[Interview] Michael Wandmacher (‘The Last Exorcism II’) On Composing Horror

2-Ashley Bell The Last Exorcism Part 2

It’s no secret that one of my biggest passions regarding horror is the score. The gore, violence, and atmosphere don’t nearly mean as much to me if there isn’t a solid score behind it. Some of the most terrifying scenes in horror can be attributed to the music hovering over the intensity.

That’s why I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to interview composer Michael Wandmacher, who horror fans know from such films as Piranha, My Bloody Valentine, The Last Exorcist II, The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts Of Georgia, and much more. In this exclusive interview, Wandmacher talks what it means to score a horror film, the differences in scoring for film versus TV versus video games, and more. We also get to hear a bit about the score for the upcoming film Angry Little Gods, which stars genre favorite Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Cronos) and is directed by Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism).

Head on below for this exclusive interview!

Bloody-Disgusting: Let’s start with a fairly basic question: What was it about music that drew you in and made you decide to become a composer?
MW: I simply find the music portion of TV and movies REALLY interesting. Even as a little kid, I would watch movies or shows multiple times to hear music cues or make a recording off the TV speaker with my little cassette player so I could listen later. Something about the relationship of music to picture, when it clicks, is magical.

BD: Looking at your list of compositions, you have a wide variety of films and other media under your belt. Some of the transitions from one genre to another are rather jarring. For instance, you scored the Madagascar video game and then the horror film Cry_Wolf. How do you adjust your mindset for these situations?
MW: Composing a score is like getting in one of those mini-submarines that take you to the bottom of the ocean. You crawl into this little bubble, seal yourself away from the outside world and dive deep into uncharted territory. Sometimes the places you explore are dark, sometimes they’re light. If you have the right tools and knowledge you can explore wherever you like and have a great experience. It’s a crude analogy to genre hopping, but it’s accurate. I was lucky as a kid to be exposed to so much different material. I watched cartoons and read all kinds of comics as much as I buried my head in scary stuff. It makes going from talking animals one day to shape-shifters the next pretty easy. Truth is, most composers are pinballs. They can bounce around from style to style and adapt really well.

BD: You have a strong list of horror films that you have worked on, from the aforementioned Cry_Wolf to Piranha, My Bloody Valentine to The Last Exorcism Part II, as well as The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts Of Georgia. Each film I just mentioned falls under a different subgenre, from slasher to comedy to demonic possession. What factors do you take into account to present a score that reflects the intent of the film?
MW: This is a great question, especially for horror! At first glance, the genre seems pretty straight-up, but it’s not. No other area of filmmaking has so many different shades. It can be ridiculously chaotic or subtle to the extreme, and everything in-between. At the beginning of each project there are always intense discussions about “tone”. These are the sonic limits of the score. Is it monstrous and in-your-face or quiet and ruthless? Is it more tonal or atonal? Is it obvious or steeped in subtext? Adjectives fly around like locusts in these meetings. It boils down to what sounds and ideas will combine with the visuals to achieve the highest scare factor. For example, using a palette appropriate for MBV would sound ridiculous in Last Exorcism Part II. Classic-style slasher films stomp on subtlety. Stylish demonic possession films rely on it. You have to temper your approach to match how the film generates its personal set of the creeps.

BD: Listening to some of your music from The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts Of Georgia, it’s obvious that you also took the geographical location into consideration when scoring the film. What did you look at to incorporate these elements?
MW: The director, Tom Elkins, wanted to incorporate some traditional Southern elements into the score without it getting “twangy”. So, I turned to bluegrass music, which I love.The combinations of instruments in many of the cues are similar to those you would find in both traditional and modern bluegrass ensembles. I especially love the solo fiddle. Playing in that particular style is a special skill. No all violinists can do it. It’s a very “human”, raw musical tradition. Pure emotion and performance and skill. Little idiosyncrasies you can’t really write down as notes. Also, I’m always amazed at the power of a simple mandolin or hammered dulcimer part to instantly say “we’re in the South”. It only takes a couple notes and that’s all you need!

BD: What, if anything, do you feel the horror genre allows you to do as a composer that other genres do not?
MW: Experiment. Plain and simple. Anything goes, from luscious themes to, well, noise. But I’ll qualify that by saying that that “noise” is usually VERY crafted. No instrument is out of bounds, no approach to making melodies or rhythms is taboo. It’s a lot of fun in that respect. There have been projects where I literally walked around the house playing just about everything with a bow to see what kind of sound it would make! Some of it ended up in the final product. Take the whining, screaming demon string sounds in The Last Exorcism Part II. I’m playing all that, but it’s totally random. I wouldn’t even know how to notate that for another musician. I just grabbed the cello or the guitar viol or bass fiddle and started cranking on it to see what would happen. Out came this totally evil, otherworldly “thing”. Perfect! That’s what great about horror.

BD: You’re currently working on Angry Little God, which stars horror genre favorite Ron Perlman and is directed by Daniel Stamm. What about this movie drew you in?
MW: The questions that the movie asks the viewer. Aside from the film being flop-sweat tense for almost its entire run time, the moral ambiguity and shocking decisions made by the main character are fascinating. I know some people will see this movie and react by thinking, “No way anyone would do that! That’s crazy!”. My response is turn on the evening news. People do worse for less every single day. That’s the hook. How far would you go?

BD: The story for Angry Little God is a tale of desperation and extremes. This might be a strange question, but what instruments do you feel are best at conveying these emotions?
MW: I find that rhythm, in general, coupled with very careful use of dissonance is best for expressing desperation and anxiety. Using an extreme pitch compass is effective, too. Going from really high pitched elements to really low ones in jarring ways throws the listener. It’s unsettling. My rhythms are constructed of all organic sources – voices, percussion, chopped up sequences of notes played on all sorts of instruments and then mangled in ProTools. One of the coolest pulses in the film comes from playing a pillow with Hot Rods (they’re a special kind of drumstick) and then running it through some resonant filters. The dissonance comes from all sorts of sources, some traditional like strings, some not-so-traditional like bowed metals and piano notes that have been stacked and granularized using special processing in ProTools. Pace is such a critical part of this score because there is always peril, complicated by moral confusion, consequences and rewards. As the film becomes more extreme, the music follows. The edge gets sharper, the rhythms more chaotic, the tension more relentless.

BD: On a similar line of thought, what are some of your favorite instruments to work with?
MW: I’m constantly looking for new sounds or instruments. Sometimes I make them up from scratch. If I had to name names, the most stalwart instruments around here are my cello and my guitar viol. They end up on everything in some form. That said, one of the best experiences you can have as a composer is when a really great player comes in for session and pulls out an instrument you’ve never seen or heard before and starts using it. That can be a revelation! One such session happened recently where I heard a contrabass flute for the first time. That thing is begging to be on a horror score. Very bizarre and very rare.

BD: Having composed for film, video games, and TV, what are the challenges that each medium provides? What do you enjoy about the different mediums?
MW: The timelines are very different in each medium. Films are challenging because I believe they have the strongest narrative aspect. The score is a self-contained story with a very peculiar identity. Film is the most “intellectual” of all the mediums and you have to be willing to abandon anything at any given moment and start over. Sometimes that’s what it takes. TV is not for wimps. The speed at which you have to work is insane. TV composers do not get enough credit for their work. It is singularly intense and requires a certain kind of individual who creatively thrives off pressure. If you want a taste of TV scoring, imagine doing something in three or four days that most people do in five to six weeks (in this case write 30-35 minutes of music), then do that every week for 22 weeks straight. You get the idea. Video games can span over long periods of time, which presents its own challenges because you follow the development process of the game. Something that works early on may not work later. You may have to stop and start again while the game evolves. You also have to write most of the music in seamless loops. This is a special challenge because those loops have to provide consistent support for the gameplay without getting boring or annoying the player. Harder than it sounds, believe me.

BD: Completely “out there” question: What is your favorite beverage while composing?
MW: Coffee in the AM. Otherwise, water. I’m pretty strict about this. It’s boring, yeah, but anything that messes with my energy level, up or down, is bad news for maintaining focus over long periods. I’m amazed by people who can pound Diet Cokes or Red Bulls ad infinitum and keep going. Eventually, that catches up with you, though.

BD: Last question for you: What would be your dream project to compose?
MW: This is a very hard question to answer! I wish I could give a list. At the top would be something with size and scale in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy. Big themes, big orchestra, really innovative electronica. If Marvel really is doing Dr. Strange, I’m starting my campaign right here. There are biopics and book adaptations that I would happily jump through flaming hoops for a shot at, too. Also, in the world of horror, I would love to do an entire score using only a choir. I don’t think that’s ever been done. No instrument is more powerful, emotive or creepy than the human voice. The possibilities are endless.

Got any thoughts/questions/concerns for Jonathan Barkan? Shoot him a message on Twitter or on Bloody-Disgusting!