Some people collect stamps. Others collect books, records or mini slasher action figures. And then there’s Nathan Barr. Along with collecting TV and film composing credits, he also possesses a fascinating array of rare, unique and historically important musical instruments. Some collection highlights include a human bone trumpet, a rare Glass Armonica and an old 20th Century Fox studio Wurlitzer organ that he built an entire studio around. By restoring, altering and utilizing his impressive collection, Barr has created some remarkable music with unique depth and sound.
While the instruments are indeed stunning, it’s Barr’s incredible versatility and masterful understanding of music that has made waves. Over the years, Barr has composed scores for both television and film. His credits include True Blood, Sneaky Pete, Carnival Row, The Domestics and a large handful of Eli Roth films. In 2013, he nabbed two Primetime Emmy nominations in the Main Title Theme Music category for The Americans and Hemlock Grove. Barr is a composer with passion and his work reflects his intense love for the art. On top of all these great qualities, he’s a certified horror fiend. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Barr about his new film TheTurning, directed by Floria Sigismondi and starring Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate) and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things). We also chatted about Eli Roth, his favorite horror films and that infamous Thanksgiving short.
“There’s that great ambiguous-ness of the story which is what makes [The Turning] so brilliant. So musically, it’s really about getting into her head. And as her reality comes apart and distorts, the music comes apart.”
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: I’m so thrilled to be talking to you today! You’ve been a part of so many amazing projects and have a brand new film out, The Turning! How did you get involved with the film and what attracted you to the project?
Nathan Barr: In 2018, I did a film for Amblin/Universal called The House with a Clock in its Walls with Eli Roth and I had a really great experience with Amblin. We really enjoyed working together. Very seamless and just a joy. So, they thought of me when it came time to find a composer for The Turning. They set up a meeting for me with Floria Sigismondi, the director, and she came over to my studio. She was really into my approach to scoring a film and she saw all the various unusual instruments I have in my studio, including the really large pipe organ I restored and built the building around. She was looking for something very unique to help tell the story musically in The Turning and that was really the genesis of it all.
NOFS: Floria has such a fascinating background with music, art and directing music videos. Did she have a lot of ideas and input for you musically?
NB: She did. Sometimes directors know enough about music to be trouble, and it’s challenging. But Floria is the exact opposite of that. Like, she knows a lot about music. But her knowledge musically is directly tied to her brilliance visually. So she is super cued in to what needs to be happening musically with the visual elements that she creates. It was really fascinating and fun. She was over here for many sessions, hours at a time. Sometimes when I was even writing, and she would just sort of react while I was working to whatever was working. It was really a pleasant and inspiring experience because she is just a very inspiring director. She’s very collaborative, but also very sure of what it is she wants. It’s always nice to work with someone who knows what they want, knows when you’ve given it to them, and then be able to move on. There’s some directors who part of their process is to be uncertain from beginning to end and you never know when you nail something if it’s really the end of it or not. With Floria, she would help me get there and then I’d know we were good to go.
Composer Nathan Barr
NOFS: The film is based on the Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw which innately has layers of both physical and psychological horror. Did the duality of the story affect your approach to the music at all?
NB: Yeah, absolutely. So, I went to the premiere last night at The Chinese and it was the first time I’d seen the film in many, many months. I think we finished it 8 months ago. I’ve done a couple films since then, so it was really fun to go and experience the film again with fresh ears. I couldn’t of answered your question in as much detail as I can now, having just seen it last night. I think the fun part of it was, it’s basically about Kate, this governess who goes to this house to take care of these children. And it’s her losing touch with reality, or not. There’s that great ambiguous-ness of the story which is what makes it so brilliant. So musically, it’s really about getting into her head. And as her reality comes apart and distorts, the music comes apart. There’s a couple of themes throughout the film that all speak to her journey as she goes insane. Yes, there are the jump scares and the obvious creepy moments, but the meat of it is really about Kate and the psychological underpinnings of what is going on.
NOFS: This score is rich, velvety, dark and atmospheric…and there were definitely sounds I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Now, I know you have an incredible collection of rare and interesting instruments. Which ones did you ‘turn‘ to here? (Pun not intended)
NB: (laughs) So, I created an instrument called the ‘stout-o-phone.’ And that is named after a legendary pipe organ restoration guy who’s still around and is an absolute genius. Ed Stout. Edward Millington Stout III. And he and I have become close because of my own journey with this Wurlitzer that I have here. I basically took an old pump organ from the 19th century and we gutted it, and retrofitted it so that I could take any sort of organ pipes that I wanted and put them into the instrument and play them. We have wind machines that allow us to play those pipes. So, a lot of what you heard was that stout-o-phone. It was just me taking junky organ pipes that we pulled out of an old downtown LA hotel from the 20s and we just slotted those into this machine and got them making noises. The Wurlitzer is also used quite a bit too. This is a Wurlitzer with a very rich history. It was used in The Sound of Music. Bernard Herrmann used it in Journey to the Center of the Earth in the 50s and I’ve given it a second life here. You can particularly hear it in the moment at the beginning of the film where Kate drives up to the house.
“I created an instrument called the ‘stout-o-phone’ […] I basically took an old pump organ from the 19th century and we gutted it, and retrofitted it so that I could take any sort of organ pipes that I wanted…”
NOFS: That’s so incredible. Every time you play those keys bits of history are pouring out.
NB: Yeah! A very famous music director and organist at the time was the music director for Bing Crosby and Shelley Winters. His name was Buddy Cole, and he played the last session of his life on that instrument for The Sound of Music. And then he went home and had a heart attack at like, age 44 or something. He was very young. It’s kind of crazy.
NOFS: Are these instruments you are seeking out? Or do they just happen to cross your path?
NB: I’m always seeking them out. I have a deal with myself that at any given time I always have something in restoration or on its way. I have two instruments off-site right now. One is being restored and one I have to go pick up to become part of the studio. So, I very much seek them out. But this instrument, I was seeking out a pipe organ when I was starting to design and build my studio and this particular pipe organ really fell into my lap. I was doing some research in the pipe organ world and someone said, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta go check out this Fox organ.’ So that’s kind of how that one happened.
NOFS: I’m so happy you rescued it and gave it a new life! It deserves so much more than to be in storage.
NB: Thanks! Me too! Exactly. The gentleman who I bought it from, who restored it and has done a beautiful job, is very ill. And so I don’t know what would have happened to this. He owns, in storage, a couple of very important pipe organs. I think this with the others would have probably been broken up into multiple organs if at all, or just trashed when he’s gone. It was a piece of history that could have slipped away so easily so I’m glad I found it when I did.
Hot at the Shop:
NOFS: Looking at your filmography, it’s hard not to notice your frequent collaborations with Eli Roth. How did that relationship come about?
NB: Eli and I met, must have been around 1999 on Cabin Fever. A producer I had just finished doing a tiny film for was producing Cabin Fever, so she introduced Eli and I. And we just hit it off. He came in and saw my DVD collection of horror films and felt like a kindred spirit. So, we started working together on Cabin Fever and had a great collaboration with that. Then we went on to Hostel and Hostel II. Then Eli made a little detour, hired a couple of other composers on some things, and then we started working together again on The House with a Clock in its Walls. And now I’m currently working with him on a really wonderful documentary he’s doing about the decimation of the shark population which is called Fin.
NOFS: Oh wow! I didn’t realize he was doing that.
NB: Yeah! He does Shark Week every year I think and this is the outcome of that. As he has participated in that, he thought this could be a great way to help people better understand the peril that species is in right now.
NOFS: Oh, I love that! So, a lot of Eli’s films are so graphic and visually…stimulating. What is your approach to supporting his specific style from a musical standpoint?
NB: I remember a piece of direction he gave me years and years ago. I think it was in Hostel. He said, ‘I want people to still be traumatized even if they cover their eyes.’ Eli throws the kitchen sink in. At all times and very deliberately. So musically, the music is very intense and in your face. And yet, there’s these little moments here and there. I can think of them in Hostel and Hostel II, these moments of almost tenderness between characters. Or twisted tenderness, like what happens in Hostel. And then it all goes to hell again. At least for the Hostel films, I wanted to go for a super big Bernard Herrmann orchestra kind of thing. But then, for The House with a Clock in its Walls, it was such a pleasant surprise for Eli to get a film like that to direct. It’s like the kids version of the terror and adult films he’s been doing for so long. We both grew up on Gremlins and The Goonies and we finally got to explore, together in our collaboration, our love for those films. I think for both of us it was a very easy experience. We both fell into that approach so easily and just loved it.
“I’m currently working with [Eli Roth] on a really wonderful documentary he’s doing about the decimation of the shark population which is called Fin.”
NOFS: Your career is really fascinating to me as you’ve worked extensively in both film and television. Talk a bit about the differences between the two formats and the unique things that attract you to both.
NB: For the first 10 years of my career I was basically just doing film. I did a ton of independent films, most of which no one ever saw. (laughs) But when I did Hostel, that soundtrack ended up in the cutting room for the pilot of True Blood. Alan Ball heard it and really liked it, and that was my segue way into a much busier television career. I love both, but I really love that…so there was a stigma associated with television back in the 80s and 90s. And also with television in general. I think we all know, we’re in this golden age of television right now. So, the fact that I was sort of segue way-ing into television as a medium just as it was kicking off has been really exciting.
I love the longer format storytelling of television. True Blood, I worked on that for 7 years so it was a musical journey of 80 episodes. That’s 80 hours of music basically. And then I went into The Americans which was totally different and emotionally engaging. It was spy thing that blew up into a whole other thing. And then there was Sneaky Pete for Amazon, and now Carnival Row along with a couple other things. First of all, I love doing lots of different genres. But I also love longer form storytelling and with such high quality. I’m on this show right now for Hulu called The Great and it’s like, unbelievable. It’s a period piece, it’s gorgeous. As gorgeous as any filmed period piece in a long time in my opinion. Musically, it’s really exciting too. I love that TV really allows you to stretch out and explore a musical world in a much longer format.
NOFS: I’m an intense lover of film music, and for me, the score that opened my eyes to its power was Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby. Which scores or composers have personally influenced you the most?
NB: Well, that would be one of them. I have the poster of Rosemary’s Baby on my wall here in my bedroom at the studio. I adore that theme and his life was cut short way too young. He would have gone on to do some really interesting stuff. In terms of horror, I love Wojciech Kilar’s score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Coppola. That’s a really beautiful score that was big for me. I know it’s totally derivative to say, but all of John Williams’ movies and his scores with Spielberg are a huge influence on me. Jaws in particular. And more the emotional stuff in Jaws. It’s so beautiful. Some of the more sweeping stuff that’s not about the more famous ‘bum bum bum bum.’ Gone with the Wind, Max Steiner’s score is amazing. Franz Waxman’s score to Captains Courageous is one of my favorite movies. And the score to Treasure Island. Mid-30s both of those movies and they’re two of my favorite movies. I’ve seen them each like a zillion times. The scores to both those films are just so special to me. The list goes on and on, there’s so many. As far as synth goes, Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner. It’s so cool. And Bernard Herrmann’s score to Taxi Driver.
NOFS: Seeing as you’re a horror fan yourself, what are some of your favorite films. Past or present?
NB: I do horror nights here at Bandrika, my studio, where a bunch of friends, we get together, do dinner, drinks and watch a horror film or two. Twice a month. It’s been really fun. We watched The House That Jack Built last week which confirmed how much I hate Lars von Trier. I think he’s a terrible filmmaker. But I think there’s this whole cool thing happening with horror films right now. I think, in the past couple years, the films that have really stood out to me and are super exciting are The Witch, It Follows, The Conjuring and Hereditary. Like, those are 4 really good horror films. Each different from one another, but super solid. I think those are going to stand the test of time.
“When you work on a film it goes to a different box in your brain. I don’t think you can ever experience it the way an audience member would per se.”
NOFS: And all from 4 young, powerful and exciting filmmakers.
NB: Absolutely! I think particularly Ari Aster…I saw Hereditary three times in the theater. I was blown away. I’m not scared by it anymore because I’ve seen it so much, but it was genuinely terrifying to me on so many levels. The writing was so strong too. I think it’s a perfect film.
NOFS: When you watch one of your films for the first time, seeing all the pieces finally come together, do you ever creep yourself out with your music?
NB: No. (laughs) It’s so weird. I remember in Hostel II I was scoring one of the really twisted scenes and I had some friends over and I showed them. And I was laughing, but then I turned around and they were like, white as a sheet. I don’t know if they were more horrified at the scene or that I was laughing. When you work on a film it goes to a different box in your brain. I don’t think you can ever experience it the way an audience member would per se.
NOFS: Alright. Final question. You get a text from Eli and it says ‘Thanksgiving. Feature film. You in?’ What do you say?
NB: 100%. I know he’s been kicking that around for a couple years now and are you kidding me? I’d love to do it. I’ll bring the gravy.
The Turning is now playing in theater’s nationwide. You can also catch more of Nathan’s work in his upcoming Miramax film, Uncle Frank starring Sophia Lillis (It, It: Chapter 2), Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code) and Judy Greer (Halloween, Ant-Man). The movie recently premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
What did you think of The Turning? Would you buy tickets to a Thanksgiving feature film? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!