We’ve all been in those awkward situations where we find ourselves in a room full of strangers, hesitant to be the first one to speak up and disrupt the silence. Eyes dart and feet shuffle, all while the suspense and discomfort begins to grow. This year at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it seems film studios were finding themselves in this exact same situation. While quality films were being screened all across Park City, Utah, it was a sluggish start to sales. Luckily for everyone, Searchlight Pictures broke the ice with their initial offering on David Bruckner’s latest film, The Night House starring Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town).
For horror fans, Bruckner is known for creating tense and terrifying films including The Ritual, The Signal and segments for V/H/S and Shudder’s Creepshow. The Night House proves to fit nicely among Bruckner’s filmography in both mood, style and sound. For many of Bruckner’s projects, that sound comes courtesy of friend and frequent collaborator, composer Ben Lovett.
A self-taught musician, songwriter and composer, Lovett’s path into the world of film music is both unique and inspirational. Unlike many musicians with years of lessons before puberty, Lovett picked up his first guitar at the age of 17. Through years of experimentation, trial and error, Lovett’s passion and talent for music only seemed to grow. This punk rock approach to film scoring has led Lovett to create works that vary in size, scope, sound and scale. His credits include Synchronicity, American Folk, The Ritual, The Wind, I Trapped the Devil and of course, The Night House. With such a unique story and versatility of sound, I was extremely excited to speak with Lovett about his latest project. We also chatted about the struggles that plague the music industry, his beautiful collaborations with Mondo/Death Waltz Records and that time he toured with Alkalkine Trio’s Matt Skiba.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: Congrats on The Night House‘s successful premiere at Sundance! I understand it was the first film picked up at the festival.
Ben Lovett: Thank you very much! It was! We all knew where it was going, but we had to keep our mouths shut for 24 hours. It was really difficult, but we had to go out and go to these other things. Everyone was really excited and it was kind of a dream scenario to land with Searchlight. They’re going to be great partners for this movie.
NOFS: How and when did you get involved with the film?
BL: I had read the script almost a year before they started shooting. The director, David Bruckner, and I have a 20-year history of collaborating on film projects. We met in college, so we go way back. We did The Ritual, and The Signal together in 2007. (David was one of the directors on that.) Anytime he’s working on anything, whether I’m working with him directly on it or not, usually I’m involved with it some way. Even if it’s just to read, give him some feedback, notes or bounce ideas off. So when he came across this script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, he sent it to me and said, ‘Man. You gotta read this. I’m thinkin’ about doing it.’ So, it had been in my head for a while and I read several drafts of it.
What Dave and I had wanted to do for a while, especially since our experience on The Ritual, was to get me on board earlier in the process. That way we had some time to explore ideas before we were racing some kind of deadline for a festival or a release date. Which is far too often the position I find myself in. At the end of the production chain. And that’s just not the way you make the best stuff. As a composer you need time to kind of work through all the bad ideas so they don’t wind up in the movie. So, I got started when they got started. I wrote and started exploring ideas while they were shooting. I would be sending ideas, little sketches and little bits of things…sometimes even just a sound or a texture that felt like it was gravitating towards the feeling of the film. I’d send those to David while he was on set and he’d play some of those for Rebecca (Hall). What she responded to would then influence some of their conversations.
NOFS: Because you and David have such a close and established working relationship, does he give you free rein in terms of what you do sonically? Or does he contribute a lot of ideas towards the music?
BL: He’s very, very generous in the way that he gives me a lot of space. And he’ll always be the first to tell you that he has no musical vocabulary. So, we never talk about music in musical terms. He knows what he likes, and he knows what he wants, but he isn’t very specific about it. He enjoys allowing the people who he surrounds himself with to interpret his direction. He talks to me in terms of emotions. And mostly story. We’re always talking about the story, the characters, and where they’re at in the story. And the idea of what kind of emotion might accompany that is usually the conversation. Sometimes he has very specific ideas. Like, he knows ‘We need to be feeling this at this point.’ And sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes it’s, ‘This feels like an area we’re going to need something…but I don’t know what it is yet.’
I sometimes instinctively have some sense, or direction towards which way I want to go in terms of instrumentation, mood or aesthetic. Some kind of general instinct or gut feeling towards my initial read of the material. But on The Night House, we were both like, ‘I don’t know what this movie sounds like.’ And I think it was because it’s so dense in concept. And it’s one of the things that attracted me to it. The amount of thematic material in the script that is translatable to musical terms. You’ve got a character who is an architect who’s obsessed with repeating patterns, objects that are mirrored and floor plans. Maze-like patterns from an architectural standpoint. And there’s this whole investigation of negative space. That’s just an absolute buffet of ideas and adjectives, things to dive into from a musical standpoint. So we went into it not really having any idea what it was going to sound like or what kind of instrumentation it was going to need. It was really an exploratory process.
“..on The Night House, we were both like, ‘I don’t know what this movie sounds like.’ [..] You’ve got a character who is an architect who’s obsessed with repeating patterns, objects that are mirrored and floor plans..”
NOFS: In the end, you settled on an interesting mix of strings, percussion, and electronic components. What lead you in that direction?
BL: When I don’t know what else to do, I decide to do something that I think Dave likes. (laughs) After 20 years, I know what kind of music he likes and I know what stuff he responds to. So, when you’re not quite sure where to land after you jump out of the plane with your parachute, you try to land somewhere in the vicinity of what you know they like. I knew strings and synths and strange noises were a very Dave Bruckner place to land.
We wound up with a 30 piece string section and I did a lot of sessions with a very creative percussionist named M.B. Gordy. He does a lot of really creative work with bows and rods. We did a lot of things on gongs and cymbals. Lots of taking the instrument and playing it in a way that wasn’t necessarily intended to create sounds that are less musical or melodic and just tonal elements. It imbued the atmosphere with things that may even sound like they are synthetic, but they are just very strange acoustic sounds coming off of instruments that are being played in a way they weren’t intended. It’s also a fun way to dive into things that are a little unpredictable. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Let’s try this…’ And it may be a huge waste of time, or there might be some eureka moment in there that you hear something and that sets off a series of other experiments. Maybe you find your movie score down that road somewhere.
NOFS: Talk to me more about the humans behind the instruments. How do you go about casting your ideal line-up of performers and how does this influence the final product?
BL: That’s a really good question because I’ve yet to have a set group. And I think it’s because I kind of bounce around and tend to record in different places. On The Ritual for instance, it was a UK based production. One of the requirements was that I needed to be in the UK so they could spend all of the money within the country. So, I had to go to London to write and record the entire score there. It meant that I needed to find a group of players that I could work with in London. It’s not difficult to find good players, but sometimes it’s difficult to find creative players. Players that you connect with and can communicate with. I have sort of a different approach to that stuff because I’m self-taught and I don’t have a music education background. I’m able to communicate to them what I want, but sometimes I’ve found that there’s a bit narrower of a bandwidth of player that I’m most compatible with.
I want there to bit a bit of back and forth. So there might be a bit of me coming in with an idea that’s written, it’s on the page for the string players, but it might be just a starting point. My idea is sort of my ‘safety back up’ in case we don’t find our way into something more inventive, creative or interesting. I like to work with players who are comfortable riffing from that point. So we get in there and I start giving the musicians directions kind of like the actors on set. And sometimes you find players who just don’t enjoy that type of thing. Because they’re used to, ‘It needs to be on the page in front of me.’
Usually, I’m trying to find players who are more open to experimentation. Now, that being said, that wasn’t necessarily the case on The Night House. It was strangely far more written and on the page for them to play. The strings in this particular score were more of the melodic parts and playing the more traditional part of the score. Whereas all this designed sound and strange textures, those were supplying the ‘other’ part of it. But it tends to be, the way I pick or choose players is logistical. So if I need to be in LA for the score, it’s going to be players in LA. When it doesn’t matter where I am, I have a studio in Asheville, North Carolina where I do a lot of work. I love to bring in players from the Symphony Orchestra in Asheville. It really tends to change on sometimes, something as boring as the requirements of where I need to be.
NOFS: Along those same lines, you’ve worked on a variety of films of varying size and scope. How does budget, time, logistics etc. factor into how you compose?
BL: I’d love to get to a point where you say those things don’t really influence your creative process. But they absolutely do. All that stuff is related. One has to negotiate a sense of ambition with the other. And I’m someone who it’s taken a long time (and I’m still not good at all of it), to measure my ambitions on a project. I just want to go after the idea I have, no matter how difficult it might be to achieve. It’s no secret that musicians are typically not very good with time management, or money, so I have both of those things working against me too. There’s an unfortunate persistence of finding myself barreling down the ends of these projects, no matter how much time or money I had, or how little, I still find myself barreling towards a deadline sleepless and insane. On The Night House, I started early, I’d been working on it 6 or 7 months, and still I’m pulling 17 or 18 hours a day in the home stretch just losing my shit wondering how I’m going to get it done.
“I’ve never really pursued this exclusively as a career to the point that it just feels like a job. Every one of these feels like an opportunity to do something special and to do something collaborative.”
You should be able to calibrate what it is that you want to achieve within the means that you have. But I’m just bad at trying to be way too ambitious about all of it. I’ve never really pursued this exclusively as a career to the point that it just feels like a job. Every one of these feels like an opportunity to do something special and to do something collaborative. I’ve never really accepted this as, ‘This is what I do as my job.’ I guess I’ve never really fallen into a rhythm or practice of learning to scale those things up or down. I’m just trying to get to the top of the damn mountain every single time.
NOFS: From an outsiders perspective, it does seem like you’re moving towards that goal of bigger and bigger projects.
BL: It does seem like the budgets and the time frames are getting bigger. On some. And then you get a call that’s like, ‘We love your stuff! We’d love you to come on! We have $2000 and 2 weeks.’ It’s a very strange landscape to navigate. I think it’s related to something more complicated about the larger problem of music in general in terms of it’s sense of value and place in the world.
Another big factor I think is simply the unfortunate consistency of any decision that can be made while making a movie that can be made later…tends to be put off until later. And the composer and the music is sometimes one of those. So you’re way too often coming in on a project where they’re like, ‘Well, we’re out of time and we’re out of money. But we’d love for you to be involved.’ And so you usually find yourself landing on something that’s already in motion. You just jump on and hold on for dear life. Try to cram in as many ideas as you can before you fall off the speeding train and hit the side of the mountain.
“You just jump on and hold on for dear life. Try to cram in as many ideas as you can before you fall off the speeding train and hit the side of the mountain.”
NOFS: My day is job is managing a record store, so what you’re saying about the devaluation of music resonates with me. I deal with physical media every day and I never quite thought about how the same devaluation would affect your industry as well.
BL: It’s the same source and these same reasons have this ripple effect. They go out and affect everything. The general, overall value of the music element has become a thing where you just type into the computer and it plays. That’s the reality that entire generations are growing up in. And it’s even adjusted itself into the behavior patterns of people in our generation and even above ours where it’s like a faucet and music just pours out. And all the stuff that has to precede the music pouring out of the faucet is getting extremely taken for granted and completely undervalued. Mostly because it’s misinterpreted and just misunderstood in terms of how many different individual parts of the process there are. And there’s the fact that these things take not only time but money.
When you get on a project and you have 45 separate cues to create, but you only have 35 days to do it. And that means you have to record it, and edit it and mix it, and cut it into the film…that’s why people who do this are fucking crazy. It’s just sick what we’ll put ourselves through.
Part of it is also just an extension of how wretched the business practices are in terms of music and business in the industry. And that goes back really, really far. The music business has always been set up to completely take advantage of the people who make the music because we are easy people to take advantage of. Because most of us will do anything to just play music! So we’ve been preyed upon and taken advantage of and the whole industry is built on the back of that assumption. The film business takes to that a lot, especially the indie film business. These budgets and time frames that are damn near impossible sometimes, but if you say no it’s like, ‘Ok cool! Well, we have a line of 30 people out here who’d be happy to take that.’ And you know that so you’re like, ‘Fuck. Ok fine.’
HOWEVER, I always have to include the caveat that…it’s still the best job ever. Even in the worst stretches, you’re still making a movie. It’s still way cooler than the next best thing you could be doing most days. It’s still worth it…it just takes years off the end of your life. (laughs)
“It’s still worth it…it just takes years off the end of your life.”
NOFS: Over time, horror scores have developed their own unique set of rules and tropes. Do you find this limiting? Or do you enjoy playing with expectations?
BL: I do enjoy playing with expectations. With The Ritual, I remember really embracing and working within that set of expectations and ‘rules’ for a lack of a better term. There’s a freedom in the creative limitations. Not that there’s hard and fast rules, but more just sort of guidelines. I feel like to play within the structures, tropes and expectations of horror is to sort of allow yourself to…it’s sort of like saying, I want to paint watercolors. You want to work within that style. If you go too far outside, you’re just incorporating the influence of a watercolor painting. I feel similar in that way. In the sense that it gives you a sense of colors from which to work. To say ‘Alright. I’ve gotta use this blue, green, purple and orange.’ And I can mix them together or use all of one with just splotches of the other, but I have these elements with which to work. And they gave me a large brush, and a small brush, and this weird thing with a bunch of spikes on the end of it.
I feel like it’s a creative challenge and also helps you focus in on what you want to do. Because these projects can be terrifying and intimidating with all the options you have at the beginning. You can go in any direction on a film at the starting point when you’re staring at a blank page. And it’s really kind of anxiety-inducing. Sometimes being able to rein that in and find a way to light your torch to find which direction you’re going to go off in is a really useful and functional set of limitations.
NOFS: You’ve had several beautiful vinyl releases of your scores on Death Waltz Records. Did you have a hand in these? Are you a fan of the format?
BL: I absolutely am, and I did. When you look across the board at some of my stuff that reaches over into my artist’s careers, the songwriting stuff and the visual elements we’ve done supporting that, I’m very involved in the general aesthetic and presentation of everything I do. I’m just naturally trying to push this stuff towards what I think is cool. Those guys have been really gracious to allow me to do that. Sometimes it’s hard because I couldn’t draw a stick man if you gave me a ruler, that is not a talent that I have.
When it comes to things like the vinyl, the artwork is specifically important. Part of vinyl’s resurgence has been the fact that owning something tangible has resurfaced as having a certain value. I think a big part of the value of that tangible object is the impact that it makes aesthetically. That cover for The Wind that Candice Tripp did, I want that shit tattooed on my face. I want to pick that vinyl up and eat it. It’s been awesome doing those Death Waltz releases with Spencer and Mondo. I love their commitment to having an artist take a reinterpretation of the movie and create a new image that’s custom. It’s brilliant. Every time I have an opportunity to work with those guys I’m like, ‘Absolutely. Let’s do it.’
NOFS: I’ve got a final question relating to your non-film music pursuits. Couldn’t help but notice you produced the Matt Skiba (Alkaline Trio/Blink 182) side project Heavens album Patent Pending. How did that come about?
BL: I like where this is heading. We’re hopping in a time machine. I actually met Matt through Hot Water Music. In fact, the first time I met Matt, Alkaline Trio was opening for Hot Water Music on an east coast tour. So, it was all of us in a van before they got to where they got to. This would have been like, 2000? 2001 maybe? I spent a good amount of time on the road with those guys back then. Then I moved to LA and had a studio set up where I’d record and produce other bands while working on film stuff. I was working on this album with this guy and he said, ‘I’ve got a buddy coming by to cut some background vocals.’ The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there was Skiba. We were both like, ‘Holy shit!’ It had been a year or two since we’d seen each other at that point.
So, we hung out all day, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve been living in this house with this guy and we’ve recorded some songs on an 4-track. They’re completely different than Alkaline songs. Would you want to produce the record?’ From this cassette tape demo, I heard something. I think at the time he was really enjoying taking his Alkaline Trio hat off and letting some of his other influences come out. Over the next couple of months, it was just me, Matt and Josiah (Steinbrick). They were really interested in the fact that I was doing a lot of beats, electronics and film scores. They were like, ‘That’s the kind of stuff we want. We don’t want someone who makes rock records in studios. That’s what we’re trying to get away from. We like this more cinematic, atmospheric approach.’ We all had different points of relationships with Epitaph and once the record was done, we played it for a few people and they signed it.
Then Matt was like, ‘Guys, we gotta tour this.’ Which was never something any of us were planning. It was just this fun side project thing. So they were like, ‘Well, we have to put a band together and you’re going to be in it. No one knows the songs better than you.’ The first show that Heavens ever played was a sold-out club in Manchester, England. It was full of a bunch of kids going crazy who all knew the songs. We had never played a show in front of people. And we’re up there, in front of hundreds of kids singing the songs. It was a wild, super fun experience. We toured the UK, Scotland, East Coast, West Coast…and that was it.
Which one of Ben’s scores do you find particularly appealing? Anyone else remember that awesome Heavens album? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!