In Netflix’s new series Sweet Tooth, the world is struggling to recover from a cataclysmic event known as “The Great Crumble.” Society has collapsed, governments have failed, and millions have suffered loss and hardship at the hands of a deadly, aggressive virus. Oh, and ever since the virus appropriately dubbed “The Sick” first reared its ugly head, all human babies have been mysteriously born as half-human, half-animal hybrids. It is then, through one of these very special young hybrids, that the uncomfortably familiar world of Sweet Tooth unfolds.
Based on a series of DC comic books by Jeff Lemire, Sweet Tooth centers around a half-boy, half-deer hybrid named Gus (Christian Convery). Sheltered from the outside world for much of his young life, Gus becomes forced into unfamiliar territory after his delicate bubble of safety tragically bursts. As Gus ventures further and further away from the only home he has ever known, he discovers new friends and dark secrets in the most unexpected of places. As fantastical as it is prescient, Sweet Tooth is a rare breed of show that blurs genre lines while retaining an atmosphere both kids and adults can enjoy.
Part of what allows Sweet Tooth’s unique blend of fantasy, adventure, horror, science fiction, and drama to succeed so well is composer Jeff Grace’s incredible score — available now digitally via WaterTower Music. Wonderfully adept at evoking visceral emotional reactions through sound, Grace has worked on both television and film projects that span nearly every genre imaginable. Notably dextrous in his ability to seamlessly fuse orchestral and electronic elements together into one cohesive and effective soundscape, it is no wonder why directors return to Grace time and time again.
Just like Ti West called on Grace to compose scores for both The Innkeepers and horror cult fave The House of the Devil, director Jim Mickle knew just who to call for his new Sweet Tooth adventure. Far from strangers, the pair have previously collaborated together on Mickle’s projects Stake Land, Cold in July, and the TV series Hap & Leonard. Although Sweet Tooth would prove to be an unprecedented endeavor for both creatives in regard to both scope, scale, and execution in the wake of COVID-19, the story’s endearing narrative and ambitious visual presentation stood as constant motivators.
In celebration of the show’s chart-topping debut on Netflix and the recent WaterTower Music release of the score, I virtually sat down with Grace to venture into the wild and wonderful world of Sweet Tooth. Along the way we discuss his approach to the show’s many thematic elements, working alongside Jim Mickle, how he approaches that initial blank page, and the many unique challenges that TV productions possess.
Vehlinggo: Holy cow. This show is so cute and wonderful. And, it’s actually not the first time you have worked with the show’s main director and creator, Jim Mickle. How did you two first connect and what was your initial reaction when he told you about Sweet Tooth?
Jeff Grace: Well, we started working together 11 or 12 years ago. I started working with a small film company in New York called Glass Eye Pix, which is run by the filmmaker Larry Fessenden. They do all kinds of films, but they do a lot of horror films. Larry loves horror. Jim somehow connected with Larry and then Larry’s company ended up producing Jim’s second feature, Stake Land. Jim was looking for a composer for the project, so Larry put us in touch and we just kind of hit it off right away. We’ve worked together ever since on a lot of feature films. We also did a TV series before Sweet Tooth called Hap and Leonard, which ran for three seasons.
When he told me about this project, I was pretty excited. One thing about Jim is he’s amazingly talented and he’s one of those people that kind of knows about every aspect of filmmaking. It’s funny. Before I started out as a composer myself, I worked for a number of different composers; one of them was Howard Shore. We worked on The Lord of the Rings together and I was so impressed by Peter Jackson. He can talk to everybody in great detail about the filmmaking process. Jim kind of reminds me a little bit of that, where he can have in-depth and detailed, intelligent conversations with any department and makes really great suggestions to people. He’s never out of his element and at the same time, surrounds himself with really good people. So, I just thought that the scope of this was like, a perfect match for him.
Even though we’ve done a lot of horror in the past, what’s interesting about them is the fact that you care about the characters. So, when something actually happens, you care. If you don’t get to know the character or they’re not relatable then who cares, you know? Over the years I’ve seen him grow as a filmmaker and this just seemed like a really, really great fit for him.
Oh, this story is incredible. It’s so unique and blends so many different genre styles together. Because of this interesting fusion of elements, what were your early conversations like with Jim regarding this show’s musical direction?
Well, we knew that there is a kid involved obviously, and when we meet him in the beginning, he’s sheltered. So, there needed to be a certain amount of innocence. But he also wanted it to have an organic quality to things and to have a little bit of personality all its own because it’s a unique story. I mean, it’s kind of cliche. Everybody says, “Oh, I want my score to sound unique.” But the trick was, how do you do that with this particular story?
And what was interesting to me about it was that it’s—especially the way they went about making the show—this collision of wonder and threats. Gosh, he’s this sheltered kid that goes out into this post-apocalyptic world. He’s seeing a lot of things for the first time and he’s interested and curious about these things, but at the same time there could be a threat lying around every corner. We had to find that balance and keep the audience on the edge of their seat with that.
And then, it’s also a little bit off in the future. Not too far off in the future, but it is a different world. Although we’re a little closer to it now than we probably would have thought when we started making the show. [laughs] So, I thought that there probably needed to be some sort of…not futuristic in terms of sci-fi stuff, but it needed to feel a little otherworldly in some ways.
The hybrids also kind of made me feel like it needed to be a little exotic in some way.
So those are the things that we were just talking back and forth about. Because Jim and I talk a lot, we’ll be on one project and then he’s already talking about the next project. So, I’d been hearing about this for a while before it actually happened. But then we did the pilot and that first episode is kind of like a prelude to the rest of the story. The rest of the first season, it ends up being like a road journey, you know? So, we just kind of found our way with the first episode and then looked to widen the scope from then on.
You just touched on something I was pretty curious about. So, there’s a lot of music in this show. Like, a lot. Which is great! How much of it were you able to tackle before filming? And then, how much of it were you able to score to picture or tweak once you had visuals to work with? It just all feels so beautifully, perfectly tied to what is actually happening on screen.
The way we’ve been working for quite some time, I do find out about the projects early. I can go and start working on thematic material, the big ticket items and maybe some mood stuff. But yes. I can’t score the stuff to picture until I’ve gotten some kind of an edit. And even then, especially early on in a TV show, there may be a lot of back and forth trying to find the tone of the show. So, getting particular scenes to work is kind of like a whole other thing. I try not to worry about that too much early on.
In the beginning, I focus more on “What are the different kinds of things that we’re going to want the music to achieve?” and “What’s the sound of the world that we’re making?” Then I’ll start to see dailies and things like that. I try to keep it to the more general stuff when we’re in the earlier stages, and then when I start getting picture back…like, the first episode changed the most. I find that TV in general, the first couple episodes tend to be the ones that fluctuate more. Then once things get kind of settled, they tend to change less as you go further on.
I don’t know how much of that is a product of also being on the TV conveyor belt, but in terms of schedule, I like to have everything done to picture. We had a great music editor, Scott Francisco, that worked on it with us. There was some stuff—like if a theme is being reused—that we were able to go back to.
“It’s a little bit like sleight of hand, you know?”
To me, sculpting the music to the images and everything, that’s fun. I think it’s my job to bring the audience into the world of the film or the show and once you get them there, to keep them there. And if you’re not, if things don’t sculpt to picture well enough, then I think it can kind of pull people out. It’s a little bit like sleight of hand, you know? You want to be able to bring people in, but not have them really aware that’s what you’re doing. You just want them so engrossed in the show. I think if they’re paying too much attention to the music, then you’re probably pulling some people out of the show, and that you don’t want.
Also, with the pilot, it was longer originally and they pulled some of the slower things out. So, it didn’t change what happened in the story or anything, just the pacing of it. Since it changed a bit, it feels like there’s more music in it than there originally was, but then after that episode there’s more of a routine. I think we were a little bit more consistent about the amount of music and the amount of space after that. But they also used some insert songs and that also adds to the amount of music in the show.
It seems like an art form in itself to be that creatively flexible with your own stuff. To just be able to tweak things and not get too attached to something you created earlier.
It’s just the nature of the beast of composing for cinema and TV. I mean, at the end of the day, I want the show to be really good. And like I said, really engaging. Also, Jim and I have a great relationship and he’s my audience, you know what I mean? I think we have a lot of trust in each other and it’s impressive to see. I mean, everybody trusts Jim.
Even when we’re working with new people or new producers or anything as the projects go on—I’ve seen this over and over again—there’s people who come around to see how good he is. By the end of the project, or by the end of the season of television, people are just like, “OK, let’s let Jim do his thing. He’ll figure it out.” I know his sensibilities well and I try to go and do what I think works for the show. By then, it’s usually in a good place and ready for everybody else.
That’s really cool to hear. He sounds like a great creative partner to work with.
He’s really great. And he has that ability to just say a couple things that don’t rip everything apart, but also manages to improve things. He just has these really great insights, like little insights into things that really improve things from time to time. He’s got a clear idea what he wants, but he’s also open to collaboration and he surrounds himself with really good people. All across the board it’s a team of people [in which] everybody feels like they’re heading for the same goal and working together. It’s pretty impressive to see and then everybody gets excited about things.
You’ve mentioned the idea of supporting the overall project and contributing to the larger picture. Part of what I think is so lovely about this score is the variety of melodic themes and the way these different pieces summon up specific emotional responses to strengthen narrative story lines—largely through the use of specific instrumentation choices.
For example, this show has moments of wonder and adventure, but also danger and the overarching idea of family with instruments that match those vibes. So, when you’re sitting down to score a scene, are your instrumentation choices simply logical? Or more emotionally influenced?
Well, when I’m starting out on something, I try to figure out generally what the sound palette might be or kind of what my options are. Then I try to figure out what’s going to work for particular things. For example, this story is interesting because it has a number of different story threads. Some of them relate to each other and are more compatible with each other than others. Like the character of Dr. Singh [Adeel Akhtar] — he and his wife, their struggle and journey is quite a bit different than what’s going on with Gus, Jepperd and Amy. I had to figure out the best sound for those different threads, but also make it all feel like part of the same story.
So I try to go and find places where I’m able to use the same material. And then look to see if I have multiple occurrences of that. With TV, you don’t have the whole season of TV, but you might have a few episodes at least, and then you can see how things play out in different episodes. So, if I’m writing one scene, I might actually be looking at like four different scenes to just see where I have to take things in different directions. And then back in the scene, that applies to both the sound palette and the actual musical material.
And then there’s certain things where I might just say, “Well, I kind of think I want a guitar here.” There are certain things that work well on the guitar. And there are certain things that don’t work great on the guitar. Something I might write for the flute would be pretty different from something I probably write for the guitar. It’s just all of those things milling around in the back of your head and you just kind of play with the different ideas for a while and play with the picture.
Then, things just kind of take on a little bit of a life of their own. Sometimes I’ll be working away at something and it doesn’t seem like it’s coming along so great. Then, I’m walking home or walking back to my office and then all of a sudden, “Oh yeah! I can do that!” So, there’s no one thing, I think. It’s like a combination or an intersection of those different things that come together. At least for me it is.
It’s wild to me how you’re able to piece together all these sonic puzzle pieces and weave them together. It really is very cool. One storyline in Sweet Tooth that seemed to have a very different sound than the rest was that of General Abbott (Neil Sandilands) and The Last Men. Talk a little bit about them and how you kind of worked their personality — for lack of a better word — into their music.
I remember at one point Jim and I had a conversation about how maybe they would have a little bit more industrial sound to them. I wanted to use some percussion that had some metallic elements. So, there’s some chains and things in there. There were also actually two themes that I used for The Last Men. One of them felt like it needed to be…well both of them actually, they are pretty rhythmic. But one of them was a little bit more driving and kind of acting like it was more action-oriented. And the other one is a bit more plotting.
There’s that scene where Gus and Jepperd are walking into the train station and they’re looking around and seeing The Last Men. That’s not as driving and fast as the other Last Men stuff, but I still felt like we needed to really get a sense of who these guys are and that there’s some threat there with them. Almost kind of like a relentless feeling with them, you know? But then we also wanted to have some kind of sound that maybe wasn’t totally familiar. So there are orchestral elements and things like that, but then we added in some weird sounds and stuff to kind of combine the different things.
It’s very effective.
So, I first became familiar with your work through the horror realm and I’m a big fan of your scores for The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil. Because of that, I know you are capable of making some truly terrifying and creepy sounds. And while Sweet Tooth has some scary moments, it is clear that it is suitable for a younger audience. I’ve never asked a composer this before but, does a project’s rating or targeted demographic at all affect how or what you compose?
It’s funny, I honestly didn’t think too much about who the show is going to be for. Like, I didn’t worry about any kind of ratings or anything like that. There was an initial conversation that they didn’t want to make it too dark, but then they actually turned around pretty quickly on that and they wanted to ratchet it up. There’s some pretty heavy stuff in the graphic novel and what’s interesting too is that the visuals in the show—just by the nature of the two different mediums—leave a different impression on me. They’re both great, they are just a little bit different. So, I never really worried about that too much.
What was more of a concern or was a little trickier, was just finding the balancing act between tones. Sometimes there is some dark stuff and sometimes there’s some goofy stuff. And then sometimes there’s some really heartfelt stuff. So what was challenging was just making those turns. So it’s like, “Okay. If we’re going to make this turn and go this way, and then I have to go into the next scene, I have to be able to go back and go over this way. Or like three scenes from now, I need to be able to be over here.” I just had to make sure that I could make all those turns and make it all feel like it’s all part of the same show. That was the trickier thing.
You know, that’s always a question that I think composers keep in mind or that is always there in the air—“How much of what a scene needs is already there in the performance and what can music bring to it?” To either enhance things or push this a little further into a certain direction.
And with this show, I just felt like so, so much of it is so well done that it was really just finding the right balance at the right time. And just refining what the fine details needed to really be in exactly in the right spot. And that was great. I mean, sometimes when you work on things, things might not end up being what the filmmakers might’ve hoped. They might just kind of get the job done. And then other times, things are extremely well done. With this, it just felt like we all really, really wanted to try to do everything as best we could.
This season leaves off on a bit of a cliffhanger, which has me keeping my fingers crossed for Season 2. Are you going to be involved with another season of Sweet Tooth? And since you’ve worked on shows with multiple seasons before, what are the perks and challenges of tackling a new season of TV?
There’s no official word yet. I think nowadays with all the streaming services they’re just looking at data and that’s just kind of the world we’re living in. That said, the show is incredibly popular. We’ve gotten really good critical and audience feedback and a lot of people like this show, which is great! So in my mind, I’m certainly thinking, why wouldn’t you do another season? Especially with, like you said, that cliffhanger. Plus, there’s so much material with the graphic novels with where things could go.
Jim and I did… Hap & Leonard, which was from a series of books by Joe R. Lansdale. And, after the first seasons, we thought we were basically going to have to throw out all the music because the second book is so different. They’re in a different location and everyone basically dies off in the first book. There’s so many things that are different in the second book that we just assumed I’d have to start over again. But, it actually turned out to be the exact opposite. The only thing (aside from the two lead actors) that was the same in the second season was the music. So, that’s actually what ended up letting audiences know that we were in the same show and it was the same world.
There’s a lot of stuff that changes at the end of the first season of Sweet Tooth. Ultimately though, the storylines still continue. So, I imagine it would just be a matter of arranging things that we already had in these new contexts. But, there’s also no doubt that there will be new stuff introduced and it will be fun to go and take things in a new direction and to find ways to incorporate the new stuff. And really, to just find a musical representation for that new material while keeping in mind where we already came from.
(Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.)
Sweet Tooth is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix. The soundtrack is also available now via WaterTower Music.