Interview with Marco Beltrami

In a long scoring career that began by musically shrieking for a Kafka-masked killer as his intended victims did their damndest to stay silent, Marco Beltrami has spent quite a bit of time making memorable musical noise in the service of terror. Whether the maniacs he played were vampires, werewolves, goblins or cyborgs, Beltrami’s full-throated style has known how to stalk and rip asunder with no shortness of invention. But perhaps the need to have his often raging soundtracks shut it up for humanity’s sake has never been put to quite as cleverly a sinister twist as “A Quiet Place,” where the composer himself would last about a millisecond if he practiced his craft in the movie’s post-apocalyptic world.

Thankfully, the family of this acclaimed horror film knows better, having seen the rest of humanity shredded by near-invincible creatures from God knows where that attack at the slightest sound. As played by real-life wife and husband Emily Blunt and John Krasinski (who also serves as star, co-writer and co-producer), Evelyn and Lee Abbott lead an extremely tenuous life with their two kids, where every activity is centered around being as quite as a church mouse. But fraying tensions, and the fact that Evelyn has a baby on the way make it a certainty that air waves are going to be rent asunder to horrifying results for all of the sonic home proofing that Lee has put into place.

For a composer, whom along with Buck Sanders, had to hold his breath to Oscar-nominated effect in “The Hurt Locker,” Beltrami shows his effectiveness in tension that you could cut with a razor blade. Pounding heartbeat suspense fills the soundtrack’s unbearable builds, made all the more unbearable with the jump the audience knows is coming. Relentless, stomping terror attacks with waves of grinding electronics, howlingly mutated samples and ferocious brass, the kind of rhythmic rampaging that Beltrami does like no horror-friendly composer’s business. Yet for all of its monstrously powerful orchestrations, what makes “A Quiet Place” especially powerful is a solo piano that conveys what very well might be the last people on earth, unexpectedly lush strings the lyricism of children facing a very bleak future.

Imagine the guttural savagery and poignant solitude of Beltrami’s “Logan” score as taken to new, primal lengths, and you’ll get an idea of his effectiveness at conjuring a world gone mad not only because of constantly prowling beasts, but by the impossible, muted restraint they’ve caused. Powerfully balancing melancholy melody with nerve-splitting dissonant effects, Beltrami’s “Quiet Place” goes from a whisper to a scream with terrific inventiveness, as only a composer seasoned by decades of hiding from, and facing off against evil knows how to – especially as given his most thematically novel twist yet.

You’ve had a rewarding collaboration with actors-turned-writer/directors like Tommy Lee Jones. Would you say it’s more interesting to deal with multi-hyphenates, especially when the stakes are extra-personal to them?

Actor-hyphenates that have a vested interest in the project are extra enthusiastic about their work and about the process. They’re more receptive to originality, and not constrained as much by a lot of the people around them that could surround a normal project. So you have the possibility for coming up with unique, creative musical approaches.

How did you become involved with “A Quiet Place?”

My agent Laura Engel got a call from Randy Spendlove, the president of music at Paramount who mentioned that there was this project shooting in New York. He wanted to know if I’d be able to read the script, and if I liked it, then maybe meet with John where they were shooting. I read the script and was blown away, because I had never read anything like this that really had very little dialogue in it. As soon as I went to the set and saw what they were doing, I thought that had a lot of interesting possibilities musically and that it could be a lot of fun. Coincidentally, I was going to be in New York anyway!

Noise has always attracted monsters on the prowl, but “A Quiet Place” raises that premise up several notches. Given the idea of sound equaling instant death, was there ever the question of wondering why there should be music in the film in the first place –as it would be a “third wall” alert to the killer creatures?

Well, this is always the question in a movie. In Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” they’re in the sea. Hitchcock says to Hugo Friedhofer, “Why would there be music? Where’s the orchestra? They’re out in the lifeboat.” Friedhofer’s reply was, “That’s a good question, so where are the cameras?” I think the same thing applies here. It’s a movie. You’re not supposed to necessarily be aware of the music, but it manipulates the audience just like the lighting, or the cinematography, or the acting. It obviously has to be used carefully, and there’s definitely attention to silence and how silence is used. It also has a place for the emotional undercurrent of the movie and the arc of the characters developing that.

Tell us about your collaboration with John Krasinski. And how would you describe his taste in music?

I very much enjoyed working with John, because he, approaches music not from a traditional point of cinematic view, but more from what inspires him on an emotional level. After meeting with him and coming back to LA, he sent me a couple of pieces of music that he liked. One of them was the cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” That is what started me thinking in terms of the family theme for “A Quiet Place.”

You’ve done some very effective scores set in the apocalypse. Do you think there’s a mournful loneliness that comes with the territory, especially in “A Quiet Place?”

Well, there’s definitely a mournful loneliness to “A Quiet Place.” I don’t want to give away the movie, but the family has a strong sense of loss that pervades everything that they do. It’s sort of like a non-spoken heartbreak between everybody. So there’s definitely a sense of mournfulness to the score because of that.

Before the finished shots of the monsters came in, what kind of picture did you create in your imagination?

They had diagrams that gave me an idea of what the monsters were going to look like, though I wasn’t aware of their final concept until quite late. They had an important impact for the direction of the music. Actually, some cues that were based on the monster’s initial pictures had to be reworked to capture their final realization from a sound point of view.

How did the film’s rural setting play a part in your score? And would you say that it connected it to your scores in the disturbed western genre like “The Homesman?”

The rural setting is important to the story of the movie, because it’s sort of going back to basics, in many respects, of a time when a family had to provide for themselves with shelter, food, water, and comfort. In that respect, the score has a very traditional aspect to it. I wasn’t actively trying to emulate my “Homesman” score, though there’s a scene with them all having dinner together that may have a little bit of that Americana feel to it.

You’ve often used interesting techniques to capture musical sound design. How did you collect samples for “A Quiet Place?”

In a few ways. I had a session early on where string players came to my studio, and we recorded them just doing gestured type things that we could later manipulate electronically, and have an acoustical source for. I wanted all the electronic elements to be derived from an acoustical source. All the stuff that you hear in the monster suite is derived from acoustical sources. Then I took a piano and detuned all the black notes by a quarter-step and used that for the theme, so, something’s slightly off about its sound. We just had to be careful and use it sparingly, because a little bit of that goes a long way.

In that respect, would you say you’re one of the more “environmental” composers out there?

I’m very aware of the sound world that we’re working in and how the music and sound are going to work together. So in that sense, I’m definitely aware of the environment that we’re working in. I also find it fun to discover sources that are relevant to a film’s score, but that are slightly unique.

Given that people have to express emotion internally under pain of death, did that place even more importance on the score? And how do you think it reflects the family dynamic of people buckling under the father’s authority?

I think the fact that the actors are able to convey all of the emotional things that they do without dialogue is a testament to their acting ability. The music is supportive in some of these areas, especially when there is a subtext or something that needs to be reinforced or commented on. There are also plenty of emotional scenes in the movie that have no score.

Tell us about the use of percussion in “A Quiet Place.”

There’s a drum that we took and manipulated electronically that became the source of the rhythmic pulse. There’s a little bit of other percussion in some of the more active scenes later on in the movie especially, but I wouldn’t say this is a percussion-heavy score.

With many horror scores just turning to plain old dissonance, how important has it been to keep a sense of melody for your genre efforts?

Well, the emotional parts of the score are definitely melodic, and there’s a melodic theme. For the alien component of this movie, it’s more motivic than it is melodic.

How did you want to spot, and orchestrate the score in terms of figuring out the right moments for the music would be at its most sparse, or employ fuller strings?

The spotting of the music changed as the film was edited, as it was in a constant state of evolution and flux. Scenes that originally may have had music may not have had music later, and vice versa. Scenes that originally might have been silent would end up with music. One of the things that I find interesting working about working with actor/directors is that there’s a constant search for perfection and originality, especially with John. He was never content to rest on “this is good enough.” He wanted to strive for perfection as best he could in all aspects of the moviemaking process. It’s demanding but rewarding at the same time.

You scored “Mathilde,” a romance about Czar Nicholas that caused quite a stir in Russia. Could you talk about the challenges of working on an envelope-pushing Soviet production, and your work for it?

That was an amazing, unique experience working and recording in Russia with probably one of the most famous conductors in the world on a post-production schedule that took about a year. Since our director Aleksey Uchitel didn’t speak English, we communicated through music and through picture. It was one of the best, most unique scoring experience that I’ve had.

Having made your bones with horror films, how do you think movies like “A Quiet Place” push the genre, and the role and sound of music in it? And in that way, do you think you’ve become more of an experimental composer in that realm than how you started out in it?

The “Scream” movies, which were among my first ventures into horror genre, were a much different type of film, much more over the top and strictly orchestral. I came from a place of working only with orchestra. Electronics is something new, and I didn’t really pursue them until later as we went along with Buck Sanders as my partner. Little by little, the search for unique instrumental timbre has shifted from just being possible to do with the orchestra to now being able to do with musical technology. It’s allowed us to be able to really get some amazing things from all sorts of sounds including these environmental sources that you mentioned. I guess, in that sense I have evolved my approach. But at heart, I still think it’s the same visceral response to picture that guides what I try to achieve musically, even if the method is a little different.

As a composer, is it important to find moments of complete silence in your life – though for your sanity as opposed to avoiding creatures?

Yes, of course. I’m haunted by noise in my head, and it’s important for me to learn to find ways to dampen it down to a minimal volume as best I can.

“A Quiet Place” tiptoes into theaters on April 6th, with Marco Beltrami’s score available digitally on April 6th from Milan Records, and then on CD on May 11th HERE. Then listen to Beltrami romance the Russian royals with “Mathilde” HERE

Visit Marco Beltrami’s website HERE