Looks can be deceiving when it comes to director Natasha Kermani’s film, Lucky. On its surface, the film recounts the odd home invasion tale of May. A self-help book author (portrayed by the film’s real-life writer Brea Grant), May finds herself the focus of a mysterious man who breaks into her house night after night. Despite life-threatening injuries and major blood loss, the man disappears, only to return again and again. As May fights to make sense of the situation, the issues and motivations simmering beneath the surface in Lucky float to the top with both wit and terror in equal measure. An incredibly smart, bold and self-aware film, May‘s story is one that is as prescient as it is engaging.
In addition to Grant’s stellar performance and Kermani’s unique and refreshing approach, the film’s score quickly becomes an important and notable highlight. Composed by the Emmy Award-winning composer Jeremy Zuckerman (Horse Girl, Scream: The TV Series), Lucky‘s score is a critical element in the film’s overall successful execution. Simultaneously supporting the narrative while leaving sonic breadcrumbs hinting at things to come, Zuckerman’s distinctive style reveals itself in dramatically beautiful fashion. By juxtaposing haunting vocals, piercing strings, icy synths and digital dusted electronic soundscapes, Zuckerman creates a truly cinematic and modern musical powerhouse.
In celebration of the film’s March 4th release on Shudder, I sat down with Zuckerman (virtually) where we chatted all about Lucky, scoring for Scream and that one time he worked with David Lee Roth. For more information on Lucky, make sure to check out Paul Le’s review of the film HERE or Grant DeArmitt’s interview with Kermani and Grant, HERE!
“I tried to avoid tropes and things, and really appreciated that Natasha [Kermani] kind of avoids those things as well. There was no having to pull on any pre-established conventions.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: Your score for Lucky is so incredibly interesting. How did you get involved with the project and what attracted you to it?
Jeremy Zuckerman: So, the film’s producer Rob Galluzzo had contacted me. He really liked the music I did for the Scream TV series and I guess while he was reading Brea’s script on a plane he was hearing my Scream score. He thought it would be a really good pairing; me working with Natasha directing. He then randomly reached out to me via my website and briefly described the concept of the film and asked if I was interested. I said, ‘Definitely! It sounds fascinating.’ So then the three of us met; Natasha, Rob and I. We had really good chemistry and good vibes. Natasha seemed so smart and so talented. I knew she was going to be a cool director.
What was also really exciting was how Natasha was responding, not only to the Scream score, but to some of this other stuff I’ve done that’s more under the radar. Like this modern dance score I have released called ‘Khaos.’ She seemed to really get it. That stuff is a little bit more out there and that’s a dream, to score a film with that approach. But, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities because it’s pretty experimental. However, Natasha got it. She actually temped the film with that album and she really seemed willing to be as experimental as we wanted to go. Provided of course that it was right for the film and was functioning correctly. So I was like, ‘Yes. Whatever the budget is, let’s just do this. This is going to be really gratifying.’ It was a great experience.
NOFS: May is an amazing character who’s very polished, careful with her words and a bit of a control freak. She’s also the main character and our window into Lucky‘s world. Tell us a little bit about scoring her character specifically and how her sound evolves throughout the film.
JZ: Cool! I love it. I wanted to have this sort of musical representation of her inner life. And that was done with the extended vocal stuff. I hired this amazing vocalist Eliza Bagg and she provided me with all these beautiful vocalizations that weren’t about pitch so much. They were more like utterances, grunts and groans. These more primal, below-the-surface type things. I thought that would be such a great subtextual element. So that’s our first real introduction to May, those elements. And you can tell that there’s something more to what’s going on under the surface immediately. At least, that was the goal. To achieve that effect.
As it evolves, we begin to see other sides to her. There’s sad, beautiful elements, but I tried to always present them in a context that was really non-traditional and very unique to the film. I tried to avoid tropes and things, and really appreciated that Natasha kind of avoids those things as well. There was no having to pull on any pre-established conventions. As it progresses, we do eventually get a more semi-traditional score at certain parts. But it never goes full on traditional film score, which I really love. But as we see more of her character and more of the situation, the score had to widen in its breadth emotionally. And stylistically to some degree.
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“I didn’t have time to second guess much. I think a lot of the times they didn’t even hear my score until it got to the mix stage. It was wild, but also kind of amazing.”
NOFS: I love that you bring up the vocals. To me, they really embodied the outside voices that seep in and we see that happen with May and her headspace. They kind of work like puzzle pieces filling in where the picture is going.
JZ: That’s very cool. I like that it’s open to interpretation that way. I never wanted it to be too on-the-nose. I’m glad that it’s a little bit more ambiguous. Whether it’s her or the situation or the world, I think it was supposed to be all of that.
NOFS: It’s cool to hear how open Natasha was to doing something different with the film’s sound. The wrong score could have made this a completely different film.
JZ: Yeah, it it was really trope-y, that wouldn’t have been right. It wouldn’t have served the film at all. I think it would have presented it as the wrong thing. Natasha is also a violinist and I think is pretty into industrial music and pretty dark stuff. I also grew up on that music. After high school I was in an industrial-metal band. This was like, 1993 or something at the height of that stuff. So I think we really get each other from a stylistic place. It was really satisfying.
NOFS: The main antagonist in Lucky really got me thinking about the way we assign particular sounds or tones to certain emotional states. As a composer, do you ever struggle with these embedded cultural associations? Do you ever find yourself pushing against them or using them to your advantage?
JZ: That’s a great question. I think that, I’m always trying to do a dance where I accept the fact that there’s these conventions. And I realize the value of them. They’re a framework, a language essentially. Without them, it would be too vague and too broad. People wouldn’t have any sort of bearing. So it is really important, but they also serve as something (like you said) to push against. And that’s what is really interesting. How much can you push against it before it just breaks and doesn’t work anymore?
That part where you’re pushing against it, I think that’s what makes a score interesting or unique. Versus completely abandoning it. That I think is too broad. It won’t work if you abandon the language entirely. But I’ve seen some cool stuff, like Bobby Krlic’s score to Midsommar. He would use conventions in the sense that there’s these big, thick textures, these dense sounds, but he’d have a big, sparkling major chord when something really fucked up is happening. I love that. That seemed like pushing against the convention. The fact that it was this big, beautiful major chord with those specific harmonics, but it was still in the framework. It still made sense. It was still loud, thick and intense so it worked, in my opinion, because it was still within that language. But at the same time, it was also still stretching it. It was forcing the audience to experience something new and a little different.
“How much can you push against [conventional sound] before it just breaks and doesn’t work anymore? […] that’s what makes a score interesting or unique.”
NOFS: Your use of electronic and traditional, acoustic sounds in this score really seems to push at boundaries as well. To me, it’s one of the best recent examples I’ve heard that blends the two to achieve a common emotional goal.
JZ: I really appreciate you saying that because I’ve been interested in computer music since the mid-90s or something. And I’ve always felt it was really important to still be accessible on an emotional level. I didn’t want to make music that only people who studied what I studied would like it. I’m still probably guilty of that sometimes. I’ve maybe lost a little perspective. (laughs) Let me put it this way, I wanted to speak to something larger than the thing itself. I wanted it to speak to some human element. Something about our experience in this reality on this planet. I think if it’s done right, even if it is something really new to the listener, hopefully they’ll still have that experience. Where they are relating to whatever it is really about, whatever metaphor this piece is about. Versus writing a piece with some crazy technique where you’re just exploring the technique, but it’s not really about anything, about life. So I’m actually really happy that you had that experience.
NOFS: Do you think our increasingly digital world is priming us to be more emotionally connected to electronic music and sounds?
JZ: Totally. They’ll get more more normal sounding to us. We were talking about frameworks and conventions, and they’re already part of conventions. The thing about computer music having to be science-fiction or something, I’ve always been frustrated by that. Or even it having to be scary. Which in this context, a lot of it is. But it can also be really beautiful, emotional and sad. It can be all of these things that traditional music can be.
NOFS: You have such a unique style which makes me curious, who are some of the composers that have influenced or inspired you along the way?
JZ: Bernard Herrmann definitely is one. But, I have such a weird relationship with music. [laughs] People ask me who my favorite composers are and I have such a hard time with that because they’re not really in the film world. There’s definitely people doing great stuff in the film world, but I think my favorite composer is Trevor Wishart. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with this composer that very few people know. He writes exclusively computer music and it’s absolutely insane stuff. It’s so specific and it’s very poetic. And like I was saying, it’s also about something. The way he chooses to manipulate sound, it’s very poetic.
It’s not just aesthetics where it’s like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool when I do this.’ No, it’s doing that because it’s expressing something. He wrote a piece in the 70s before computers by cutting tape and using equalizers called ‘Red Bird.’ It was about a political prisoner and there’s this part where he was starting to develop this idea of morphing one sound into another. So there was this sound of a woman gasping, sort of frustrated. And it repeated until eventually, it became a flock of birds. It was seamless. And to me that was amazing because it was about freedom and it was really saying something about being free. It sounded very cool so that’s awesome, but also, it was about something. He’s one of my biggest influences.
Then there’s Luciano Berio and these 20th-century classical composers who were doing stuff with the orchestra that I think paved the way for computer music. If you look down the line, you’ll see a link to those guys, computer music and the experimental stuff that’s going on now. Iannis Xenakis, Krzysztof Penderecki, George Crumb, all these guys were doing stuff in concert halls that was pretty weird at the time. I also got to study with Bunita Marcus when I was at CalArts. She was a student of Morton Feldman’s and she wrote some really beautiful music. She would talk about how she would use aesthetics to bring people in, but then underneath the aesthetics there’s all this crazy shit going on. I thought that was genius and I’ve always thought about that. Letting the music be a sort of gateway and be accessible, but if people want to hear more underneath it then hopefully they will.
“I have such a weird relationship with music. [laughs] People ask me who my favorite composers are and I have such a hard time with that because they’re not really in the film world.”
NOFS: You also composed the music for MTV’s Scream series. Outside of Marco Beltrami, you’re the only other composer to enter Ghostface‘s realm. What was that experience like? Did you feel obligated or tied to the franchise’s established sound?
JZ: I definitely felt a little bit of pressure from the fan base. Nobody put any pressure on me except myself. I just didn’t want to screw it up. I definitely didn’t want it to be compared to negatively, just because of my own fragile ego. [laughs] But at the same time, I didn’t really try to imitate it in any way other than noticing how Beltrami had multiple styles. He would have the hanging out, 80s friends at school kind of vibe. And then he’d have the orchestral, more horror vibe. Then there was a third, in-between style that would bridge the two. I thought that was pretty interesting and I tried to capture that in terms of style, but I didn’t go much farther than that.
Part of it too was the fact that the schedule was pretty intense and pretty fast. I didn’t have time to second guess much. I think a lot of the times they didn’t even hear my score until it got to the mix stage. It was wild, but also kind of amazing. I almost never got notes so that was awesome. I had no idea if they even liked the score or not. There were different showrunners for each season and apparently they were happy. I think it was just a crazy production and the showrunners just had their hands full with all kinds of stuff that I’m not even aware of. I was very much in my own world, working and creating this language and framework. I will say, the pilot was temped with some very cool stuff. Andrea von Foerster, the music supervisor may have had a lot to do with that. That really helped establish my approach. I learned a lot, it was intense and a lot of work, but it was gratifying. It would have been nice if it had been a little bit more successful, but apparently in Brazil it’s huge! (laughs)
NOFS: There’s one final thing I have to ask you about. On your IMDb page it says you worked on a David Lee Roth album? What is that all about?
JZ: So I got called in by a friend of mine who was engineering for him. The head engineer had been fired and my friend had been assisting, so he took over. Dave said he wanted some people to do ‘whitewall on the tires.’ He always used cars and things in metaphors. So my friend Nathan Jenkins and I came in and were just very carefully doing some electronics and stuff for him. That turned into a year and half of working with him. At first it was just demos and then it became his whole album called ‘Diamond Dave.’ It was an album of covers. Mostly, if not exclusively, songs from the 70s. That was a really cool experience because that’s Dave’s jam right there. R & B, music from the 70s, that’s what he’s all about.
He exposed us to so much cool music. And the way he would approach things. For example, in modern mixing everything is fairly subtle. We were working on something and he wanted a certain element to come out, so he just came over the console and boosted it way loud for like, a bar and then brought it back down. We were like, ‘What!? Wait. That’s actually really cool.’ He’s way more performative, even in the way the mix was. It was pretty high pressure and there was this thing where I felt like I always had to be presenting ideas. It was exhausting in that sense because the pressure was constantly on, but I really liked him. I didn’t get to know him super well, but I think he’s a little bit hard to get to know. He’s just such a big personality and always on. I kind of wish I’d gotten to know him better somehow, but from what I did get to know, it was really interesting and kind of amazing to see a real rock star. He’s a different animal. I’d never met someone, before or since, that had that kind of energy. I’ve met a lot of cool people with big energy, but something about his was like a fucking tidal wave when he enters the room.
“…the music [should] be a sort of gateway and be accessible, but if people want to hear more underneath it then hopefully they will.”
Lucky is now available to stream on Shudder. Zuckerman’s killer score for the film will be available soon digitally and physically as a limited vinyl release from Burning Witches Records. For more information about Zuckerman and his projects both past and present, make sure to check out his website, here. Have you checked out Lucky yet? Have a favorite film streaming on Shudder right now? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, and get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.