‘What does it sound like when a computer dreams? And what does it sound like when a computer has a nightmare?’
This would be the phrase that served as inspiration for Gavin Brivik as he composed the synth-infused, swirling digital atmosphere for the psychological horror/mystery thriller Cam. With years of experience composing music for both short films and traditional song writing, Gavin would get to explore new creative ground and tackle his first feature film with Cam. After successfully navigating the festival circuit and picking up awards at both the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and Fantasia Film Festival, Cam was picked up by Netflix and is available to be streamed into your mainframe now. As a first feature for most involved in the film, Cam is a prime example of what can happen when a creative team takes a strong, original idea and works together in a collaborative fashion to help bring that idea to life.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Gavin and we were able to discuss his path into composing for film, his experience working on Cam, what it means to be a composer for film, and what horror films are at the top of his list. Check out our conversation below.
“Writing for film is more about being a storyteller and writing music for yourself almost feels more spiritual or artistically fulfilling […] but my passion is in film scoring.”
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: Reading into your bio a bit, it’s clear you have a deep rooted passion for film music. Talk a little about how and why you chose to pursue film music composition.
Gavin Brivik: Initially, I didn’t set out for this to be my career. I actually grew up as a rock guitarist, and was into jazz music and classical guitar. I totally set out on a career trying to make it as a rocker, or maybe be in a touring band, but what happened was I injured my wrist in college. So, I had to stop playing guitar for a few years, and I was really depressed and I was trying to figure out if I could still do music because some doctors were telling me that I might not be able to play guitar anymore. I took up composition as a class. Composition is mostly about transcribing what you hear in your head, so I thought it would be a cool exercise and didn’t really think that it would be my “thing”. But it totally was.
Almost like divine intervention. I studied classical and experimental music composition for a while, and I wasn’t really doing anything with film, but I always loved film music. I remember growing up always focusing on the music, but I never really thought it was something I could do. But once I started studying music composition, I realized that maybe I could visit film music and experiment. I started doing a few student films and then just fell in love with it. I kind of drifted away from the academic music composition world and got into film scoring. It’s been an unexpected path.
NOFS: While you were along on this journey and discovering this new passion, who were some of the composers of musicians that you felt a connection with or drew influence from?
GB: I was really attracted to the rockers that turned film composer as they kind of related to my own path. I think that I gravitated towards the way that those people kind of think, and I think some of my biggest influences, even at an early age, were Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) who’s done There Will Be Blood, You Were Never Really Here and Phantom Thread. Even composers like Danny Elfman who was in Oingo Boingo, composers who came from nontraditional backgrounds. Lately, I’ve been really obsessed with Mica Levi’s work who did Under the Skin. She’s definitely on my radar as one of the best film composers alive right now.
NOFS: Coming from a background of traditional rock and academic music composition, what’s different about your approach to composing a piece for film?
GB: I think there is a pretty big difference. When it comes to film, it’s all about story. I really view it as storytelling and almost like a filmmaker in my own respect. In a way where I’m telling a characters emotions, developing the music as the character develops. Everything that happens in the music is dictated by the picture, by the editing, by incredible cinematography, the set design, the lighting. It’s very collaborative and I’m working with so many people who are giving me notes, or giving me ideas. Even Danny [Goldhaber], the director of Cam, would come over all the time and we would write some stuff together or he’d watch me write and say ‘Why don’t you try this?’. When you’re not writing for film, it’s really just you and your instruments. I usually feel very in control, and it’s all about my decisions. It’s more about ‘What am I trying to say?’ rather than speaking for a character or for an emotion. Writing for film is more about being a storyteller and writing music for yourself almost feels more spiritual or artistically fulfilling as a human. I do both so that I can feel both ways, but my passion is in film scoring.
NOFS: You’ve had a long history with short films, but Cam is your first feature. How did you get involved with the project?
GB: I scored a UNICEF documentary that was just a short film, and it was on Vimeo and got ‘Staff Picked’ on Vimeo. It had a good following and a director, who was in LA and had a short film coming up, had seen this documentary and she wanted me to score it. And so she came to Brooklyn and I scored her short film and we ended up really connecting and the collaboration went really smooth. Then, she was telling me how her friend was doing a feature and was looking for a composer. That happened to be Danny with Cam. So, she made the introduction and funny enough, the person who sound mixed that UNICEF documentary was the sound mixer for Cam. There was this weird mutual connection from the original film that I was found from. And when I went to go see a test screening of Cam, the mixer from that UNICEF documentary was also there. It was the first time we had actually met. It was just kind of a funny relationship where I felt like I wasn’t a complete stranger and people had at least worked with people I had worked with.
“Our whole score was really about identity and Alice’s loss of her digital identity. The feeling of separating the digital world from the real world…”
NOFS: What were some of the early concepts and conversations like in regards to the score?
GB: When I was first brought on, Danny put me through a two week trial period and he understandably was very careful about the music. He wanted it to be really unique and different, so I think he wasn’t just going to sign me on. And at that time, I didn’t really have anything on my website or anything that really reflected what I did in Cam, so I think he was just unsure. So, for the first few weeks I just created tons of music away from the film. There’s this line, that Danny and the sound designer Mike, they’d say to me ‘What does it sound like when a computer dreams? And what does it sound like when a computer has a nightmare?’ I think that is the summary for the score. I kind of went with that line and wrote all these kind of experimental pieces that were just textures of weird synth sounds, tape or weird processed strings and then running them through guitar pedals and synthesizers.
I think we were just trying to find sounds for a while and once I found sounds that Danny really loved, then it became about building themes. I think for a long time we just had to find the right instruments which was the hardest part. I got really lucky on this project because I had like 6 months to work on it which is quite unusual in the indie world. Unless it’s a huge film, a lot of the time composers get a month, sometimes less, 2 or 3 months max. The fact that I had 6 months I think really helped in the sense of really exploring every possibility because we wanted to be so precise about the themes; when does sound enter, when does it leave.
Isa [Mazzei], the writer, had a huge say in the score as well. She played a pivotal role and gave me tons of notes. The score was more about Alice’s loss of identity than anything and I think sometimes when you work on films writers don’t talk about the score. This is my first feature, but I’ve worked for other bigger composers and they’ve told me that sometimes the writer just kind of disappears or isn’t really involved in post-production, but I loved that Isa sent me musical notes. She would come over with Danny and we’d talk about it. It was a really good team project that’s a special unique thing about this film.
NOFS: I think you’re extra efforts are really evident, because one of the things I really noticed was the score and the sound design are so closely connected. What was the relationship like between you and sound designer Michael Bucuzzo and how did you two collaborate together?
GB: Well, Michael is a genius. I was super lucky to work with him because he was very involved, much before I was. Him and Danny had known each other much longer and Mike had some early thoughts on the score and really had a role in getting me hired. He listened to my initial demos and he also came up with really cool ideas. So, we would work on things simultaneously and then send each other work, give each other thoughts if something was kind of conflicting, maybe some of our sounds were kind of fighting each other, or we would see that and kind of adjust accordingly so they’d work harmoniously. There’s times where there’s an air conditioning sound that’s this low drone and maybe Mike has a fan spinning and it’s kind of rhythmic. He’d send that to me and I’d hear the rhythm of the fan and figure out how to make that a musical starting point. Or there’d be times, in some of the scenes where Mike would actually process my score.
If you think about the jazzercise scene that was kind of a funny song; sort of 70’s funk, early 80’s disco-y song. I sent it to Mike and he processed it, ran it through effects and did some incredible things with it. It just shows, that’s the beauty of our collaboration. And there’s other places where I’d write something for a certain section and Mike would move it and I’d think that’s genius. Having that flexibility between us and no egos clashing, I really hope to continue working with him.
Our whole score was really about identity and Alice’s loss of her digital identity. The feeling of separating the digital world from the real world and that’s where the score fell in line and that’s where Mike and I really worked on sounds. What should the sound be as Lola becomes more problematic and how Alice is now spending more time off the screen and trying to investigate. We start off with a score that’s almost purely synthesizers and slowly introduce organic instruments like drums and strings. But those drums and strings are never just pure. They’re always computer processed and I think conceptually we were thinking it’s similar to how the computer is still controlling Alice’s real life. Lola is still effecting reality. The computer stuff never really ends musically, it’s just a matter of purely digital synthesized sounds vs. organic elements that are processed through a computer.
“I love horror films that have really cool backstories or have roots in folklore and mythology […] and would love to do more work in the genre”
NOFS: So for a first feature, you’ve got Blumhouse involved, Netflix picking it up, Lakeshore releasing the score, what has this experience been like? How are you processing all this?
GB: I really didn’t know what to expect, I just really loved the film when I first saw it and wanted to work on it because for a first feature it’s so perfect and out of the box. It challenged me creatively. I do a lot of TV commercials to pay the bills and while that’s work, this project felt so fun and challenging. It made me a better person, a better artist. So to me, that was rewarding enough. However, all the success that has followed the film is really incredible. It’s crazy to me that Lakeshore was even interested in releasing the soundtrack. I feel super lucky honestly. I’m really fortunate to have been a part of it and I’m so grateful.
NOFS: While Cam isn’t a straight ahead horror film it does have some horror elements. Are you a fan of the genre?
GB: Oh yeah! There’s so many classics. Amityville Horror, The Shining, I love the music in those films. Rosemary’s Baby has a really cool soundtrack, and I love modern horror too. I really liked the music to Hereditary, Colin Stetson did some really interesting things. I love the composer who did The Nun too [Abel Korzeniowski], I thought that was a really interesting score. I’ve seen a lot of Blumhouse’s stuff, and while I might not be the most die hard horror fan, I love to go and see them. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, that was a super cool one. Those composers do a lot of stuff, The Newton Brothers, and I really admire their work. I love horror films that have really cool backstories or have roots in folklore and mythology. Like, The Witch. That’s a good one and has a really, really cool score. I really do love horror and would love to do more work in the genre.
Want to know more about Cam and Gavin’s score? The entire soundtrack was released digitally via Lakeshore Records and can be found here. Also, check out our own Jonathan Dehaan’s review of the film from Fantasia Film Fest here. And don’t forget to let us know what you think about the film over on our Facebook Group and Twitter!