While watching IFC Midnight’s new film The Wretched, a few things quickly become obvious. For one, a good summertime horror tinged mystery is always a good idea. But perhaps most evident is the passion, talent and love that went in to the film from everyone involved. Director’s Drew and Brett Pierce practically ooze film stock and they expertly cultivated a team of like minded individuals to create the wonderfully witchy world in The Wretched.
Among this team of talented individuals is composer Devin Burrows. Not only is Burrows an incredibly talented composer of both jazz and orchestral works, he also happens to be a longtime friend of The Pierce Brothers. In 2011, Burrows first collaborated with The Brother’s professionally on their zany adventure zom-com, Deadheads. This combination of history and talent creates a potent mix and it’s really no surprise The Brothers once again called upon Burrows to help create the soundscape for The Wretched. By infusing modern sensibilities with nostalgia fueled passion, Burrows helped create a sound that balances terror with classic Hollywood character. Ahead of the film’s May 1st release on VOD, I had the privilege of speaking with Burrows all about casting the film’s powerful sonic spell.
“…we wanted something that was quite varied in tone that had gripping terror, as well as revelatory mystery.”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: From what I understand, you and The Pierce Brothers go way back. Tell me a bit about your history with them and how you became involved with The Wretched.
Devin Burrows: Absolutely! Brett, Drew and I grew up in Detroit and met really early on there. We became friends right away. We used to have sleepovers and go over to over to their dad’s house. Their dad of course did some of the practical effects on the first Evil Dead film. He worked for CBS Fox and had all of these videos on VHS. We’d watch things like Predator and Aliens and old episodes of The Outer Limits. So I guess it’s no surprise that Brett, Drew and I have similar sensibilities about film.
Then, we kind of went down different paths. They pursued filmmaking. They’ve always wanted to be movie makers and they’re super passionate about it. And super talented! So, they pursued that and I pursued music. I began playing the guitar at 12 and then focused on music theory and jazz composition. I got really into classical and orchestral music in my 20s. I studied the scores of the great classical composers and especially the modern classical composers like, Stravinsky and Ravel.
And then our paths kind of came back together. In 2011, we did a feature called Deadheads which was a zombie comedy. And now we have The Wretched! It’s super intuitive working with those guys. They are just so smart and they get the genre stuff. They have quite varied genre influences that they draw into their films, but they still manage to do something new.
NOFS: It’s so rad that you three pursued your different passions, but those careers still allow you to create together! When it came to The Wretched‘s musical direction, what were some of the early conversations with Drew and Brett like?
DB: We spoke really early on. And those early conversations were about themes, developing those themes and having them escalate throughout the film. Even when they were shooting on location in Northern Michigan, I went out there to get a feel for the woods and the environment. Because some of the themes and musical motifs are kind of based on characters, and some are based on places or ideas. So it was helpful to go out there and see what was going on, to get a feel for the environment.
We also talked about the tone. It’s not a totally dark and dour movie. It’s varied in tone and you’re just as much invested in the characters as you are the scares. So, we wanted something that was quite varied in tone that had gripping terror, as well as revelatory mystery. I started at that very early stage while they were still shooting to come up with some themes, and then those themes became sort of the musical language, the harmonic language, that we used to make the rest of the score.
“We really wanted to put a unique sonic signature on this film so, we did employ some interesting folk instruments.”
NOFS: Is it more of a challenge to write for a film before you can see it? Or is it more liberating because you’re less tied to a visual element?
DB: I think it’s liberating in a lot of ways. It’s helpful. You can go wide and experiment. Experimentation is such an important part of filmmaking, and just one’s life in general! It gives you that chance to experiment with things you might not otherwise try. And then you kind of narrow it down to the things that really work and will give the film unique sonic character. We really wanted to put a unique sonic signature on this film so, we did employ some interesting folk instruments. We used the Indian sarangi, the bowed psaltery and a few other folk instrument secret weapons. Especially for the woods sequences to give it a unique tone and character.
They were involved with that musical instrument selection and process as well. After those early conversations where we were talking about themes and tone, we were bouncing ideas back and forth. And eventually, Brett and Drew came over to my place here in L.A. and I spread out a bunch of instruments, the sarangi and psaltery being among them, and as soon as they heard that Indian sarangi they were like, ‘That one! That’s really good.’ I altered it just a little bit to get kind of a throaty sound from it, so that’s the thing that you hear sometimes when you see the symbol for the witch. We like to think that it helps to transport people to the scene and into the woods. It almost has an animal like quality.
NOFS: It’s really cool to hear that they are so involved and bring you on so early in the process. I even read in one of their interviews that they will rewrite scenes or plan shoots around your music. I feel like that’s kind of a unique approach for them to take.
DB: I’m really lucky to be able to work with those guys. They’re big fans of older school musical scores, orchestral scores and scores that help tell the story with themes. It’s like a rare treat to be able to work with them. It’s a real treasure.
NOFS: Did you personally find or draw inspiration from any other film scores?
DB: Oh yeah, for sure. Psycho. I’m a huge Bernard Herrmann fan. And in some ways this score is a little bit of a throwback. So, definitely Psycho. Poltergeist by Jerry Goldsmith was also a biggie. In addition to that, I also listened to a lot of modern orchestral music. And Brett and Drew often like film music that is inspired by modern classical music. Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ for instance. That is a huge influence on me. As well as his ballet ‘Petrushka.’ And ‘The Rite of Spring’ is about a horrific thing. It’s about ritual sacrifice! So this stuff is pretty dark and it was pretty shocking at the time. So I drew on the inspiration from those composers as well. Stravinsky, Prokofiev…composers like that.
“I think this score, as well as the film itself, has a lot of nods to different genre films. Aliens, maybe Fright Night. Rear Window…but it still manages to do something new.”
NOFS: Tell me a little about the humans behind the instruments in your score. Where did you go to record the score? Did you end up playing any of the instruments on the score?
DB: Some of it was performed by me. Usually what initially happens (especially in the early collaborative phases) is I’m coming up with mock-ups inside the computer of an orchestra. As we move forward, we start to record stuff. I actually recorded on the sarangi and a bunch of the folk instruments. And I had the pleasure of recording with an orchestra in Germany for the soundtrack. Not that long ago, but before the COVID-19 thing. Those players are super talented. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with an orchestra and it’s not that often that you get to do that. Some of it is from the computer, some of it is sequenced with software. And then for the soundtrack I was able to record with the orchestra. I was super jazzed I was able to do that.
One thing about the orchestra in Germany…I have these really low bass parts in the score. There’s these low bass glissandi and they have basses with 5 strings there. This is somewhat uncommon in the U.S. In the U.S. we would usually have to put an extension on the bass, but it just sounded amazing on those 5 string basses. That was one of the reasons I was compelled to record there.
NOFS: I loved how The Wretch seemed to crawl inside the music at times. How did you go about approaching her signature sound?
DB: Oh wow! That is probably one of the nicest compliments I’ve been paid! She crawled inside the music, I like that. She’s a really important character in the film and we knew that we needed themes for her. And there are themes for her. There are themes for her curse, or her kind of magic. And there’s a theme for her. To get the essence for the woods we wanted to create a sense of space. So recording with room tones can help with that. That sarangi and the bowed psaltery were really the things that I think help transport the audience into the woods. You’re drawing on all these influences, consciously or even subconsciously, that includes all kinds of genre films. I think this score, as well as the film itself, has a lot of nods to different genre films. Aliens, maybe Fright Night. Rear Window…but it still manages to do something new. You take all these influences and then you put your stamp on them. And that’s kind of what happened with the sounds of the witch.
NOFS: You’re a composer both in and out of the film world. What is it that you uniquely love about film scoring? Do you find it stretches different creative muscles for you?
DB: Definitely. I love to [put] score to picture and to help tell a story. I’m into all kinds of art. I love music, but I surround myself with all kinds of art in my studio. I’ve got poetry and books of art, sketches by Martin Lewis and all this stuff because I find it all really inspirational. I really like to tell a story with music. And it is kind of a different thing from just writing a song or recording music. You’re trying to impart this emotion, giving it a unique sonic tapestry, and also telling the story to picture. It’s very challenging, but it’s such a blast.
“I really like to tell a story with music. […] You’re trying to impart this emotion, giving it a unique sonic tapestry, and also telling the story to picture. It’s very challenging, but it’s such a blast.”
For more information and music from Devin, you can check out his website here. The Wretched hits VOD and select drive-in’s across the country, May 1st. To find tickets and a list of participating drive-ins, visit the film’s official site here.
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