Interview with Joseph Lo Duca and Don Mancini

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In the annals of knife-wielding psychopaths seeking to slit your throat while needling your funny bone, no killer has cut quite a diminutively powerful, Comedy Store-ready figure like Chucky. Ever since Charles Lee Ray used his dying breath to transport his twisted soul into the body of a Good Guy in 1988’s “Child’s Play,” there’s been no putting down the sinister brainchild of Don Mancini over the course of seven pictures. Grabbing the franchise as both writer and director with 2004’s “Seed of Chucky,” Mancini sowed an even crazier, fourth-wall slashing mythology for his characters that even possessed real-life doll bride Jennifer Tilly. The filmmaker wouldn’t miss a one-liner beat when he picked up The Good Guy’s adventures with 2013’s “Curse of Chucky,” which took the idea of the Chucky-verse to even more wackily ironic lengths by having the Brad Dourif-voiced doll torment his actress daughter Fiona Dourif as the wheelchair-bound Nica, as well as bringing the very first kid he menaced Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) back into the grown-up fray.

Now Charles’ embodiment pushes Nica right over the edge of her previous mansion abode into a sterile madhouse for “Cult of Chucky,” where of course no one will believe that trying to cure her with multiple Good Guys might not be such a good idea. Mancini once again turn his undying saga into a family affair by drawing on Chucky’s past mayhem, while showing a fiercely hilarious and frightening panache that makes the series more vital than ever as the last doll standing among the 80’s psycho superstars. The same can be said for the fiendishly fresh voice of “Cult” composer Joseph Lo Duca, who broke out with friend Sam Raimi in 1981’s “Evil Dead.” Suddenly transformed for Detroit rocker into horror score star, Lo Duca has often brought his rampaging (and sometimes darkly funny) talent to any number of terror soundtracks like “Army of Darkness,” “Boogeyman,” “The Messengers,” “Pay the Ghost” and “Burying the Ex,” all while charting a prolific career composing for such fantastical shows as “Hercules,” “Xena” and “The Librarians,” and now a groovy return to “Ash Vs. the Evil Dead.”

But nobody quite brings out Lo Duca’s little devil like Chucky, as could be heard in the claustrophobic, crazily escalating Grand Guignol strains of his first teaming with Mancini for “Curse.” Now thrust into a sterile looney bin whose white walls are escalatingly splattered with blood, Lo Duca first joins Mancini’s “Cult” with weird samples and twisted electroshock rhythms, yet with an old-school orchestral resonance – or course topped with evil child-friendly bells and tinkertoy percussion. But given multiple dolls with a mission, it isn’t long before this fiendishly thematic score becomes more twisted and funny with Chucky’s growing confidence for chorus, rock guitar and crafty metal ratcheting. It’s a killer stand-up act that’s refined itself like never before for a composer-filmmaker team made in horror-comedy hell – especially given just how well this “Cult” takes on an operatic, Herrmann-esque swagger that Brian De Palma would likely smile at, let alone a killer doll before making mincemeat of his two enablers at the top of their Good Guy game.

As a lifelong fan of film scores, what are some of your favorite horror-comedy soundtracks?

DM: I love horror-comedy, and I love the challenge of walking the tightrope between legitimately frightening an audience, and then making them laugh at what has frightened them. “Death Becomes Her,” the Danny Elfman-Tim Burton stuff like “Beetlejuice,” Jerry Goldsmith’s “Gremlins”… These movies also all bear the unmistakable signature voices of their composers. I liked that. I’m not into anonymous-sounding scores. I wanted “Curse of Chucky” and now “Cult of Chucky” to have the unmistakable, unabashed voice of Joe Lo Duca.

In particular, how did Joseph’s scores for the genre impress you?

DM: I was always impressed with his versatility, his dexterous comfort-level and expertise in any number of genres and even media, as well as his ability to mix traditional orchestral elements with modern electronics. His scores were romantic but not sentimental; witty without being silly; and never condescended to the material. Plus, of course, I am a huge fan of his work fro Rami’s “Evil Dead” universe.

Right from “Evil Dead,” you’ve often been in a position of scoring horror films with no small amount of laughs in them. What do you think makes your style suitable for that kind of gory black comedy?

JLD: Perhaps it is because I truly like and get the filmmakers I work with in that genre. In my experience, the writers and directors who make horror movies are among the nicest people I know! On a dramatic level, it’s all about tension and release, predictability and surprise. When it’s well done, it’s like great music. Comedy can be the release, but sometimes-gory violence can be the release, too. It puts a temporary end to the suspense and dread you have worked together to set up.

How did you become involved with “Curse of Chucky?”

JLD: Richard Kraft, my agent for many years, introduced me to Don Mancini. He thought we would be a good fit. And he has uncanny instincts about people and pairings. The fact that I composed the scores for the “Evil Dead” trilogy didn’t hurt. I have learned it gives me instant street creed in that world.

What did you think of the previous Chucky scores? And what did you hope that Joseph would bring to them with “Curse of Chucky?”

As a film score fan, this part of the process is always very exciting for me — meeting with the composer, talking with him or her, spotting the film, and the thrill of hearing the cues for the first time… I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of very talented composers over the years throughout the Chucky series. But working with Joe has been my favorite experience, and has resulted in my favorite music from the franchise. His Chucky motif is perfect — sinister yet playful, as befits a child’s toy. I knew Joe would bring an exciting mix of traditional orchestral elements blended with a modern, electronic vibe. And he always plays the characters, not just the situations.

Having scored some of genre’s most iconic characters, how did Chucky stand for you in horror superstar pantheon? And was he a character you hoped you’d score one day?

JLD: A film composer never knows or expects when he will be invited to the dance. Getting to work with Don on “Curse” was a welcome surprise. Honestly, I did not seek out horror movies growing up. They made me queasy. Then I got to know Sam Raimi, and I came to view horror as the exercise of a prankster who gets unabashed glee from getting a rise out of an audience. But even though there is a lot of humor in the “Chucky” and “Evil Dead” films, the humor is rarely reflected in my scores for them. But every once in a while we go for it!

What do you think makes a good director-composer team?

Communication, a shared vision and a common language certainly help -which theoretically can get tricky if the director is not a musician, which I am not — although I do have a musical background (I sang in chorus throughout my school years). But what I do have, like your readers, is a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of, and passion for, film music — including, specifically, the music of Joe Lo Duca. I am definitely a fan of his! It’s definitely helpful (as well as incredibly fun) to discuss film scores with Joe in the course of our work. Joe also approaches the music character-first, which is how I approach writing and directing. And then there are the surprises, the stuff he did that was completely unexpected. He had to create a whole weird soundscape, to capture the warped psychologies of these mentally ill characters.

Given that Don is a horror and music fan to begin with, does that give you shorthand when collaborating?

JLD: Don has immense background in all things film-related. The fact that I could see the link between “Curse of Chucky” and “Lady in a Cage,” an obscure 1964 thriller starring Olivia de Havilland and James Caan, got us off to a great start. The best directors sweat all the details. Don is one of those. He is also aware of the expectations of his fans. In a few scenes on “Cult,” he resisted my taking a classic Hollywood approach because his fans might consider them glib. I find that if I ask the right questions, we can address challenges that are posed in the music. It helps that we have a lot of respect for one another.

Do you hear the unborn score in your head as you’re directing?

DM: Well, I’m listening to stuff all the time for inspiration, and like a lot of writers I raid my soundtrack collection and cull a bunch of stuff that seems in the ballpark, musically and dramatically, for what I’m writing at the moment. While I was writing the “Cult” script, I listened mainly to a combination of Joe’s score for “Curse” and Cliff Martinez’s score for “The Neon Demon,” the latter of which of course has a distinctly trippy, electronic vibe. That sound struck me as evocative of this world, a somewhat abstract sound for a mental hospital populated by a bunch of warped minds. A kind of psychedelic feeling is what I was after. Joe captured that, in his own way, of course; the resulting score sounds nothing like Cliff Martinez. Nor did I want it to. I just wanted Joe to give me HIS version of an abstract, psychedelic vibe.

With “Cult,” did you want to return the series back to the first film’s idea of having a doctor doubt an inmates “ravings” about a killer doll on the lose? And how did you think music could add to that?

DM: I thought the setting provided for a fun twist on the traditional “boy who cried wolf” scenario we exploited in the first three films, but in “Cult of Chucky,” it’s “the whacko who cried wolf.” Before, no one would believe a kid; now, no one will believe a crazy person. Also, our goal really was to humanize the patients, to depict and convey their sadness… And Joe’s score really does manage to capture a certain bleak mournfulness, which is of course augmented by the modernist environment and the freezing, snowy realm outside.

Right from its title, the idea of a perverted child’s plaything has been embodied in the “Chucky” scores. How did you want to convey that twisted “toy” bell motif here?

JLD: Coming on board on “Curse,” it was surprising and liberating to me that this iconic character did not have a theme. The idea of an out-of-tune little jingle came to me immediately. “Chuck-y is my spe-cial friend…”. What’s creepier than a beat up toy piano?

When you’ve got a lethally wisecracking character like Chucky, how do you want to balance the humor and horror?

JLD: Most of the time, you stay away from the humor and let the score play the straight man. I’m Dean Martin; it’s actually funnier that way. Musical camp usually involves parody. I tend to stay away from that. Chucky gets all the good lines. Let’s let him have them.

DM: One of the things that most impressed me about Joe’s score was his ability to navigate these hairpin turns, to juggle serious, even tragic horror on the one hand, and the wackiness that Chucky and Tiffany represent — sometimes in the same scene. The music is a really crucial factor in making such tonal changes work. It can make or break the movie. And Joe just has great taste; he’s very sensitive, for example, to the danger of tipping over into the objectionably goofy, or the too sentimental.

Like our best horror “heroes,” there’s an evil part of us that roots for Chucky to succeed. How do you think the score adds to that?

DM: Well, there’s an intrinsically humorous aspect to Chucky, a twisted playfulness that’s appealing. Chucky really loves his work. Joe captures that sense of mischief with his toy piano motif for Chucky, which he introduced in “Curse,” and which in “Cult” is lavished with all kinds of thrilling new orchestrations and variations.

JLD: The music imbues Chucky with immense, unstoppable power. For example, despite his diminutive stature, his musical footprint is always huge. He is mischievous, but the music tells us to be very afraid. He always wins, so one might as well join him, ‘cause you can’t beat him. And he’s a funny guy, though I can’t say the score adds to that.

Is it more fun to score a character that enjoys killing?

JLD: I talk to my fellow “decomposers” about this. Horror movies are the most fun to score for the sheer fact that there are no rules. You can be as crazy as you wanna be, and if the psycho killers are having fun, too, so much the merrier. With Chucky, there is as much a “Gothcha’!” aspect to his murders as the poetic injustice of the murders themselves.

What would you say are the links, and differences between your two “Chucky” scores?

JLD: Both are rather lush and traditional in many respects. Both have central thematic material. “Cult of Chucky” has a more modern sound, with a lot more electronic sound design and manipulation of traditional instruments. I’ll confess. I like melody and harmony. Constructing dissonance is merely an extension of those elements.

Chucky has always involved the idea of family, whether it’s the doll tearing apart Andy’s life, or trying to create his own “nuclear” family of sorts. With the gang back together here, how do you think that idea plays into the score?

JLD: I think the score informs the viewer that the characters are all damaged people that have been literally ripped from their families. So their sadness and despair, and the desperate measures to which they are driven are very much in the music. I guess you could say fate has brought Vincent, Nica and Tiffany back together as a cursed, dysfunctional codependent family. You might say that the reflection in the score is the sense of doom, futility and inevitability.

The dulcimer gets a particularly fun workout here. What do you think makes the instrument so ideal for Chucky?

JLD: In “Cult,” what you are calling a dulcimer has more of an electronic bent. There’s something about the biting, percussive nature of the sound that feels right. It is sinister, and let’s not forget that Chucky’s favorite method of execution involves cutting of some kind.

What does having multiple Chucky dolls bring to the score?

JLD: Each Chucky has it’s own personality. The score gets to have a little fun with that. It is not a major feature, though. Without giving anything away, what happens to Nica is a much more important to the score and the story.

“Cult” makes use of some particularly creepy sampling that’s both echoed and metallically gnarled. Could you tell us what went into this score?

JLD: I did a lot of programming and processing of the sounds in this score. Don and I are very pleased with the result. There are sounds and techniques I discovered on this project I never thought to try before – processes like time stretching already warped string samples, and ring modulating the brass into shards of metal.

You could call both “Chucky” films “old dark house” pictures in how he maneuvers about them to terrorize his victims from a mansion to mental asylum. On that end, how hard is it to score those sort of “creeping about” sequences?

JLD: I don’t find those challenging; the fun is always in setting up a good scare that will likely follow. I do find extended action sequences tiring. I find there is a physical component that goes along with scoring the action. ”Curse” most definitely plays on the haunted house trope, but I found “Cult” quite different. The asylum is stark, cold and blue, so electronic sound was a better choice. By contrast, Andy’s cabin is warm and woody, so strings and woodwinds predominate.

DM: Well, while we on set, I’d often hum a tune, or a rhythm, to get the camera operators in the mood, and to ensure that our timing is in the right ballpark. And on “Cult.” very often I was humming something of Joe’s — whether from “Curse of Chucky,” or sometimes something from an “Evil Dead” movie. I knew those staccato string pluckings from “Evil Dead” would totally work for Chucky wandering around and spreading mischief.

Was it important for Joseph’s scores to start out “straight” and then get more satirically demented as they go along – especially in the case of “Cult?” where organ, evil chorus and a Spaghetti Western rock guitar ultimately join the jam?

DM: Yes, because that’s basically what the movie is doing — it’s going crazy. The story and camera work are designed to make the viewer feel that he or she is right there with Nica as she starts questioning her own reality and her own sanity. As I said, one of the huge accomplishments of Joe’s score is that it manages this tonal change with such style and energy and wit, really. Joe’s “main title” music is, to me, like a thrilling celebration of the psycho-slasher genre, complete with his own version of shrieking violins, and Chucky’s “toy-piano” motif interpolated. The rock guitar at the end was an interesting case, because the scene in question represents a huge turning point for Chucky – a moment of incredible, unprecedented, swaggering triumph for him. We knew it had to be “big” in an interesting way. At first Joe had a choral element there, but it wasn’t quite right. While the voices captured the supernatural gravity of the situation, it was still missing something — a sense of Chucky strutting. Ultimately we realized what it needed to be: Chucky as rock star. Hence the guitar. (Which Joe had utilized at one point in the “Curse” score, as well).

JLD: All of the Chucky movies ramp up to a rollicking climax. So goes the music. Anything goes. However, the palette remains fairly consistent. If a new sound pops up during a score, I hope there is good reason for it. That said, the rock guitar idea might have come from Don.

With its voices and rampaging dulcimer and finally hugely sinister orchestral statement, would you call “Cult” a Grand Guignol score?

JLD: I think my favorite parts of the score would classify as ‘psychological thriller’. Chucky is on the loose in an asylum. The patients project their psychoses onto him. And he kills them for it. It’s more like “Snakes on a Plane” of the insane!

In the midst of this madness, what it important to give genuine emotional empathy to the wheelchair-bound Nica?

JLD: She is our doomed heroine, yet she is also survivor. Fiona Dourif is so good in this role. Her performance needs no help from the music. Yet at times we want to underline her powerlessness, or her growing panic. There are long sequences that Don portrays this sans dialogue, doing it instead with crafty editing and music.

You’ve made a specialty of bringing musical presence to smaller-budgeted horror films. What tricks have you learned along the way to getting the biggest musical bang for the bloody buck?

JLD: I am the only performer on both scores. Don told me that Pino Donaggio (“Carrie”) was a bit miffed because he told Pino he did not have budget for a live score. Pino was surprised to learn my score was all samples. I’ll take it as a compliment. I am always trying to realize the music I hear. And that takes a lot of time and effort. Unfortunately, we had so little time. 80+plus minutes of music in three and a half weeks is not humane. But there are no short cuts.

Can you tell us a bit about your work on “Ash Vs. the Evil Dead,” and what we can expect from the upcoming season of “Ash Vs. Evil Dead?”

JLD: “Ash” is just as nutty as ever. I had to score a scene where he is attacked by all the instruments in the high school band room. Who knew a harp could also be a face slicer. Need I say more?

You’ve also scored the pot comedy series “Disjointed” on Amazon. What’s it like to be able to do something unexpected like this?

JLD: D.J Javerbaum, our show runner and creator, is also a gifted lyricist. We have written some great songs together on this show. I work with the cast, headed by Kathy Bates, on their performances. I got to record LA’s finest jazz players for all the bumpers. That just doesn’t happen on a sitcom, that is, unless you have David and Chuck Lorre behind you. Wait till you see how next season opens. “Disjointed” has been a real highlight for me this year.

What do you think that Joseph has brought to the “Chucky” series? And how do you see his music continuing for them, or your movies in general?

DM: Joe has brought his distinct voice, and his impressive pedigree and experience from his iconic work in the horror genre, but also other genres and media, as well. I’m excited to see where we’ll go together next… both in the “Chucky” universe, and hopefully in other frontiers, as well.

There’s never an end to Chucky. Where do you see your films, and scores going from here for him?

JLD: The answer to that is in the mind of Don Mancini, and I’ll gladly go with him on Chucky’s next adventure!

Join the “Cult of Chucky” on Netflix, blu ray and digital asylums HERE

Listen to Joseph Lo Duca’s scores for “Curse of Chucky” and “Cult of Chucky” on Backlot Music HERE and HERE

Fight the Evil Dead with Ash and Joe HERE

Visit Joseph Lo Duca’s website HERE