Pulling Double Duty: Brittany Allen on Serving as Actor and Composer on 'What Keeps You Alive'
For Brittany Allen, scoring 'What Keeps You Alive' was a process of steady experimentation.
In some ways, sound is the most important element of Colin Minihan's What Keeps You Alive, a daring horror film currently in theaters. The first thing you notice when the film starts is how quiet everything is—two women drive through a dense, wooded landscape, and it feels like all sound might be smothered by the environment. You then realize it's not really quiet: there are the sounds of birds, of wind moving through the trees....and something else as well.
The movie tells the story of a couple, Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson), celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary at a cabin in the country. Everything is peaceful until it's not. The scares start small and then grow larger than life, helped along by the mind-bending, startling score, composed by Allen herself.
No Film School talked to Allen, whose other acting credits include Jigsaw, Falling Water, and It Stains the Sands Red, about finding the right music to score herself and the other actors in the film.
No Film School: What moved you to compose the soundtrack?
Brittany Allen: Composing for film is not something I imagined I would do, to be honest. I have always been very musical, and I used to sing a lot. I studied musical theater in school. In the last two-and-a-half years, however, I started to teach myself music production and have written more original songs. I started out in Garage Band about three years ago, and then I got Logic, which is a step up from there, and really just started to teach myself everything that I could about music production. It was definitely a very steep learning curve.
I was the kind of person who, if ever there was any sort of problem with my computer, the first thing I would do would be to ask whoever was closest how to fix it. Now I feel really comfortable working in Logic and Ableton, and it's amazing what you can learn from YouTube videos and from practice and trial and error. Prior to shooting this film, my partner, Colin, had been witness to my growth as a producer and as a songwriter and so he, I think, was the first person to throw around the idea that it would be fun for me to try scoring. I didn't know if I was capable of it, and he didn't really know either, but we both had thought it would be worth a shot.
I tried, firstly, to score a couple of key scenes once Colin had the first cut together. At the time, we were pretty nomadic and tended to move around a fair bit, so we were staying in an apartment that had a beautiful piano, which was just super beneficial because a piano was an instrument that Colin wanted as a real through-line throughout the film. I would build the scenes on the piano and in the case of those first couple of scenes I was using as a trial, I built up the scene as much as I possibly could. I sat down at the piano and I just threw my recorder on my iPhone on and trusted my hands to find something.
I'm not a trained pianist. Music theory that I learned in school has mostly gone out the window of my brain. However, I understand enough to navigate through it and I think, actually, my lack of technical knowledge can open me up to more creative choices and to trusting my instincts. I would start with the piano and then I recorded that and threw it into my computer, into Logic. My goal was just to merge some of the classical pieces that Colin uses in the film and the piano that he wanted to be a current theme with a darker, distorted, more electronic sound, just to modernize it with this darkness underneath.
For that, I used a few synthesizers, and then I would just play with the sounds until I got what I wanted. Over the course of about three months, I did this whole score.
"We start throwing things at the wall, and you find the first thing that works."
NFS: One thing that is really interesting to me about the score is that it's not always present. There are points in which there's just purely the sound of the film and then other points there is very definitely, obviously, music. It comes in very sharp, intense bursts, and I'm wondering how did you decide which moments to implement the score for and which not to?
Allen: Colin originally wanted the film to work without music, and it did work very well without music in one of the earlier cuts. In all honesty, I had to be restrained sometimes, as I would have likely put more music into the film had I been left to my own devices. I'm grateful for the fact that Colin was strong, in terms of his choice to keep certain moments silent.
It was definitely just trial and error. I think there was one whole scene that I had scored something to, and we watched the film with the music turned off, and we realized it worked better without it. The music took you out of the reality of the horror that's happening, and we want to actually be in there, in the raw with this person. It didn’t need any help from the music.
NFS: The music is composed in a number of different styles, sometimes just a very spare piano and then other times a more clashing, startling sound. How did that evolve?
Allen: I think it was all about servicing the scene and the story. I wanted to have certain scenes that the audience could recall in terms of the emotions evoked, whether it be the love between the two characters in the beginning of the film or the point when that same melody returns as the darker more atonal baselines underneath it distort that love. My desire is to make music that moves people and that makes them feel something, and I guess that's exactly what we're supposed to do as producers!
Of course, it wasn't always needed for the horror scenes. In some scenes, it was more about creating the unsettling feeling of what's around the corner. I did try to work within a palette, and once I had my library of sounds, I would generally try those out first. It was a constant reminding of myself, "oh no, you don't need to come up with something brand new here. What about this scene that appeared earlier in the film? What about turning it around a little bit to see if it works?" Often it did.
Allen: We start throwing things at the wall, and you find the first thing that works. When I'm not writing any songs, I start from an emotional place. I've got some feeling that's percolating inside of me, getting stronger, and I need to express it in some way. I will generally start by going through samples that I have in a program.
I worked with this one program called Serum and it has a lot of aggressive, heavy unsettling baselines. There's also another one that I used called Silence, and that's got a bit more of a retro vibe to it. It’s always a matter of what can help you, what instruments do you have that might resonate most. That's a very instinctual thing. That's where I'll start, and then generally with this score, I initially composed the scenes on the piano.
"The best way for me to approach art is to tap into my own gut and my own heart and get to the core of the feeling that's either inside of me or that's inside of the work that I'm trying to connect with, and then just commit fully and trust my instincts."
NFS: If you're editing a film, you remove parts that are unnecessary. I'm wondering if it works the same way when you were setting the music to the action on screen?
Allen: It's just about playing. Often I would start by sitting at the piano and coming up with music for as many scenes as possible, not necessarily knowing where they were going to fit in the film. I would then record all of them, and I would try them out in certain areas. It's about deciding, "Okay, what's the rhythm of this scene? What's the pace that I'm inherently moving at?" Luckily, for the most part, the pace was set in the edit and in the performances.
There was a scene or two where I thought, "Okay, something isn't yet fully working here. How can the pace that I choose musically help get this scene to where I think it wants to be?" It's just trial and error, trying different tempos and different sounds. It's obvious when it's working, and it's obvious when it's not. It's also about shaping each sound. I might start with this one drum sound—if you listen to it, it sounds like a feeble little click—and think, there's something about it that I like, the way it cuts through the mix. I like the tone that it is. I like that it's not going to take away from the heavier sound. I then EQ it to take out different parts of the frequency spectrum. It's amazing when you're EQ-ing a sound, how you can adjust it dramatically.
Then maybe I'll throw a lot of reverb on it, and then I'll run it through something that's going to make it really distorted and grimy. I'll then delay the end of it so that it bounces around from side to side, as soon as the sound itself is gone. I just do all of this over a period of days and weeks, sometimes taking time away from it. Whenever I set out to do one scene, I usually try to finish that scene, staying in the vibe of it, because it is such an emotional thing. If you take too much time away, I think sometimes you lose the kernel you were going for. Sometimes time away is good, though. You kind of realize that you were way off the map once you're listening to it with fresh ears.
NFS: How did it feel to be writing a score that complements your own performance? Did you think about the score as you were acting in the film, or vice-versa?
Allen: I did not think about the score while I was acting in the film because at that point I didn't know that I would be scoring it. I think I had an inkling and I did throw one very rough track down while we were shooting because I had some time on my hands and wanted to play around. That did not end up being part of it because it wasn't until afterwards that I think Colin was able to really accentuate what he wanted, and I was able to also take the time to figure out how I was going to execute that.
Composing something that I was in was ultimately a very helpful thing. I had such a deep understanding of what the character was going through and I was deeply invested in the film. I knew the story. I think it probably will be a new and exciting challenge when I score a film that I'm not in, that I don't have automatic empathy with. I think it's just so important to have the story in your bones and in your blood. I knew what was coming and it was important for me to step back and imagine seeing this for the first time, and what the audience is experiencing and what they don't know and what they're realizing. You have to chart those points and be really specific about that. Let go of your prior knowledge of what's about to happen.
"The best way for me to approach art is to tap into my own gut and my own heart and get to the core of the feeling that's either inside of me or that's inside of the work that I'm trying to connect with."
Allen: I tried not to listen to too many other scores when I was working on this, just because I didn't want to inadvertently steal from anyone. Initial,ly Colin had used the film The Game as a reference, because it relies heavily on the piano. Eyes Wide Shut has a strong progression of notes on a piano as well. I definitely soaked those films up a little bit and then my favorite composers currently are Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Before I conceived of the idea of doing any scoring, I would always be incredibly moved by their scores. I think that they just have a way of cutting to the viewer's gut or to their heart. It's a very distorted, unpleasant sound, but it's still got a very emotional current running through it. That was a goal of mine, to achieve something close to that.
I've really loved Philip Glass, of course, from The Hours. In general, though I very much appreciate art that I'm moved by. I'm not someone who consumes a tremendous amount of art and gathers the bulk of my inspiration from that. The best way for me to approach art is to tap into my own gut and my own heart and get to the core of the feeling that's either inside of me or that's inside of the work that I'm trying to connect with, to just commit fully and trust my instincts. Scoring was similar to acting in that wa, and similar to drawing. It was similar to movement, and that's how I work best.