Snow fell gently from the Utah Sky as we made our way to Sundance headquarters to chat with Ben Lovett. Being the person responsible for scoring the new horror film THE NIGHT HOUSE, which had just enjoyed a world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Lovett was eager to discuss his latest project. You can read our review here, but in short, we liked it.
We wanted to speak to Lovett about his new project and how he got into the business. How does a music creator get into this line of work? What challenges does a composer face when making music to pair with a story? We get into all of that here.
HB: What drew you into film composition?
Ben Lovett: I don’t know, Star Wars? I guess what drew me into it was the human desire to belong to a group. What I mean by that is that the first time I had done it, I had no business doing it at all. It was in college, and this group of kids about 18 or 19 year-olds got together and were like, “We’re making this movie!” This was in 1997. Somebody introduced me to them and said oh Ben should do your music, and I tried to convince them it was a terrible idea because I didn’t know anything about making film music at all.
HB: But you knew how to make music.
BL: Barely. That was the thing, I was self-taught and I got into it really late. SO I didn’t even pick up an instrument until I was a senior in high school. So here I was, I was just two years removed from being able to rub two sticks together with a guitar and these guys are like, “Hey you want to make music for our movie?” I was like, “I don’t know anything about scoring a movie.” and they were like, “We don’t know anything about making a movie.” and I thought, well I can’t really argue with the logic of that so, yeah, I’m in.
HB: It was just chance?
BL: It was just chance. I mean I grew up in a very rural area, I didn’t fit it. I didn’t have a lot in common with anyone that I went to high school with. I grew up in Dublin, which is along the way to Savannah. Then I moved to Athens, and that was the first time I met other people with similar interests, who liked the kind of things that I liked. We were this dynamic little group of kids that were inspired and were gonna make this thing. I was drawn to the idea of creating something even though we didn’t know what we were doing. Not knowing how much I didn’t know was probably what gave me the confidence to go ahead and do it anyway.
HB: That’s true for anything that might potentially be very scary. You just go in.
BL: Well, you do. I think that was a seminal moment that cemented my life philosophy, my artistic one anyway. Never let the fear of not knowing how to do something stop you from trying.Any self taught musician will carry with them a certain insecurity about things that you don’t know. Especially in this business. I’m on a panel yesterday with a group of phenomenal composers that could probably run circles around me with their knowledge of music theory and this and that. But so what? It’s only about what gets created in the end.
HB: Do you have a preferred genre or is it just chance that you do a lot of horror?
BL: Well it’s only that over the past few years that the ones I have been involved with have been successful. That gives the appearance that I am “in horror.” I have a documentary coming out in March that is about taxidermy called STUFFED. It’s whimsical, upbeat music that sounds more like Mark Mothersbaugh or something like that.
HB: Are you drawn to horror?
BL: No, no, I just think along story lines and song. Like if it’s a song and not a track, it can be a country song, it can be a rock song, you can apply a genre to a story. I will say I always keep coming back to this genre because of the freedom to explore. The boundaries that make horror what it is define a horror film. You need to be able to know the rules in order to bend them. If you say it’s a drama, that could be a million different things. If you say it’s horror that comes with a certain expectation and tropes and rules of the genre.
HB: Did you try to buck any of those rules in THE NIGHT HOUSE?
BL: Never consciously, no. I’ve been surprised at how consistent the conversation on the internet has been (Since the initial screening) about the jump scares. There was no sense of trying to subvert the expectation of how that normally works.
HB: Yeah but David Bruckner (Director, The Night House) really plays with the audience.
BL: I think it’s instinctual, to try to do something we haven’t done or haven’t seen before. It was never a “cart before the horse” thing. He (Bruckner) just knows how to go against the tried and true way of doing things. It was just following the truth of what we had and deciding what to do with it.
HB: What stage was THE NIGHT HOUSE in when you first came in contact with it and began to score it, and what is that process like?
BL: On THE NIGHT HOUSE, I came onboard at the script phase. I think I was the first person hired after the cast. That really is just a testament to David and I’s relationship and history and his value put upon the music, but also my role in investigating the story.
I started writing while they were shooting and it gave me a lot of time to explore. Something like The Ritual was a lot more obvious to me with the instruments and colors. Almost the whole movie is exteriors, they’re lost in the woods, there’s just a lot of ways how the visuals communicated to me what it might sound like. When I read the script for The Night House, it was so dense with ideas and metaphors, I thought, “I have no idea what this movie sounds like.” I knew it would take some time to explore some ideas. When you read in the script, “A House On A Lake” every single person is going to picture a different house on a different lake. So it allowed me to go to set, I spent 5 days on the set, and I was able to see what Rebecca was doing with the character, what Elijah was doing with the camera. I was able to look through the lens and see what the vibe of this thing was turning out like to calibrate some of the ideas I had to reflect more what was going on on-screen. You gotta understand what a playground it is to get to musically interpret things like mirror floor plans, reflections, reversed mirror imagery as a musical concept. It’s just so dense with possibilities. Ultimately though you have to service the movie on the screen, not the one that’s in your head. Hiring your composer early definitely provides you with a more potent storytelling asset.
HB: While you are working on these things are you creating melodies or…
BL: Sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes it’s just a sound, a feeling or a texture. Some director’s lean toward melody, others a sound. At this point though, I kind of know what Bruckner’s allergies are. What instruments he’s not going to respond to. So I know what kind of ingredients to try to make dishes and be like, “Here try this. Taste that.” I might send him 10 things and he will be like, “Dude, whatever’s going on in the background of number 7, that’s our movie.” He was listening to things while they were shooting. He’s there looking at dailies, they are setting up a shot. He’s sharing tracks with Rebecca to see if she responds to stuff. So as they were shooting I was getting a better idea of what was working which is so tremendously helpful.
But that’s the thing. I have known Bruckner for years, and we have had conversations like that about girls, movies, food and it gives me a better idea of knowing what he is trying to get to and where he is at. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what he wants. It’s that he understands what he wants so well, that you kinda gotta find your way to his level to understand what he needs to get to the next point.
HB: The score has a very different feel during the real-life moments as opposed to the scenes where the lead is having a mental episode. Can you explain the different instruments between her reality versus her fantasy?
BL: Yeah, There was a conversation a lot about Beth and what sort of starts as anxiety and grows into mania. In this movie she’s always moving toward the mystery or away from it. She’s an interesting subject because she’s not just a conduit for us, but she’s always moving toward the thing that is scary or frightening. She’s either packing boxes up or she’s tearing things apart and going through them. We were dealing with what her upswing is. There are a few elements that in the score that are only involved in those episodic kind of elements. A lot of those are her waking day-hour things; they are contained and they are tight and there are nervous and they are dissonant. The flip of that or the sort of dream sequence moments are sort of “anything goes.” It gets into more melodic more thematic things that are hinting “All these things are going somewhere very big and very bad.” The tangible sense of those big movie moments. But in her day life, in her waking hours, it’s more muddled, more unclear and it’s more nervous and there are just things percolating, down below the surface.
Another thing that we drew from, that I got from going to set is that, okay, this house is on a lake. We were at this house a lot, and the lake is just right outside. And Lake water, it has an interesting distinction. The ocean has a rhythm. Lakewater is this unstable thing that is never still and always being agitated. Even if it’s glassy it’s just never settled. It’s just this murky, undefinable thing right outside the window. It was like what does that sound like in instrumentation? It was a way to get into what her anxiety was. That’s where I kind of started from. It’s the first thing you hear in the movie. You hear it in the car, it’s right before the first piano note. It’s throughout the whole movie. Sometimes you don’t even realize it’s there and we are just slowly bringing it up. The same piano note that starts the movie ends the movie back there on the dock. It’s sort of bookended with that.
HB: When you are doing a score what is your main goal?
BL: I am an agent of the story. It’s there to help tell the story on screen. It doesn’t always have to be a melody or even musical. It doesn’t need to be performed in a concert hall because that’s not its function. I’m there to help communicate the story. I am the subconscious communicator with the audience. My goals on it are to help nudge you in the direction that the director is wanting you to go without overtly telling you what it feels like. Unless they are just like, “I want this to be sad.” Sometimes you even have to tell them that music isn’t needed. Music’s role isn’t always to describe what’s up there. If you do it’s redundant. There’s a part of every story that can’t be written, it can’t be shot, you can’t put it in somebody’s mouth with words, you can’t act it. We all experience some fundamental part of being human in a way that only music describes and makes you feel. It really can’t be talked about outside of that. You are always trying to bring something to the film that offers another level of engagement, a story about what’s going on emotionally that might not be described on screen. Music’s the one thing in the world that you don’t have to be taught. You don’t have to be taught how to enjoy music or what it means to you, nobody has to tell you that. It’s this bizarre human phenomenon that we all have. We are there to give you the tools to access a feeling without being too overt or specific.
Since this interview, THE NIGHT HOUSE was picked up by Searchlight Pictures and is still touring the festival circuit. We want to thank Lovett for taking the time to chat with us and wish the film success.