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It’s Been a Big Year for ‘The Night House’ Composer Ben Lovett

Film score composer Ben Lovett is as prolific as he is hard to pin down compositionally and sonically. Partially because of COVID-19-instigated delays, filmgoers have the ability to experience at least four well-crafted and expertly executed Lovett scores this year that all represent very distinct approaches: The Night House, The Old Ways, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, and, coming Friday, The Beta Test.

In each instance, Vehlinggo-favorite Lovett teams up with directors he’s worked with and known for years. The Night House reunites him with The Ritual‘s David Bruckner; Broadcast Signal Intrusion gives him another go with Jacob Gentry of Synchronicity; Eye of the Storm‘s Christopher Alender reconnected with Lovett for The Old Ways; and The Wolf of Snow Hollow director Jim Cummings brought Lovett back for The Beta Test.

Making movies with [Cummings] is challenging and fun, and I appreciate his perspective and commitment to what he’s out there doing,” Lovett told Vehlinggo recently. “He walks it like he talks it. I respect that and once you understand his vision you want to fight to help him achieve it,” Lovett said.

In this interview, conducted in late October and early November — mostly over Zoom with an email followup — Lovett dives deep into his expansive and creative strategies for each of the four films, along with analysis into the novel dynamic that arises from working with longtime collaborators. He also discusses how he enlists other musicians to come in and help him create authentic styles that don’t sound approximated or coopted. All in all this interview, edited for clarity and concision, is an engaging read.

ben lovett
This is Ben Lovett.

Vehlinggo: We have a host of great work of yours to discuss, but let’s start with the latest, which is the score for Jim Cummings’ The Beta Test, which releases Friday. What was your approach to scoring it?

Ben Lovett: When I was initially asked to score the film I couldn’t because of a schedule conflict, but then COVID turned the world upside down and Jim circled back about 10 months later. He’d spent the year editing the movie in his garage and had successfully Tarantino’d most of it with existing music. I thought it worked great, so I mostly just came on to fill in the gaps and tie a few scenes together. At one point Jim and I were trading voice notes back and forth over text with him humming melodies into the phone and me sending back interpretations of them on the piano. He wanted an a capella vocal piece for the opening cue, which I recorded with a singer named Adriana McCassim, who’s great and had the right voice for it. The rest of it was all loosely inspired by [Giallo] film music from the ’60s — composers like Bruno Nicolai and Riz Ortolani. Very fun stuff.

Share a bit more about your relationship with Cummings over the years.

Well I’d say it’s a good old-fashioned southern bromance, I suppose. Love the guy. I mean he’s a handful, but, you know, so am I.

When we were doing The Wolf Of Snow Hollow back in ye olden days of 2019, it took me a beat to really figure out how the music could best help communicate the complexity of his characters without getting in the way or feeling redundant to what was already there. The performances are hilarious and uncomfortable simultaneously and that’s a delicate tightrope act. Like trying to land a joke at a funeral reception, it has to work in spite of the atmosphere not because of it.

It’s tricky and it takes a while to get inside the head of someone who has that many gears spinning at once and find your way around. But I love the challenge and hope I have more opportunities to explore the guy’s brain, because it’s a brilliant madhouse of ideas.

In addition to The Beta Test, we have before us three other recent (and rather different) scores from you  — The Night House, The Old Ways, and now Broadcast Signal Intrusion. As they show, and as previous scores of yours show, you are able to adapt to what’s needed regardless of genre or instrument requirements.  At HQ here, we call you a “jack-of-all-genres.”

Specifically for these three, I’m wondering how they’ve stretched you and how they’ve contributed to your growth as a composer? 

I think that one of the fundamental interests that I have about film music is, it’s such a good opportunity to play in different sandboxes, stylistically. It gives me a reason to research, and it’s cliché, but to be out of your comfort zone. I get uncomfortable doing the same stuff that I already know how to do.

So I tend to really gravitate towards the opportunity to do something like, man, what would me making music that incorporates a bunch of traditional Mexican folk instruments sound like,? What would me doing a quasi jazz-influenced noir score be?

Each of the three of these opened up a new kind of musical area that gave me an excuse to wander off into and come back with something that maybe I hadn’t done before.

While we’re talking about that, I wanted to ask you about The Old Ways. I was wondering what kind of prep and research you did, because you have other instruments that you may not use in another film that are very specific to the setting of the story. So how did you pull that off? Did that involve meeting up with people to train you? Did you go around LA and talk to experts? 

Well, we were fortunate to find a guy named Martin Espino. He’s a specialist in that particular area of music and even in that region. As we dug into it, we realized that the Veracruz region of Mexico has a very unique blend and a special, signature musical DNA from a broader Mexican folk instrument or folk music.

He was integral to that process of being a musical and cultural consultant to talk to and ask questions of. He ended up being a principal contributor to the music, because he performed a lot of the handmade flutes and ocarinas and these “gourd trumpets” — dried gourds with seeds in them and things.

It was interesting because he’s got a ton of those instruments, and some of them only make two or three different notes. The ocarinas are made out of clay by hand. So having someone that could really get the most out of them, I think was really important.

That makes sense. I like the idea that you were humble enough to look to experts to help augment your own knowledge and own varied background.

For sure. I mean, it’s such an opportunity to learn. Something I always prefer, whenever possible, is to go find someone much more talented than myself to actually play the instruments. So in this case, I knew that was going to be part of it. But then — from the very beginning — there was this awareness that I’d really love to find a person or persons to help educate me on the music.

Because starting out on that one, there was never an ambition to try to write traditional music. It’s a small budget with a limited amount of time. I wasn’t going to set myself up to fail, or make something you could poke holes right through, and just look like an imposter or appropriation where you’re just broadly scooping something out of the bucket.

So I thought the best way to do it was to try to employ the talents of people whose whole focus is working in music in that genre. In the same way that I enjoy taking instruments that are commonly used in one manner in a particular genre of music or something and try to… play them in a different way, or put them in a different context.

Martin brought in his percussion ensemble and some of his other musicians that he plays with. I think it was interesting for them to play their instruments in a way that was a little bit counterintuitive to how they typically approach that music.

Everyone on Twitter — well, a lot of people in Horror Twitter — absolutely love The Night House. I personally think it’s one of the best horror films of the year and certainly one of the best of the past several years. It’s mesmerizing but psychologically terrifying, and it brings up some interesting issues surrounding grief, death, and mental health.

When you’re actually having to sit down and be in the headspace for a film like this, how did you approach that in terms of the composition process, feelings you’re drawing from, and discussions you had with your friend and longtime collaborator, director David Bruckner?

One thing that makes [The Night House] unique: I was there for the whole life of the project. I read the script way early before they ever started shooting. Then I was the first or second person hired on to the production.

I was writing things while they were shooting, so I was constantly sending things to David on set that he could listen to, and get a vibe for. Sometimes those were not even music: it was just a vibe or a sound or a wall of noise. You’re poking around in the dark, trying to figure out what this movie is supposed to sound like. It wasn’t immediately clear to either of us early on, whereas say, The Ritual, was pretty clear. I had some pretty good parameters of what the size and shape of that sandbox was. This one was just harder to really pin down.

There was an opportunity to kind of get in [Bruckner’s] head early and start getting some initial feedback for what was feeling like the movie. I also got to… spend three or four days on set and just be around while they’re shooting. Being around the house was really instructive for me — the script had been living in my head for like six months by that point. So there’s the movie in your head, and then there’s the one they’re actually shooting.

Then when we get into the edit, they’re not having to cut with temp score. They’re using early versions and demos and different things that we found that David liked while we were shooting. During that process it was like, “Hey, so track 37 is really working for the such-and-such scene, but it needs to have a part that goes this way and instead it goes this way.” Then it would be “OK, let me go back to track 37 then and see if I can add on a little to the end, and I’ll send you a new version of that tomorrow with something else in there.”

So it was a lot more collaborative in that sense, instead of a prescriptive, top-down thing where you’re chasing some kind of predetermined temp score. The Old Ways was like that. All three of these were like that to a degree. The Night House was a unique amount of time that I was able to spend by way of David prioritizing the music role that very early, so it forced them to bring me on early in the process.

I think that it really serves the movie, but in a way that it’s almost hard to know until you’ve thrown headphones on your head and listened to the soundtrack. Half the time in that movie, you’re not even aware that I’m in there messing with you.

The Ritual soundtrack ben lovett
From left: Guest post writer Ben Lovett, conductor Robert Ames and the London Contemporary Orchestra during the recording of Lovett’s score for director David Bruckner’s horror film ‘The Ritual.’

One thing I should point out to readers is that you’ve been working with Bruckner for a long time. Along with Broadcast Signal Intrusion director Jacob Gentry, you all have a history together going back to college in Georgia. 

Even with the unique nature of The Night House, you still have that history behind you. Is there anything that’s particularly different with how you and Bruckner have developed your creative partnership?

I think so. We’re both story guys. All of our conversations are constantly about the story. He trusts me to interpret those conversations about the story into music. He doesn’t come in with a lot of specific ideas about instrumentation or what he wants it to be. He is somebody that knows what he wants, but there’s room for me to put my own interpretation on that. I really have to understand it from a story perspective before I have any idea of what to do musically.

I remember him saying something like, it could be classically influenced, but he doesn’t want a classical score — he wants anything traditional or classical to be met with chaos on the edges, a dissonance that’s also present there. I think we came around to saying that it would be elegant with a bit of modern abstraction.

I love that phrase — “chaos on the edges.” OK, let’s switch over to Broadcast Signal Intrusion. It sounds like you’re going for something that’s classic Hollywood yet late 1990s. 

But there’s also a vibe to it that feels like a broadcast signal or similar noise. It’s very different from Synchronicity in that it’s not a synthesizer-driven score by any means. But yet, there’s still some kind of mechanistic dissonance or something to it that I hear that might not actually be there, but at least that’s what I hear.

No, it is there. I’m glad you can hear it. It was this idea of Jacob sending me down a rabbit hole of these conspiracy thrillers from the late ‘70s, which had inspired the look and feel of how he wanted to shoot it. I did a deep dive into movies like Klute and The Parallax View, and scores by guys like Michael Small and David Shire, and listened to a lot of that late ‘70s stuff that was from the Lalo Schifrin and Quincy Jones era. I also watched the movie and read the script and have this sense that there was something about the Golden Age of Hollywood noir that felt appropriate to me in this. Even though the movie isn’t stylistically really trying to be that, it is a guy solving a mystery.

So somewhere I was like, “Can I find a cross section of those, but then make it feel like a movie set in 1999?” It’s one too many things to just stylistically reference all those, but I just wanted to make it sound like [the 90s] a little bit.

It was in the thick of last year in the summer, when we were doing all this stuff — the height of lockdown. And so everything on [Broadcast Signal Intrusion] — all the orchestral parts and everything — were recorded one at a time remotely, and I needed to glue all that together.

So I went down a rabbit hole of eBay vintage VHS tape recorders. They were the early, old ones that had input and tracking controls, and all these manual controls on the front end. So I would send out the parts, get the players to record the parts, send them back, and then do these sub mixes to put each player together, and then I would print all that stuff off on the old VHS players that I bought off eBay.

As I’m recording them back into the computer, I would mess with the tracking controls and the stuff that made it just a little woozy and a little wobbly. [It was] nothing too gratuitous, but the process gave it a saturated… hum and some noise in there throughout. So some of the noise textural elements were not synthesizers — it was just fucking with old Beta decks and stuff, and trying to get some of the dirt off those things through crappy RCA connections back into the computer, and just smear that onto the music a little bit. It was a way to get to a sound. I was like, “How do I get this to feel like it looks?”

What do you like about working with Jacob?

Well, it’s very unique working with Jacob, because as long as I’ve been making movies, I’ve been making movies with Jacob. He gave me my very first opportunity to do one, and so it’s really neat to still be doing that 25 years later.

And you know, because we talked about it for Synchronicity, and how it goes all the way back to my origin story: the first person to convince me that I should give it a shot and try [movies], is Jacob. When you’re that age, — 19, 20 years old — and you make a thing, it feels like you’ve climbed Mount Olympus. You think, “All our friends are the most creative people in the world, and we’re all going to do this forever.” And you get a little older and you realize how naïve that is, and everybody thinks that.

[Directors] Jacob, Chris Alender, and Dave Bruckner — I all met [them] in a roundabout way, by doing that first movie with Jacob. Because Chris Alender, the director of The Old Ways, and Jacob went to high school and middle school together. They’ve been making movies together since they were in seventh grade on VHS and stuff.

So I met Alender through Jacob, and then I met Bruckner as a result of doing Jacob’s first movie in college. Because, when you’re in a small college town, you’re 19 years old, and you’re actually making things instead of just talking about making things, you meet the other people in town who are actually doing stuff, too. It’s like if you’re in a band playing in college, you probably meet all the other guys in bands in a college town, because you’re out playing shows. It’s the same kind of thing. These guys are dudes I’ve been making stuff with forever.

So with Jacob, it’s like every time we get an opportunity to do it, it feels special and unique. To answer it more specifically, he’s someone that has such a well conceived idea of what he wants [a score] to sound like. But he never tries to dictate to me that it needs to be some way, or how to get there, or anything like that. It’s just that he’s the only director in the world, for me, that a temp score is actually helpful and not an obstacle.

“It’s just that he’s the only director in the world, for me, that a temp score is actually helpful and not an obstacle.”

And it’s because he understands so well and has such an appreciation for how the music assists the storytelling, that when Jacob does a temp score, he’s not just lobbing stuff in there while he’s editing that works for that one scene, which is usually how it works. He’s actually committing to a fewer amount of things that he’s going to reference and knowing that “well, the theme would need to come back here, and we want to hear this thing here because it connects to there.”

Even if it’s not quite right in the temp, that’s fine, because it communicates the idea that, whatever our version of this is, we probably want to come back to some version of it. But it’s just always such a roadblock in every other case. Because of that, I think that the reason that the stuff I do with Jacob, stylistically, is always distinct from the other stuff I do with other directors, is because all of the cues on his movies are these extensions of his own vision for them.

You can track down the films either on streaming or in some movie theatres. The soundtracks are available digitally, with Broadcast Signal Intrusion and The Night House getting MONDO/Death Waltz vinyl treatment.

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