The first rule of composing: don't sacrifice your own creativity in an attempt to emulate the work of others.
Robert Eggers' The Witch has been the runaway success story of the year so far and an ideal model for low-budget filmmakers everywhere. It's brought in over $40 million in box office sales around the world, a staggering sum for any independent film, even one distributed by a powerhouse tastemaker studio like A24.
The reason? Horror is as popular a genre as any out there, but Eggers' colonial twist brought a vision so complete that any serious film audience has found it impossible to ignore. An essential ingredient in gluing that vision together was Mark Korven's haunting acoustic score. It features the vibrations of instruments we've never heard before, which have been orchestrated to feel "like a 99-minute nightmare that sits on your chest like a sack of lead."
No Film School got a chance to hear about Korven and Eggers' collaboration as well as check out a few of the composer's unique instruments at TIFF 2016 earlier this week during a special masterclass held at the industry conference. Here are a few of the highlights from the conversation with Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes, in which Korven stresses the importance of steering your director away from temporary music, and more.
Keep an ear to the ground
"Like a lot of kids, I started out playing in basement bands," Korven explained when asked how he got his start. "I used to break dishes on the second floor in my mom’s kitchen because we were playing Black Sabbath in the basement."
Korven had his first film fall into his lap accidentally. After not quite cutting it as a performer, "as soon as I found myself in the position of responding to visuals, I thought, 'This is where I should be. This is where I fit.'"
Don't let the director get attached to temp music
When Korven was first starting out, he remembered "there was no such thing as temp music back then, or there was very little of it, so you were forced to use your imagination. You watched the visuals and whatever started coming into your mind, the score would come out of that."
Things are quite different now. He explained: "As is so typical for composers nowadays, you're reacting to the temp music, because typically the director’s fallen in love with the temp music. Editors will throw in temporary music while they’re cutting and quite often they get overly familiar with it and often they fall in love with it. So you’re in the position of trying to beat the temp music or trying to find a sound like the temp music. That's been a real problem."
"Temp music makes for lazy composers."
Taking that temp music and create something better
So how do you beat your director's obsession with temp music? "It’s really difficult," said Korven. "Sometimes it gets to the point where I hear if they’ve been cutting for months and if the temp scores been in for four or five months, I know it's pretty well useless trying to get them unwelded."
The strategy he's found successful is to "understand what they're reacting to, what part they’ve fallen in love with, and try and achieve it some other way."
"Hopefully," he stresses, "I can go beyond their temp music. So that’s what I always set out to do. How can I do better than what they’ve presented me in the beginning?"
A double-edged sword
While he warns of the dangers of using temp music, Korven also acknowledges its utility. "Temp music is really a double-edged sword to me," he said, "but most composers just hate it completely. If I’m working on a film and have no idea what to do—I’m just at a complete loss—having some interesting temp music can steer me."
This works, of course, as long as "the director can let go of it," Korven said.
Temp music makes for lazy composers
"Sometimes you get bad temp music," Korven said. "The director falls in love with it. You’re forced to toe the line and go along with bad music. That's the worst case situation. Temp music really makes for lazy composers; in a way it, makes my job easy because it takes me out of the process. I sort of just have to copy what’s there, collect my paycheck and go home."
But Korven doesn't want to phone it in. "You’re never going to do this amazing creative thing—you never allow the possibility of what the score might have been—if you do that."
The solution? Hire your composers early in the process
Korven isn't naive in his endeavors as a composer. "I understand that these days, editors and directors need temp music," he admitted. "The editor needs temp music to get his cut approved." So he provides a solution: "What I'd like to suggest to people is to hire your composer early. Get them to pull from their own library of music. Use the composer's music and go from there instead of pulling from a John Williams score or whatever. For me, that’s the lesser of two evils."
It's clear that with this sort of experimentation, Korven fit right into the sort of feel that Eggers was going for with his period horror piece. Their collaboration was almost as unique as the instruments in which Korven used to score the film, itself.
Eggers' constraints quite literally set the tone for the film
"We had a lot of guidelines or sort of rules on what we could do musically. Everything absolutely had to be acoustic, there could be no electronics of any kind. So that was a bit of a struggle. And the other thing, everything had to be very very dissonant almost all the time." It's these sort of constraints however that led the pair to find a totally distinct and fitting sound.
"Typically when I would write a score," Korven explains, "You would have moments that are very consonant. There would be release and then there would be tension. But he wanted it to be like a ninety-minute nightmare that sits on your chest like a sack of lead. The other thing he didn’t want, he didn’t want any sense of melody at all, so he didn’t want traditional melody, he didn’t want traditional harmony, he just wanted something completely out there."
Set up the score so your director can knock it down
Korven revealed that the soundtrack to The Witch was largely improvised. "I knew that I had to keep things very, very loose because Robert was very much a hands-on director," he said. "I mean, when you see a Robert Eggers film, it truly is a Robert Eggers film. He is totally the mastermind. It’s his artistic vision that I was trying to help realize. So I wanted to keep things very, very, loose, very improvised, so that he could move notes around whenever he wanted."
The majority of the collaboration took place in the movement along the timeline. "I sampled a lot of the instruments that I play so that we could place them on the timeline and Eggers could sort of move notes around all he wanted," said Korven. "I needed maximum flexibility when I was working, so it was a long process."
So, what sort of instruments did Korven use to attract Eggers' attention and give The Witch its unique sound? Take a look at the videos below. (Though they all feature the same images, the videos start at different points in the performance, showcasing different instruments.)
The Waterphone was invented by Richard Waters. The creator's website describes them as "stainless steel and bronze monolithic, one-of-a-kind, acoustic, tonal-friction instruments that utilize water in the interior of their resonators to bend tones and create water echoes. In the world family of musical instruments, the Waterphone is between a Tibetian Water Drum, an African Kalimba (thumb piano) and a 16th century Peg or Nail Violin."
The "Apprehension Engine"
This one felt less like an instrument and more like an invention. Korver explained that he just received the final product the morning prior to this demonstration, and it's something that he got custom-made for the purpose of scoring horror films. The "scary sound instrument" he invented is a wooden box featuring strings, four metal rulers, an e-bow, spring reverb, a toggle switch, as well as various magnets and springs.
The Nyckelharpa is the instrument that won Korven the job with Eggers and is featured heavily in the score to The Witch. It is a 16th-century Swedish string instrument that resembles the strange offspring of a violin, harp, and piano.