(Jeff Grace photo by Nelson Bakerman)
With his talent for often evoking homespun, rustic darkness from the terrifyingly intimate residences of “The House of the Devil” to “The Innkeepers,” the twisted families of “Cold in July” and “We Are What We Are,” an unforgiving western landscape in “Meek’s Cutoff” and the beast-prowling environs of “The Roost” and “The Last Winter,” composer Jeff Grace has been building an especially chilling and unforgiving repertoire. Beginning his career assisting Howard Shore on his “Rings” trilogy and “Gangs of New York,” the NYC-based Grace would find a gifted filmmaker to further lead him into the darkness with Jim Mickle. First teaming for the vampire apocalypse of 2010’s “Stake Land,” Grace’s evocative, western-tinged score evoked both a future’s impossible horror as well as the emotional bond between master killer and a newfound son of sorts.
Now, after a continued partnership of twisted familial relationships and comically debauched noir, Mickle and Grace’s partnership takes a decidedly unexpected and almost shockingly gentle (at times) trip back into familiar territory as given a new, older family viewing spin with Netflix’s “Sweet Tooth.” Based on the DC/Vertigo comic series by Jeff Lemire, “Sweet Tooth” sets up an unexpectedly relevant post-pandemic future where “The Sick” has decimated much of America’s population, let alone its humanity. But one shining spot is the fawn boy Gus (Christian Convery), a hybrid who’s sheltered by the man he calls father (Will Forte). But when he comes to a sad end, a “Big Man” (Nonso Anozie) appears to very reluctantly lead Gus on a quest through a Mad Max-esque landscape to find his mother. Like an ersatz Pinocchio, the ever-optimistic, antlered adolescent will find Lost Kids and his fellow manimal children, with virus-twisted adults and their armies seeking to experiment on these seemingly magical begins.
Working in a far more emotional, and often kinder musical level than before, Grace infuses “Sweet Tooth” with a child-like sense of magical wonder that doesn’t shirk the incredible danger Gus is always in. Walking across a primitive, often beautiful landscape to the wonderfully coarse strains of James Brolin’s omniscient narration, “Sweet Tooth” works on several levels. It’s an evocative, strumming western score, seamlessly segueing to darker, dog-eat-dog percussion of a cruel, desperate world, then once again lyrically evoking the desire for hearth and home as a lush orchestra sweeps us into its mythmaking. Tying together the stories that steadily come together over eight episodes, “Sweet Tooth” brings a new, expansive vision to Grace and Mickle’s own creative bond as it finds a touchingly melodic heart in the pandemic darkness for an impossible boy with a show whose biggest power is in its unvarnished hope.
How did you first meet Jim Mickle? And why do you think your creative relationship has kept going for so long?
I met Jim through filmmaker Larry Fessenden. I had been working with Larry’s company Glass Eye Pix a lot doing films like Ti West’s “The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers” and Larry’s film “The Last Winter.” Glass Eye were producing Jim’s second feature “Stake Land” and he was looking for a composer. I think we just have a really good sense of each other and really appreciate each other and that just improves the more we work together. When we first started working together we immediately clicked. He actually has the same birthday as my brother! Jim is an awesome guy who is fantastic to work with. He’s a great combination of clear vision with a strong appreciation for the people around him, so he knows what he wants, but he’s also open to collaboration.
Communication is also really important. We’ve always communicated well, and that just keeps improving the more we work together. Jim loves music and plays a little bit himself, so he can speak effectively about it with ease. We also know each other’s sensibilities really well and share a lot of those same sensibilities. His constant growth as a filmmaker is also a great and inspiring challenge. Everything is always fresh, which keeps me on my toes. I certainly think I’ve done a lot of my best work with him and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
What was your reaction when Jim told you he was adapting “Sweet Tooth?” And once you got the assignment, did you look at the Vertigo comic book? And if so, what struck you about it?
I thought it sounded fantastic! First, I thought it was a great fit for him. And then I thought it offered a great world for music to play in. Jim’s got a lot of talent and I’ve seen him really grow as a writer, director, and showrunner over the years. He’s shown that he can handle such a wide range of things, this world just really seemed perfect for him, and him for the material.
The show is really so many different things all under one roof. One of the reasons I got into doing music for film and tv was because I love so many different styles of music. This show calls for a lot of different things. It’s got a wide range and scope. It was a great challenge. And being a dad myself, this show has had me tap into something a little different. For kids looking with wide eyes and open hearts, the world and life can feel so big and bring out such big emotions. My kids have really shown me things I didn’t see before, or really forgot about. Gus is very much that way.
When Jim told me it was going to happen, I actually waited a bit before reading the comic. We’ve done several literary adaptations before (‘Cold in July” and the “Hap and Leonard” series were from Joe R. Lansdale novels). Adaptations always require some changes going from page to screen. They’re just different mediums that have different strengths in storytelling and you’re up against time limits on screen. So I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself just going off my own interpretation of the comics. I wanted to get a clearer picture of where this particular interpretation was headed and sort of let that sink in first, then go back to the source material. I knew I was going to have the scripts fairly early, so I had time to read the scripts and then go back.
I think a big part of my job is to bring the audience into the world of the film or show with music, which starts with really establishing an effective tone. With “Cold” and “Hap” I read the books before I got the scripts, so I already had my own impression of the books in mind. But things always change when you’re going from prose and a reader’s interpretation to a script and then actually images. You end up recalibrating a bit. Even script to shooting to editing usually makes for increasing layers of specificity.
I usually start writing themes once Jim has a script and a greenlight. So, I’m usually doing something when he’s shooting. Most of the stuff usually makes it into our projects. Sometimes it’s right on. Sometimes I have to make arrangement adjustments. If I had read the comics first for this, I think I would have leaned into the darkness more and probably too much. In going script, then comic and then getting some dailies I think it kept me closer to where we needed to go for what the show became. I think I thought more about the weird fairy tale quality of things.
“Sweet Tooth’s” production ironically got shut down because of the pandemic. What changed about the show when production resumed?
I don’t know that all THAT much changed for the story. I think it was more schedule and protocols, etc. Because we were shooting in New Zealand, things got back up and running fairly quickly. We were fortunate in that regard. In terms of the story, we had done the pilot before the pandemic hit, and the pilot is more of a prologue for the story, then the road nature of things takes off in episode 2. So there’s a certain intimacy and stability establishing who Gus is for a good amount of the first episode and then the score expands as Gus’ world expands, or the outside world pushes in. But the intensity of threat from the virus is established in the pilot and it is much more immediate and palpable than what we’ve been experiencing with COVID. Pretty much anyone who gets it dies and it brings about the collapse of civilization. There were some small things we see in some episodes that might mirror things we see in our lives today, distancing signs, some masks, etc. But I actually didn’t want to lean into that. As an audience, we already know what that is, so it felt like it didn’t need any help from the score.
Would you say that the western-styled, “father”-son relationship during a vampire apocalypse of “Stake Land” helped set the tone of “Sweet Tooth” in its way?
There are some similarities between both stories. They’re both road stories in post-apocalyptic times. They both have a young central character shepherded by a protector. Both stories involve a search for a promised land. But Jepperd is a reluctant participant for much of the first season and he’s gradually stepping in for Gus’ dad who the audience gets to know decently. As the show goes on, we realize increasingly how special and unique Gus is. “Sweet Tooth” is a more complex and nuanced story that gets to explore the father/protector-son/ward relationship to greater effect. But really “Sweet Tooth” has a lot more wonder and hope for much of it. “Stake Land” is bleaker in most ways. I guess there is a little sparkly hint of fairy tale in “Stake Land” as well. TV just offers more room to develop story points over a longer period of time.
Another thematically related show you scored before “Sweet Tooth” was “The Birch” for Facebook’s Crypt TV, about a creature in the woods who protects a young girl. Did that also put you in good company for this?
I had actually done the pilot for “Sweet Tooth” and then “Birch” and then the rest of “Sweet Tooth.” But the protector in “The Birch” is a maternal figure who is much more sinister and self-serving. A more analogous element between the two stories is probably from the Singh storyline in “Sweet Tooth.” How far would you go to project (or avenge) a loved one? Where is the line of what is ok?’
Like the first season of Netflix’s “The Witcher,” “Sweet Tooth” is about bringing most of the characters together at the very end. Did that make the music particularly important in making everyone’s respective “mission” cohesive?
I’m always looking for ways that I might be able to help pull things together with music. With the different storylines and then knowing it is a sort of fairy tale, Jim and I talked about using music to connect things where we could. Between the three main storylines, the Gus/Jepperd storyline is closest to the Aimee storyline, especially with her involvement with hybrids and The Preserve. So that was an easier connection to make. And like Jep, she is a protector. But the Singh storyline is darker and a bit less fantastical in many ways. They’re trying to hang on to the past more.
The big thing that spans across all the threads is family and it can be different types of families: Singh and his wife; Gus and his mom, his dad, and then finding Jep and then his own kind – the hybrids; Jep’s lost family and then giving into Gus’s appearance in his life; Bear and her quest for her lost sister. So, there is a lot of attention to the family elements in the score.
“Sweet Tooth” struck me with its fairy tale nature that seems like a mix between Peter Pan and Pinocchio. How did you want the score to capture that aspect, and “see” through the kindness and innocence of Gus, and the humanity he reawakens in the people he meets?
That was one of the first things we started talking about. Some of those consideration I usually find are sound palette and instrumentation and some are the musical ideas – notes. What’s tricky is, Gus has been sheltered all his life and is then thrust into this chaotic world. So there’s a certain amount of wonder, but also threat at the same time. He’s looking at the world for the first time with fresh, curious eyes. But that can get him into trouble. Again, it all plays into the fairy tale vibe. So in the pilot it was his curiosity about the forbidden outside world that eventually pushes in on his world. Then it becomes his sense of wonder at the world he’s discovering with that simultaneous threat. And he has this great optimism and excitement for things – a lot of hope. The adults and even the teenaged Animal Army don’t share those same sentiments. They’re more jaded, but Gus’ optimism and hope rub off on those around him. So we talked about having a personality for the score and making some different choices. Some of the score is more intimate at times and sometimes sort of sparkly.
James Brolin provides the omniscient narration for “Sweet Tooth” in a wonderfully gravelly way that gets more emotional as the show progresses. What do you think that kind of “storyteller” gravitas gave to the score?
To me, that highlights the fairy tale aspect of the story. And it also gives a certain thread to the story telling. So where possible I tried to stick with our more fairy tale sounding parts of the score and also help with that threading of the story. You can hear those themes with celeste, etc in a bunch of those places. But I usually tried to bring stuff back in those spots.
With its wide-open vistas, did it make it natural that “Sweet Tooth” would get a “western” instrumentation in parts?
The sound evolved a bit, but yes. I think it’s the look, scope, and the journey/adventure nature of it all. We found the show was really asking to have the music provide that certain personality. The western flavor helped with that in places. We did the pilot first with Gus living his very sheltered life. Only at the end does he start to head out into the world. So, we really established a lot of the fairy tale sound and intimacy in that episode, which is more of a prelude to the larger story. Then the real journey starts in episode two and I think that’s where the western vibe starts to set in. Episode two also introduces a lot of different characters and other parts of the show. The scope widens quite a bit, with some of the visuals as well.
Tell us about scoring The Animal Army, as well as the playful “jungle” approach to the hybrid’s temporary sanctuary in the zoo?
The Animal Army stuff was sort of tricky. I had to find a balance of sometimes leaning into the Animal Army, but also think about keeping the journey moving forward, which felt better leaning into the Gus and Jepperd aspect at sometimes. TV can be a bit different than film sometimes. You might have more frequent opportunities to play a particular thing up, but they’re probably going to play out shorter most times in TV. That said, this show sort of splits the difference and a bit feels like 8 mini-movies.
The Animal Army is this band of teenaged rebels who take care of themselves and take care of business. Their mission is to project Hybrids. They can be violent when they need to be. And they all pick an animal that represents them each personally, so they’re dressed in skins and masks. It asked for an exotic feel or slightly other-worldly feel. They’re also a clan, so having a tribal feel to some of it felt right. Then there is the leader of the Animal Army, Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen) who has a more developed emotional character arch. That whole part of the story called for a lot of different moods. It was fun!
And with the zoo, again, it just felt like the show and score were asking for some personality. The Hybrids have a sort of exotic feel. It felt like it needed to be organic, innocent, and sort of futuristic all at the same time.
Could you talk about scoring Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar ), who ends up becoming a most reluctant, Dr. Mengele-like figure?
The Singh storyline is a great contrast to the others. He’s a former doctor living in a suburban neighborhood with these people trying to live life like before the outbreak. First it shows us how barbaric even ‘civilized society’ has become when a neighbor is discovered to have the virus. They just execute him in the harshest of ways. But matters are complicated by Singh’s wife, whom he loves deeply. She has The Sick and has only been kept alive by the work-in-progress research for a cure done by Singh’s former colleague. Eventually, Singh is forced back into practice in order to continue this research, which is in real ethically dubious territory. All the while he’s got to hide his wife’s illness from the others.
So, there is all this darkness juxtaposed with this very loving relationship between Singh and his wife. It begs the question “how far would you go for someone you love?” Some of it felt like electronic elements worked really well, but some of it needed a more organic touch. Sometimes it’s very intimate and sometimes it gets very dark and intense, horrific even. And it seems like it could all fall apart at any moment. You feel for his struggle to stay human and humane.
Given your past films, how did you want to treat the more horrific parts of “Sweet Tooth?”
Being more of a fairy tale and having a really wide scope, I wanted to make sure we could get back to the softer and lighter moments in the story and have everything sit under one roof. So we have things on both ends of the spectrum, but lots of stuff in the middle as well. Sometimes those turns were quicker or harder to navigate and just required some extra attention. The show is also intended for a wider and potentially younger audience, so I just had to find the right balance. But I thought it really paid off. It gives a certain familiarity of feel to some classic fairy tales. With Gus, a lot things feel either very intimate or larger than life. So, the darker stuff gets inflated a bit for him, or might have more of an emotional aspect to it. The Singh storyline is more just the adult world, so there is a coldness or inhumanity to it more.
While parts of the series get quite intense for an apocalyptic show that could have been quite a bit more barbaric, it skirts on a “TV-14” to get a younger audience. Did that rating make you pull back on how menacing the score could have gotten?
With the pilot being completed before moving on to the other episodes, we had a certain jumping off point. That first episode being much more about Gus in isolation, it doesn’t push the darkness as intensely as the other episodes. Jim did a great job of making it extremely engaging, but in terms of content it’s not as dark or intense as some of the later episodes. From there we were able to rachet things up when we went on to subsequent episodes. There was some discussion about how dark to make things. The network initially wanted it to shy away from the intense stuff a bit more, but pretty early on they reversed course on that. No one ever said to me ‘we’re aiming for this rating’. It was more about that challenge of the proper balance – wonder and threat. Because Jim did a great job of establishing tone and then the juxtaposition of the different elements, most of it sort of balanced itself, to be honest. You put in the time and it becomes pretty obvious when it feels right.
Could you talk about musically developing the relationship between Big Man and Gus, which has him at first gruff and beyond reluctant, but by the end has him completely opening up emotionally to the son he didn’t try to claim until it was too late.
When we first meet Jep (aka Big Man), we don’t know what to think of him. He’s a mysterious character who could very well be up to no good. So, it’s more tense. As Gus tries to tag along with Jep, he annoys Jep, so the score takes on more of the playful tones introduced in the pilot when Gus is playing with his imaginary friends. But as Jep spends more time with Gus he becomes more endeared to him. Jep starts to identify with Gus emotionally more. Eventually, some of the themes that originate with Gus’ father end up playing between Gus and Jep. Gus and Jep eventually start to fill a role for each other that had gone missing in their respective lives. So musically, a lot of that starts out peppier, more plucked instruments and maybe some more pace and then is gets intimate and emotional as they get to know each other more…. When they’re not trying to break in somewhere or escape from something.
One particularly striking sequence where we get to see what Big Man is capable of is in episode two where he demolishes a squadron of Last Men trying to invade an abandoned National Park Visitors Center.
I love when Rusty’s dad, George, tells Jep (who is a former NFL player) “I gotta admit, it was awesome to see you still got it…” after that fight. But I think the build-up Jim engineered for that is fantastic. There is all of this intimate stuff about Gus and his search for his mom, this new family welcoming him in. Gus meets a boy his age, then the realization that Jep is trying to bolt and ditch him, then the slow build of intensity as The Last Men surround them …. And then BOOM – Jep lets loose…. with a huge bear trap, no less. It can be tricky to try to tackle those turns with existing themes as opposed to just writing all new material, but I think the unity it provides really pays off. It’s fun to work with stuff that is really well directed!
It’s particularly impactful that the series closes on “Auld Lang Syne,” which we hear being sung by the neighborhood people as they immolate the sick. The “new year’s” tune is transformed when it plays over Gus finally meeting the hybrids, with the song segueing to your score at lush orchestral force an especially moving touch.
That particular arrangement of the song works great for the story there and the voiceover helps tie it all together. Having heard it earlier in the context you mention does give this occurrence this odd sense of closure, if only for a moment. When I heard it I realized it could play into one of the Gus themes really easily. I just needed to figure out how to connect the two, so I ended up doing a little string arrangement behind the end of the song so could carry on and become the theme. And that’s another section that is about family.
Was it surreal to compose for “Sweet Tooth” during the pandemic? And how were you able to score the show during lockdown? You’d hardly hear any duress with how well the music sounds.
It was great to get back to work. We were lucky we were shooting in New Zealand. Zoom and all of that made some things a little easier. At the end of the day, even on bigger projects like this it’s really mainly Jim and I cranking on things together. When we’re ready we let everyone else in. We had done the pilot and set a certain sound before COVID hit. And I’m able to do modest sized sessions at my studio with distancing in place. I would have liked to do some larger recording sessions, but after all the indie films I’ve done I’ve become adept at making smaller things sound bigger and have higher production value. It can just be a little tough with TV schedules. Things move pretty quick. Not having my assistant (Thomas Chabalier) on site made for some added challenges, but he did a great job.
I’m a bit of a stickler for detail and sound, so I like things to be as good as they can. Not everyone involved in a show has a musician’s ears, so you have to figure out a way to strike a balance of making it as good as it can be and just getting it done, no matter what’s happening. The personal side of it was a bit stressful at times in its own way. New York was a weird place for a while there. Normally I wouldn’t think twice about walking home late at night, but things were different for a while. Figuring out getting vaccinated – luckily, I wasn’t too bad with side effects. Thinking about keeping your family safe, etc. Kids doing school online. My poor wife getting stuck with two boys! That’s a TV series right there.
Needless to say the show ends on a giant cliffhanger. How do you see the score developing when the series hopefully returns?
That’s something Jim and I have been talking about, even though we just finished about 2 weeks ago. With season two of “Hap and Leonard” we both thought I was basically going to have to start over again. It didn’t seem like a lot would carry over. It was in a different location with a whole new set of characters. It turned out that, outside of “Hap and Leonard,” music was the biggest thing that let the audience know it was the same show and thread everything together.
The next chapter of “Sweet Tooth” obviously has a bunch of changes. They’re not roaming the countryside anymore. Gus won’t be on the move, at least not to start. Singh can’t hem and haw anymore. Amy and Jep aren’t staying in the shadows anymore. Plenty of changes. But I’m sure we’ll find a way to let people know it’s the same world while keeping the journey moving forward. That’s the challenge and the fun part.
Though there are no costumed superheroes are such in “Sweet Tooth,” but there are definitely super-powers as such. Given that, what was it like for you to do your first comic book movie?
I loved it. There is this “larger than life quality” sort of operatic quality to many comics and while readers of the comic will note differences, I think the show achieves that quality really well. To me, it’s all about the world you’re creating with the film or show and bringing the audience it that. This type of dystopian fantasy/fairy tale is great fodder for that. And again, the scope and variety of things it asked for was really appealing to me.
You keep getting drawn into unique, often rustic genre projects. How do you think “Sweet Tooth” has expanded on that? And given the stage of Netflix and the wider audience this will get, what do you want people to take away from your score and what you can do in this field where you’ve made your mark?
Good genre material has you caring about the characters. Otherwise, who cares when something happens to someone? With “Sweet Tooth” the show asks for many flavors musically and has many threads going in different directions. So, I hope people will feel that I helped bring them into and establish the world of the show, helped keep them there, and was able to do it handling a wide variety of musical demands with the right emotional impact. The show is a lot of different things that come together under one roof. I hope the score helped accomplish that.
Watch “Sweet Tooth” on Netflix now, and get Jeff Grace’s score on WaterTower Music June 25th.
Find Jeff Grace’s soundtracks HERE
Visit Jeff Grace’s web site HERE