Most audiences today are familiar with the story of Beauty and the Beast, whether it’s from the classic Disney films, TV shows, or from the original 1756 novel by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

A new reimagining, in the form of a horror film, was just released by Level 33 Entertainment titled Belle. The musical aspect of this tale has become very significant, so while Belle is not a musical, the darker adaptation also welcomed darker music.

The person in charge of the music for Belle was composer Matt Orenstein.

The main challenge for Orenstein became how to create a score that can balance a love story within a horror film. One of the solutions to this, artificial harmonic drones. Orenstein explains, “If you bow them one way, they sound like the wind whistling through glass.

If you bow a little harder, they start to choke, howl, and break. For a movie that vacillates between the romantic and horrific, having access to a sound that could change on a dime was essential.” Orenstein expands on this subject and much more in the below interview.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: How would you describe your Belle score?

Matt Orenstein: It’s not a traditional horror score or a traditional fantasy score, but it has elements of both genres. Lots of ethereal textures that turn ugly on a dime, and vice versa.

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

Orenstein: To prep for Belle, the biggest thing I did was I went to Iceland to visit the set and get a sense of the setting in a real, visceral way. This was Max’s idea. He told me if I wanted the score to be as effective as it could be, I had to go and get Iceland in my bones. It’s some of the most fun direction I’ve ever gotten.

I went with the cast and crew to a couple of the locations and stayed out of the way, mostly going on hikes and recording wind sounds, breathing in the clean air (which seemed even cleaner coming from LA), and listening to a kind of silence I don’t think I had ever experienced. There’s no smog there either, so everything just looks clearer and that much more beautiful. Also, the sun stayed out until around midnight … it all truly felt alien. Other than that, I read drafts of the script and had a ton of conversations with Max. He and I kicked some filmic and sonic references back and forth as places to start.

All in all, not a bad way to prep for a score: go on a trip to somewhere new, read and react to exciting screenplays, and talk music and film with your friend and collaborator.

Matt Orenstein standing infront of a painted blue brick wall.Matt Orenstein

NFS: Was there an instrument that you played more than others on the Belle score?

Orenstein: Double bass. I’m trained as a bass player and any compositional instincts I might have come from being a bass player in more settings than I can list. I used the thundering low register of the instrument and bowed some of the more lyrical solos in the middle and higher registers, but I also used other textures to give the score a distinct feel. I played a lot of artificial harmonic drones. If you bow them one way, they sound like the wind whistling through glass. If you bow a little harder, they start to choke, howl, and break.

For a movie that vacillates between the romantic and horrific, having access to a sound that could change on a dime was essential. I bowed the tailpiece … so much of the horror music I love is these weird, abject sounds, and a bowed tailpiece both screeches and rumbles in a primal and alien way. There were earlier drafts of the score where I put a crochet needle in between the strings, hit it, and used the audio from my pickup to get a rattling sound, but that technique only made it into the final score once or twice.

I scored the whole movie in my living room using mostly sample libraries and a handful of analog synths, so I had to be resourceful in finding ways to give the score its own identity in ways that matched the picture. And since the bass takes up a lot of literal space in my apartment and in my life, it seemed like a pretty good place to start.

NFS: Belle is a retelling of the famous Beauty and the Beast. What were your initial thoughts when you first heard there was going to be a darker, horror version?

Orenstein: I guess I was intrigued and impressed that my old friend was making it. I was also surprised no one had done it yet (there was that Beauty and the Beast procedural TV show that came out a while ago, but that was the closest thing I knew of). Max and I grew up together in the Twin Cities but hadn’t communicated very much since we both left for college. The spring before I decided to move to LA, I got a Facebook message from him asking me to check out the trailer for an Icelandic take on Beauty and the Beast he was making. I remember how striking it all looked, and being really impressed that in the years since we left Minneapolis Max had put himself in a position to make something like this.

I was working as a theater composer, bass player, and record buyer in Chicago at the time, and if you had told me that I’d go on to score the movie it became, I don’t think I would’ve believed you. I was even surprised when Max asked me to score it in 2018, even though by this point we’d picked up where we left off and worked on a couple of films together.

Ghost in a field in 'Belle''Belle'Credit: Level 33 Entertainment

NFS: How is Belle different from some of the other films you have worked on?

Orenstein: Well, for one, we did the whole thing remotely. More often than not I get at least some time in the room with the director, and always on features. Not this one. I wrote most of the score in 2020 between March and December, so a good chunk of writing happened during a time when we weren’t sure it was safe to be in the room with other people. Max and I were in different cities anyway, so that made the likelihood of an in-person meeting pretty nil.

In one way it was difficult since there were some minor notes that could take days to fix since we couldn’t be in the same room and point to specific sounds, but in another having that kind of time to marinate was nice, and a luxury I don’t have on most projects. From an artistic standpoint, the way Belle toes the line between romance and folk horror is unique, so coming up with a musical language that can accommodate both was new territory and a fun challenge for me. Of course, making something that sounded like it could only have been written for this movie … that’s always the challenge of writing film scores and part of the fun.

NFS: Belle was shot in Iceland. How did the setting influence your score?

Orenstein: If this movie were shot anywhere else, it would be a completely different score. Iceland is so visually stunning, and a lot of our movie shows how stunning it is (big, big shoutouts to our cinematographer Nico Navia, and aerial photographer Henry Behel), that the score wouldn’t work in the same way if Iceland weren’t in its bones as well.

When I landed in Iceland I had an idea that I’d record nature sounds and weave them into the score (since the movie doesn’t explicitly take place in any Iceland that we know, it was less essential that I weave in any ethnomusicological findings into my score), but our sound recordist Casey Hartig told me that the soundscape was mostly just wind. Turns out there are a lot of different kinds of wind if you’re listening right. So every synth patch I programmed has some white noise; all my bass tones have a little looser bow hair to add a patina of wind sounds, and all the vocals are breathy. The brass instruments are obviously conduits for wind too, and they add a sense of expansiveness.

I also paid attention to what kinds of music I was inspired to listen to while I was there. Bjork and Johann Johansson were on heavy rotation, as was the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. When I came back I found that Julianna Barwick and Meredith Monk (specifically Atlas, which had just had a run at Disney Hall in LA before I started writing) reminded me of being in Iceland whenever I listened to them. So a part of my experience in Iceland was refracted through these artists, and that part was a huge presence in my mind as I wrote.

NFS: Can you talk about working with director Max Gold? Did he give you more freedom to experiment with the score or did he have a specific idea of how he wanted the score to sound?

Orenstein: Max and I had worked on a ton of stuff before Belle–starting with his first feature, Silicon Beach, and his sci-fi pilot that followed, Surfer’s Paradise–and have worked on a number of projects since we wrapped, so we have a deep and easy shorthand.

With Belle, he told me he wanted to go from my gut but as we worked on the film with editor Patrick Lawrence we all got a clearer idea of what we thought the score should sound like. Max is great about giving his collaborators room to explore while still being specific about the story he wants to tell. Sometimes it takes the two of us a couple of tries to get it right, but Max and I are usually able to salvage something from a draft of a cue that doesn’t work, and spin that bit into something that does.

poster for BelleBelle PosterCredit: Level 33 Entertainment

NFS: You built a lot of software instruments for Belle. Can you talk about some of those?

Orenstein: I wrote about three drafts of the score, so there’s a lot of music and a lot of different sounds that didn’t make it into the movie, including a lot of sample instruments I built for this project. The ones that wound up in the movie are all derived from a Waterphone, a sound you can hear on many horror film scores. I took samples of the instruments being struck and bowed, pitched them, and messed around with ADSR envelopes for each sound. Sometimes they sound like a cross between a flute and a cello, sometimes they sound like pinpricks.

One instrument that didn’t make the cut was one that I built from lion and elephant sounds. The Waterphone stuff worked because it sounded airy, like a lot of the other sounds we used. The more bestial sounds sounded too close to the sound design to be effective as a score. They tended to step on the rest of the film.

NFS: Whenever you have writer’s block, what do you do?

Orenstein: I don’t usually have time for writer’s block when I’m working on a film, so I try to be disciplined about making music … William Faulkner said something I really like that sums up my attitude about writing: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

With film music the deadlines can be brutal, so you have to work fast. That means not being passive about waiting for inspiration to strike; the work is due whether you’re inspired or not. If that sounds unsentimental it’s because it is, but I love the work. It helps to find a small part of what I’m working on that immediately makes sense, and then work outward from there. It’s less about powering through than it is about finding something to connect with, and building that connection as you work.

Belleis now available on VOD.