Across oceans of time, continents, and media formats, the allure of the vampire has endured. Eternally oozing sexuality, danger, socially defiant attitudes, and style, the appeal is easy to understand. Able to be interpreted and reinterpreted in myriad ways, the creative arts have continued to deliver a steady stream of bloodsucking content since 18th-century poetry first explored the vampire realm.
One of the newest entries to make waves in the genre is Jessica M. Thompson’s, The Invitation. Written by Blair Butler (Hell Fest), the film stars Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones) as Evie. A talented young ceramics artist, Evie struggles to find her emotional footing after losing both of her parents. After casually taking a free promotional mail-in DNA ancestry test, she discovers a whole new branch of her family tree she never knew existed. Even more surprising, they reach out.
When her newfound cousin extends a heartfelt, all-expenses-paid invitation to a lavish family wedding in the English countryside, Evie accepts. After receiving a warm reception from her new family and the shockingly handsome Lord of Carfax Manor (Thomas Doherty), Evie’s reservations begin to relax. However, she soon discovers there are more than just dusty designer coats and velvet hangers hiding in her new family’s closet.
Combining horror, romance, Gothic sensibilities, and BBC vibes, The Invitation unfolds like a modern Dracula tale through a Jane Austen lens. A critical element helping unite this diverse range of genres and tones is the fantastic score by composer Dara Taylor. Effortlessly juxtaposing haunting vocals, sweeping orchestral passages, eerie piano, sensual acoustic guitar, and unsettling aural experiments, Taylor’s music ties everything together. Equally as rich and textured as the film’s dramatic countryside backdrop, Taylor’s sharp skills and engaging approach are a perfect cinematic partner to Thompson’s unique vampiric vision.
For fans of Taylor’s work, her mastery of navigating various tones is no surprise. Recently, she scored George Clooney’s touching drama, The Tender Bar, and the inspiring Title IX documentary, 37 Words. Alongside composer Christopher Lennertz, she also helped score numerous multi-faceted projects, including Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Bad Moms, Amazon’s The Boys, Supernatural, and the Lost in Space TV series. With an affinity for integrating prominent and complex vocals into her work, Taylor’s musical voice becomes all the sweeter in the film composing world.
With the film doing well at box offices, along with the score’s recent digital release and the exciting news of an R-rated version soon hitting the streaming world, everything seemed perfectly poised to have a conversation with the magician herself. Whether you’re previously familiar with Taylor’s work or not, one thing about this interview is certain — you will undoubtedly leave a fan.
Vehlinggo: There are so many ways people get into composing for film, but how did you get here?
Dara Taylor: Growing up, I was always in the choirs, the school bands, and the musicals, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with all of that. So, I initially applied to undergrad as a computer science major. And then I took zero computer science classes. [Laughs] I just spent my whole time in the music building. I knew that’s what I loved, but I still wasn’t sure what to do with it. Voice was my instrument, so I studied voice, art songs, arias, and that whole thing. But I still knew that I didn’t want to perform for a living.
I think it was somewhere during my sophomore year of college that I started to get into composition. I was listening to a lot of film scores recreationally, and I was just in my dorm room listening to Harry Gregson-Williams’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe score. I had heard the score many times before, but for some reason it just kind of hit me in that moment. It was like, “Maybe this is it!” So then I studied contemporary classical composition and all of that, but always knowing that film music was what I wanted to do.
Then I did a master’s program in film music in New York, and I stayed there for a while. At some point, my boyfriend and I decided to give it a go in LA. So we moved to LA, and I started volunteering with The Society of Composers and Lyricists. I got to know a lot of people that way.
I was then invited by someone to go and watch a scoring session for Revolution, which was a show on ABC years ago. That is when I ran into an old classmate from NYU who was, at the time, assisting Christopher Lennertz.
I was then able to put in an application for an internship, interned for a while, and was Chris’ second tech assistant for a while. I really did the assistant route and learned a lot from that experience: mentorship, exposure to so many things musically, and dealing with the studio system. I worked under him for five and half years until I went off on my own. And, I was very fortunate to have so many of those connections that I made there with [people] who still want to help me. I think it helped me get into a lot of rooms.
It’s fascinating how integral networking and fostering those relationships are in the composing world. It is often thought of as such a solitary art, but so much of it depends on social connectivity and interacting with other people.
It’s very important! And I mean, I think that sometimes people scare you about coming to LA. They’ll be like, “Oh, it’s all about who you know over there.” But the truth of the matter is, you can get to know people. People are pretty easy to talk to. You don’t have to come in being a Coppola. [Laughs] You can get to know people in small increments.
I’d love to hear a bit about how you tackle the inevitable blank page you face when starting a project. With so many styles, instruments, and tools at your disposal, where does it begin for you? Do you have a standard process?
Yeah, I start with instrumentation. Well, I probably come up with a small kernel of a melody first, and then I try it on a bunch of different instruments to see what’s feeling right. Because sometimes I’ll try something on the piano, and I’m like, “Eh. I don’t know.” And then I’ll take it out on the guitar, and it’s like, “Ok. It actually sounds much better here.” I like to find the voice of whatever this theme I’m doing is because I feel like it’s a lot easier to think of the voice of this character or plot device when I find what that voice is.
Choosing instrumentation is so interesting, because many ingrained associations and emotions are tied to certain instruments. But do you ever consciously factor that into your ultimate choices? Or, intentionally do the reverse to subvert those ideas?
I think so. Even with the vocals on The Invitation, taking something that’s usually meant for beauty and making it feel uncomfortable was something that both Jess and I really wanted to play with.
That’s a perfect segue for diving into your music for The Invitation. It plays with many different and distinct genres as a film. How did you and Jessica decide to approach this attribute initially?
So, there are a few different tones within this genre-bending film. There’s obviously horror, which was the main umbrella, and then you have some romance and some big Gothic moments. [We] had to find a way to meld all those together. I think the hardest thing actually was finding the right tone for the romance — letting it be something unique but still able to easily transition in and out. So, we use a lot of acoustic guitar for this to make it feel more like a romance of today and not so much of a romance from the time that the manor was built. Then we saved some of those sweeping moments for the more Gothic stuff.
As far as the horror moments, we really wanted to find a lot of weird and strange sounds that just make you feel uncomfortable, while also taking bits of things from the story and the sets that would meld into the score. For example, there are scenes with the service bells all over the place. So we used a lot of ethereal bell sounds that reverberate through the score with mallets and things like that. Then it was finding things that were kind of…croaky, for lack of a better word. [Laughs] We talked about the vampires having this gecko, almost lizard-like quality, as they stick to the walls and the ceilings.
Especially with the vocals, that was something that we discussed pretty early on. I love a vocal. It was my primary instrument and I love being able to use them so prominently and not just as a color, which they can sometimes be used as. We talked about having three female vocalists to represent the three brides. They kind of do this siren song to hypnotize you into this space. But then, the use of vocals changes.
There are a few motifs throughout that represent that, and those are the more screamy vocals, which are vocals that were reversed. We recorded them in the opposite direction, and then we reversed them to give them this unsettling feeling that you can’t really put your finger on. Then we added a bunch of distortion, fuzz, and all these other things to make them feel familiar but not comforting. Moments where the vocals are a lot more forward and grounded are moments when Evie has taken control, she’s running away, or she’s beating some ass. Or all of those. [Laughs]
I’m glad you mentioned Evie, as she is our window into this world. How did you represent her in the score and mirror her transformative journey?
Her theme, which is especially brought up in the first act, starts off on acoustic guitar and things that feel kind of homey. You know, grounded in a way. It’s not overstating, and it feels realistic. But once things start to shift, the instrumentation in which that melody is stated starts to shift as well. So by the end, when she’s leaving the manor, you hear just the first six notes of her melody played over and over again, but in this really strident and processed string thing. So, we’ve taken a lot of the fragility of the acoustic guitar out and really tried to make it bold.
You mentioned bringing story elements into the music earlier with the bells. Did you incorporate anything specifically from Evie into the music?
Yeah! There are moments where we use this scraping sound that’s reminiscent of her ceramics. We use elements of that and things that don’t hit you in the face, but that you know, or at least, I know are there. [Laughs]
Time plays an intriguing role in The Invitation. We have the human outlook but also the vampire perspective, which is quite different. Did that come into play for you at all?
Yeah, it was melding the traditional with the modern and finding ways to create some strangeness. That strangeness is modern, but still [allows it] to have this underpinning of Gothic conspiracy. And then it was choosing when to lean into which one of those. So especially when we’re with the “characters of now” — the maids, Evie, and those people — we lean a little more into the modern. I think just in general, all the horror moments are trying to find that balance between strangeness and processed sounds. Then we had the bold strings and breaths to support it.
A track at the end of the film, “The Wedding,” embodies everything we’re talking about today. It’s also a large, 10-minute-long piece. Was it always the plan to have a big piece of music there? What is it like tackling an extended, multi-scene piece like that in a film?
Initially, in the temp, those were four separate starts. But, sometimes, I will combine things if I feel like…the thought is not finished. I… was like, “You know what, let’s just keep going. Let’s see what feels like the right spot to start.” I think some of it is just following the story, following the editing, the pace of that and feeling like a stop “here” would break some momentum. Or if there were a stop, it would be too early on.
Like, I could have stopped right after where Uncle Alfred kisses her on the cheek [redacted for spoilers], but I felt like we were going right into it. I thought that thought was not finished. So I just kind of kept going, much to the chagrin of my mixer. [Laughs] It was actually 11 minutes when we recorded it, but I just cut some stuff down for the soundtrack.
Talk a little about working with the various mixers on a film project and what those relationships are like. That’s definitely a job that never gets enough credit.
With my music engineer, as we’re recording, we’ve very in sync. Josh Margolis and I, we’ve worked together for the last eight years, so we’re buds. He did such a good job of taking this thing that was a vision and really, especially when the orchestra came in, just making it feel so much bigger and cinematic than my midi mockups. [Laughs] They really helped push this to a level I wasn’t even sure we would get to. So, I was really excited about all of that. They did a wonderful job.
As far as the re-recording mixers, it’s usually the music editor that deals with them more directly and is kind of there on the stage the whole time. But then I’ll come in, and I’ll listen to the final [mix], depending on what’s happening. There were some date moves for this, so I was in Atlanta for part of it. I couldn’t be there for too much, but was happy to hear the end product.
They will ask questions sometimes. Then, it’s finding moments where maybe the music should lead or maybe the effects should lead and all that. We all try to not duplicate each other in a lot of ways. If the effects are going to be loud, booming, and low, then I’ll be up high to try and find a way to carve out space for both of us. But it is those re-recording mixers that really dial all that in and really use the sound of the surround so well. They’re so great.
Because there are so many hands that ultimately touch your music, do you ever struggle with separating yourself from the work and not taking cuts, edits, or mixing decisions too personally?
I think the main point of all of this is the story. And if it helps the story, then great. We’re all a team, and no one is trying to get one up on the other, so I think a lot of it is just understanding intention. But I mean, I think I’ve also grown less precious over the years. I’ve buried my babies, to be crude. [Laughs]
Usually, if it’s something important to me, it’s also important to the story, and it’s something that the director has liked. But I expect nips and tucks. Especially if there are scenes where we’re like, “Maybe we should have music here? Maybe we shouldn’t have music here? I don’t know. Let’s try it.” And for those sorts of scenes, I’m prepared because you hear it in short little segments for so long. Then when you watch it in a run with finalized sound and all of that, sometimes you’re like, “You know what? We need a break.” And I take no offense to that.
I always say it’s easier to delete than it is to add. So if we think that we’re going to need it, I’ll prepare it and I’ll deliver it. If you don’t need it? It’s ok. It’s all in service of the story.
“It’s all in service of the story.”
From the outside looking in, it appears the landscape of film composing has changed pretty significantly over the last five to 10 years. It seems like more conversations are happening about the craft — and broader ones at that. As someone who is actually in the field, do you feel like the availability of opportunities and the energy surrounding film composing have changed?
I definitely think so. Part of that is just people talking about it and the general awareness of what the landscape was and what the possibilities are. I also think streaming has created so much content, and that content needs music. It’s economics, you know: supply and demand. I think there’s more demand out there, so people have opened their eyes to the supply of composers out there. It’s a very different landscape. I think if I had come to LA even 10 years earlier than I did, I’d have had a very different experience.
Let’s pretend a young, aspiring composer is, in fact, looking to enter the industry today. What advice or little nuggets of wisdom would you give them?
I think, just knowing that no connection is a bad connection. And to just try and be as, I hate to use the word authentic, but authentic. [Laughs] It’s gotten so cliche now. But I feel like there are so many different types of people out there and such a wide range of values when it comes to working environments. There are a lot of different strokes for different folks, so finding the people that you work really well with is really important.
And, if something’s not feeling right, then maybe that’s not great. Try a different apprenticeship. Finish something and finish what you were trying to do, but after that, it’s okay to explore and find what feels the most natural. I’ve spoken to a lot of students in music schools, and I think they hear so many rules. It’s fine to listen to these as a base point, but know that everyone out here is just people. We’re all people, not just a list of IMDB credits. [Laughs] Tapping into the humanity of everyone will help you.
The Invitation is currently playing nationwide in theaters, with an R-rated streaming version still to come. In addition, Taylor’s score for the film is now available to stream on all major digital platforms via Madison Gate Records.