Interview with Ben Lovett

In 1987, author-turned-director Clive Barker showed desirers of extreme pleasures that opening an ornately designed box would turn their depraved wishes to tortuous nightmares. His stunning debut feature “Hellraiser” not only unleashed a new level of graphic gothic madness on screens, but it also put flesh on the bones of upcoming composer Christopher Young’s career with a marvelously no-holds bar symphonic score, one blood-red with melody and themes. Given the creative success of the first two “Hellraiser” pictures, Barker’s lesson fell on deaf ears given how many, descending effective movies that befell the franchise until the lament configuration truly became lamentable.

Jamie Clayton as Pinhead in “Hellraiser.” Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

But leave it to Hulu, the channel that that reinvigorated the seemingly lost “Predator” franchise with “Prey” to give the music box from the hell the best spin it’s had in decades. The two particular players who have such sights and sounds to show us are filmmaker David Bruckner and his oft-composer Ben Lovett. First teaming as director-musician on 2007’s “The Signal,” the duo’s key of madness has only been tuning up through the anthology “Southbound,” the folk horror “Ritual” and the psychological terror within “The Night House.” But it’s likely this “Hellraiser” that will be their most popular work yet. 

Doubtless hardcore fans will be delighted at the sense of ghastly invention that Bruckner and Lovett have given to Barker’s angels of pain and their geometric, gigantic Lucifer by way of Leviathan. Keeping the author-director’s lore, this new twist on “Hellraiser” sees a bunch of young thieves led by the angst-ridden Riley (Odessa A’zion) seeking to rob the Pandora’s box in hold of an equally twisted millionaire, only to have a whole new legion of Cenobites unleashed upon them, with the biggest spin given to a woman assuming the star role of Pinhead, now iconically played by Jamie Clayton.

Wisely reprising Christopher’s Young’s majestic themes and gonging Cenobite announcements from “Hellraiser” and “Hellbound,” Lovett more than brings his own voice to the musical mythos. He effectively contrasts the lush orchestrations of Young yore with stripped down, neo-classical themes that are more tragic than resplendent, alongside haunted voices, hellishly industrial samples and an uncanny, abstract atmosphere – but of course not without its own gigantic orchestral pains and pleasures. It’s an impressive fit into the saga’s geometry amidst Lovett’s own impressive genre exercises like “I Trapped the Devil,” “The Wind,” “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” “The Beta Test” and “Broadcast Signal Intrusion.” All show a composer whose less sanguine alt. rock roots have combined with his soundtrack talents for particularly unique sound, one now determined to play its own unique chorus of hell’s bells alongside the inimitable music that gave birth to Barker’s nightmarish cosmos. 

What do you think your particular talent is for genre films? And are you surprised that you got drawn into them? 

Well that assumes I have any particular talent for them to begin with, which I’m not always convinced is true.  But I do enjoy working on them, and it might be because I’m a sucker for metaphors and stories that are about one thing but really about something else.  Which is true of a lot of material in genre films, and certainly for this one.  I also have a really overactive imagination and enjoy interacting with concepts so science fiction and fantasy and horror are really fun places to explore musically.

What musically scares you?

Music might be the only thing that doesn’t scare me. Reality is terrifying, but music is the one place I can always return to without fear.  It’s the only language where I feel like I can consistently communicate and express and understand the emotional content of being a human being, or at least my experience of being one.  And so nothing I discover there frightens me.  Creating sounds that stir emotions in others is thrilling and beautiful and part of the weird bizarre miracle that is Music.

Doug Bradley in 1987’s “Hellraiser”

Were you a fan of the original “Hellraiser” movies and their scores? And given how iconic they are, did that give you any trepidation about taking a new “Hellraiser” on?

I had mostly a peripheral relationship to the original movies.  I understood where they lived in the larger canon of essential genre works and I knew who Pinhead was and I remember being scared to death by the cover of the VHS in my local video store as a kid in the 80’s, but I was mostly able to come into all of this somewhat fresh and I think that perspective was valuable to David, who knew the original films very well.  Of course I went back and studied all of it when I came onboard, but I went about it in my own way.  Since reinvention was the spirit of this whole endeavor I decided to go back and start with the text that inspired all of it, “The Hellbound Heart.” So I read the novel first, then I read the script for our movie, then went back to the original films, because I wanted everything I absorbed from them to be filtered through my understanding of Clive’s original ideas and the story we would be telling with those ideas.  

I didn’t really have any trepidation about taking it on because I knew no matter what we did some people would like it, and some might even love it, and then some would probably hate it regardless of what we did and there was no getting around that.  It was just going to be part of the job.  But I knew everyone onboard cared about the material and David inspired everyone to understand how important it was to get it right. 

Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

Given that this was a course correction into a faltering franchise a la Hulu’s “Prey” that took the series in a new cinematic and musical direction, did that conversely make you excited to do a sequel that was literally going out of the box?

I didn’t think about it that way. We all understood that part of it but it wasn’t in the foreground for me. Making movies is hard enough without saddling yourself with the expectation you could ever please everybody, though I did feel like if anybody gave us a chance to do that with this specific franchise, it was Bruckner. There was no question about his commitment to the material or his persistence to make something that not only lived up to the name but moved it forward, and it motivated everyone to do the same.  Beyond that, it was really more about the opportunity to tackle something this intense with my friend and collaborator of 25 years. For me it was less a reaction to what other people had done in the past or the chance to course correct any of that, and entirely about what David and I have done together in the past, and the opportunity to push the results of that collaboration further.

Ben Lovett and David Bruckner at the “Hellraiser” premiere (c) Alix Becq-Weinstein

How would you say that the careers and talents of yourself and David have evolved to the point of “Hellraiser?”

David and I met in college at the University of Georgia.  When you’re an ambitious 20-year-old running around making movies in a small college town, odds are you eventually run into other ambitious 20-year-olds running around making movies. This was especially true in the mid and late 90’s when David and I crossed paths. There was a loose tribe of creative weirdos that all ditched school and moved to Atlanta and started making experimental films and music videos at the dawn of DV cameras.  David would make a music video for one of my songs, I would make a piece of music for one of his shorts, and that was our education.  Learn to make movies by making movies.  I think we continued to collaborate because our instincts for storytelling and narrative developed from different influences but along a similar timeline and shared experiences.

In terms of how that lead to “Hellraiser” specifically, I think Spyglass saw something in what we’d done with “The Night House” that made them feel like David was the right person to tackle something as uniquely complex and daunting as “Hellraiser,” and David wanted to bring as much of the creative team from “The Night House” back into the fold to take that on. 

What do you think made your teaming for “Hellraiser” unique?

Well I think successful collaboration relies on the ability to communicate effectively.  My job is really that of an interpreter in many ways.  And as someone who works with lots of different directors I can tell you it’s uniquely different experience when that person is someone you’ve been developing a creative rapport with for over two decades, across many different types of projects. There’s just a different level of trust there which informs everything about your interaction.  Beyond any subjective or stylistic reasons of why our teaming for this project might be unique, for me, that fact alone makes it very different and very special. 

What do you think it was about the initial Hellraiser films and Christopher Young’s scores that made them work? How important was it for you to capture the tone, while going your own way as well? 

I think his scores are what brought the magic and the fantasy to the story.  It’s suggested in the imagery but you really feel that aspect as a strong component of the overall aesthetic because of the music.  It balanced the raw, visceral power of the imagery in a unique way and I think the resulting combination is fundamental to the distinction of what people identify as “Hellraiser.”

We really wanted to capture the spirit and characteristics of those scores, but David encouraged me throughout to take it in a new direction.  His impression was that it would be more in the spirit of the original film to not adhere or feel tethered to the way we’d seen this material approached in the past, but to use that as a point of inspiration to tell a new story, and to find a new sound that could describe that story.

“Hellraiser” and “Hellbound” composer Christopher Young

What was it like adapting some of Christopher’s themes here? Did you study his scores in order to do so?

It was very challenging, for a couple reasons.  We didn’t have access to Mr. Young’s scores or any of that music, so I simply had to sit in front of the tracks on Spotify and figure them out. I also didn’t grow up with any sort of formal music education so that exercise isn’t something that’s second nature for me by any stretch. I just have my ears and my instincts, and a piano. Fortunately there are a lot of people more skilled with that part of the enterprise who could come to my aid when needed, which was often. I get by with a little help from my friends, as one does.

Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

“Hellraiser” brough a lush symphonic sound to visceral horror score that’s given way to a lot of abstract in the genre. Was it good to go in that old-school direction here, as well as applying dissonance?

Absolutely.  Musically I enjoy both those extremes equally and the mission seemed to call for finding the right balance of the two.  I love harmonic abstraction and I love the chance to write a sturdy melody. My brain stereo shuffles from Aphex Twin to Hank Williams to Bernard Herrmann from moment to moment. It’s all music to me, and it’s all beautiful.  

Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

How did you want to convey the lure of The Lament Configuration, and the musical process of solving its puzzle? How did you want to put your own music box spin on it?

That mostly came out of a connection to Riley’s addictive tendencies.  She’s attracted to the shimmer of things and tends to escape into her vices as a means of dealing with the anxieties of her life, whether that’s through pills or her sexuality or puzzle boxes. I wanted to play the allure of those things, rather than say, the suspense or the danger inherent in her playing with the box. I also did some variations on the opening bars to Mr. Young’s composition “Resurrection” from the original film, which is a track that becomes a waltz but first establishes this movement of chords in the beginning that really create a sense of wonder and mystery. It felt appropriate to call back to that when Riley first encounters the box.

Talk about the particularly eerie orchestral and vocal effects you’ve conjured.

There’s something inherent in David’s style that really lends itself to a certain amount of harmonic dissonance, ala composers like Ligeti and Penderecki. So that was something I was channeling and drawing inspiration from just as much as the original “Hellraiser” scores.  I wrote out some aleatoric clusters and tonal experiments to try with each primary section of the orchestra, and the ones we did with the choir really captured something that stuck to the image. But the ones that really stand out are from a series of improvs I recorded with a soloist named Theodosia Roussos where we took the original theme for The Cenobites and did variations off that idea, changing it a little each time until we wound up in a place that captured the essence of it without always landing directly on it. From there I would gradually modulate the pitch of her voice up or down and manipulate the speed of it until it felt appropriately haunting. 

Goran Visnjic as Voight in Spyglass Media Group’s HELLRAISER, exclusively on Hulu. Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved.

This might be the first time a piano has appeared in a “Hellraiser” score. Where did that classical idea come from, and how did you want it to interact with the score, especially when the shit really hits the fan for the group inside the mansion?

The way the Roland Voight character and the mansion were described in the script felt like piano music to me. He’s the aristocracy. The one percent-er who has everything and still wants more. That all felt very proper and buttoned up, at least on the surface. When I saw the establishing shot of the mansion in the opening moments of the film I knew it needed something similar, but that could straddle the line between being a diegetic party music and score. “Mansion Party” is my response to David asking me, “What sort of music would this educated, cult-obsessed billionaire play at his deviant mansion sex party?  I imagined it would be classical music, but, since this is a modern interpretation, there would be some DJ off in a corner mixing beats in over top of it.  I lifted a couple phrases out of a Franz Liszt composition titled “Funerailles” and built a big dirty trap beat on it, which plays as the music the characters hear, but eventually dissolves into score as this kid Joey reaches the showroom and see the box. On the soundtrack that’s called “Mansion Party.”

Tell us about creating the deep bell percussion that announces the Cenobites. How did you want to get across a darkly religious atmosphere for these “angels?” as well as their “god” Leviathan?

The bell was a collaboration between myself and the sound designer Ric Schnupp, along with another composer Benjamin Balcom who’s played a big role assisting me on the past couple of scores. We all worked on “The Night House” together so there was a familiarity there and David encouraged us to make the bell a hybrid effort between the Sound and Music departments. It’s such an identifiable element in the original films and is usually mixed more like music than sound effects. But it’s also something that ostensibly exists within the diegetic world of the characters. It sort of straddles the line between their world and ours in a way and David wanted the one for our film to exist in a similar fashion. So the three of us kicked ideas around for weeks and eventually landed on the one you hear, which has about 10 or 12 different individual components within it and only 1 is actually a bell. Bruckner didn’t want the same sort of medieval tower bell we’ve all heard a thousand times, but at the same time, it needed to be recognizable as a bell, so it was a fun challenge and a very organic process. 

Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

The most infamous Cenobite of all is Pinhead, who’s a woman here who even remarks about music. Did that character particularly strike you in terms of scoring?

Without question.  Everything in the score related to Pinhead was shaped by the way Jaime portrayed the character. I certainly took note of that specific monologue you’re referring to when I first read the script, but Jaime’s performance recalibrated everything for me. She’s fantastic and embodied the character with a different energy. There was a presence to her onscreen and I tried to articulate something that I felt she was giving us, and that camera suggests, but that you can’t deliver as dialogue or photography. It’s a presence, a sort of divinity she embodied in the performance that I wanted to draw out more. 

Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

“Hellraiser” has always dealt with moral choices. How did you want to get that theme across with Reilly, particularly in her ultimate decision? And in that way, would you say that your approach is emotionally sadder than other scores in the franchise?

Riley’s theme needed to touch on two primary forces within her, namely temptation and guilt. I knew that whatever melodic idea came to represent her needed to embody both and be able to come together in the final scene with her when she ultimately has to confront her inevitable choice. Sometimes it’s good to figure out where you need to arrive at first then work it backwards. I spent a while coming up with things that worked for the ending but that didn’t introduce her as well, and vice versa. I did more versions of her theme than any other because Riley is the heart of the story, and since I knew everywhere in the film where we’d need to rely on her theme and her music, anything in consideration had to work in all of those places. I think everyone has their own interpretation of sadness and their own threshold for emotional weight so it would be difficult to compare her story to Kirsty’s or any other character in the franchise. But for me, there’s certainly a very heavy consequence to her actions and the choices she ultimately has to make.  And as someone whose job it is to describe those types of emotions, you only know you have something that works when it describes the way those moments feel to you. 

“Hellraiser” deals with the sex and death attraction to the unholy. Talk about capturing that twisted sensuality.

Yeah, it’s all about sensation.  What you can feel and touch.  I wanted some of the music to have a very tactile nature to it, which we found ways to incorporate. David would say he wanted to be able to smell the movie through the screen, and those impulses extended to the music. 

In terms of the unholiness of it all, one of the things I really enjoy about The Cenobites is they’re not particularly evil characters, they just have a really twisted sense of a good time.  They’re of course famously described in the original material as, “Demons to some, angels to others” and we went into this really wanting to pull the angelic part of that description to the surface. 

Photo courtesy of Spyglass Media Group. © 2022 Spyglass Media Group. All Rights Reserved

Much of “Hellraiser” is based on the nightmarish idea of machinery and restructured, metal-impaled flesh. How did you want to get this “industrial” idea across?

For me that took shape in the music for the antagonist.  We introduce a theme for the Roland Voight character in the opening scenes of the film, but when he find him later after he’s accepted his “gift” from the Cenobites, the sound of the piano has evolved into something more tortured and complex. We prepared a grand piano with all sorts of chains and screws and metal brackets, tin foil and coils of guitar strings wound into the piano strings, anything to sort of put it in bondage. You of course get all these wonderful accidentals and strange harmonic overtones as all the elements interact, and it’s so much fun to explore.  That all came from how this particular “gift” functions and how its situated into his chest, it was a great example of the sound and music drawing a direct link of inspiration from the visuals and production design.

The Hellraisers assemble (C) Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Spyglass Media Group.

Was it a challenge to record the score given covid?

Not compared to the past couple of years, no. Fortunately the process of remote recording has become more efficient in many ways throughout the pandemic, simply by virtue of so many musicians and studios having to quickly adapt and get up to speed with their ability to collaborate remotely.  

How do you hope that “Hellraiser” diehards react to the film and your score?

I hope they recognize that it was made with passion and respect.  I think for David and myself, what we found on in our approach was that it was maybe more in the spirit of the original film to allow ourselves to take risks and to forge a path of our own that honored the original, but also allowed itself to go in its own directions, to modulate its own themes in its own way, that the best form of respect would be to let our own passions run wild with it.

Watch “Hellraiser” on Hulu, with Ben Lovett’s score on Lakeshore Records HERE

https://www.amazon.com/music/player/albums/B0BH1364NP?ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1&keywords=hellraiser+soundtrack+ben+lovett&crid=7TJCKMIX517&sprefix=hellraiser+soundtrack+ben+lovett%2Caps%2C115&qid=1665122893&sr=8-1-fkmr2

Visit Ben Lovett’s web site at Benlovett.com

Special thanks to Alix Becq-Weinstein and Jana Davidoff