There’s just something about a classic Hollywood score — a bold, often big orchestra complementing a mid-century masterpiece. But even more so, there’s something to that type of score in the hands of a composer willing to take risks. Think of Bernard Herrmann, who scored Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, and a host of Alfred Hitchcock films, including Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, among many others.
It’s a formula you won’t find much anymore. Some titans of scoring tend to avoid the experimentation, humanistic moodiness, and short, repeating patterns that Herrmann employed with unassailable artistic integrity. They certainly don’t have the jazz underbelly. (This isn’t to criticize those composers; they’re likely doing what they need to for the films on which they work.)
But composer Ben Lovett isn’t constrained by tent-pole expectations, so he has room to do all sorts of wild stuff. For Thunder Road director Jim Cummings’ new horror-comedy film The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Lovett looked to Herrmann for inspiration to complement the film that centers on a case of dead bodies popping up mysteriously. Lovett — a Swiss Army knife of a composer who is just as comfortable with obscure instruments like the Nyckelharpa (see The Wind) as he is with hybrid electronic-symphonic orchestration (The Ritual) or synth scores (Synchronicity) — faced a challenge.
The composer told Vehlinggo recently that Cummings would send him things such as clips of 75-piece orchestra cues, but it was clear that for an indie film such as this, Lovett wouldn’t have the expansive cadre of players on hand to achieve the scope of a Herrmann orchestra. But Lovett, ever the creative composer and a veteran of maximizing a light wallet, said he thought about how to go for a Herrmann-on-a-budget score.
“What’s the low budget version of a classic, old-school mystery thriller?” Lovett said, noting that Cummings’ creative passion inspired him. “I think I always have a tendency to want to try to match the ambition of the person I’m collaborating with.”
Lovett ended up setting up shop at Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville in his native North Carolina. In what used to be a church, he gathered eight string and five horn players along with one bassoon and one clarinet player. This was last year — before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. (It was also around the time Robert Forster died, making Snow Hollow his final turn in an expansive oeuvre.)
“One of the reasons I do so much live recording there is there’s just a vibe — a sound to an old church that you can’t build into it,” he said. “It’s just there.”
“I always have a tendency to want to try to match the ambition of the person I’m collaborating with.”
He had full buy-in from Cummings.
“He was so enthusiastic — and he was so trusting and encouraging me to run wild with whatever my interpretation of what he was going for would be — that it seemed a really good opportunity to just be a little ambitious about it,” Lovett said.
The players were on board, too. Lovett said they were “really psyched to come in and do it,” when they weren’t rehearsing and playing material like Rachmaninoff symphonies.
“They can handle anything that I could possibly write and throw at them,” he said, “so it’s just fun for them to come in and do that stuff. And by moving them around the room and inside the church and all, we were able to construct something that was a little bit more of that idea of the indie-sized version of a Herrmann score.”
Lovett was quick to take a humble turn, noting that he wasn’t trying to say he was as good as Herrmann. It’s more about evoking “just that era, and that perspective, and that type of score and the audaciousness of it — the way it plays in the film.”
In the Q&A, we’ll dive more into Lovett’s experience with the score for The Wolf of Snow Hollow (which is out now digitally via Lakeshore Records) and try to home in on what makes Lovett Lovett.
Vehlinggo: I’m almost positive I always ask you this, but I’m also fairly certain the answer is different depending on the film. Did you score this one “to picture” or were you involved earlier on?
It was both in the sense that I had a little extra time, because they went back in and retooled some things. They had already shot the movie and had a rough cut, but then they recut the movie and made some changes and did some pickups that the studio wanted. So it gave me a little extra time to figure out a way to pull this off.
When you can just write it all, get it all working right, and bring in the players — and go in the studio and just knock it out and track it all — that’s a different thing than when you’re laying a couple of bricks at a time and you got to build a wall.
You had mentioned having a limited number of players to realize your vision — eight string and five horn players along with one bassoon and one clarinet player. Did you ever consider multitracking the parts to simulate a full Herrmannesque scope of instrumentalists to your score? I wonder if that would even work.
You can do that, but there’s no substitute for a room full of players. It’s the harmonics in the room and the way it feels and sounds when you have a room full of instruments, all playing together — whether it’s a section or whether it’s the whole orchestra. Breaking it up into smaller pieces and stacking that is a different thing. It’s not comparable to the emotional effect of having a large ensemble.
I always feel it’s like making a successful indie movie by not trying to be a Hollywood one — not trying to do the things that you just can’t within your limitations. So with something like this, I feel if you embrace the creative limitations of it, and then try to work within that to just get something interesting, then you decrease the odds that you’re just going to fall on your face doing it.
One thing I think is safe to say is that there’s no single type of “Ben Lovett score.” Even focusing just on the genre pictures you’ve scored, the music is quite different. Compare and contrast your work on Jacob Gentry’s Synchronicity; David Bruckner’s The Ritual; Gentry’s, Bruckner’s and Bush’s The Signal; and Emma Tammi’s The Wind (among others).
I’m always saying I don’t really have a sound, I just have songs. And those songs tend to take on a personality with either the musicians I might be recording that song with, or the co-writer I might be writing that song with, or the singer who’s going to sing it.
“I would naturally try to tear it down or sabotage my own success with it. I really would.”
It’s as much about being in a band is cool and fun and when you’re a composer, you’re not in one. Even on my songs I’m a guy, I’m not a band. And so the appeal of collaborating with other people to meet them — so you’ll figure out where the Venn diagram overlaps and your interests, and your styles and tastes — it’s way more interesting to me than trying to establish that I’m about this one thing.
I think for me, I would just get really bored. I would immediately try to self-destruct whatever that thing was just as soon as I had established whatever it was. I would naturally try to tear it down or sabotage my own success with it. I really would.
You’re definitely not stuck in a rut. I was listening to The Wind and Snow Hollow the other day and it’s just clear that you’re going for something unique each time.
Something like [the taxidermy documentary Lovett scored called] Stuffed — I don’t know that you would play Stuffed and then play The Ritual and go, “Clearly, these are the same guy.”
So to me that’s the fun part about it. And I guess it’s just because it’s not about me, it’s about the tunes. I know that’s kind of a super cliche thing to say, but it’s fucking true. You don’t write these film pieces for it to be about the music itself independent of just trying to tell the story — it’s definitely not about you. You’re an agent of the story and trying to help facilitate the director’s vision for it. It’s highly collaborative from the get-go and I think trying to get in the way of that it’s just very problematic.
I wanted to ask you about an interesting contribution to the Snow Hollow soundtrack. There’s your score but there’s also this arresting cover of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs’ 1966 classic “Little Red Riding Hood.” The original was a campy, novelty garage-rock number, but you and singer Valen made it slow-burning, haunting and cinematic, and to a grand scale. It becomes a serious song. How’d this come about?
There was something in going back to “what’s the point of the song if not to express the meaning of the words, right?” And so when you go back and look at just the words, there was actually a lot there if you take out all the [wolf howls] and all the campiness out of it. If you divorce the delivery of those words in the version of the song we’re all accustomed to, just the words themselves, you realize good songs can be done in so many different kinds of ways.
It was Jim’s idea to do it with a female singer. I just thought of an image in my mind of a female who — it’s almost as if she’s speaking to herself, it’s some part of her warning herself about her own behavior. It just took on a whole different meaning.
I had that conversation with Valentina, who is the singer who performs under Valen. We had written a song together a few years ago and have stayed in touch and I’ve occasionally hit her up to do some background vocals and things. She’s just a really, really talented singer who has such a tremendous command of her voice, and she’s really great with harmony and layering background vocals. So we had a conversation about it and then she sent back a demo that brought so much clarity to the conversation. I said, “All right, this is going to totally work. Just send me your vocals by themselves.”
Then I did an arrangement and built everything up around it, and then we cut the vocal at the end so she could respond to all the other elements that I had added.
It is a perfect example of the type of collaboration that comes from director, producer, and artist. It would not be the same thing at all without all the ideas and perspective that Valentina embodied as the performer. We just felt her contribution was so significant that it needed to be her track. Because without that vocal performance who cares? What is it?
(Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.)
The Wolf of Snow Hollow, A is out now on VOD and in limited theatres via Orion Classics and United Artists Releasing. The soundtrack is out via Lakeshore Records.
For more information on Lovett’s work on the film, listen to his interview on the Lakeshore Records podcast, On Cue With…
About The Wolf of Snow Hollow film
A small mountain town finds itself in a grip of terror when people discover dead bodies after each full moon. John Marshall (Jim Cummings) is a local cop who, amid sleepless nights, raising his teenage daughter (Chloe East), and caring for his ailing father, must remind himself there’s really no such thing as werewolves. Right?