair.
In the horror genre everything is measured…All success is measured by how far can we get them to jump out of their seats. If you get them to go eight feet out of the seat, that’s better than if they only went six feet up. If you have ten or twenty seconds of silence and then you have this horrific musical sting that accompanies a very graphic visual you are going to scare the crap out of the audience. That’s what producers try to do in horror movies. That all requires split second timing.
SK: Take me back to 1981. When you think back, what are some of the things that come to your mind first? Did you have a good or bad experience scoring MBV? What were some of the challenges you faced and rewards you reaped?
PZ: Those are questions that could be applied to the film scoring business in general. That’s what I do. I write music scores and it’s very rewarding when it’s appreciated and the movie becomes a big hit. On the flip side, when you are dealing with a movie that isn’t working, but you have to stay with it and you have to pretend to like it and you have to pretend to believe in it, even though you kind of know that it was not working, that’s a little tough.
It takes a great deal of acting. If the producers and the directors sense that you aren’t into the movie, then that’s a pretty bad thing. Your composer has to believe in the movie right to the bitter end. Having done a lot of them, I got a sense even before going in whether this thing is going to work or not and of course my job is to do everything I can possibly can with music to make it work.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE was not in danger of it not working. It certainly did what it was supposed to do, in fact it did it too well. We were told to make it softer, because it was just too disturbing.
SK: When was the last time you saw it? Has anything changed for you in the last twenty-five years?
PZ: Oh, of course! If I were to work on it today, the technical advancements and the resources at my finger tips are so much more than what I had back then. I didn’t have much. We had a few samplers and I don’t know how many electronic synthesizers. Today you could do anything with a sampler and all kinds of electronic equipment which has advanced so much in the last ten or fifteen years. We didn’t have that back then. We had very primitive synthesizers. We had strings and orchestras and horns and pianos and real instruments to create ugly sounds. If I were to do this today it certainly would be much different.
SK: Do you remember specifically what synthesizers you used?
PZ: I think I had an old Korg. It was before samplers became big. These were just digital synthesizers in their very primitive stages that were started to find their way out into the music world. You didn’t see a lot of them back then.
SK: Has there been any thought or any discussions about possibly releasing a CD of your score for MBV?
PZ: It’s funny because we just did a sound track CD (for A CHRISTMAS STORY) which is now a perennial classic which constantly amazes me. It’s also weird because as many people that love that movie and as many hundreds and hundreds of request I’ve had for it, we didn’t sell nearly as many as we thought we would. I got a lot of mail requesting soundtracks for PROM NIGHT and MY BLOODY VALENTINE. The truth is there aren’t enough die hard fans to make it worth while to produce the CD.
SK: We definitely are a small bunch. Having said that, I would certainly raise my hand and plop down the cash for either of those two scores. If you decide to produce an MBV or PROM NIGHT CD, let me know.
PZ: We might. My partner, Carl Zittrer, who shares a credit with me on PROM NIGHT (not MY BLOODY VALENTINE) thinks we should do it and I think it deserves to be done. The movies are classic. I just don’t have big expectations for it.
SK: Well Paul, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk with you. Please be sure to keep me in the loop regarding any possible CD releases. I’ll do my best to get the word out.
I’d also love to talk with you again later in the year regarding your work on A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) which remains one of my all time favorite movies.
PZ: Thanks. That would be great. I’ll look forward to that.