Interview with Jim Williams

Composer Jim Williams

With such mind-boggling scores as Mica Levi’s “Under the Skin,” Colin Stetson’s “Color Out of Space” and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s “Annihilation,” it seems that genre music has now become a battle of the bands to see whom can compose the craziest, most brain-scrambling “music” to totally destroy the pre-conceptions of what any soundtrack should sound like. Given that it can be hard to create something new in this kind of anything-goes sonic realm, leave it to English composer Jim Williams to truly invade the listener’s headspace, if not soul, with “Possessor.”

Best noted for accompanying cult auteur Ben Wheatley with the murderous mind game excursions of “Kill List,” “Sightseers” and “A Field in England,” Williams’ talent for conjuring a hallucinogenic feeling of existential body horror has now found its true match in filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg. A chip off the old, coldly dread-inducing block if there ever was one, Cronenberg has now gone the next step from a man selling “Antiviral’s” celebrity sicknesses to a woman inhabiting pawns to carry out horrific assassinations. But if wife and mother Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is the best at what she does, going under the skin and mind of her next unwitting killer to be Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) proves to be anything but a mental hit and run. 

Combining a cruel variation of “All of Me’s” male-female body “switch” with the all-consuming virtual reality of dad’s “Videodrome” for lack of a better cinematic comparison, Brandon’s hypnotic, jarringly violent film is a true act of artistic possession. And if Howard Shore’s trailblazing “Videodrome” score way back when established new potential in twisted technological scoring, then “Possessor” is a viscerally worthy descendent of both. With hypnotically droning music, Williams’ creates an almost mournful sense of being in another person’s skin. It’s emotion as ice, and brutality as eye and teeth bashing feedback, an approach that makes listeners feel like they’re floating about in a twilight zone that’s ready to ferociously pounce on them. It’s an often-ethereal tone that’s perfect for the passionless gloss that Cronenberg creates with his high-fashion visuals and insane ultra-violence. Yet what’s so surprising in a realm where many can mistake noise for music, “Possessor” is quite listenable, and often lovely in its bizarre way thanks to Williams’ weird tonal science. His inventive talent melts into both machine and human, creating a new, mesmerizing sound that is Zen dread for a movie that is as ruthless as it is hypnotic. 

Could you talk about how your composing career began?

What can I say – I was really into film music as a child. Sunday afternoon movies on UK television – “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Big Country,” “Spartacus,” “Doctor Zhivago” … the list goes on. As soon as I could play anything on a guitar or piano I started writing tunes rather than learning by rote. I learned set works when studying classical music, but I’ve always evaluated musical material and taken what’s of interest. Then I’d just run with it and see what might be created with it.

You got established on such British television shows as “Harley Street,” “Minder” and “Hotel Babylon.” How do you think series work helped develop your sound?

Writing for those television shows allowed me to work with different styles, but also challenged me to make the scoring cohesive. ‘Hotel Babylon’ borrowed from bossa nova, electronica, flamenco and jazz while continually referencing dance culture. “Minder” required emotional clout but couldn’t be cloying due to the ‘buddy film’ nature of the plot and casting. And that type of television work requires one to work fast and to never get hung up on rejection. If the most beautiful music you’ve ever written doesn’t work for the scene then it has to go.

Did working with alternative artists like Peter Murphy and This Mortal Coil also influence your scores?

I was very much involved with music like those bands at that time, so working with them was like a home from home. Around that time I did some production for El Records, and I wrote and produced an album for 4AD that was never released because Ivo Watts-Russell thought it was just too bleak(!). It was the sonic experimentation with those guys that was so cool, and I’ve continued with that to this day. 

“A Field in England” soundtrack

Your first major genre scoring collaboration was with Ben Wheatley on “Kill List,” “Sightseers” and “A Field in England.” Could you talk about those respective movies and their approaches, and what you think distinguishes Ben’s films?

Those films were all different and I provided different things. The “Kill List” score used a nonstandard tone row / serialism concept that referenced Partch, Riley, Cage, Carter and particularly Morton Feldman, while bringing in a bit of paganism towards the climax. I presented a finished score and it was 90% well received by the production, which is no mean feat in movies. The brief for “Sightseers” was quite specific with no thematic development required, but more of a quirky, evolving 1970s Krautrock vibe. “A Field in England” used a small acoustic band. The director suggested it might be that the main characters could play the music themselves, so the writing uses the musical language of the early 17th century. However, as events take a turn, the score augments and the instrumentation subvert with various electronic approaches. All those scores deal with transformation of some kind, and I really like to bring that to my work, as it can really help drive the narrative.

You continued your explorations into “body” horror and extreme suspense with the cannibal of “Raw,” the Scottish survival tale “The Dark Mile” and the twisted murder mystery of “Beast.” How do you think they helped develop your style, especially when it came to extreme horror?

I’ve become very interested in how musical structure – and how the recognition of that structure no matter how subliminal – can affect audience perception. If an edgy drone is placed over a scene of fog in a dark wood the music provides “more” atmospherics (and if the scene is well directed then why would it need “more” via the music?). That said, sometimes that is what is required. “The Dark Mile” uses some dark, Locrian mode drones to help the mood, as well as some folk textures relevant to the setting of the Scottish Highlands. In “Raw” there’s a key scene where an act takes place, which some might suggest is an example of a collapse of civilisation as we know it. However, the scene is beautifully handled, and the protagonist fully formed to allow the viewer to empathise with her plight. I used a recognisable musical language (the early Baroque) that has a strict harmonic code of continual dissonance and resolution that is counter to the gentle chaos visible on screen. The solid structure of the music holds up a mirror to the moral collapse on screen, however, to align with the shock of the audience I used a rather violent, distorted instrumentation. In “Beast” a rising theme is introduced when the main characters meet that straddles their fascination with each other (warm ambient orchestration with rising appoggiaturas) and her fear/his edginess (irregular bar lengths and subtle shifting pitch).

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Joel Ryan/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6885170a) Brandon Cronenberg Director Brandon Cronenberg poses for a photograph prior to an interview with The Associated Press at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France France Cannes Brandon Cronenberg Portraits, Cannes, France

Had you seen “Antiviral” before Brandon asked you onto “Possessor?” And if so, what did you think of his style, especially when it came to him being a “chip” off of his father’s cerebral body horror block?

I provided music for Brandon’s short “Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You” and I watched “Antiviral” prior to that. I was struck by Brandon’s brilliant icy visuals – so apparent in “Possessor” – and his willingness to seek out new ideas through experimentation. I must say I didn’t consider comparison with any other directors. 

What kind of music did Brandon want for “Possessor?” And did you have your own inspirations for your approach to it?

Brandon, Matt Hannam (the editor) and I discussed an approach that included heavy distortion, ambient textures, some atonality etc., and I provided some material to try during the editing process – some of which is present in the final cut. I brought some ideas to the table: a subverted melody that seems to try and drag itself out of the rich ambient textures to provide some key emotional clout, and some distorted vocals that climax at a particularly nasty moment that I find particularly satisfying. 

Tell us about the gear and sampling that went into “Possessor.” 

There’s lots of sampling, acoustic sounds and effects. I never use just presets because television scores and library music are swamped with them and potency for those sounds doesn’t last long. There’s a lot of analogue stuff in there too; I have a couple of vintage synths, lots of guitars and an early 1960s all valve Wem Copicat tape delay that can create scores all by itself…

How did you want to use voice in the score?

I wanted the (female) voice(s) to represent the anguish Tasya Vos goes through and the aforementioned distortion on the vocals helps the narrative of transformation. To use a male voice for Colin would have been too on the nose in my opinion, so I didn’t offer that as an idea.

How did you want your music to embody the futuristic technology of this machine? And did you immerse yourself in it so as to understood how it functioned before scoring it?

I’ve actually developed tinnitus that takes the form of a random low, swelling throb; when I was lying in the dark quiet I thought it would work as the initial intrusion of the machine early in its processing of Vos. I used a sine wave with a slow envelope wrapped in a short ambience to make it feel like its in one’s head – nasty.

Tell us about scoring the transference that takes place between Tasya and Colin’s minds. 

We went through several versions of these transitional scenes. The grinding, visceral nature of the dismantling and rebuilding of the “body” came pretty quickly with distortion, sonics and effects that included bugs scrabbling around through to a filter, all the way to a Swarmatron style synth. The emotional slant ended up being a mix of triumphant exhilaration through the harmonic material, and a desperate holding on to some kind of normality as the transition passed into a kind of “birth.”

Talk about the scene of Colin wearing Tasya’s “face”

I went for a rather ritualistic chant with the vocals, as I felt that there was something primeval about the sequence and the need for Colin to dig deep (so to speak). Dissonance in the writing and distortion in the processing subverted the voices, as did the accompanying drums.

Where a lot of scores like this are content to remain ambient, there’s a definite melodic quality to “Possessor” in the musical language you’ve set up. How important was it to make the score “musical” in that fashion, yet have that eerie sense of space?

I fight to have melodic and harmonic content, as there is so much more scope to align and enhance aspects of the drama. An ambient drone often seems to simply say to the viewer “Hey check this out it may be important/profound/dangerous/scary/etc.,” whereas musical material has a different and more direct effect on the audience. With either approach the artistic decisions are key; sometimes minimal is the most effective approach. Take the diner scene in “Mulholland Drive” and the coin toss scene in “No Country for Old Men.” The minimal scoring in those scenes can’t be beat regarding artistic choice. 

Do you think there’s a coldness to your score that matches Brandon’s visuals?

Yes I do. I deliberately used a tight dissonance in key scenes, and even in the lager soundscapes the orchestration (albeit mostly electronic) has chilly reverberations, delays and filters involved.

In contrast, what kind of emotion did you want to give to Tasya as a wife and mother with a horrific secret life? Or was it important that listeners should musically empathized with her?

There are points of introspection as she moves through her everyday life (that also work for Colin); there’s a stark, gentle atonality when she’s spending time with her family that suggests what might be to come, and there’s the trapped Lydian tune that cries to get out. But again, artistic decisions were made continually by me and the director, so as not to lead viewers in an inappropriate way.

A lot of “Possessor” takes place in an altered reality. Did you want to give the music a hallucinogenic and disorienting effect? It seems to “float” here.

I respond to the images in the same way I do when I’ve just bought my popcorn in the theatre. Only when I’m scoring do I consider what the music may do to enhance the drama or hold a mirror up to the visuals or subvert reality or unreality. I think it’s fair to say there’s a hallucinogenic unease in the score – and thank you for noticing.

Given that there’s an explosion of outré genre scoring in such movies and television such as “Under the Skin” and “Watchmen,” is there a challenge in being distinctive with just how far out music can go these days? Or is it important to have some restraints, even with experimental scoring?

I think it’s difficult to settle on one sound pallet and keep things interesting in current thriller scoring, though I must say Mica Levi did very well in “Under the Skin.” In classic thriller scores like Anton Karas’ zither in “The Third Man,” Miles Davis’ small cool jazz ensemble in “Elevator to the Gallows,” likewise Chico Hamilton in “Repulsion,” Bernard Herrman’s strings only score for “Psycho” and so on. The solid compositional nature of these scores provide a strong backbone that I think works wonderfully in anchoring the drama while adding so much through the musical language. I think the difference today is that there is so much music at the disposal of the consumer that more variation seems to be required. As discussed previously, however, it’s not always “more is more.”

With just how extreme and taboo-breaking that the violence is in “Possessor,” did you ever find yourself getting disturbed while working on it? Or did your past projects make you immune to it?

I wouldn’t say I’m immune or as some might suggest brutalized. I’m like a doctor – you don’t notice the blood – you just focus on the task.

Could you talk about how you want to use dissonance in “Possessor.” And was it important to make the murders musically brutal? 

A lot of the score under the violence is violent itself, but this allows for certain key moments to be more compelling. There’s a nasty scene with dark, brooding scoring that I deliberately faded to silence before it gets really nasty, so that for the viewer the emphasis shifts away from the act towards the inner struggle the character has encountered. The plight of the character is suddenly received by the viewer in a more dispassionate way and the lost state of the character can then be fully appreciated. Likewise, there’s emotional clout at a key point where, instead of ramping up the terror, the score highlights the tragedy as a result of the violence. It’s all about light and shade and making the right call for the film.

If the adventures of Tasya somehow continue, where could you see the story and your music going?

Corporate horror (my description) is a new one to me and I responded as I saw fit. I’d need to be there.

In the respect of how experimental, and even shocking Howard Shore’s music for David Cronenberg was on movies like “Videodrome,” do you hope to reprise that kind of collaboration with Brandon in just how far genre pictures and scores can push the button-triggering limits, both in terms of ideas and their graphic quality?

I’m less interested in “button-triggering” than I am in the infinite possibilities around the magic that happens when a drama is visualized, and music and sound respond to that. If a director allows me the space to be creative and experimental in collaboration like Brandon Cronenberg has, then give me more. 

Watch “Possessor” on VOD, and listen to Jim Williams’ score on Lakeshore Record HERE

Visit Jim Williams’ web site HERE