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‘The Ritual’: The Story Behind Ben Lovett’s Haunting Score

New Netflix horror film The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner, is making waves since it was released on Feb. 9. Among the many captivating elements of the film, which takes place in the enigmatic forests of northern Sweden, is composer Ben Lovett’s evocative score. 

Vehlinggo readers will recognize Lovett as the composer of the extraordinary synth score for time-travel film Synchronicity, and will recall how deeply we delved into that topic and into Lovett’s life in a previous feature.

This time, the Georgia native tells the story of The Ritual score, which expertly and artfully taps into the ancient, arboreal vibe of the Norse mythology that permeates the tale of four friends taking a potentially misguided hike through a haunted forest. 

“I’m excited for The Ritual to be out in the world,” Lovett says. “Musically, it’s kind of like a photograph taken during a riot — where something is captured you can’t quite put your finger on, and there’s a feeling you can’t see trapped in the image, affecting you in a way that’s difficult to measure.”

the ritual soundtrack score

Among the topics that Lovett addresses is the challenge of making the cues, which were forged in the fires of some intense circumstances in the months of March and April of 2017. He’ll also discuss the joy of working with the London Contemporary Orchestra, which has helped Jonny Greenwood realize his scores for Phantom Thread and The Master. Lovett also talks about what it’s like to work with Bruckner, a man he’s known since they were college kids in Athens, Georgia, years ago.

Those are just some of the cool things we’ll discuss. I invite you to dive in, because Lovett has a lot of a great things to say.

Vehlinggo: Your score for The Ritual, which was released in the UK last fall and on Netflix last week, is a stark contrast to Synchronicity, the last of your work featured on this website. It seems to rely far more on organic, symphonic elements, whereas the latter film’s score was synth-focused.

Ben Lovett: Yeah, the score is basically live strings, horns, a small choir, and me banging around on stuff.  Almost everything you hear is acoustic. Synchronicity was a new experience for me, because I’d never done a score entirely with synths prior to that. The Ritual is almost exactly the opposite, in that it’s almost entirely orchestral. I used synths in the dream sequences and the theme related to the fractured relationship between the characters, since both are entangled with the tragic event that sets this whole journey in motion for these guys. It was just an effective way to keep that internal emotional story separate from the external events going on around them in the natural environment of the woods.

The Ritual soundtrack ben lovett
From left: Ben Lovett, conductor Robert Ames and the London Contemporary Orchestra during a scoring session for ‘The Ritual’ in early 2017.

Was the decision to go more organic a function of the nature of the story — more arboreal and old-world, and well, natural? (In the spirit of forested horror films like The Witch) Also, in general, how did you approach creating the excellent score for The Ritual?

I started by just trying to make it sound like it looked. As a composer, I often have the benefit of everyone else’s hard work to draw inspiration from by the time I start getting my hands dirty.

The images really have a mood and the forest was captured in a way that immediately translated into sounds for me. Almost every shot is external and the characters are constantly surrounded by trees in every direction, so it seemed natural that an acoustic palette of instruments was going to be the backbone of the score.

That old-world vibe you mentioned was definitely in the conversation early on with the director. I actually watched The Witch on the plane to London to begin working on The Ritual, and loved it. I knew we had a different sort of animal on our hands, but I was inspired by the general aesthetic of that movie and the score’s relationship to it.

I also spent some time listening to recordings of old Nordic folk tunes and different types of kulning, which is this ancient Swedish herding call the women would use to summon cattle across long distances. At the end of the day, though, your job is to service what’s on screen, so I didn’t get too caught up trying to chase any sort anthropological thesis. It was all just an effort to submerge myself in the headspace of that particular environment and have those influences floating around as general points of inspiration.

“Everything about it just feels haunted from the moment you touch it.”

In a more practical sense, I played a 100-year-old reed organ in a few scenes that you pump air through with your feet as you play. It had that spooky, old-world characteristic, and added some primal tonality, because it was built before A440 standardized tuning [an international standard] was established, so all the notes rub against everything around them harmonically in a really unnerving sort of way. Everything about it just feels haunted from the moment you touch it.

Building off that, how did working on this score (and on this film) differ from your past work? In general, what does scoring for a horror film require that is different from a sci-fi or another genre?

Musically, I don’t think in terms of genre, just different kinds of stories. Something unique about horror that I enjoy are the rules, the boundaries. That’s not to say you always have to stay inside them, because you don’t. They exist as a guide, a way to communicate with the audience.

I’ve used the comparison to folk songs, which to me have a similar distinction in that there’s a thousand different types of songs you could call “rock” songs, and there’s just as many different types of movies you could call “dramas” or “comedies,” but a folk song is identifiable by the specific parameters that define the form. Stray too far beyond those and it’s not a folk song — it’s just folky. Horror is similar that way. It’s the opportunity to take familiar, established parameters and use them to tell a new story. You can employ the familiarity of the structure as a way to explore a new idea within it.

the ritual
‘The Ritual’ stars Robert James-Collier, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, and Sam Troughton.

Were there any particular challenges when writing and recording this score that you haven’t faced before; and how did you address them?

Oh yes, so many. Firstly, I did the entire thing in London, and I didn’t know anyone in London. David [Bruckner] was there multi-tasking all aspects of post-production, so it made sense for me to just relocate there for the duration of the scoring process.  The clock was ticking from the moment my boots hit ground and I quickly discovered there were fewer calendar days available than there were individual pieces of music that needed to be written, recorded, mixed, and edited. I was also, by default, the film’s music editor, meaning I arrived to find I was essentially tasked with doing two people’s jobs in about half the time available for one of them. It was madness.

“The score was informed just as much by my own sense of panic and fear, as it was me interpreting what the characters are going through in the story.”

I was running around London scouting studios, meeting with different engineers, scouting out different choirs and orchestras, all while I’m trying to come up with ideas and actually write the music. I was the entire music department, so juggling the logistics of creating the score alongside the more abstract challenge of trying to figure it out creatively, alone in unfamiliar surroundings and with so little time, basically meant I didn’t sleep for weeks. I think all that informed the music in a way that wouldn’t have come about otherwise, though.

The score was informed just as much by my own sense of panic and fear, as it was me interpreting what the characters are going through in the story. How I addressed all this was simply to work as hard as I possibly could, which is the only way I know how. In this particular case, being isolated into the experience like I was, allowed me to push myself much harder — there was nothing to do but work, so that’s all I did. It was intense.

What was your favorite or the most memorable aspect of the scoring process for this film?

Working with the London Contemporary Orchestra. They’re an outstanding orchestral ensemble known for their work on the Jonny Greenwood scores and their live touring performances of films like There Will Be Blood and Under the Skin. They’re such a creative group of players and each individual adds something unique to the overall sound. When you have musicians who can add a little of their own spice to the stew, it can really elevate the material.  

“I’m always trying to paint with colors that doesn’t exist.”  

I’m obsessed with sound and I’m always trying to paint with colors that doesn’t exist.  My process, in general, tends to be more gut instinct than applied academics, and sometimes it can be challenging for me to communicate to an orchestra exactly which articulations are needed to get the specific sounds I’m after. The LCO always understood what I was trying to do and recording the score with them was one of the great privileges of my career.  

This might be a bit of a hyperbole, but you and friend David Bruckner, who met in college in Athens, Georgia, have done enough films together such that I kind of think of your dynamic as having a Nicolas Winding Refn-Cliff Martinez or Denis Villeneuve-Johann Johannsson (RIP) quality — basically, as partners in creating compelling film experiences. (Even for Synchronicity, you were working with your friend, director Jacob Gentry, who co-directed The Signal with Bruckner and other friend Dan Bush. You’re all pretty tight-knit.)

Well, David and I are both self-taught. So is Jacob. There was no formal education or mentors to impart the wisdom of what works and what doesn’t — we simply learned through the process of just going out and making things. So I think we have similar instincts about storytelling and filmmaking, in part, because those instincts were forged in the same fires and the same experiences.

Interestingly though, prior to The Ritual I hadn’t made a movie with Bruckner in 10 years, which was surprising to both of us to realize, because I’ve read every script, seen every cut, and given him feedback on everything he’s done since. We had both been waiting for the right project to come along that would allow us a chance to saddle up again and ride off to slay a dragon together. Or in this case, a mythological Norse Viking nightmare god. The Ritual is quite an extreme undertaking for anyone’s first feature, and I’ve wanted to see a Dave Bruckner feature for like 20 years, so I was excited about the chance to come in and throw myself into the fire for him on it.

What is it that keeps you two making films together? What has stayed the same and what has changed over the years as you two both evolve in your respective crafts?

What has stayed the same is we still tend to just jump in and learn to swim. David and I don’t really measure our ambitions — we’re both obsessed with details and have no realistic comprehension of time, so both of us will keeping working furiously at the thing until someone comes along to pry us away from it. Somehow we always get it done, but it feels like we shave a few good years off the end of our lives in the process.

The Ritual was an interesting collaboration for us, because it was easily the most challenging set of circumstances we’d ever had to battle, but we both came into it with a bunch of new dance moves gained in the process of making movies with other people for the past decade. So there was a familiarity, but we’d both evolved independently in how we tackle the process; the collaboration felt new again.

What’s next for you?

We’ll see. I’m doing a documentary at the moment, which is kinda nice because it’s been a long time since I’ve scored a movie where nobody dies. I’ve got three other features I’ve finished since doing The Ritual, and another one (American Folk) in theaters now and just out on streaming.

“It’s the sound of my own panic-stricken anxiety, yes, but more than that it’s the sound of me taking a new journey with an old friend.”

I’m excited for The Ritual to be out in the world — I’m really proud of what we accomplished with the film. It’s the sound of my own panic-stricken anxiety, yes, but more than that it’s the sound of me taking a new journey with an old friend.

Stream The Ritual now on Netflix and buy the score from Lakeshore Records.

About The Ritual

Reuniting after the tragic death of their friend, four college pals (Robert James-Collier, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, and Sam Troughton) set out to hike through the Scandinavian wilderness. A wrong turn leads them into the mysterious forests of Norse legend, where an ancient evil exists and stalks them at every turn.

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