Interview with Anna Drubich

There’s a fearsome, sometimes playful voice steadily rising among genre films in these waters. It can pounce with symphonic ferocity, electronically toy with its prey or evoke the ancient, evil sound of ritual to punch into near-present day teen nightmares. But no matter the monsters at large, or a far larger repertoire back on her original home turf. For the one thing that links the impressive scoring voice of Anna Drubich is a sorcerous command of melodic structure, inventive instrumentation and thematic storytelling that can classically enthrall or terrify with the sampled cutting edge. It’s a talent that Marco Beltrami, who’d assembled a number of fearsomely talented composers, was sure to add to his Hollywood coven to enthrall a singular voice that can also play well with others. Now, Anna Drubich solely snarls with the acclaimed horror-comedy “Werewolves Within” and commands an eerily classical tone that distinguishes her concluding tale within Beltrami’s forces for Netflix’s “Fear Street” trilogy.

Composer Anna Drubich (Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

Born in Moscow to filmmaker-writer Sergey Solovyev (“Anna Karenina”) and actress Tatyana Drubich (“Ten Little Indians”), Anna’s musical determination from the age of eight has seen her become a prolific, award-winning composer in Russia to the tune of dozens of credits for film, television and the concert hall. Her auspicious work first landed Anna in America in a composer lab in 2010, soon afterwards gaining a scoring degree from the University of Southern California before being awarded a Sundance Composer fellowship in 2018. Assisting Beltrami on the German miniseries “1864” and the opulent Russian czar film “Matilde.” She’d graduate to additional, unsettling music for the Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” before taking the front co-credit scoring reigns with Beltrami for 2019’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” A PG-13 intense adaption of R.L. Stine’s not-ready-for-R books, Drubich impressed with her hair-raising ability to thematically capture any number of supernatural villains for André Orvedal’s box office sleeper with full-blooded music guaranteed to keep adolescents up at night. 

While “Scary” was sure to have alleviating humor, Drubich gets to play the musical straight woman when it comes to determinedly funnier, if no less sanguinely jolting “Werewolves Within.” Based on a Ubisoft VR game of guess-the-monster, this flippantly fresh live action variation has a bunch of oddball characters snowbound in a small town with a creature at their throats, ultimately proving humans are the worst monsters of all. Musically approximating the beast with lupine gestures alongside strings and synths that evoke a sensibility of classical horror and hip humor, Drubich’s music adds to the rollicking scares and laughs, particularly with its robust symphonic sensibility that knows how to bite into the sound of frantic horror-comedy.

While Stine’s leap to R-rated mayhem with “Fear Street” starts off with splatter humor enough for “1994’s” and “1978’s” riffs on “Scream” and any number of summer camp slashers, it’s Drubich’s chilling, string- and choral rending approach for “1666” that rips the smile from the series’ faces as things really get serious for the revelation of its witch. Evoking murderously anti-gay sentiment and general intolerance in a way that dramatically grounds the teen-appealing trilogy (also exceptionally scored by Beltrami, Marcus Trumpp and Brandon Roberts), it’s Drubich’s starkly contrasting sound to the knowing musical homages before and after that makes the first half of “1666” especially impressive with revelations that are  both tragic and terrifying for a score literally grounds the overarching story.

Anna and her father Sergey Solovyev (Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

Tell us about your creative upbringing in Russia. What do you think that country’s rich, and distinctive musical history brought to your own work? Which composers were your favorites, and why?

I am a lucky person. My whole life I get a chance to meet, collaborate and learn from extremely talented people. From my early childhood in Moscow, as a young piano student and composer I was able to study with the best piano teachers and composition professors. 

Anna and Isaac Schwartz  (Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

My very first composition lessons I got from the incredible and very famous film composer Isaac Schwarz, who wrote over 150 soviet movie scores and was a real film music icon. He, himself was a student of  Dmitry Schostakowitch at St.-Petersburg Conservatory. When was about 16 years old, I would spend a whole summer at his residence , studying classical symphonic scores, listening to recordings of Willem Mengelberg or Arturo Toscanini and developing and discussing my own sketches. He would tell me some unique things like “Remember kid, there is no such thing as “film music” – there is good music and bad music! And it doesn’t matter if it plays in movies or in concert hall.” Or he would say, “Believe me, there’s no bigger happiness for composer then to write fresh, unique and memorable melody! All the extended techniques passages, avant-garde pirouettes are the matter of craft, but to write a beautiful melody is a real gift. Although he dearly loved me as a student, he was an “old-school” dude who truly believed that woman couldn’t be a composer. On this one maybe he was not that right!

Did having a father who was a writer and director make you want to become a composer? And when you ultimately got to work with him, what was that experience like?

 Coming from a film family where my father is a film director and writer and my mama is an actress made me never want to become a filmmaker, that’s for sure. However, I always wanted to make music my profession. Besides playing piano, I started composing little pieces from the age of 11. So once my father heard me play one of my compositions and said: “Could you stop by the recording studio tomorrow – I’m finishing recording music for my movie, but I want you to try play this piece with footage in front of you.” So this was my very first experience, “improvising” music for the picture, and I felt how incredibly fun it is to hear your music with the story on the screen. Our first solid project together was “Anna Karenina,” which was the first score I ever composed and recorded with orchestra, at the age of 20. 

Talk about your experience of first coming to America. Was it difficult to 
“re-invent” yourself here?

In 2011 I moved to the US from Germany, where I graduated with a Piano Performance master’s degree as well as Composition degree. I went here to study at the USC Film Scoring program. It was definitely a huge change for me. But by that time I was sure about pursuing film music and it seemed like I would need to try LA out.  

(Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Shutterstock (10356453k) Composer Marco Beltrami and Composer Anna Drubich CBS Films ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ special film screening, Los Angeles, USA – 07 Aug 2019

Tell us about working with Marco Beltrami. And what kind of insight do you think you brought to him when he scored the foreign series “1864” and the Russian film “Mathilde?”

Oh, that’s a story in itself. Back when I was studying in Munich and LA was absolutely out of the picture, our composition professor Enjott Schneider brought Marco’s soundtrack to class. The whole purpose of the class was for the students to listen to a score, talk about it, analyze it, and so on. Though I immediately connected with his music, but we discussed it like it was from a different universe. It felt like Marco was an alien on some other planet. We could talk about “aliens” like him without ever being able to come into contact. And then, two or three years later I went to USC and in the second week of my being there, Marc Beltrami just walked into the classroom do a workshop with us.  He handed out the assignment – to write a scene or something like that. I completed it and the next day he came in and my piece was the only one he liked. At least, he didn’t criticize mine. The workshop finished, life went on. Then around a year later we accidentally met on a Fox studio parking lot, and he recognized me. He asked me what I was up to, and I really just didn’t have anything going. He that he was going to invite me to work on a project. I thought he was just being polite – “thank you – thank you” and that’s that. So I left for Moscow and suddenly got an email from him saying “Hey, where are you? I’ve been calling you, but your phone is off. Would you like to work with me on a film?” And I was back in LA in a heartbeat. This was our first together work on “1864”. I leaned so much from Marco! 

As a child, were you at all attracted to supernatural stories or horror movies? And were you surprised at all that you’d find yourself taking off here in that particular genre, which began with your score for 2012’s child-centric “Masha’s Spooky Stories?” where its animated heroine tells kids not to be scared?

Yeah, it seems like spookiness follows me. “Masha’s Spooky Stories” is a spin-off of world famous “Masha and the Bear” animation series. This was kind of my first experience working in animation, which I truly love. I believe that “Masha” gave me a lot of useful skills for my future horror-related projects , because it makes you to be super synch with the picture, change at any moment, musically react on tiny moves of the character, all the jump-scares and stingers, etc…

Your poster-credited Hollywood breakthrough was that year when you co-scored with Marco on “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” an R.L. Stine adaptation that would presage your scoring on “Fear Street.” Did you check out the original stories before beginning work on “Dark,” and how did you and Marco work together on it? Were there specific monsters that you wanted to tackle?

To be honest, I never heard of the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” book before. I grew up in Russia and every culture, I believe, has its own spooky stories for kids. They are all similar, but my heart stays with the Russian versions. I read the books when Marco told me about the project, but they just were not scary for me. I couldn’t really come back to being a kid in English, you know? But when I read the script, I was spooked out being an adult. The script had a great impression on me. I was curious about how they were going integrate all these different characters into one narrative and what it turned out to have a visceral effect on me.

From the very first screening of “Scary Stories,” it was clear that the film already had a very specific atmosphere and style, as well as a clear artistic message. Music just had to intensify all these and go together with what was there already. That’s not to say that the music was unimportant. On the contrary, everybody, including the producer Guillermo del Toro and the director André Orvedal was convinced that music was going to be a crucial element in bringing everything together. 

And after watching the director’s cut, Marco and I looked at each other and realized that it needed a ghoulish – in a good way – kind of score with an orchestra. The movie felt like an homage to Steve Spielberg’s Amblin’s movies and other great old films. So we had to acknowledge that in the music, too. So, on one hand we wanted a good traditional orchestral score. But there are all these different textures, which we wanted to use to inform the story. So we came up with the idea that every horror sequence was going to have its own sound center. For instance for “Harold” we recorded these raw-sounding guitars and a broken banjo. “The Big Toes” came to be a brass-centered piece. “The Red Spot” revolved around strings. “The Pale Lady” turned out as a woodwind sequence and “Jangly Man” came to be a percussive thing. The audience will never pay attention to those details, because, all in all, it’s one single orchestral score. But we added a twist for every novella.

IFC Films’ “Werewolves Within”  (Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

How did you come aboard “Werewolves Within?”

Well, in the very first weeks of pandemic, when it seemed like the whole world just stopped and nobody would think of any possible future or work, my agent Jonathan Clark called me and said that “Werewolves’” director Josh Ruben checked out my website and really loved the score for “Scary Stories” and that the producers want to talk to me. It felt really weird, because at that moment everything was so up in the air, and here – boom! – I get a very cool movie to score. And I have to say, to do it at that moment was a great escape from the horror reality into charming horror-comedy. 

Josh really wanted a mix of Jerry Goldsmith’s kind of vibe mixed with modern sounds and textures, and I absolutely felt it from the cut I saw. The whole story is kind of lost in time. On one hand it’s a story about a small town in current America, and on the other most of the characters are time-frozen archetypes. They could be from absolutely any period. And on top of that the jukebox in their Axe Den plays only 90’s music. 

Anna and conductor Vladimir Podgoretsky with the Bow Tie Orchestra in Moscow (Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

The movie is a hilarious comedy with tons of bold jokes and punchy lines, so my score had to be very sensitive about this peculiarity. I used a lot of woodwinds passages, licks, effects- it gave to the score the right flavor , I think. But of course for the action stuff I had to use lots of synths and uniquely created sounds that reminded us of werewolves. I always try to come up with some “homemade sounds” for my scores, which makes the whole process even more fun. Like for the werewolf I sampled the sounds of my dog’s claws, noise, pitched it down and added different plugins. Or I recorded overblown flute, which has a character of some sort sharp exhale. I ended up recording the whole score in Moscow with the Bow-tie Orchestra. I was lucky enough that by the time I was done writing  the score this orchestra was already able to record in-person. So I went to Moscow and recorded all the music for “Werewolves Within.”

Anna and “Werewolves Within” director Josh Ruben at the Tribeca premiere (Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

“Werewolves Within” was spotlighted at the in-person Tribeca Film Festival. What was it like to artistically rejoin the world there?

We did the whole post-production through zoom and never ever met in person. So going to NYC and finally meet all the cast in crew offline was an absolute blast. The premier took place at the open-air screening. 

FEAR STREET PART 3: 1666 – KIANA MADEIRA as SARAH FIER. Cr: Netflix © 2021

Netflix’s “Fear Street” is a real team effort for Marco and his co-composing squad. How did you all want to divvy up the three movies, and what made you particularly right for the “1666” picture?

This project from the beginning was meant to be an epic trilogy of this kind which has never been done before. These are three distinct films that  take place in three different eras, but with one overarching story. The director of all three movies Leigh Janiak, who had this very precise idea about music. The first part takes place in 1994 and plays homage to “Scream” movies. It was actually temped with all the Marco Beltrami music. The second part plays in 1978 and Leigh really wanted to be a Jerry Goldsmith’s type of score with massive orchestra and choir. For the third part, weirdly enough, she felt like more modern type of score would work. Working on this massive amount of differently styled music needs to have logistics. So Marco and I agreed that I should start to create a soundscape for “1666,” while, as you said, “squad members” worked hard on the other films. 

“Fear Street” director Leigh Janice (courtesy of Netflix)

Was it always the intent to make the musical approach for “1666” so unique and chamber-like in comparison to the other often rampagingly symphonic scores?

Yes, the “1666” part had to have a different experimental chamber sound. So as with Werewolves within, I started first to create unique “witchy” sounds for the story. I recorded and processed some “bone-like” percussion, trying out donkey jawbone, shells, etc… and also experimenting with detuned cello. The plot takes place in medieval village surrounded by wild forest. So I thought that the score should sound very raw and eerie. We were fortunate to record the whole trilogy score at Abbey Road. But since the 1st and 2nd required a big orchestra, part of it was recorded mostly with a nonet (9 instruments) and choir. Both chamber ensemble and choir were performing in an untraditional, experimental way.

FEAR STREET PART 3: 1666 – McCABE SLYE as MAD THOMAS. Cr: Netflix © 2021

“1666” is the most disturbingly straightforward “adult” and emotional sequence of the teen-oriented “Fear Street,” which further ups the ante by having the same actors play their century-old counterparts. Did that make it more challenging and rewarding to compose?

Honestly, I just really liked that in my part of the movie I could be really innovative and not worry about “sound-alike” challenge as for 1994 and 1978 parts.

(Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

What’s up ahead for you in the American and the foreign scoring scenes? And now that it looks like there’s a light at the end of darkness that you often score, what are your composing goals now?

Back in Russia I’ve received the Russian Academy Awards for the Best Score, so I decided that I can become a tiny “diva” and pick projects that I really like. So now I have two very good Russian movies I’m working on. In the states I’m working on a new project, that will hopefully come out in the beginning of 2022. 

(Courtesy of Anna Drubich)

Are you happy to have found a niche in the genre with “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” “Werewolves Within” and “Fear Street?” 

Although these are all horror-movies, I think the soundtracks turned out pretty diverse. “Scary Stories” is more of a traditional, classical fantasy score, “Werewolves Within” has a more ironic “with a wink” vibe and “Fear Street 1666” is a real creepy soundtrack.  Ironically, in Russia I have pretty distinctive career in film music. I’ve scored over 45 movies and TV shows there, but never a horror project. Instead, I get to work more on dramas, author movies and period pieces, so I cannot consider myself in a horror genre niche. The American project I’m working on right now is far away from horror. So hopefully more and more projects in different genres will cross my path.

Watch “Werewolves Within” on VOD and the “Fear Street” trilogy on Netflix, with Anna’s scores available on Ubisoft Music HERE and Milan Records HERE

Visit Anna Drubich’s web site HERE

Special thanks to Nathalie Retana