Interview with Jamie Blanks and Mark Hartley

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Mark Hartley (L) and Jamie Blanks (R) (c) The Sidney Morning Herald

Whether you’re an adult bound in a wheelchair witnessing murder most foul across your apartment building or a horny teenager discovering there’s a vampire next door, the cinema has proven that people will think you’re crying wolf if you call out a killer who sinisterly hides his tracks whenever anyone checks out your claim. That’s particularly true for Australian teenager Amy (Ella Newton), a schoolgirl obsessed with deadly birds who claims her next door neighbor is The Clockwork Killer who’s been terrorizing the area, dragging his female victims to an underground chamber of horrors for eye removal. Convinced that she can’t get over her father’s death by well drop, her understanding, but dismayed mother (Radha Mitchell) and the cops don’t believe Amy as her pursuit escalates. But of course, the one person who knows Amy is telling the truth is a maniac determined to lethally subvert his snooper. 

Such is the cinematically knowing, if not nostalgic view of “The Girl at the Window,” a fun, youth-centric throwback to a Hollywood genre that helped put Australia on the exploitation cinema world map. It’s a place well known and loved by the two mates perched beside Amy, filmmaker Mark Hartley and director-to-composer Jamie Blanks. Chronicling the nuttier excesses of camp filmmaking with such documentaries as “Not Quite Hollywood,” “Electric Boogaloo” and “Machete Maidens,” Hartley went from documenting Australian, American and Filipino genre films to successfully making his own fictional splash with a delightfully gonzo reboot of Richard Franklin’s “Patrick: Evil Awakens.” Blanks directed two indelible 90’s Hollywood slashers with “Urban Legend” and “Valentine” (scored by Christopher Young and Don Davis respectively) before moving back down under to segue his career into full-time composing with equally impressive results for such indies as “Needle,” “Crawlspace” and “Storm Warning.” 

Given two film lovers more than enamored with the work of the late, great Australia to Hollywood filmmaker Richard Franklin (“Roadgames,” “Psycho II,” “Cloak and Dagger”) and his oft accompanying composer Brian May, “Girl at the Window” pays tribute to the suspense-thriller genre and full-blooded scoring that made said that director-composer teams’ bones, here in their own voices with an especially cunning film and soundtrack. As Hartley deftly stages no small amount of perilous sequences and plot twists, Blanks continues to show off his own symphonic-worthy chops with a theme-filled score that counts down the inevitable rendezvous between Amy and The Clockwork Killer. It’s a film and score that ranges from dead seriousness to knowingly goofy humor, poignant emotion and finally an operatic all-out drag-out between spunky teen sleuth and a sinisterly confident murderer. All makes for an enjoyable  thriller that the spirits of Franklin and May would be proud of for this ersatz Hitchcock-Herrmann duo who certainly aren’t afraid of mayhem or melody. 

Jamie Blacks (c) Macabre Daily

Jamie, what came first for you in terms of interest, scoring or directing?

Jamie: I got interested in both at the same time. The first horror film I saw was John Carpenter’s “The Fog,” followed very closely by “Halloween.” I was somewhat obsessed with these movies as a kid. I didn’t own a VCR so when we had access to one I would record the entire movie onto a cassette tape and listen to it over and over. The Halloween theme was pretty simple and I taught myself to play it on the piano. I eventually taught myself to play all of Carpenter’s music. “Escape from New York” was the first soundtrack album I owned and I listened to his stuff a lot. I eventually discovered I had a knack for the piano and could play back anything I heard from ear, once I knew and understood the harmonic intervals that different composers used. John Williams was hard to figure out because his chord structures and counter melodies were so sophisticated. I think the simplicity of John Carpenter’s music made it far more accessible to me as a kid trying to learn the piano. I tried having lessons but found I’d already gone too far down my own path to relearn everything I taught myself on my own. So Carpenter’s skill at scoring his own movies made a huge impression on me. He’s the reason I wanted to become a filmmaker and composer.

Mark, growing up what was it that struck you about scoring when it came to Australian-made films?

Mark: Watching local films in my youth it seemed that Australia had only one film composer, the late Brian May. He scored all the films that I Ioved. “Mad Max” and “Mad Max 2” are the scores he’s most known for – but I think two of his best are “The True Story of Eskimo Nell” (trivia: the first Aussie film recorded to a click track) and “Roadgames.” Richard Franklin once told me that Jerry Goldsmith was sure that John Williams was “inspired” by the “Roadgames” score when he wrote the “Raiders” march.

Jamie Blanks directs “Urban Legend”

Jamie what was your experience like working with Christopher Young on “Urban Legend?”

Chris was my dream composer for that movie. I’d be listening to his stuff all though production and temped the movie with his music. I loved the experience of working with Chris. It was one of the best experiences I had on that movie and I enjoyed being in his studio with him a great deal. He brought a grandeur and scope to the movie that it needed. I’m glad the film has an orchestral score as it doesn’t date the movie to a particular era. Only the computers and technology we portrayed accomplished that.

Watching the orchestra perform the score for the first time was absolutely magic for me and the producers. I didn’t want the scoring sessions to end. I was in heaven.

Jamie, what made you want to leave Hollywood to concentrate on composing? And how much of a learning curve was there when you made that transition?

Jamie: My son was born in LA in 2002. As much as I love America I wasn’t going to raise him in a country where kids occasionally bring guns to school and terrible things happen. His family all lived in Australia and I wanted him to grow up knowing all of them. I also didn’t want to leave for a year to go make some movie while he was growing up. No movie would have been worth being separated from my family for so long. I made 2 films in Australia which was great as my family could be with me. I eventually decided that I was going to wait until he finished high school before returning to the US to make more movies. The pandemic slowed down those plans but I’m actively developing projects to direct in the coming year or so. Transitioning to scoring was easy because I was scoring my own movies in Australia. The director and composer inside me understand each other, get along well and have excellent communication between them.

Mark, you’ve directed the ultimate Cannon, Ozploitation and Filipino-sploitation documentaries. What was it like transitioning into directing, and how much of those films’ styles did you want to take with you – particularly Richard Franklin between your debut of “Patrick: Evil Awakens” and this salute to his more Hitchcockian efforts like “Road Games” and “Psycho 2?”

I had made many music videos and quite a few ads before those docs. It wasn’t a great stretch to make a narrative feature. Thankfully I was able to take my creative team with me (including cinematographer Garry Richards and production designer Robbie Perkins). With both films I wanted to evoke the thrillers that I loved. Instead of taking inspiration from Hitchcock I paid homage to his protégés – the filmmakers whose work I grew up loving: Brian De Palma, Dario Argento and Richard Franklin. There were lots of nods to Richard’s work in the “Patrick” remake obviously, not just to his original film – we also included high angle matte shots that were inspired by “Psycho II.” I was also so incredibly fortunate to be able to recruit my favourite living composer Pino Donaggio to score the film. That was a dream come true for me. In some small way that collaboration linked my modest thriller to the works of De Palma and Argento. Our post schedule was so tight that I wasn’t able to be there in person for the Italian scoring session – but watched it over a faltering web link. “Patrick’s” screening at Sitges gave the festival the opportunity to award Pino the Time Machine Award. I certainly made sure I was there for that. 

You both first worked together on the Ozploitation documentaries. What’s the biggest difference between scoring a narrative film and that genre?

Mark: Jamie and I are very old friends. We had previously worked together (as co-editors) on my first feature doc “Not Quite Hollywood.” Working with Jamie as composer on “Electric Boogaloo” was a blast. I’d tell him “Today you need to channel Jerry Goldsmith for “King Solomon’s Mines” and then score the most jaw dropping moments from “Lifeforce.” I think Jamie appreciated the challenge and delivered an amazing amount of totally diverse (and authentic sounding) tracks. 

Jamie: Scoring Mark’s documentaries was great fun. On “Machete Maidens” I got to write funk tracks right out of the ‘70s. Even more fun was “Electric Boogaloo” because every day was a new musical adventure. Scoring Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies was extremely enjoyable as I watched all those movies as a kid, as was writing various ninja themes. We tried to write music that evoked the films we were discussing in the documentary and I came very close to the original sound of “The Delta Force” and “Superman IV.” Mark is very specific in what he wants the music to do, where it stops and starts and the tone he is after. After having worked with him so often we developed a great communication between us and I could anticipate the kind of music that would make him happy. I was sad when we finished “Electric Boogaloo,” as it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on any project. I’m really proud of that score.

Antony I. Ginnane (L), Ella Newton (M) and Mark Hartley (R)

What was it like working with the legendary Ozploitation producer Antony I. Ginnane (“Thirst,” “Turkey Shoot”) on “The Girl at the Window,” and he did have any musical ideas?

Tony is both an Ozploitation icon and a controversial figure in Australia cinema. He’s unashamedly commercial and that resulted in him producing most of the Aussie genre films of the 1970s and 1980s. He gave me a shot at directing a narrative film with the remake of “Patrick” and it was great to re-team with him on this project. As for his involvement in the score – he’s a massive Film buff. He is a serious collector of film soundtracks – and thankfully he loves this score.

“Girl at the Window” is a full-blooded salute to the “I Saw What You Did” genre of kids witnessing awful things happening next door, all where no one will believe them. How much a balance of thrills and self-aware humor did you want the score to have?

Mark: I’d pitched the sensibility of the film to Garry (the cinematographer) and Jamie as “An Amblin movie directed by Tobe Hooper.” When you think of it in those terms the score totally makes sense. The film alternates between a Nancy drew-type mystery and a body count pic, so I thought the score should be dark one minute and playful the next. 

Jamie: I followed Mark’s lead on this. He wanted the film to have an Amblin’ sound and occasionally lean into the caper and comedy aspects of the movie. Most of the score is as dark and prone to changes of tone as the movie itself. I would have probably have instinctually written a darker score overall but Mark was very clear what he wanted and I wanted to ensure he was happy with what I wrote for him.

How did your collaboration work for this score given that it’s a more traditional work as such, with a keen mind on themes and melody?

Mark: One of my favorite scores is Pino’s “Dressed to Kill,” and what I love about it is that the film’s main themes get reworked and re-introduced throughout. This was something I was keen to hear within the scores for both “Patrick” and “Girl at the Window.” I encouraged Jamie to compose themes for Amy and her mother that could feature throughout the score. Before shooting “Patrick” I had been listening to a lot of Donaggio’s music and knew that was the style that would suit that film. “Girl at the Window” was financed out of the blue with very little pre-time, so I had no clear musical blueprint – I just knew it needed to sound like a traditional orchestrated score. I was also aware that due to our tight schedule, the score would have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in regard to making the film’s suspenseful scenes successful. Jamie channeled the composers we both love (including James Horner and Bernard Herrmann) and in record time delivered a score that quite simply brought the film to life. “Girl at the Window” isn’t like most modern horror/thrillers. It’s not arty and it’s not extreme – it sits somewhere in the middle and is a throwback to the films I loved watching in the early 80s. I wanted Jamie’s soundtrack to announce the film’s sensibility very early on. And once the music starts, it very rarely stops! 

Jamie: The entire score was composed and performed in 15 days. Mark had a screening for producers and financiers approaching in around 2 weeks from the day I was hired to score the film. I wanted to write as much score as possible so Mark didn’t have to resort to using temp score for that screening. Mark was very keen to establish themes for Amy, her relationship with her mother, the clockwork killer and his captive and her friendship with Lien. This was helpful to me as once we had established those themes they would reappear in the movie with different instrumentation and support those various characters when necessary. 

Having the themes composed sped up the process of writing several of the cues. I worked day and night and slept very little during those 15 days. I wanted to write a score that incorporated by orchestral and electronic elements. Mark’s last feature film was composed by the incredible Pino Donaggio so the bar had been set very high. There are moments in the movie that feel Donaggio-esque, particularly calling out moments in “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill.” Mark and I love the same film composers so there are some cues that reference James Horner, Charles Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann and others. It was fun to write some cues in the style of these brilliant composers and try to understand their musical vernacular. To date it’s certainly my most thematic score and it was great fun to establish these themes and then work variations of them into the other cues. As I said, the score was written and performed very quickly so much of what I wrote was instinctual as I didn’t have a lot of time with the edited movie to ponder what I might do before embarking on the process of writing the music.

At the start, the film centers more on teen drama with mother-daughter issues than serial killing. How did you want to capture Susan’s character in that way before the murders hit the fan?

Jamie: I wanted to establish her curiosity and determination as these are essential parts of this character. I used a combination of synth/electronics and orchestra in the sequence where she first notices her neighbor’s strange habits of leaving the house in the early hours of the morning. The music needed to convey her drive and tenacity and the arpeggiated synth layers in the score do this nicely. Once again it was a variation of her theme we titled “Butcherbird” which plays a key role in her relationship with her teacher and the morbid essays Amy writes which reveal her dark thoughts about the Clockwork Killer.

How did you want the orchestra and electronics to balance here, both lushly and in a sound design way – especially given that the “electronic” nature of social media and computer sleuthing is a big part of the story – let alone using that combination to play that Amy is possibly out of her mind?

Jamie; The electronic elements offer a huge range of sounds and harmonics that cannot be produced with traditional orchestra. I’ve always loved how composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Charles Bernstein and Alan Silvestri can use a combination of orchestra and synths to great effect. The synth elements were appropriate when Amy is using digital devices throughout the movie. Her computer, phone etc. They also were very effective when dealing with the Clockwork Killer. I could create very ominous and evil sounds using synths and hybrid organic sources that had been digitally manipulated. I usually compose and perform the orchestral elements first and then add the electronic elements on top of that. 

Some synths can quickly begin to dominate the cue so the trick is to find the right harmonics and frequencies within the orchestral elements that the synths can enhance without blotting out strings or woodwinds. The synths, when used properly, really add a lot of mood and emotion to the cues. I have a vast collection of synths both hardware and virtual and there are so many sonic colors that be conjured and used in interesting ways. Mark was keen to ensure they didn’t overwhelm the score and that the orchestral elements always were always at foreground of each cue, except when we went very dark in the killer’s tunnels and wanted an otherworldly feel. There were also times when we used the synths to create atmosphere, like the finale in the tunnel. It’s so much fun to combine these different sonic elements and explore all the different tones and moods we can apply to each scene.

How did you want to capture the idea of Amy being haunted by the past, let alone some of the catastrophic assumptions she makes here? In that way, especially with your use of voices, was it the intent to make audiences think that there’s something supernatural going on here?

Jamie: There is a cue that happens each time Amy flashes back to the incident with her father. Mark wanted to ensure it was the same each time so that we became familiar with it. He said what we eventually came up with was similar to James Horner’s “Brainstorm” score. It was anything deliberate and I wasn’t trying to emulate Horner at all in this instance but I’ll need to go back and watch that movie. The voices gave that cue an ethereal quality, almost like a dream. I also used Harps and strings there, the same combination every time it happens. Mark’s reasoning was that Amy is haunted by this same moment over and over again, the music should reflect this repetitive nightmare she continuously experiences. I thought it was a nice motif we established and it informed much of the score I wrote before and after the motif appears. It also gives the score and the film greater sense of scope when you hear those beautiful female voices. The intent wasn’t to suggest anything supernatural. Hopefully the voices suggest mystery and emotional trauma.

When Amy and her friend start properly sleuthing, you go into outrightly funny “caper” music that might befit far younger characters. Were you ever worried about getting that eccentric in a film that has an eye removal POV?

Mark: One of my favorite composers is Bruce Broughton and his terrific score for Amblin’s “Young Sherlock Holmes,” which has jaunty, playful themes alternating with darker tracks. I have zero regrets that our score is stylistically schizophrenic.  

Jamie: It wouldn’t have been something I’d have arrived at instinctually on my own. There are a lot of changes in tone throughout the movie. Mark and I had a few laughs about the fact that the movie is a little schizophrenic in terms of its tone. The film combines elements of a mainstream teen thriller with a few moments of unexpected extreme ultra violence. It’s not a combination you see all that often!

Mark wanted those “caper” moments to harken back to some of the music from an Amblin’ movie. Adventurous, lighthearted, fully orchestrated music that would accompany that style of film. I immediately knew what he was referring to as the two of us share a love of the composers who wrote those scores. It could be something you’d hear in the original “Amazing Stories” series. Some people have commented that they found that approach a little odd but, once I understood what Mark was looking for, my job was to deliver that music in a way that suited those sequences. I was a lot of fun for me to do as a composer as I rarely get an opportunity to write in that style and I’m pleased that music sounds convincingly orchestra, as it’s just me playing all the instruments on a keyboard using great sample libraries. Mostly I used the beautifully recorded virtual orchestras from Spitfire Audio and Project Sam. There are some other string libraries used in the film as well. The best way to get a convincing sound is to use a combination of orchestral libraries as certain playing styles are better achieved with libraries dedicated to these techniques. Fortunately I’ve spent years buying lots and lots of virtual instruments so I had everything I needed to bring this score to life.

 Given that the villain is The Clockwork Killer did you want the score to reflect a sense of time counting down for his victims that Amy’s trying to save?

Jamie: There is definitely a motif throughout the movie associated with the Clockwork Killer. It was clearly something the score needed to accomplish and so obviously worked within the context of the score given its rhythmic nature. You can clearly hear the tick tock motif in several cues and it was all about the dreadful inevitability associated with the Clockwork Killer’s established rules. He has a ritualistic timeframe in which he abducts his victims and murders them. There is an inexorable sense of impending doom about the pattern that he adheres to with each new victim. Like clockwork he follows his own rules, which only adds to the terror of those in his clutches and the people that live among him. They know the timeframe in which he operates and the increasing panic among those trying to find the girls he abducts. The music had to enhance that aspect of his character and I tried to do this in a way that wasn’t too obvious but still reminded the audience of his strict adherence to his own sick rules.

How did you want the score to change with the twists the story takes?

Jamie: As I mentioned earlier, the score was written sequentially scene by scene in 15 days. I tried to make those moments, where huge plot twists and revelations occur, appropriately grand and dramatic. I wanted those moments to be accented musically so that the impact for the audience was as effective as it could be. Amy gradually becomes more and more afraid, panicked, and traumatized at various moments in the movie. The score is designed to enhance those sequences as much as I could. One of my favorite cues is when she is convinced there is a man in her room, right behind her mother. It’s a key moment where the audience learn more about Amy and the way her past traumas have manifested. The score needed to follow her rising hysteria and I was pleased with how the tense strings and hybrid percussion worked to underscore that moment. 

It’s vital the score delivers the right amount of emotion and drama at all times, but ensuring the film maintains its mystery and effectively helps Mark create suspense and tension is the primary goal of much of the music in the second half of the film.

With so much of the film being a build-up, how did you want finally to let loose with the climax – which happens quite operatically in some moments?

Jamie: It was great fun going all out in the finale. Mark encouraged me to go big and gave me permission to do it. I wanted to bring out the full orchestra in the finale and give Mark a powerful and thrilling finale to the movie. Those final 4 or 5 cues that comprise the final reel were the biggest cues in terms of instrumentation. There are a lot of things happening in those cues and it fully pushed the limits of my old Mac Pro and its 32GB of RAM! I like to stay in MIDI mode (where entire virtual instruments are loaded into memory and all the notes are triggered via MIDI events and played back in real time) but I had to “freeze” many tracks into audio files as I couldn’t have every instrument loaded at the same time. The sample libraries are so massive and quickly maxed out my RAM! It took my computer about 8 mins to load some of those projects due to the number of virtual instruments that were used.

Mark: As soon as I heard the track it reminded me of Bernard Herrmann’s “Cape Fear” theme. I encouraged Jamie to go into hyper-drive. It really hammered home that this wasn’t your typical teen genre movie. 

Cinematographer Garry Richards (L) and Mark Hartley (R)

What were the covid challenges to filming and scoring?

Jamie: Well we experienced more lockdowns in Melbourne during the pandemic than any other country. I joked that being an editor and composer, I’m used to being stuck in my office for weeks at a time. If isolating were an Olympic sport I could probably represent my country. The lockdowns weren’t an issue for me as I did the entire score from my home office. I know Mark had many, many challenges making the movie in 18 days with full covid protocols in place. I’m really in awe of him that he managed to make this movie in those conditions in 18 days. It’s only 3 days longer than I had to compose the music! I don’t know many people who could undertake that assignment and succeed. Mark had no options to bring the cast back and shoot pick-ups or additional sequences. He had to get the whole thing done in 18 days. I’ve made two films with 24-day schedules and that was a massive challenge each time. Doing one in 18 days that involved several locations is a real achievement and shows how efficient Mark was. I’m sure, like me, Mark’s editing background was one of the reasons he was able to pull it off.  

Mark: As Jamie has mentioned, it was a tight and tough shoot compounded by Covid protocols. When people ask what I think of the film I usually reply, “I think it’s one of the better 18-day productions shot during lockdown.”

Jamie, do you find yourself “directing” as a composer?

Jamie: I’m not sure what this means. My job was to score the movie under Mark’s direction. Mark asked me for feedback on a couple of scenes and I suggested he drop a line at the end of one scene, which he decided to do. Beyond that I wasn’t involved during production and when scenes were delivered to me to score they were locked and didn’t change. We had to be strict about this so Mark could get the sound design underway while I was composing. 

Mark, if there’s a director you’ve covered that you’d like to pay tribute to next in a narrative movie, whom would it be and with what kind of story?

Mark: Not a director or genre that I’ve covered – but I love UK heist movies from the 60s and 70s. I’d love to make a film that channels the work of Basil Dearden (“The League of Gentlemen”), Michael Winner (“The Jokers”) and Sir Peter Hall (“Perfect Friday”). 

Jamie, do you see yourself returning to directing, especially if Hollywood should end up calling again now that it’s rediscovering and rebooting a lot of great 90’s horror franchises?

Jamie: I am actively developing a couple of projects and fully plan to return to the director’s seat in the near future.

Watch “The Girl at the Window” on VOD HERE

Listen to Jamie Blanks’ score at BSX Records HERE

Get Jamie Blanks’ scores for “Storm Warning” and “Crawlspace” on Howlin’ Wolf Records HERE

Special thanks to Mark Banning