Just like the inevitable grains of sand in your shoe after a trip to the beach, Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut feature film The Beach House is a viewing experience that lingers long after the credits have rolled. Lulling the audience in with it’s familiar setting, serene color palette and endearingly authentic character dynamics, the transition from comfortable normality to sheer terror is a slow, but powerful one. On screen and off, there’s an eerie atmosphere surrounding The Beach House, and it’s an immensely effective one. One of the largest contributing factors to the film’s overall tone and emotional texture comes through the film’s score, composed by Roly Porter.
For more than 15 years, Roly has been pushing the boundaries of electronic music and exploring its potential. As a former member of the English dark dubstep duo Vex’d, his work shook dance floors and reshaped what the genre could be. As a solo artist, his lush combination of electronic soundscape and emotional narrative have journeyed to the far reaches of space, all the way to Arrakis and back. Equal parts visionary and explorer, Roly’s unique and masterful approach to electronic music makes him an interesting player in the realm of film score composition. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Roly and we talked all about The Beach House, his experience working in film, and what he really thinks about Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune release.
“It’s got this creeping, unnamed and insidious environmental threat. It was really just about finding textural languages that worked in the beginning without really giving anything away.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: Your work has always felt very cinematic in its style and execution. How natural was the transition for you into the world of film scoring? Was it easier than you thought? More difficult or different than you imagined?
Roly Porter: I’ve been super lucky in that everyone I’ve worked with, especially on this film, has been really cool and really enthusiastic. Patient. And they’ve understood that there may be some aspects of the industry or technical approaches that I might not be used to from just working on my own in electronic music. It’s been really supportive and they’ve all given me the space and freedom to explore and experiment to come up with something unique for their project.
The difficulties were on a personal level really. I’d taken for granted and not really realized what a privilege it is to work entirely on your own projects. You know what I mean? You write the story, you score it, you do everything, you’re the boss of your entire world. So, any ideas that you have you’re flushing those ideas out based on a structure that you’ve designed. And when you’re trying to work around other people’s ideas, obviously that’s harder. And that’s the amazing thing about scoring films or games. Or when you hear a good score, it’s how well it follows that narrative arc. Because I don’t use conventional melodic ideas, I use more sort of sound design and textural stuff. Often fitting that to really specific kinds of emotional or narrative arcs is harder than just writing an album where you say, ‘Oh, this piece is 10 minutes long or 20 minutes long and it doesn’t matter.’ It was more kind of conceptual challenges. But the support and transition from a technical point of view was really great.
NOFS: How did you first get involved with The Beach House and at what stage of production did you come in?
RP: Before they began filming they got in touch and it was just from having heard some of my previous albums. We had a long discussion about our shared love of horror and sci-fi and some of the ideas they were discussing for the film. It was really great to be involved that early on and get to see the project grow over time. As opposed to coming on at the last minute when the film’s already cut and you’re just add on.
NOFS: The Beach House is a bit of a slow burn and the score smolders right along with it. In terms of direction, what were some of your early conversations with the director Jeffrey like? Did he give you free reign or did he have a lot of his own ideas to contribute?
RP: There was definitely free reign in the early days, but we had a lot of conceptual discussions about the nature of the film. Because the first half of the film, it is kind of slow and the kind of threat in it comes from an era of horror and sci-fi that we both share a love of. It’s got this creeping, unnamed and insidious environmental threat. It was really just about finding textural languages that worked in the beginning without really giving anything away. There’s no immediate ‘stab’ threat or death climax, that sort of thing.
In fact, kind of working backwards, the easier parts are at the end where everything is kind of full-blown and going full throttle. It’s trying to match the rise of the film. I like the pacing of it, how it builds up and how it transitions from the normality of the beach to the threat. If I remember the first time I saw some of the footage of the house and the area that they had chosen, it feels like a place that you’ve been a hundred times. Finding that pacing at the beginning was the biggest challenge with this.
NOFS: I often think of you as an explorer of sound and many of your albums have to do with science fiction, space and the unknown. I find that interesting as The Beach House touches on these topics, but still stays grounded in the Earthly realm. Did you find this passion of yours intersecting with or influencing what you created?
RP: Yeah, I try to not be too obsessed or present myself as too obsessed with science and space…but I am completely obsessed. (laughs) It’s hard to cover up. Part of that obsession is the idea that when you see things from that perspective, especially across time and across scale, it’s just easier for me to relate emotionally to a lot of human stories when I perceive them from that distance. I can’t give away anything about the ending, but there’s a transition that I interpret a particular way. And it still fed into my personal dialogue about time being different than how we perceive it and death being different than how we perceive it. The two main characters have a very different arc in the film. But Emily’s character, the ending for her definitely fits into the kind of emotional narrative that I like to write things about. It’s not a science fiction film really, but it shares a lot of philosophies with that.
“That sense of…the atmosphere is alive, but in a way you can’t perceive in a kind of alien way.”
NOFS: There’s some really beautiful wide shots in the film coupled with a breath or pause in the score. As a composer, how important is the concept of space? Is it a tool you consciously utilize or think about?
RP: I don’t want to do myself out of a job, but I would definitely reduce the amount of music in almost everything that I see. Even the stuff I personally work on. The older I’ve got the more I appreciate silence as part of my listening experience if that makes sense. I definitely like a lot more space and a lot more range. And generally, just less sound in my life now. I genuinely like listening to space. I’ve spent a lot of time out in the Dartmoor, which is a big open space and just as a listening experience, your ears can perceive that range. After living in a noisy environment, the city or working in the studio or whatever, when you go into that space and you get that sudden expansion of your audio range, I absolutely love that feeling.
NOFS: There’s a lot of very interesting sounds, effects and extremes in the score that feel very organic when paired with the film. How structured was your composing process? Or was it a more a case of letting the music guide you?
RP: Especially in the climax of the film, and in some of the more aggressive moments, some sounds have a natural shape to them. There’s a sound in the last 10 minutes of the film which is Emily’s sequence, and it’s a full frequency noise type thing. Which I’ve made before and it was quite difficult to fit in this because in order to get to a particular range, a particular peak of it, it needed a certain amount of time. I sent it to Jeff beforehand, before seeing that scene and there was actually a bit of flexibility in how to fit it. Which is the great thing about not coming along at the very end. I didn’t work particularly conventionally as in scoring to picture with this because it took so long to find things that felt texturally right and that represented that environmental dread. That sense of…the atmosphere is alive, but in a way you can’t perceive in a kind of alien way. It was more a case of having to find those textures and then worrying about squeezing them to fit.
NOFS: So often, when a film’s subject has to do with humanity, emotion and nature there’s a strong usage of acoustic and traditional instrumentation. However, The Beach House differs a bit in the way it utilizes a full electronic score, instantly giving it a feeling of otherworldliness. As someone who has so much experience in the electronic world, do you agree with this generalization? Was this approach intentional?
RP: Oh, definitely. Our brains sort of preempt information in music so quickly. I’ve always tried to avoid genre definitions. And in the old days in dance music that came down to things like tempo or percussive style. But it extends to any kind of music. The second you hear a string quartet for example. Especially if it’s slow and it’s set against a scene of people having dinner, your brain immediately falls into ‘I’ve categorized this scene and I basically know what the emotional language I’m dealing with is.’ Which is fine and it’s necessary for a lot of storytelling. But in this instance, it really wanted to be…I’m trying to check before I say this and make sure there weren’t any string cues or anything. [laughs] I’m pretty sure it was all electronic or sound design.
The sounds should be unrecognizable and they should be linked only with this world. And not preempt your interpretation of that in any way. That’s the goal. It should sound like the sound of this world. I guess there are kind of percussive bits, or some recognizable drums, but that’s the challenge that keeps me going and why I’m still doing this after however long. I’m just trying to find new noises. I’m just obsessed with sound and sound technology. The idea of hearing sounds you’ve never heard before.
“I’m just trying to find new noises. I’m just obsessed with sound and sound technology. The idea of hearing sounds you’ve never heard before.”
NOFS: I’ve been thinking a lot about influences over the last couple days due to Ennio Morricone’s passing. I mean, talk about an influencer. What are some things or people that have influenced you and your work?
RP: For me it’s quite hard to extract the kind of influences, specifically music ideas, from film or life influences as a whole. So, there’s obvious things like the first time you see 2001: A Space Odyssey and that kind of culmination of film and music. It’s a defining moment. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the influence of things like that at a young age. I don’t really listen to a lot of modern electronic music, I mostly listen to classical now, but obviously growing up early electronic music was a massive influence.
But as I grew older, I became less obsessed with just listening to one thing (when I was younger I was just listening to Jungle or metal), and then you begin to realize that what you’re enjoying from a specific part of each of these genres or films or whatever isn’t part of that genre. It’s alluding to something bigger. And then you begin to define what your path is. There’s all these parts from all over the world, from paintings, music or film and I’m interpreting them all as one thing, that I can’t name. It’s hard to put into words. I think the way that sound and images combine in film, before working on films myself, was a massive influence on how I approach writing music. I’d say more than any kind of musical influences. Film music has been an influence before I was even interested in working on films.
NOFS: Alright, big question. Each track on your album Aftertime is named after a planet in the Dune universe, so I’m assuming you’re a big fan. Any thoughts on the upcoming Denis Villeneuve version?
RP: It’s such a rollercoaster isn’t it. After Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I thought I would never recover and I’d never love anything ever again. Yes, people love things their whole lives and have these expectations, but behind these projects there’s dedicated people trying to make something incredible. And I don’t like The Phantom Menace, but at the same time it didn’t ruin my life. I didn’t want to kill anyone and they were trying to make a great film. So, I’m going to kind of reserve judgment.
I’m in the minority of people and I absolutely love the last film. Kind of differently to how I love the book. I’ve got really high hopes, but I’m kind of holding it back. The imagery looks incredible. Who knows about the score. I love the score for the last Blade Runner. And of course I’m excited. There’s a whole lot of people trying to make something that’s going to look and sound completely incredible. Blade Runner 2049 was an interesting experience because I was having these same types of discussions before that came out. And when I sat watching it, as someone who loves imagery and loves sound design, take everything else away and I think it’s the pinnacle of sound design. The experience of seeing that in the cinema is completely incredible. So, they’re not making Dune to please my exact interpretation of the original book, and I’ll no doubt have bits where I’ll be like, ‘I wouldn’t have done that.’ But I’m not doing it. Someone else is doing it. And it’s going to be incredible.
“Film music has been an influence before I was even interested in working on films.”
NOFS: What’s next for you?
RP: I’ve literally just finished a VR game for Playstation which has been a totally different experience. An amazing experience. So currently, for me, I’ve been thinking about my next release project, and I think the experience of working on sound in VR was really life changing. That sounds a bit hyperbolic, but it was pretty amazing. I’d really love to develop some more ideas in that kind of environment. Not necessarily game based, but the idea of fully immersive audio visual experiences, that works well for me.
The Beach House is out now and currently streaming exclusively on Shudder. To learn even more about Roly and his incredible body of work, check out his website here. Would you want to take a trip to The Beach House? What do you think about Jeffrey A. Brown’s eco-horror? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!