Anything for Jackson is one of those films that calmly takes the tried and true exorcism and possession sub-genres and reinvents them in the most terrifyingly beautiful way. Equally saturated in love and grief as it is satanic rituals and ghosts, the film balances horror and heart with ease. Directed by Justin G. Dyck, the core of the film rests with Henry (Julian Richings) and Audrey (Sheila McCarthy). After the tragic loss of both their daughter and their young grandson Jackson, the two take a slightly unconventional route in an effort to heal. Kidnapping a young, pregnant woman named Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), the two attempt to bring back Jackson by channeling his spirit through Becker‘s unborn child…with Satan’s help of course. Needless to say, things do not quite go as plan and what happens next is as heart wrenching as it is horrifying.
This fine line of terror and family drama is not always an easy one to walk, but the film does so marvelously in part due to its incredibly haunting score from John McCarthy. A long time composer for film and television, John’s resume includes projects like NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy, The Stone Angel and Faces in the Crowd. Eloquently and expertly adept at crafting evocative soundscapes, John’s blend of acoustic and electronic elements adds quintessential layers of complex emotional tones to Anything for Jackson. In celebration of the film’s successful festival run and recent addition to Shudder, I sat down with John (virtually) and we chatted all about the film, his incredibly personal connection to it and the creepiest trick-or-treat scene in recent memory. For more information on Anything for Jackson, make sure to check out fellow Nightmare on Film Street contributor Joshua Anderson’s review of the film!
“I soon realized this project was different […] It was a matter of dissecting each scene, writing each part as its own unique entity.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: From what I understand you have a very personal connection to Anything For Jackson. How did you get involved with the project and what initially attracted you to it?
John McCarthy: My sister Sheila McCarthy plays Audrey Walsh who is one of the lead characters in the movie. We were just talking as we often do and she was like, ‘I’m working on this movie and they have like, two cents but everything is real. All the monsters, everything. There’s no CGI and there’s an incredible energy on the set. I’m 110% into it.’ And with Sheila, she’s my older sister.
My very first movie it was her who introduced me to Denys Arcand for Love & Human Remains. It was a party she invited me to and I was her date! At the time I was mainly playing in bands and I wasn’t really doing the scoring thing that much. But then I did The Possession of Michael D. with her and The Stone Angel which I won the Canadian Oscar equivalent for Best Music. So for this one I was like, ‘Well, who’s scoring it?’ And then she found out that nobody was scoring it yet. So, I took my horror reel and sent it into the guys. They called back, we talked and then they basically said, ‘If you want to do it, you can do it!’
NOFS: It’s no secret that this is a different kind of project for the director, Justin Dyck. How was it working with him on the score? What kind of input did he have for you?
JM: So, the initial conversation was with Justin and Keith Cooper the writer. Justin would always say how he’s not that musical and how Keith was much more musical so he would interpret what he was saying. But as we got into it, they were very, very specific about what they didn’t want. So like initially I said, ‘I think I’ll come up with some themes for the characters.’ And they said, ‘No, we don’t really want that. We want to break that mold.’ And so all of a sudden as a composer you go, ‘Oh! Ok. They don’t want a theme. So what does that mean?’ I soon realized they didn’t want anything traditional. Basically, their notes were that they wanted the score to build and build and build all the way to the end, but they didn’t want wall-to-wall score. They really wanted to pick their moments. They were kind of green in the way that they were giving me notes, but it was so refreshing.
As they were saying they didn’t know what they wanted, they were very specific about what they didn’t want. It wiped out a huge palette of sound. So as I was writing I’d send them demos and realized that what they’d often react to was the really weird stuff. Harmonic violin with evil guitars. And what they didn’t really like was anything melodic. They’d also say, ‘Don’t repeat yourself.’ So I soon realized this project was different. And once I realized that, the music became the subtext of the moment. It was a matter of dissecting each scene, writing each part as its own unique entity. It was fun that way!
“Everything was so much fun because they wanted everything that wasn’t traditional. So because of that, anything goes.”
NOFS: There’s a real ominously ambiguous vibe to the music with lots of interesting sounds. Talk a little bit about how you developed this incredible soundscape.
JM: I have a friend Oleg Troyanovski and he is a violin player I met here in Los Angeles, but he lives in Moscow. And we keep in touch as composers tend to do and I was telling him about this and he said, ‘I have a library of crazy violin stuff. I’ll send it to you.’ And it was perfect! It wasn’t music, it was just like one note held for twenty minutes. But there were many tracks of it. I’m a woodwind player so I use all the flutes and a lot of this score has bass flute everywhere. You don’t really hear it, it just kind of gives a live-ness to all the electronic stuff. Then the piano which I would also hit for percussion to get some weird sounds.
Everything was so much fun because they wanted everything that wasn’t traditional. So because of that, anything goes. Some of the weirdest sounds. Like I’d play a piccolo part, but then I’d put it through massive effects which would sound crazy! But then they’d go, ‘Oh that’s cool! What is that?’ And I’d kind of think, ‘Is this ok?’ But, it’s sound. Sometimes with scores people think it always has to be the Traditional 101 stuff we all do and most people want you to do that. See bad guy. Play bad music. But this was different. They didn’t want to ever feel settled. And when you’re doing it it’s fun because you get to just go there. And you don’t realize how weird the stuff you’re doing actually sounds. It’s not musical in the traditional sense, but it is music.
NOFS: One (of the many) things I love about this film is how supportive your score is to the story and how well it works with the overall sound design. Did you work with the sound department on this film? If so, what was that relationship like for you on this project?
JM: To be honest, because of COVID we didn’t do the traditional spotting sessions where I get together with the sound department, director and producers. And these guys are so busy. This was really a side project from their normal job which is turning out 40 movies a year for the holidays and stuff like that. Which is smart! That’s their day job, but it’s also where they got their chops which is so great. Doing that is still making a movie. It’s a formula, but you’ve still got to make a movie. I did talk to the sound guys, but we didn’t have a formal spot session from beginning to end.
So honestly, once they’d sign off on cues, I’d spit out stems of woodwinds, synths, strings, keyboards, guitars, low bass and sound design would be on two separate stems. So, I did a lot of stuff with just big sounds that we all have and I kept them separate. That way the mixer could bring them in and out of the movie. I put them in almost just to influence the score as I was writing. And this is a super low budget movie. It was a great sound company, but the guys that mixed it basically did the sound as well.
“…it had to be emotional, it had to be scary…”
NOFS: I’d love to talk about the trick-or-treat scene. It’s an incredible scene to me because without the music, it’s a fairly innocuous scenario and the music really does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting. Walk us through your approach to this scene. Did it require anything different from you compared to the rest of the film?
JM: When you first look at that scene it’s really just actors with white sheets over their heads. When I first saw it I was like, ‘Oh my god. This isn’t scary.’ But Sheila played it so real. And the whole thing was that the scene was totally from Audrey’s point of view. So the music really had to be her subtext as opposed to just playing what we’re seeing. It’s a slow build from what we first see to when it happens again. And I did get a note from Justin about that because one of the things they mentioned in the original talk was that they didn’t want gratuitous jump scares. At all. A lot of movies seem to put things in and there’s no payoff, you know? You can do that a couple times, but then when something actually happens and you use the same kind of sound it becomes a ‘never cry wolf’ type of scenario. So they were smart about that.
That scene was so tightly scored. Every frame. Even though it’s very simple, things had to change. Then, with the big reveal of the monster at the end coming up the elevator, it’s one of those scenes that takes forever! You don’t realize it, but the elevator is coming up super slowly. We see the monster, we see it coming and nothing is really happening so it’s just got to build and get crazy. At the end of that scene, that’s where I brought back (just for like 4 measures) the theme that we heard when Audrey was talking to Becker about her daughter. Because that whole scene is really about the daughter when she went trick-or-treating. So it had to be emotional, it had to be scary, it went on for a long time and had to have a pulse to it. It was fun! All that stuff sounds so simple, but it took a long time to make it exact.
NOFS: You worked some incredibly haunting vocals into the score that beautifully reminded me of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. When preparing for the project, were there certain films or composers you turned to for inspiration?
JM: Definitely. Anything Jerry Goldsmith. He’s one of my favorites. He’s like the god and that’s definitely a nod to him. You basically have atonal vocals doing kind of a Ligeti riff. It just sounds scary. It just is scary. Everyone says Psycho, but who hasn’t gone into the shower and heard the Bernard Herrmann strings? And The Shining which introduced classical music to so many people. Also The Exorcist even though Michael Oldfield had a big hand in that. These movies don’t have traditional scores. Psycho kind of, but they use a motif that at the end of the day, that’s what you remember. It’s something that’s just a bit different.
I’m a total believer in the idea that, like Duke Ellington said ‘Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.’ It’s not that your plagiarizing, it’s just that you listen to all the things you want to be influenced by and you bring your own self to it. In the end, the synthesis is hopefully something original. I mean, we’ve all heard everything. It’s not like you’re going to reinvent music, but you want to do stuff differently. And again, I had to be careful because they really didn’t want to fall into the traditional thing. So when I used the voice, I used it at the beginning and at the end for ‘The Last Dance’ cue. Nothing was used consistently. At the end when the big monster came back, I had them when he was in the scene to emphasize that the ultimate evil had returned. We wanted to make that super scary, but not like scary with dissonant strings and all that. Those vocals just singing ahh’s and ooh’s in dissonant harmony is enough. And with that one I did it in stereo so I had two different parts in two different speakers and the parts kind of fight against each other which makes you kind of go, ‘What!? Just shut up!’ But that’s kind of what I wanted it to do. [laughs]
“…horror music especially is encapsulating who the characters are and what they’re going through.”
NOFS: You’ve scored a lot of different films and a lot of different genres over the years. How is scoring horror different, but also, how is it similar to other genres?
JM: When I first think about music, I simplify it. And I did use this with the guys when we first talked because I knew they hadn’t really spotted that much because the movies they usually do, they’re guns for hire. They hand it over and there’s a squad of people that take over. They have nothing to do with the music. So I said, there’s two kinds of music. The first is the subtext; the character-driven music. What the character is feeling and what the audience is feeling about the character. And the second is environmental music. It gives you a sense of where you’re at. So that could be a haunted house. That’s the environment and it has a certain sound to it. A certain template of instruments. Whereas, if you’re riding a horse off into the sunset, that has a completely different sound. Or if you’re about to rob a bank. The environment will kind of dictate. Sometimes, but not always.
I tend to not rely so much on the environmental thing, but more the subtext of it. So in that way, every genre is the same. It’s a matter of the composers job to find that fourth dimension and to have the audience experience what the character is experiencing. And that’s a tough nut to crack, but that is it. That’s the whole gig. Especially a horror movie. I’d say the first thing about horror movies, for me, is that they’re so mathematical. It’s almost like animation in a weird way. It has to be so integrated to what’s going on within the scene. Whereas a lot of times, you want more of a neutral approach to music. It doesn’t want to really tip you one way or the other. But horror music especially is encapsulating who the characters are and what they’re going through.
Anything for Jackson is now streaming on Shudder. You can find out more information on John and his vast array of work by checking out his website, HERE. Have you checked out Anything for Jackson yet? Which ghost got you the best? Share your thoughts with us over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.