Horror satire The Final Girls has earned praise for its combination of humor and heart, bathed in tropes from 80s slasher films. The synthesizer-driven score, set to be released digitally on Nov. 13 by the Varèse Sarabande label, plays a huge role in creating that aesthetic.
LA-based Gregory James Jenkins is the man behind the score, a retro-minded collection driven by analog synthesizers recalling the 80s horror work of composers like John Carpenter or Howard Shore.
Jenkins is known for his contributions to comedies, including A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, which like The Final Girls was directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. But The Final Girls is Jenkins’ first time scoring an entire feature.
For the hammy yet endearing summer-camp horror comedy — which centers on a group of people who are transported into a 1986 slasher film resembling the masked-killer-at-a-summer-camp theme of Friday the 13th — he and Strauss-Schulson decided they needed to be more 80s than 80s.
“I wanted to try to make something that was somehow more 80s sounding than anything actually from the 80s — hyper 80s,” Jenkins told Vehlinggo in a recent interview. “I feel that’s what a lot of the synthwave stuff like Miami Nights 1984 or guys like that are doing.”
Getting there includes using modern production elements, he said, “but other times I think it’s amping up the 80s stuff by 10.”
Jenkins was born in 1984, so he has somewhat of a frame of reference for what it means to achieve the tone of the era’s horror and slasher films. He caught the instant classic Nightmare on Elm Street when he was five, and “I certainly remember having nightmares for weeks,” he said.
But it’s not just his youthful scares that he had to tap in order to achieve a successful score. The Final Girls features at the center of its story a meditation on loss and how people deal with it.
Main character Max Cartwright, played by American Horror Story’s Taissa Farmiga, spends the film mourning the death of her mother, played by Malin Akerman, who dies before the main characters are transported from the present into the 80s slasher film. That’s complicated by the fact that the film within a film stars Akerman’s character, who is supposed to be killed by the Jason Voorhees-referencing serial killer.
“I haven’t had the same loss that Max had, but I certainly spent a lot of time trying to empathize with her and all the other characters,” Jenkins said. “You gotta feel the feels in order to write those sentimental scenes.”
From Billy Corgan to Serge Gainsbourg
Jenkins grew up near Detroit. At the age of five, when he wasn’t scaring himself watching slasher flicks, he was learning to play piano. But not a decade later, he did what any self-respecting teenager in the 90s would do: He swapped the keys for an axe.
“I quit piano in middle school to play guitar and be like Billy Corgan,” he said.
That didn’t last long, though. After realizing he wasn’t meant for guitar, Jenkins went back to the keys and tried to be like Elton John or Ben Folds. But something extraordinary happened along the way: He experienced the unparalleled brilliance of Brian Wilson.
“I heard Pet Sounds and that changed everything,” Jenkins said.
After taking in the album’s beautiful masterpieces, such as “God Only Knows,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Jenkins did what any self-respecting Detroit teenager does: At 16, he fell in love with techno and synthesizers at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now called the Movement Electronic Music Festival).
Adding to this excellent bouillabaisse of musical influences was a five-year stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied music synthesis. That is where he added an interest in the music of the 1970s to his repertoire.
“[That decade] is kinda everything to me,” he said, naming favorites such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Stevie Wonder, Serge Gainsbourg, Television, and Suicide.
Things Go Better With Coke
The first project in which Jenkins felt like a bona fide composer was a job for Coca-Cola.
He was working at an LA-based commercial music and sound-design house, digitizing old tapes and doing some music-related work for the firm. Then he got the Coke gig, which was writing music for an installation at L.A. Live, a massive entertainment complex adjacent to the Staples Center.
“I made the music for these Coca-Cola ads, and one of them even had me singing in it,” Jenkins said. “So that was pretty cool.”
“I was excited about that,” Jenkins continued, “It felt like, wow — someone paid me to make a silly song for Coke!”
The seven years Jenkins spent at the music and sound-design company was crucial for his development as an artist, he said.
The place “is really where I kinda learned how to do what I do, whatever that is,” he said. “…For years, everyday I was faced with a new challenge.”
That could mean that one day he’d be writing a 90s alternative track and another be tackling the nuances of famed film composer Hans Zimmer, or even crafting a polka number.
“I like being versatile and doing all types of different music, but the stuff I get to do with [Strauss-Schulson] is always the best because that’s what most lines up with the stuff I’d rather be making and listening to,” Jenkins said.
Harold & Kumar Go to Gregory Jenkins
Jenkins began working with Strauss-Schulson at leat four years ago. They first met through a mutual friend named Lindsey Alvarez — “a brilliant sound mixer,” he says.
She was mixing a short that Strauss-Schulson was doing for College Humor called Sorority Pillow Fight with Michelle Rodriguez, and at the very last minute the director needed someone to make the music for it.
“…We spent like 36 hours just making this fun, silly music for this short, and it was a great experience,” Jenkins said.
Afterward, Strauss-Schulson mentioned that he was in the middle of post-production for the latest entry in the Harold & Kumar stoner-comedy series, and needed music for a scene that the composer didn’t have time to do.
“… That was huge for me — I had only really done commercials up to that point,” Jenkins said. “So one song on Harold & Kumar turned into two, which eventually turned into six.”
The result was a mix of genres. There was a rawkus, Christmas-drenched big-band number baked with the requisite pot-themed lyrics. There were also some chunky disco cuts and some more straightforward rock bits. The lessons at the commercial music house had indeed served Jenkins well.
After that, Jenkins did three more short films for Strauss-Schulson and an Amazon pilot. The short films served as a “proof of concept” that allowed Sony to take a chance on hiring Jenkins for The Final Girls, he said. Strauss-Schulson going to bat for him helped, too, he added.
The Final Girls
The Final Girls, which in addition to starring Farmiga and Akerman (Watchmen), also stars Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and others, was Jenkins’ first feature score.
That meant that Jenkins was pulled into the process at the film’s early stages. However, his green status wasn’t the only benefit of having Jenkins on board early.
“Also, I was saving them the time of having to pull temp music for the director’s cut, which was nice, because it never allowed anyone to fall in love with the temp music and make me beholden to ripping it off,” he said.
Throughout the process, Strauss-Schulson and Jenkins worked closely together, even while the director was engaged in other aspects of the film.
At one point, Strauss-Schulson and film editor Debbie Berman were working in New York on the editor’s cut of The Final Girls. Jenkins was a few rooms over from Berman’s editing room. Strauss-Schulson would run back and forth throughout the day, giving Berman notes, and then spending time with Jenkins on the music — only to run back to Berman for editing.
“Todd is very collaborative to work with, and sometimes it’s almost like having a co-composer,” Jenkins said.
Strauss-Schulson might sing a line and say, “make a sound like this,” and try to make weird sounds, or Jenkins would be playing with a synth or a sample. Then all of a sudden Jenkins would make some clunky sound — probably by accident — and the director would yell out, “Yes! Like that!”
“And then I’ll just run with it,” Jenkins said. “It’s a very back-and-forth process we have.”
His approach to the score was to let the music react to what’s happening and not lead it. It’s about not getting in the way of dialogue, he said.
“…One thing I like to do, especially in the emotional scenes, is to play the silence,” Jenkins said. “You can really let a scene do the writing when you’re listening for the beats and the pauses, and take those moments to fill in.”
The Future is Yacht Rock?
So, going forward, is Jenkins going to do more 80s-inspired synthesizer scores? Well, it’s possible.
“I think it would be great to do more sci-fi stuff,” Jenkins said. “I love the future and outer space and robots, so it would be great to get a project that really lets me just go bananas on all sorts of wacky synth stuff.”
He also wants to record more albums of his own. He said he has been slowly but surely producing an “80s/70s/yacht rock/Madonna/pop/dance record.”
“That’s a thing, right? I’m going to sing on it, so let’s wish everyone luck on that,” he said.
He still wants to make music for comedy projects, though. His wife is comedic actor Zabeth Russell, so he’s always getting involved in projects with her and her friends, he said.
Essentially, Jenkins wants to work on everything.
“It’s kinda true,” he said. “I want to do all kinds of projects.”
This project is set for a Nov. 13 digital and a Dec. 4 CD release. The Final Girls film is already out on DVD, Blu-ray, and on on-demand services like Amazon and iTunes.
(Feature Photo: “The Final Girls” composer Gregory James Jenkins is deep in contemplation about the teleology of things. Or maybe he’s thinking about nothing at all. Photo Credit: Gregory James Jenkins.)