What happens when composers with an inclination towards synthesizers and electronics work with a director who wants a score rooted in an orchestral palette? You get a score comprised of everything from a harp, distorted vocals, and a rusty gate.

We are describing Jason Lazarus and Max Davidoff-Grey’s work on Stephen Hall’s latest horror feature, The Gates, which is available now on VOD.

In case you aren’t familiar with the film, the official synopsis reads: “London, 1892. William Colcott has been sentenced to death by Electric Chair. Upon his day of death, he curses the prison he resides in along with all that dwell within the gates. Two post-mortem photographers turned paranormal investigators, Frederick Ladbroke and Emma Wickes, become embroiled in an investigation with a mysterious medium, Lucian Abberton. They must work together to stop William's spirit from escaping Bishops Gate Jail and unleashing the gates of hell on Victorian London.”

Music in cinema plays such a crucial role in the storytelling process, especially in the horror genre, so we spoke with Davidoff-Grey and Lazarus about their work on The Gates. In the below exclusive interview, they talk about everything from their Psycho inspiration to specific character themes. 

No Film School: Can you talk about working with director Stephen Hall? What sort of direction did he give you on how he wanted the score to sound?

Max Davidoff-Grey: It’s funny, Steve keeps apologizing for all the elaborative notes he gave, or as he has put it, making us “decode his mad comments.” We appreciate the concern, but all jokes aside we really admired that he had a very clear vision from the get-go. There was a good balanceon the one hand, Steve gave us a lot of creative freedom to experiment and try things, and on the other hand, he had a very strong sense of what he liked and didn’t like.

Early on, Steve shared some key influences which helped point us in the right direction. Some specific references to older films, like Drag Me to Hell, and then musically he was really into the Metallica track, “The Unforgiven III.” It’s a fun challenge to figure out what exactly is resonating in a referencesometimes it’s just one element or a subtle timbre thing you wouldn’t necessarily focus on. Luckily, all three of us wanted the score to be as gnarly as possible. There were a lot of shared goals. It was a very productive collaboration and I think we’re all excited about the final result.

Jason Lazarus: The direction I most vividly remember is, “More piercing high strings! The kind that makes your butthole pucker!” Steve could not get enough of those.

NFS: What did pre-production look like for you on The Gates?

Davidoff-Grey: On this one, I was brought on super early, which was a dream. After reading the script, I started writing some initial ideas and then continued developing themes as production sent me stills and dailies from the set. It was an inspiring process, and having this time in the beginning to experiment really allowed the score to blossom. It was great to sit with ideas for a while, weed out the bad ones, and fine-tune the stuff that was working.

Lazarus: There was zero pre-production for me. I was brought in at first to write some material for the third act when everything starts going off the rails, then looped back to revise earlier sequences Max had already taken a pass at. Luckily, I was stepping into a tonal world Max had already well established because it was full steam ahead by the time I came on board.

Two men sitting in front of keyboardsMax Davidoff-Grey and Jason LazarusCredit: Courtesy of Jason Lazarus and Max Davidoff-Grey

NFS: Did you give any of the characters specific themes? If so, can you talk about those?

Davidoff-Grey & Lazarus: Yes! It felt important to establish some key motifs and sounds for different figures in the filmnot just characters but also places and objects.

The first theme written was for William (Richard Brake), which you can hear in the track “For Love” on the soundtrack. This track plays in the end credits of the film, but you actually never hear it in its full rendition like this during the film. Instead, we used fragments from the theme all over the score, often warped and strained. The most obvious fragment is a 3-note motif, played by violin or cello, which becomes synonymous with William’s ghostly presence throughout the film.

There’s something symbolic here about how his monstrous actions have ended up so detached from the good intentions and love which initially motivates him.

For Lucian’s (Michael Yare) theme, we used a bass clarinet, and it was fun to see how we could manipulate this instrument through the score to illustrate his, let’s just say, complex personality. We hear this theme most prominently on his arrival at the prison, and it ends up being woven into the climax of the film in the shape of much slower, distorted blasts.

A discreet main character of this film was the EVP devicewhich ends up saving the day. The role of electricity, and this engineering is pretty crucial to the story and deserved its own musical material. You can hear an ascending piano ostinato, blending with some subtle synth effects, which recurs at key moments for this helpful machine.

For Emma and Fred (Elena Delia and John Rhys-Davies), the harp comes out to play a lullaby-esque theme, illustrating their heartfelt bond. And the prison itself has a significant paletteincluding heavily manipulated recordings of crows squawking. You might be able to make this out in “The Chair.”

Father Matthews (David Pearse) also has a very subtle motif that appears a few times in the score. It’s the suspicious little cello line that can be heard at the beginning of the track “Father Matthews.”

NFS: The music in the opening scene is pretty dramatic. Did you all score the film in chronological order or wait until you had gotten warmed up to tackle that sequence?

Davidoff-Grey & Lazarus: Thankfully, we did feel somewhat warmed up after developing material early on, and so we actually did start by scoring this opening scene. It is action-packed and, importantly, shows us the inception of William’s motivation. It was an opportunity to introduce his theme and establish other key sounds which return later. Of special note is a distorted rusty gate, heard in full force as William gets down to business in “Noose,” and “Nothing”.

NFS:The Gates falls into the horror genre. What instrument do you find makes the most menacing sounds?

Davidoff-Grey & Lazarus: Ever since Psycho, the screechy tones of the violin have become intertwined with horror and they definitely played a big part in our score. But we also got to shine the spotlight on the double bass and got some crazy sounds out of it: percussive, scraped, high and low, all kinds of things.

It’s probably hard to recognize much of the time, but it really plays a huge role. We also got a lot of mileage out of vocals in the score, it turns out people can make some pretty strange noises with their voices!

Thegates_albumart_0'The Gates' album cover

NFS: Was there ever a time in The Gates when less was more?

Davidoff-Grey & Lazarus: There are certain parts of the score where we had to throw in the kitchen sink, but we do strive to be minimalists when we can. For horror, less really is often more effective, certainly when building tension. It’s the space and quiet that really gets you hiding behind your hands. There are also some very heartfelt moments that needed a softer touch, and here we definitely tried to keep the music sparse and delicate.

NFS: Did you watch any other films to get inspiration for The Gates?

Davidoff-Grey & Lazarus:Hereditary, Saint Maud, and It Follows were definitely referenced more than a few times. They are all great films with equally fantastic scores.

NFS: How closely did you work with the film’s sound designer? There are a few scenes when the lines of sound design and music are blurred, especially with the electricity sounds.

Davidoff-Grey & Lazarus: We actually were not in communication when we were writing. The cut we were working on was very rough in terms of sound design and all the final effects were not added until after we had delivered the score. There was actually a scene where we added in temp sound effects to cover our own asses and avoid getting asked to do something musically that was going to be better achieved by some big loud sound design in the final mix.

NFS: What’s one of the most important lessons you feel you’ve learned when it comes to composing?

Lazarus: Learning how to listen. First and foremost, you are a listener. Listen to works you admire, build theories on why things affect you emotionally in the way they do, on what works and what doesn’t, and then listen to your own compositions with the same level of objectivity.

Davidoff-Grey: Story is king. This often means dialogue is king. It can be easy to lose yourself in making the music bigger and bolder, but learning when to be restrained has been crucial. Staying out of the way is sometimes the best approach, and then making the most of the moments where you can really go big.

NFS: Is there something that is in each of your studios that you can’t live without?

Davidoff-Grey: My water bottle! I guzzle an insane amount of water while I’m working. Maybe there’s something wrong with me? But I need to have some cold water or a seltzer nearby to fuel the tunes. A good coffee in the morning is also essential.

Lazarus: Air conditioner, hands down. No work is getting done in a Los Angeles summer without one.

The Gates score is available now.