Interview with Ken Lampl

If social media and the selfie desperation for recognition has made monsters of us all, then “Sissy” is the Norman Bates for a generation scarily obsessed with being golden gods for their thumbs up followers. For while she’s all smiley faces while dispensing advice to her emotion-of-the-second followers, the blog obsession of Sissy / Cecila (Aisha Dee) is obviously masking a deeply wounded young woman who just wants to be loved. And when her childhood-with-a-shoulder-chip acquaintance Emma (co-writer and co-director Hanna Barlow) invites Sissy for a weekend retreat with her snotty scenesters, you just know things are going to go awry – which they do with bloodily hysterical delicious in this snarkily suspenseful festival hit abetted by fellow writer and director Kane Senes. 

“Sissy” soundtrack on Movie Score Media

A ghastly satirical wonder that follows in the wanna be love-starved, gore-drenched footsteps of such Aussie horror pictures as “The Loved Ones,” “Sissy’s” Twitter / Facebook themes now prove universal as it debuts on America’s Shudder horror channel. No small player in “Sissy’s” increasingly diminishing house party is the score by prolific Yank expatriate Ken Lampl (“2067”). Sure these often brain dead kids are listening to the latest hip tunes, but their body count score is all retro delight. Linked together by a diabolically waltz theme with no end of steps from outright gothic parody to unnerving suspense, Lampl’s inclusion of deliberately cheesy Muzak, haunted house-worthy bells, sumptuous Bernard Herrmann-esque orchestrations, cooing Elfman-esque voices and rhythmically stalking Morricone Giallo grooves are their own beyond clever hit parade of pitch perfect horror comedy scoring. Sure Lampl cannily references score styles that “Sissy’s” characters are more than likely unaware of. But you can be damn sure that any horror fan in an age of internet toxic fandom damn well will know what he’s up to with a diabolically perky score for a film that gleefully incriminates its audience’s main opiate.

Tell us about your path towards composing. Were there any musicians who influenced you?

I was lucky to have been raised in a household where my parents listened to a lot of music. The stereo was on all of the time playing everything from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Nutcracker” to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. My father was an amateur pianist and his mother (my grandmother) actually dated George Gershwin. When was about 11 or 12 years old my mother brought me to a jazz concert at the local library and I saw a sax player improvise for the first time. My mind was blown! I had never seen live jazz before and witnessing music being created, in the moment, in front of me, rocked my world! That triggered my lifelong fascination with where music comes from. For me, it began as jazz improvisation and then led to actual composition. My first great loves of music were John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Pink Floyd and John Williams.  

I didn’t have any formal kind of music education until I went to university.  Before that it was jazz clubs in Trenton NJ where I grew up. The local library was also a great resource and I took out all the books on composition and music theory. At Rutgers University I was fortunate to have had some of the most incredible mentors life could offer. My first saxophone teacher Paul Jefferies played with Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus and Lionel Hampton. During my senior year of college I went on tour as a saxophonist with the legendary jazz drummer Chico Hamilton who played with Basie, Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday and Dexter Gordon. That was until I heard the orchestral music of Richard Strauss which changed everything.  

I went back to Rutgers university to study classical composition and my first composition instructor Charles Wuorinen was a Pulitzer and McArthur Prize-winning composer. He and my conducting teacher Jens Nygaard were seminal in my development. Wuorinen for the analytical and Nygaard for the heart of great musicianship. In my early 30’s I had the profound opportunity to study with John Williams at the Tanglewood Music Festival.  There were only six of us in his course and we had film composition seminar with him a few times a week as well as private lessons.  He brought cues for us to score and we learned the old-school ways of using the click book and conducting to pops and streamers without a click track.  What inspired me most about John was not only that he was one of the greatest musicians I had ever met, but he had a profound insight into what he saw in films.

Composer John Corigliano (c) WNYC

What was it like to study with John Corigliano, one of the most acclaimed modern classical composers who also has some notable soundtracks under his belt like “Altered States” and “The Red Violin.” Do you think he had any impact on your work?

John Corigliano is one of the warmest, most wonderful and supportive human beings I have ever met. He was a critical mentor for me artistically at a time when I was making the transition from avant-garde classical music to a more romantic and tonal approach to composing. In the mid 90’s composing music which was inspired by Mahler, Strauss or even John Williams was not something the musical academy took seriously.  I entered the doctoral program at the Juilliard School having submitted a portfolio of very dissonant and difficult 12-tone influenced scores.  By the time I entered the school I wasn’t interested in composing that kind of music any longer because it had nothing to do with the music I really loved which was romantic orchestral music, film music, rock and jazz.  I had a really difficult time with the composition teacher I was assigned to and John was the kind soul who encouraged me on my new path which would eventually lead to film music.

You’ve been quite prolific. Tell us about your particularly memorable scores that led you to the point of “2067,” an epic sci-fi score that gave you your biggest exposure yet.

I had scored nearly 100 films before 2067 and the big turn in my film composing career happened when I moved to Australia 6 years ago.    Australia has an incredibly thriving film industry and an insane amount of talent. My first film here was a terrific horror film written and directed by Tony D’Aquino called “The Furies.” That film went on to be the most streamed film on Shudder in 2019 and won lots of awards at horror film festivals.  One of “The Furies” producer’s Lisa Shaunessy was just starting her own film production company, Arcadia Films and told me that their next film was a sci-fi called “2067,” directed by her husband Seth. We all met and I went on to do that score. “2067” became the first Australian film to be #1 on Netflix, Amazon Prime and iTunes. I was very honored about having the soundtrack released by Milan/Sony and to be listed as “One of the Best Scores of 2020” by you.

Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes (c) The Curb

How did “Sissy” come your way, and what was it like to work with Hannah and Kane?

After the success of “The Furies” and “2067,” the next film on the slate for Arcadia Films was “Sissy.” Lisa set up a time for all of us to meet and we hit it off. I was sent the script and it was clearly brilliant. I didn’t hear from them again until they had shot, edited and locked the cut. Hannah and Kane are just great to work with. They both bring such interesting and diverse skill sets to the collaboration. Hannah, being a highly trained actress, has an amazing ability to articulate the intention and emotional life of the characters and Kane is a walking encyclopedia of everything having to do with filmmaking and film history. It was really epic to work with them as a team and I learned a lot from them.

Tell us about coming up with the sound of “Sissy,” and how it draws on your various musical specialties from classical to choral and ambient music?

The evolution of the score was very interesting. Originally the film was temped with some Giallo style cues and a bunch of modern Jon Brion  cues so the film played more as a hip, teen, comedy with some horror elements. I did a complete pass of the score staying true to the style and intention of the temp music, but it didn’t really sit right with me. I thought what worked best were the cues where the style of the music was clearly vintage and not modern. It created a strange kind of tension between what you saw and what you heard. I remember John Williams calling it “writing against the picture.” I started exploring going full-on old-school through the styles of golden era Disney, Bernard Hermann, Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone. I wasn’t interested in writing modern music inspired by those styles, but actually writing in those styles authentically to create a historical/temporal tension when juxtaposed with a film whose content is clearly very contemporary. That tension of visual and musical style enhances the social commentary aspect of the film.  Once I began writing, we all felt that this is what worked best for the film.  I’m a total film music history geek and it was crazy fun to be able to dig into such a rich history of film music. I actually have PDF’s of over 40 original Bernard Herrmann hand written manuscripts which I studied.

There are a bunch of cues that draw upon a retro, easy listening 60’s style. What were your kitschy influences there, and how did you want to orchestrate them – particularly when it comes to young characters likely unfamiliar with that kind of music to begin with?

What was most important to us was the authenticity of the music sounding vintage. My dad loved to listen to the Muzak radio stations when I was a kid (to torment my sister and I) so I knew exactly how to orchestrate and arrange that kind of music. How many times in your film career do you get the chance to compose a Bossa Nova with mandolin, harpsichord and string orchestra? It was crazy fun!

You also have harpsichord that gives “Sissy” a gothic tinge. What inspired you to use that instrument?

Hannah and Kane were very specific that certain cues of the score be in the Italian Giallo style of composers like Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Sante Marie Romitelli. I did the research not only on the instruments they used, like the harpsichord, cimbalom, and mandolin, but also the gear that they recorded with at Morricone’s studio in the 60’s. Some favorites were: Fairchild compressors, Pulteq eq’s, spring reverbs as well as electronic instruments like the Farfisa. I have all of that vintage gear as software (including the synths) so I had the opportunity to make it as traditionally Giallo as possible which included the instrumentation, the style of mixing, and the equipment it was mixed on including analog tape.

Would you say the music subverts the idea of romantic comedy scoring as well, given that in another movie things might not turn out so bloodily wrong?

Yes for sure! Our idea was that by intentionally not composing a modern-style film score we could capture the “out of touch” nature of the Sissy character.  Going for the vintage style with both historical accuracy and emotional weight, rather than a parody, gives a real conviction to Sissy’s point of view and makes the humor ironic rather than funny.  That was a really hard balance to pull off.  Some of the cues were revised over 30 times. Hannah and Kane are very specific about every second of music and how it relates to the story.  It was a real opportunity to learn and grow as an artist through our working together.

Tell us about the main, malleable theme of “Sissy” that can change tune from a waltz to spider-like creepiness and finally a lush, ironic romantic tune you might hear from a late 60’s Ennio Morricone score?

I composed about 20 or 30 of those little harpsichord melodies before we all agreed upon the one that’s in the film.  It was especially difficult because we needed both a melody and chord progression which had the flexibility to morph into the various incarnations of the theme as the film progresses. Hannah and Kane were very clear about where the transformations took place in the film and the kinds of music that the theme needed to be transformed into.  I should feel lucky because John told me he wrote over 200 5-note themes for Spielberg’s “Close Encounters.”

What “serious” horror and thriller scores were inspirations for “Sissy?,” and how did you want to get their orchestrations across – particularly at a point when the score draws from the romantic and terrifying orchestral likes of Bernard Herrmann?

We spoke about traditional scores like: Nino Rota’s “La Dolce Vita,” Bruno Nicolai’s “La Damma Rossa,” Morricone’s “Il Serpente” and “Il Segreto” as well as I explored some of the experimental concert works of Morricone.  For modern scores we spoke about: Jon Brion’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” Keegan DeWitt’s “Queen of the Earth” and everything Danny Elfman.  The Bernard Herrmann influences came through the thriller scores like “Vertigo,” “Marnie” and “North by Northwest,” which are more thriller than actual horror scores like “Psycho.” I loved being able to use the classic orchestral techniques like con sordino strings for the Herrmann cues and crazy wide panning for the Giallo cues.

If you think there’s something inherently maddening about the extremes that wanting to be liked on social media pushes us towards, how did you want the music to capture that?

We were more interested in telling the story through the interaction of the characters and how the music would articulate those relationships rather than commenting directly on the medium of social media itself.  I think the critique is told better through the story and the eyes of the characters.

You could say that “Sissy” draws on such movies as “Heathers” and other thrillers (which were filmed afterwards) like “Bodies Bodies Bodies” that draw on social agendas, mind games and bullying as much as they do the internet. How did you want to capture that aspect?

“Heathers” is a classic! I hadn’t thought about this until you asked this question but we never discussed social agenda, mind games, bullying or social media when we worked on the film.  We only discussed characters, intention and story. Hannan and Kane were focused on which character’s perspective was being portrayed by the music rather than the situation directly. Point of view was at the heart of most of our conversations and whether the tone of the music was capturing that correctly.  We did do some interesting explorations by scoring scenes from different points of view. We leave the social commentary to the audience.

What’s the trick to scoring a horror comedy where you need to take the mayhem and jeapordy just as seriously?

I would say that there are different types of horror comedies. “The Evil Dead,” “Ghostbusters,” “Scary Movie,” “Frankenweenie” and “Werewolves Within” all have different relationships between the score and the picture.  Some wink to the audience, some exaggerate the seriousness (which makes it funny) and some have actual comedic elements.  Our idea in “Sissy” was to be absolutely psychotic with switching gears with different styles of music. I scored to the points of view of the characters rather than telegraphing to the audience when to laugh or be afraid.  It’s the psychotic twists of the perspective of the characters that makes the film actually funny and scary in a psychotic way.

How did you want to get inside the mind of a particular psychotic like Sissy? And is it harder to make that switch to musical horror when you’ve set up an essentially funny “horror” score?

The trick was to get into Sissy’s world. In her mind, she isn’t psychotic, but instead a really good person with pure intentions which is why the Disney-style score works so well for her character.

Sissy’s roots go way back to childhood trauma. How did you want to capture that “little girl lost” quality in the score?

I would say that the “little girl lost” quality gets captured by the “Sister” song by Sister2Sister which is an integral part of all of Sissy’s happy flashbacks which are in contrast to the Giallo style scoring of the traumatic flashbacks.

The audience will likely be sympathetic towards Sissy at the start, but it’s likely more than a few won’t be by the end. How did you want the music to steer how people felt about her character, or was that ever the intent?

Hannah and Kane were very sensitive about the music pushing the audience in any direction.  We wanted to leave it to them on how to make up their mind.

Tell us about the end song “Ode To Narcisa”

The song which plays us out in the end credits was originally going to be used as a score cue in the middle of the film. I sketched out the cue as purely an instrumental and asked Hannah if she wanted to try her hand at lyrics. She sent back a terrific, well recorded vocal demo that I dropped right into the instrumental cue.  Who knew she had such a great voice!  The directors ultimately felt it worked better in the credits than as a dramatic cue in the film though the instrumental version stayed.

What are the things that you like and hate about social media? And in your world, have you ever caught yourself doing anything to be liked, let alone seen composers or filmmakers prostrate themselves in way that you think was demeaning?

Who hasn’t posted something and then checked every 5 min to see how many likes it’s gotten! I think it’s amazing to have access to so many people online, but I do think we need to be careful because it plays into our very human need to be noticed. That social media dopamine hit can be very addicting.

With “Sissy” getting big exposure on Shudder, what do you hope the reaction to the movie and the score are? And in the end, what do you think sets apart “Sissy” from its particular and peculiar genre of horror comedy-dramedy?

I hope that people enjoy the movie and the score of course.  It’s interesting that reactions to the score have been very polarized in our current reviews. Lots of love and a few haters which I’ve never had before. Normally if a film critic isn’t impressed by the score nothing is said. I’ve had the great honor of knowing the score actually ruined the movie according to one review. That makes me know I got the job done.

What’s up ahead for you?

I’m really excited to be working with Australian director/writer Aaron McCann and Monster Pictures on his new film “Jonesy” (yes Ripley’s cat from “Alien”). I’m also keen to be working with Maziar Lahooti who wrote and directed “Below” on a new project. So many films were put on hold during Covid and now it seems like we are back to business again which is very exciting.  I hope to be working with Arcadia again on some future projects as well given the success of “Sissy.”

Watch “Sissy” on Shudder, and buy Ken Lampl’s soundtrack on Movie Score Media HERE

Visit Ken Lampl’s website HERE