“I like to do very emotional things, and fear is such an intense emotion,” says film composer Brian Reitzell (“Lost In Translation”, “Friday Night Lights”) on his desire to do a horror movie. After considering numerous projects, he decided to take on “30 Days of Night” as his first film in that genre. To capture the mood of an Alaskan town terrorized by vampires, Reitzell chose to downplay traditional instrumentation in favor of such sound sources as a custom-made instrument built from a pottery wheel. In the following telephone interview, Reitzell discusses the soundtrack, why he turned to film work (after being a member of rock band Redd Kross) and more.
How did you get involved with “30 Days of Night”? Had you been aware of the comic?
“I actually didn’t know about the comic book. I had just finished my last film for Sony, ‘Stranger Than Fiction.’ The head of music at Sony said ‘Brian, what are you going to do next?’ And I said that I wanted to go to Iceland in the winter, and rent like a town hall about an hour outside of Reykjavik, bring a bunch of my weird music friends with me, and a bunch of gear, and score a horror movie. And she asked what the movie was, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a movie in mind, I’ve got to find one.’ This is what I wanted to do, I wanted to go out and create this stuff and bring it back. And then she said ‘Well, I’ve got the movie for you’ and told me about ’30 Days Of Night.’ Then I met with the director, and we really hit it off, so I signed up to do it.”
What effect did the environment you were in have on the resulting score?
“Environment is a big thing for me. I didn’t go to Iceland in the end to do it. I did it here in my studio in Los Angeles. But when I work on a movie, I always try to do whatever I can to put myself in that environment. So it was very cold in here the whole time. It was pitch black. So I sort of did have my own little dark, cold universe to create it in.”
Can you describe some of the instrumentation used?
“I did a lot of research, thinking about what sort of instruments to use. Through my experimenting with different sounds, I found I needed to create sounds that were very unfamiliar. I sort of felt like … I had never been through a horrific experience like someone trying to kill me with an axe. If they were coming at me, the sound that I would hear in my head was not going to be familiar. It was going to be very intense and unfamiliar, it wasn’t going to be an orchestra necessarily. So I started inventing things.”
“I had a lot of things made for me. I had some bronze disks and other types of things made for me by a guy in Florida. Bronze is just an incredibly complex tonal creature. I would bow these pieces of bronze and process the sounds. I got a pottery wheel because I am obsessed with Doppler, things spinning around your head. I like Leslie Organ speakers and I wanted to try the real thing so I bought a pottery wheel, which sat in the corner of my studio for a couple of months until one day I thought ‘Ah, I got it!'”
“I took this black tube that I got at Home Depot and I affixed it around the pottery wheel. The pottery wheel looks like a turntable, it spins. This particular one cost me $800 so I was a little worried that I wasn’t going to be able to get it to work. But you can put 150 lbs of pressure on it and it can extend from 0 to 280 rpms, and you can control it with a foot pedal. So I suspended the tube with bungee cables affixed to cymbal stands, sort of around the circumference of the platter. And then I affixed a felt palette in the center of the pottery wheel using some rigging gear that cinematographers or grips use on film. The mallet would sort of rest on top of the tube, and the tube has ridges on it so when the mallet was spinning around, it would rub on those ridges and create this very eerie sound. The faster I would spin it, the higher the pitch would be. I shock mounted microphones onto either side inside the tube, and lo and behold, I had the perfect doppler. So stuff like that. I did use things like cello and guitars and drums, you know, more conventional things. But pretty for much everything, I tried to make all of the sounds unfamiliar and weird.”
How extensively did you use electronic processing on the sounds you came up with?
“I tend to veer towards very organic sounds, but I processed things to death. I mostly processed with analog gear, using the computer mainly for editing. I don’t use the computer that much for the actual ‘in the box’ processing. It’s way more about my collection of weird old rack effects.”
When it came time to actually assemble everything into a movie score, what tools did you use?
“Well, I use Pro Tools. It’s great work for working with films. I’ve been doing this now for about 10 years, starting off with a VCR, a turntable, and a tape recorder. It’s kind of amazing how far the computer technology has come. It’s great, and I don’t know how they are going to improve it. I don’t use much MIDI. I don’t really believe in things being tempo mapped. I like things to push and pull, and to breathe. I’ve got great microphones; I’ve got my own studio. I have a wonderful live room that just sounds huge, even though it’s not. So yeah, Pro Tools. I do have a Trident Fleximix console that has got great EQ in it. I’ve got a lot of good, solid old gear.”
At what point in production was “30 Days Of Night” when you started work?
“For this particular film, when I signed up to do it, they were shooting. I tend to start early, sometimes when the film is being written. But with this movie, they had started shooting and that’s when I started experimenting with sounds. I got bits and pieces of a rough assembly, I think around late February, and that’s when I started writing and recording, right away. The whole thing changed quite a bit. I was being way more orchestral in the beginning, but it just seemed too generic and in a weird way too musical to use that approach.”
Was there anything particular about that film that you’d say provided the initial spark of inspiration for what you wanted to do with the score?
“I always latch onto environments, so for me, one of my biggest roles is to help people be in that place. My job is partially to do sound design, in essence. So I really latched on the icy-ness of this town in Alaska and onto the darkness. For me, it was mostly about the place.”
What things do you tend to look for in a movie when deciding whether or not you want to work on it?
“Well for me, it’s all about the director. I always insist that I sit down and talk to the director before I would agree to a movie. There are a lot of things that go into the decision and I am very picky about the jobs that I would do, because I put everything that I have into them. So with this film, I wanted to do a horror movie and I got sent loads of scripts. I met with several directors, and David Slade was honestly the only one who was making a movie that I thought was interesting. I’m not huge fan of the new horror films, but I’m a big fan of movies like ‘The Shining,’ the classics. There are some good, weird Asian horror movies. But I wasn’t interested in doing, you know, a MIDI electronic score to some gratuitous horror movie. David he had made ‘Hard Candy,’ which was a very disturbing movie, and I knew that he was going to make something intense. Part of the reason why I wanted to do a horror movie was because I like to do very emotional things, and fear is such an intense emotion. I really wanted to have an opportunity to see what I could do with it. David’s previous film ‘Hard Candy’ only had 6 or 7 minutes of music in the entire movie, and I was told that this movie was going to need about 20. In the end, I ended up doing 70 minutes of music because once we took out these sort of dark atmospheres, these sounds we were creating, it releases you from the tension. That was David’s reason for keeping the music OUT of ‘Hard Candy.’ So it all really evolved, and becomes something different than what we thought we were going to do.”
Having been involved with bands, what made you decide to move on to focusing on film work?
“Well, I played with Red Kross for about 8 years, and I quit. I quit because I was honestly tired of re-creating the same stuff every night. Touring is probably what killed it for me. But also, I was tired of 4/4. There are a lot of restrictions with a band that is a democracy, and I wanted to collaborate with other people. With each film, I can collaborate with whomever seems appropriate for that project. For this film, I had to do it myself because I couldn’t find anyone who I thought was appropriate.”
What are you working on now?
“Now, I’m in the midst of experimenting again, and trying to conjure up new ways of making some music. And I’ve just set up a whole bizarre electronic drum machine. It’s probably the world’s most bizarre drum machine; I have about 20 drum machines that are all linked together. They are of various ages, and some are quite old so to get them to talk to each other was a challenge. But now they all do, and the computer clocks them. Each machine is going through one of the faders on the Trident console, so I can have them all running together and then essentially pull the fader to bring up one of the machines. I’m trying to find a way to write music in this way, and it’s working really well. So my next project will be a film score. I work a lot with the band Air, and I’m going to do a score with them starting in January.”
What film would this be for?
“We haven’t found the film yet! Sometimes the films come to me, and sometimes I start doing my research and then find something that seems appropriate. So hopefully we’ll find something, and if not we’ll just make a record.”
This goes back a while, but can you talk a bit about the ‘Logan’s Sanctuary’ CD?
“Well with ‘Logan’s Sanctuary,’ I had just done my first film, ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ and I did that through a now defunct record label called Emperor Norton. The head of Emperor Norton asked me specifically to do that. It was his idea. He wanted me to do a real score to a fake movie. And that movie was to be the sequel to ‘Logan’s Run.’ To do that, I enlisted my friend Roger Manning, who I’ve known for years. He played with Jellyfish, and was playing with Beck at the time. Roger and I set out to do this, but to do it I had to write a plot. So I sat down and wrote a storyline with the help of a friend, and then we started scoring scene by scene. Originally, we weren’t going to use our real names, it was going to be a hoax. But then when we turned it in, the record label was so happy with it that they wanted to exploit it.”