Interview with Devin Burrows

By Daniel Schweiger

From “Rear Window” to “Body Double” and “Fright Night,” murderous things are just waiting to be discovered by any man looking outside of his place. But few villains have been biding their time like the millennia-old, tree-dwelling witch of “The Wretched.” Just pity poor young Ben (John-Paul Howard) who’s swamped in a seaside New England town doing bonding time with his divorced dad. But as opposed to a shark stirring up the eccentric yokels it’s an earthbound creature who delights in taking over the bodies of the local adults, all the better to eat their kids after seducing the devilishly seduced dads. 

“The Wretched” composer Devin Burrows

Though it’s title might be questionable, “The Wretched” is anything but that description when it comes to this impressive and critically acclaimed indie horror hit from brothers-filmmakers Brett and Drew T. Pierce. Together, they’ve chopped down an even bigger bit of the box office than ever reckoned, becoming one of America’s top grossers in the new social distancing arena of the drive in – a form of theater going almost as seemingly memory-wiped as this witch. But whether it’s resounding from your car’s speaker systems, or your TV’s stereo system, one of the film’s literally creepiest and effective elements is the chillingly powerful and thoroughly fun score by Devin Burrows. 

Born in the metallic environs of Detroit to a musical family, Burrows digs into the rotted wood and deer bones of this hideous enchantress with the stringed instruments of Old Scratch’s mistress, as woven into a robustly melodic orchestral excitement that nails the kids-in-danger angle that’s brought the decidedly adult “Wretched” deserving comparisons to Amblin’s scarier pictures of yore. Lush, voice-topped themes blend with demonic dissonance, percussion ticks off growing suspicion as evil comes closer to flesh-ripping home and a symphony screams to get the hell out as the predator surfaces. If the tone of many modern horror scores go for the punishingly modernistic that suits their invincibly ghastly subjects, Burrows’ approach for “The Wretched” is an eerie, adrenalin-charged throwback. It’s a collaboration that promises much in a post-pandemic, new unholy normal for both the Pierces and Burrows, a match made in horror fanboy heaven whose work takes homage to an impressively original level, as heard in the trunk of a hellmouth tree whose resident comes out to play.

Tell us about your musical beginnings and how you got started in your composing career?

In my Detroit home growing up, there was always music playing: Motown, classical, fusion jazz, you name it. My Dad played the piano; my sister, the violin, and I began playing the guitar at 12. My guitar instructor was terrific, and I immersed myself in all kinds of formative music theory and composition training. In my 20s, I delved deeply into modern classical music: Holst, Ravel, Stravinsky, and avant-garde composers like Takemitsu. Comprehensive analyses of those and other scores is still something I do actively. In 2011 I scored a zombie rom-com called “Deadheads” for The Pierce Brothers, and we were delighted with how that went. 

“The Wretched” filmmakers Brett and Drew T. Pierce

Were you always attracted to the horror genre? And did you have any musical favorites in it?

I’ve always relished good genre films. I love movies of all kinds. One of my favorites is “Rosemary’s Baby,” which is considered “classic horror,” without a doubt. There is a great duality in that movie about what is perceived versus what is real: is Rosemary lucid or is she delusional? I enjoy films with that sort of narrative. Other favorites include “The Others” and “Alien.” They both have stellar scores by Alejandro Amenábar and Jerry Goldsmith. 

How did you join up with the Pierces for the zombie bro film “Deadheads,” and what do you think made their take on horror stalwarts unique?

“Deadheads” was so much fun to score! Brett and Drew, the Pierce Brothers, are old friends of mine. I knew they were working on “Deadheads” and I asked if they had put much thought into the music. I sent a few orchestral mock-ups they fell in love with, and the collaboration then came naturally.

What does “witch” music mean to you? And what do you think of the resurfacing of them as horror villains?

“Witch” music evokes particular musical imagery for me, with ghastly timbre and instrumentation and an otherworldly harmonic context. As the Pierces were shooting the film, I researched music about witches and witchcraft. I dove deeply into Mussorgsky’s “The Hut on Hen’s Legs” and Manuel De Falla’s “El Amor Brujo.” We broke with some of the witch musical tropes of the past as well. I employed Sarangi and Bowed Psaltery to give the music of the witch and the woods a unique sonic edge.

It’s great that witches are back as villains! Brett and Drew were influenced by Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” and lore like that of the Boo Hag. “The Wretched” also provides something new to the canon of witch narratives: the wretch is a creature, almost a part of the maw that she inhabits.

Tell us about “The Wretched’s” themes. 

There are a lot of themes in THE WRETCHED! Brett, Drew, and I love thematic, orchestral scores. The central theme is for the witches’ curse, which reoccurs at pivotal points in the story. I love taking a melody and harmonizing it in different emotional contexts to tell several small stories throughout a movie. That was one of the fun challenges of “The Wretched,” and it was also gratifying. There is also a menacing theme for when the witch is present, a mysterious motif for the scenes where Ben gazes on his neighbors and one that conjures the feeling that we’re summoning something ancient. The score is loaded with ideas and motifs, and at times they come to life in a big way.

Did you want to connote the idea of a tree as being essential to this being’s elemental evil?

Yes: The wretch, the witch in the film, originates from a maw in the foreboding woods. Sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between the tree and the witch creature herself. We went to great lengths to give the trees and the witch a unique sonic signature and let the audience know that the witch’s curse was all around us in the forest.

How did you want to embody this creature’s more lustful desires for her victims?

The music heard when the witch is seducing someone required a devilish, deceptive, and playful vibe. It is a little tense because it is written from the protagonist Ben’s perspective as he is watching in secret; it uses musical imagery and timber that evokes witchcraft. That music guides us from a horror film into a voyeuristic thriller akin to “Rear Window.”

How important was it for you to balance “Wretched’s” dissonant scares with its melodic orchestral music?

It’s an exciting balancing act. With a film like this one, you want to give the audience cues that they are watching a genre film to get them to follow along. “The Wretched” is also a psychological thriller in Hitchcock’s vein and an action film, something like Spielberg as well. Themes, musical ideas, polychords, and harmony are woven into early “horror film” scenes giving us a common harmonic language for the later stages as the orchestra becomes more pronounced. By the end, things get quite chaotic, and there is a powerful orchestral crescendo.

How did you want the music to steadily reveal the film’s mystery, especially it’s the far smarter kids who are uncovering it?

The mysterious revelatory cues in the film are some of my favorite and inspired by Bernard Herrmann and the modern classical composers. We put a few subtle clues into the movie with the music, but for the most part, we didn’t want to ruin the twists, which are an essential part of “The Wretched.” We wanted the audience to get the full impact of those “hair standing on the back of one’s neck” scenes.

For as suspensefully scary as “The Wretched” gets, it’s also quite a bit of fun. How did you want the music to reflect the often-quirky characters?

I think that tonally “The Wretched” is more like “Jaws” than a recent horror film. The Pierces were clear from the word “go” that they wanted the film’s emotion to be varied and for the score to have emotional beats that would support the character development. There is dread but also sentimentality and jest, which offered plenty of leeway to experiment musically.

The most playful cues, I feel, are those when Ben, the protagonist, is spying on his neighbors in the dark. In this sort of situation, it’s helpful to write the music from the character’s perspective: he’s trying to remain undetected, and he knows something is amiss with the family next door. That music came out darkly creepy and mischievously playful, and it was super fun to write.

Tell us about some of the eerier instruments that went into “The Wretched?”

Brett and Drew came to my studio here in LA during the scoring process, and we had a musical instrument “casting call.” I spread out a bunch of folk instruments and some odd-ball percussion, and we went about playing, listening, and looking for the right thing to put a unique sonic stamp on the movie. When they heard the Sarangi, their eyes lit up! It’s not necessarily eerie sounding, to begin with, so I made a few minor alterations to the instrument digitally with computer software to intensify its throaty animal-like quality. That’s the instrument often heard when we see the stag head symbol for the wretch.

Could you talk about the part that percussion has to play in “The Wretched?”

The percussion plays a few roles in “The Wretched.” First, there are some odd wood instruments and toys that evoke the feeling of twigs. Second, there is increasingly significant percussion layered in that builds as the action intensifies, and characters begin to confront the witch. By the end of the film, the percussion is in full force!

How did you want the score to level up once the witch’s true form is revealed?

Those heart-pumping scenes when the witch reveals herself required a steady tempo and mounting tension; in a way, that part of the film is more like an action-thriller than a horror film. In the last fifth of the film, things escalate into a full orchestral uproar and things get super fun.

Madelyn Stunenkel as ‘€œThe Wretch’€ in Brett and Drew Pierce’€™s THE WRETCHED. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

Critics have praised “The Wretched” for recalling 80’s horror movies, and those centered around young heroes. Did you have any score homages that you wanted to give on your end?

A lot of influences went into this wicked concoction. The works of Bernard Herrman, especially “Psycho.” But all of his scores are always huge for me. Going back a little further, the music of modern classical composers including Bartok, Prokofiev, Stravinsky was hugely influential along with Jerry Goldsmith’s.

“The Wretched” is a surprisingly well-made indie film, given that many films in the genre seem to be getting cheaper. What’s the trick to getting the most quality from your music here?

A lot of hard work, efficient use of resources, and passion helped ensure quality. The Pierces genuinely value the impact music can make on a film, which is great. It is a delight to work with them.

How do you think the “new normal” has helped “The Wretched,” from making the film even scarier to having it become a drive-in hit?

We’re all feeling a lot of gratitude, and I’m taken aback by the enormous positive response! Even before COVID, the film got some excellent reviews, including one from Variety. In some ways, “The Wretched” is a fun popcorn movie. Where better to enjoy than at a drive-in where people can safely socially distance!? 

Given the “it’s not over” ending, where do you think another “Wretched” film, and score might take you?

The Pierces have always left open the possibility for a sequel. The original title for the film was “Hag.” Brett and Drew like to joke that the sequel would be called “Hags,” which is a nod to how “Alien” became “Aliens.” Kidding aside, a sequel with multiple witches is a fertile idea from which a narrative can sprout. There is plenty of musical material to expand upon in a sequel. With any project, you hope to draw inspiration from the past and turn in new directions. I’ve been experimenting with building some “character” instruments from found objects and using contact microphones to record; I’m excited to use them on a project.

What impression do you think horror fans will have of you as a composer after watching “The Wretched?” And would you be happy to parlay that beyond the genre?

The reaction has been tremendous! I get a lot of inquiries about the soundtrack from people on social platforms, and my website. I simply love movies; I think they’re a great form of expression and a cathartic way for people to experience a story together. “The Wretched” was a fantastic opportunity to express a wide variety of tonal colors. I would love to score a psychological thriller, an action film, or another dark fairytale horror flick.

How has your stay-at-home been going?

Staying physically active, keeping busy with creative endeavors, and pausing to reflect has occupied my time. I acquired an upright bass right before COVID, so I’ve been practicing. I regularly listen to music, study the great orchestral scores, write, and record. I’m always stunned by the magical ingenuity of the human spirit; I think that some creative pearls will hatch from this time of intensified creative solitude. I am grateful that this pandemic has not severely impacted me, and I’ve been doing some philanthropic giving to organizations like the Sphinx in Detroit.

What do you see for the future of orchestral scoring now?

I think things will veer towards smaller ensembles. I see that many session musicians are recording individual parts from their home studios. That said, there are session orchestras all around the globe, so as COVID lets up area by area, I bet there will be a demand for remote orchestra sessions.

Do you think horror films will allow composers to become even more creative, especially given the diminished musical resources for composers on the high and low budgetary ends of the spectrum?

Yes! Each project is different and requires a distinct sound to set it apart. Experimentation is key! I’ve been testing out a few self-made instruments during my COVID solitude here in my studio. One can get some unusual sounds with a bass bow and found objects. Creative limitations do allow people to push the envelope!

Watch “The Wretched” at a drive-in near you, or on VOD. Devin Burrows’ soundtrack will be available soon. 

Visit “The Wretched” website here

Visit Devin Burrows’ website here.