Interview with Javier Navarrete

If there’s a composer in the world who knows where a child-tormenting monster is hiding, whether it be under a bed, located in an adjacent orphanage, a cave or the Northwest woods, then it would be Spain’s Javier Navarrete. Conjuring melodically haunting nightmares for the similar unhappy ending fable-obsessed filmmaker and producer Guillermo del Toro with “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Navarrete now takes an impressively twisted, yet lyrical plunge into the Great Northwest for the impresario’s production of Scott Cooper’s “Antlers.” A director with a distinct way of visualizing American crime and atrocities with the likes of “Out of the Furnace,” “Black Mass” and “Hostiles,” “Antlers” is Cooper’s first foray into outright horror as a caring teacher and her sheriff brother take notice of a tormented, sullen boy, whose problems at home are anything but the area’s economically depressed routine.

Jeremy T. Thomas as Lucas Weaver and Keri Russell as Julia Meadow in the film ANTLERS. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

That the creature behind his critter-hunting angst is the indigenous people’s legend of The Wendigo come to life opens up new realms of spine-chilling horror for Navarrete to explore. Native American-styled chanting, nerve-rending metallic effects and growling brass entwine with the lonely piano theme of a terror-gripped child and the rustic guitar of the northwest backwoods, all embraced within the claw of pulsating electronics and a baleful orchestra. It’s a strikingly powerful and eerily thematic genre score that’s among Navarrete’s best in a stylistic repertoire that’s ranged from the lighter kid-friendly adventure of “Inkheart” to the epic fantasy adventure of “Wrath of the Titans” and the Emmy-winning historical romance of “Hemingway & Gellhorn.” But when a creature comes a knocking at youth’s door as the adults about are made into mincemeat, there are few better musicians at carrying a tune that’s about facing one’s fear at the most tender of ages, here with melodic “Antlers” that are equally pointed at empathy and terror.

Javier attends the 2012 BMI Film & Television Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on May 16, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.

Did you have any nightmares as a child, or childhood fears, that you think made your especially skilled at scoring movies about them – especially for Guillermo del Toro on “The Devil’s Backbone” and your Oscar-nominated score for “Pan’s Labyrinth?”

I did have extraordinary nightmares, not only when I was sleeping, but also when I was awake. I was born in a country run by a military dictatorship and decorated by amazingly gory Catholic scenography and music. That provided me with a good arsenal of iconography and violence for the rest of my life. I still have nightmares, but I’ve kind of refined them by looking at lots of good art. At the end of the day, art has always been rather nightmarish. Go to the Prado Museum, or to The Louvre. It’s all about beheaded beautiful saints, torments, twisted eroticism. I guess that is my world and I feel that it’s worth to communicate.

Guillermo and Friend  (REX FEATURES)

What kind of sensibilities do you think that you share with Guillermo?

I’ve heard him saying once that he was very much in debt with the Catholic imagery of his childhood. That may be a strong point in common: cultural roots. Besides, he is extremely good at music, both classical and popular, and of course a lover of good movies. There is a lot to share.

What was your first experience of scoring the Spanish Civil war childhood ghost story of “The Devil’s Backbone?”

It was very troublesome on a personal level. I felt that the movie was beyond my skills as a composer, and I felt a bit tight and stiff, despite all the encouragement and kindness of Guillermo. I was unhappy about the score for a long while, until I listened to a long suite of it that I prepared for a concert in Guadalajara (Mexico), in homage to Guillermo and his movies. The orchestra played wonderfully along with images of the movie, and I felt very moved by the entire thing. Now I believe that the constraints of the music play in favor of it and in favor of the movie, setting a very austere background for the story, which is very powerful. The end of the movie, with the group of children killing the man who has been bullying and torturing them, I’m sure it will remain as a classic on its own.

How do you think you continued to explore the ideas of “Backbone” with your Oscar-nominated score for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a similarly tragic story where the difference is that it turns out that the supernatural events were in the heroine’s head?

It is a very different story: feminine instead of masculine, if you like: yin instead of yang. Guillermo’s main request for me was to write a melodic score, which was quite new for me. Then, there is so much fantasy against all the pain of everyday life… all that is in the music in the form of pleasant and evocative harps, solo violins and woodwinds, always in a very dark mode and yet allowing the character of Ofelia to live her own world of wonders.

I’m particularly fond of the film and score for the eccentrically surreal samurai western “The Warrior’s Way.” What kind of a departure was that for you?

Thank you. I liked them too. In between other nightmares, I also played some electric guitar when I was younger, and I’ve always kept an eye on eccentric orchestrations as found in classical Spaghetti Westerns. Pop music is at the bottom of it, another one of the many musical styles to influence film music. I had done a Spanish western way before, Atolladero, with Iggy Pop, and even wrote a song for him in the score, so the transition wasn’t difficult. Working with the director Sngmoo Lee was an interesting challenge, because he came from a very academical background, and had interesting ideas to contrast with my own point of view, which was very pragmatic. I have the luxury of having Paul Broucek producing the score, and the additional excitement of recording in New Zealand, with a very enthusiastic crew. 

Going out of the usual path with a film like “The Warrior’s Way” is challenging, but I never miss a chance of doing it, like I did with Jordan Scott’s “Cracks.” It’s a beautiful film that has somehow fallen through the cracks, and took me much more work to figure out because it’s a dark drama with characters going through a difficult coming of age, set in a 30s England. The music is much lighter than in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for instance, and yet I believe I managed to capture the characters’ essence. Being granted the chance to record in top studios like Abbey Road and Air Studios, and to work with the best performers and with orchestrators like Nicholas Dodd or Julian Kershaw, has also expanded my mind.

What was it like being a western composer scoring the Chinese epic “Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal?”

Scoring “Zhongkui” was a fantastic experience. The movie does not follow the usual three acts structure. At the contrary, you are let alone in a labyrinth. You could call it “The One Thousand Nights and One Night.” I experienced also another world in the sense that the creators, including the composer, enjoy a considerable freedom from the producers. They trusted them and they trust also their own taste, instead of trying to guess what the audience will like, which is more or less what many people do in the West. That made me think that working in Hollywood may have been like that, just too many years ago – may one century ago!

I have always enjoyed Asian music (which is like African music, by the way). I have a good library and I listen a lot to it. I love pentatonic scales! They communicate a feeling of space and amplitude that fits very well with epics. The best compliment that I got from the film’s director Peter Pau was that my score sounded as essentially Chinese as any other that he could remember. That was very kind of him, in line with all the support that he gave me from the beginning of the project to the end.

What was it like to win an Emmy for “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” another score of yours set in the Spanish Civil War.

It was very nice, of course. Awards improve one’s confidence in their work, although sometimes they come in unexpected ways. This was the case, as I wasn’t aware that this movie qualified for Emmy Awards – which I knew little about. Working on this project was very creative. The filmmakers had gotten an abandoned office building on a dock in San Francisco. The only people that I saw in there were the director, Philip Kaufman, the editor, Walter Murch, and a few occasional visitors. I would like to mention that Walter was the music editor Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now!”

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Javier Navarrete accepts the award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score) onstage at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 64th Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by McCarten/PictureGroup)

It was amazing to move from one room to the other and see everyone’s progress, and to have them in my little studio listening to my new stuff every day. Philip has a very personal approach to film music. He doesn’t like what he calls “underscore” – pure background music without much character. On the contrary he likes playing things loud and distinctively. I think that helped the music to get appreciation. The Spanish Civil war played a limited role in Hemingway and Gellhorn’s life together, among other places like Cuba and China. But Madrid was the place in which they met and fell in love, so the music plays an important role in there. My music in this case does not comment much about the war and its dramas, but mainly about the joys of love and passion, although we choose to play it with a distinctive Spanish character, both in melodies and in the choice of the instruments.

You’ve scored Neil Jordan’s haunting return to the vampire mythos with “Byzantium.”

Yes, it was a very interesting movie to score because it moves in two different time lines between the 19th century XIX and the contemporary world. We used an orchestra for the first period, and contemporary instruments like electric guitar for the present times. Neil loves quoting classical music, and we used a Beethoven’s sonata, which is played by one of the characters, as a recurrent motif, in order to explain the transitions in time. I love Neil’s movies for being so beautifully articulated.

What was it like scoring the eccentric, New York-set psycho-thriller “Greta” for Neil?

It was an equally great experience. We recorded in Dublin with excellent musicians, but I insisted in mixing in London, which I think worked out well. “Greta” has classic psycho-thriller gestures, but also more subtle layers, such as the younger character played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Her character represents a good-hearted millennial young woman with a rather difficult life, and we tried to find the equivalent in a mix of electronic sounds and, again, classical motifs.

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How did you become involved with “Antlers?”

Guillermo del Toro, who is one of the producers, put me in by talking to Scott about me and playing him some of my music.

Scott Cooper directs “Antlers” © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Talk about your collaboration with Scott Cooper and what he wanted the score to achieve?

It was a highly successful collaboration. The movie is very atmospheric. The country is depicted in a rather pessimistic way, with areas of post-industrial decay and horrible abuse. But at the same time there are characters like Julia who fights to the end in order to make things better for herself and for the kids in her charge – in this case the children of a school in a rather remote location. The music had to reflect this atmosphere and also communicate the drama of these characters.

Scott has made such gritty dramas as “Out of the Furnace” and “Hostiles.” What do you think he brought to his first horror film in that respect?

He treats the characters and social commentary in a subtle and yet very convincing way. The story is narrated with a confidence that makes you think that those horrors could be very real, and perhaps they are…

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Do you think there’s a common “theme” in how film music treats dark childhood fables the world cinema over? And what do you think makes “Antlers” particularly American in nature?

The genre bristles with certain stereotypical sounds, like celesta, bell trees, and glockenspiel. They are fine for some puntual effects, but if you want to get deeper, it is necessary to make music that can be at the same time simple and powerful. Most children’s music across the world has these characteristics. I have a huge collection of children’s music, mostly containing the voices of children themselves. There is also very good classical music related to children, some of it intended to be played by children and some of it telling children’s stories for grown ups. I guess the point is to musically become a child is the way that you’d write a better western by taking a horse ride to look at landscapes. What makes “Antlers” particularly American is hard to say. Perhaps it’s spaces, native myths and brave characters…

Tell us about your main themes in “Antlers.”

There is a main theme for the children and a number of secondary themes, or rather atmospheres and musical colors. This is rather analytic, because of course in fact everything gets interwoven and mixed in many ways.

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What do you think makes Aiden different and similar in both character and music to the children your accompanied in “Devil’s Blackbone” and “Labyrinth?”

They are living in current times, which removes any obstacle to playing with contemporary sounds, as well as classical instruments. I have the idea, perhaps a prejudice, that historical settings like the 1936 of Spain in “The Devil’s Blackbone” works better with classical orchestra. Other than that, I think there is no difference. They are suffering children, children oppressed by a war or by ignorance, children who haven’t done anything wrong, but most probably will if somebody doesn’t help them as soon as possible.

How did you want to musically conjure the Wendigo? And did you do any of your own research into this legend, or past films and scores that have dealt with the creature?

I did some research, and I found that the myth is surprisingly similar to other myths from many places in the world and many epochs. These myths have in common the idea of hunger and thirst sublimated in different degrees: vampires, werewolves and so on. These creatures exist in the limit between human and animal natures. The Wendigo is musically conjured by mixing elements, organic and dynamic and naturally unsettling, which aim to reflect his pain. 

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“Antlers” makes particularly effective use of the piano and the guitar. Why those instruments?

Piano has always the simplicity and the clarity necessary to evoke children and other elementary states of mind. Electric guitar is interesting because it talks about contemporary America. 

Talk about the ghostly vocal effects you’ve created

Most of them come from an actual children’s choir! We found that at least one child of the choir was able to reach the upper C with a beautiful piercing tone, and I used it for the beginning and also for the end. There are also some processed voices that are created by overlaying the choir with detuned, sampled voices singing the same lines that resulting in an effect that is so real and eerie at the same time.   

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How did you want the music to conjure the Northwest environment?

I respond very strongly to photography. Colors and landscapes, even interiors have a powerful impact on me, occasionally triggering a stronger response than the dialogue. I believe I wrote the music in response to the extraordinary atmosphere of the movie. Minor scales and dissonances may not be what everybody expects from the Northwest, but I think it was the right answer in “Antlers’” case.

Jim Caviezel in “Sound of Freedom”

You’ll be dealing with the horrifically real terror of child sex trafficking in South America with your score for “Sound of Freedom.” 

Indeed. I hope we will have an entire conversation on this movie, which is very interesting and moving.

Photo by the Berklee College of Music in Valencia

Are there any chilling legends that you’d like to score? Or variations on the horror genre?

I would love to score Greek or Roman Myths in a more intimate way than I did with “Wrath of the Titans.” The same goes for Japanese ghost stories, which I love. Stories with sex between angels, why not! And the lives and miracles of saints and healers. Horror normally culminates in, or should culminate in some kind of remedy or healing, and I would love to be able to comfort people in the same degree that I can disturb them.

See “Antlers” in theaters, with Javier Navarrete’s score on Hollywood Records HERE

Listen to Javier Navarrete’s soundtracks HERE