By Daniel Schweiger
Few female authors have conjured the sound of nightmares within their readers like Shirley Jackson, the grand dame of American Gothic. Joining her professor husband Stanley to create a new wave of literature in the 1940’s, Jackson ended up writing in a not so-dark old house that neighbored her partner’s teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont. Her New Yorker 1948 short story “The Lottery” made Jackson a controversial cause célèbre for her proto “Wicker Man” in which a sunny village drew lots to determine who’d become a pagan sacrifice.
The burgeoning medium of television jumped over Jackson’s macabre tale several times over, continuing to adapt works like “The Bird’s Nest” and “After You Dear Alphonse.” But it was with Robert Wise’s 1963 big screen, door-pounding version of “The Haunting of Hill House” (its title cut down to “The Haunting”) that Jackson achieved genre eternity. Though she’d suddenly pass in 1965, her tale of a possessed mansion continued to terrifying viewers’ imaginations from “The Legend of Hell House” to a badly constructed remake of “The Haunting” and finally a chilling residence on Netflix that used Jackson’s full title.
Yet what does it take to make a visionary writer’s macabre tales, or more likely drive her to them? That’s the imagined idea of filmmaker Josephine Decker (“Mosaic,” “Madeline’s Madeline”) with “Shirley.” As embodied by Elizabeth Moss (an actress who’s made bucking repression into a thing of beauty with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Invisible Man”), Shirley’s confidant /enabler is her creatively jealous husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). They welcome the lusty, if otherwise innocent couple Rose (Odessa Young) and her teacher-husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to their domicile, where they discover a drug and marriage-addled Shirley. The true crime madness in which she finds her material soon sucks Rose in to a cloistered, woods-surrounded world in which fiction, and “Shirley’s” fact-based fiction dwell, a place of missing women, academic sadism and then-forbidden attraction that create the kind of torment from which innovative scores are born.
Spinning a hypnotic, chamber attuned web of psychological darkness, and sensual escape about the two couples is Tamar-kali, a composer at the forefront of a new intellectually challenging approach to the nature of film scoring. Born in Brooklyn to a band leading father, Tamar-kali’s influences range from the West African rhythms of her South Carolina Gullah roots to classical training, Arabic dance and the grrlll rock rebellion of Patti Smith. With her formidable vocal presence capturing a spotlight in the 1997 documentary “Afro-Punk,” Tamar-kali became a star of the NYC alt. rock music scene with her Psychochamber Ensemble of Strings. She’d examine issues of sexuality and her “Afrocentricity” in albums, videos and stage works, all cultivating a distinctive sound that would bear acclaimed, feature length fruit with the 2017’s indie film “Mudbound.” Having appeared in director Dee Rees’ lesbian coming-of-age drama “Pariah,” the filmmaker had Tamar-kali create a grittily challenging score for a Mississippi-set saga that entwined the hardscrabble fates of a black and white family.
Awarded as The World Soundtrack Academy’s Discovery of the Year for “Mudbound,” Tamar-kali has continued to expand her sound in the hellfire-defying “Come Sunday,” the political thriller “The Last Thing She Wanted” and providing a succinctly impactful score for “The Assistant” suffocating in neo-Weinstein film office abuse.
Now “Shirley” provides the composer with a new, repressive setting in the 1950’s to create a striking score for Josephine Decker’s surreal feminist fable, as mixed with the time-honored cinematic vision of a writer gone mad. Tamar-kali draws on her classical background for an often-rhapsodic chamber approach of strings and piano, using her voice as a chorus to bring a wife seemingly destined for non-identity to a realization of her sexual self. The rhythm of newfound freedom mixes with far more sinister tones of the game playing of Shirley and Stanley, the strokes of piano and strings as diabolical as any of Jackson’s scheming characters. If the score doesn’t let you figure out if you’re watching a book unfolding, a repressed fever dream or an author climbing the writer’s block walls of her house, then it’s a testament to the hauntingly weird vibe of a composer’s voice in immersive service of a a bold depiction of a sinisterly trailblazing author on the edge
How did film scoring come your way, and was it something you imagined that you’d be doing given your alternative background?
Film scoring came my way through Dee Rees. After lending songs to the soundtrack of her first feature film “Pariah” she kept up with my work. After becoming familiar with my range as we were developing a friendship she engaged me about writing a score for her Bessie Smith biopic. It was a tough sell for HBO as I had never written for the screen. She was determined to work with me in that capacity and “Mudbound” presented the opportunity.
Could you talk about your breakthrough score for “Mudbound,” especially given its gritty, unsparing sound? What kind of impression do you think it made in Hollywood as to your unique voice?
I feel so lucky that my first work in this arena was such an inspired piece. The challenge of balancing the development of a completely new skill and way of working in a short frame of time seemed impossible almost but the strength of Dee’s vision and the quality of work from every department created the perfect climate for that possibility. The sound was so intimately connected to the emotional underpinnings of the characters, the painterly visuals and strong character performances. I think it truly supported a visceral response to the story in a way that was not expected for a period piece. I am grateful that it was received so positively and cherish the unique opportunity to enter the scene with that work.
You’d also score the Netflix films “Come Sunday” and “The Last Thing He Wanted,” one about a preacher dispensing with hell and the other about a reporter driven to the breaking point by a story she’s covering. What were those experiences like?
These subsequent titles had the Netflix infrastructure in place whereas “Mudbound” was a much smaller, independently filmed and financed project that Netflix purchased after its Sundance debut. I was able to build off of the chamber model for “Come Sunday” and expand the ensemble to add piano and harp. It was a way more varied and melodic approach in comparison to “Mudbound.” “Come Sunday’s” director Joshua Marston had a deeply thoughtful and sincere approach to reflecting on and considering the musical elements of the score. It made for a thoroughly illuminating creative process. I learned a lot more about myself as a composer and a collaborator. There was definitely growth there.
“The Last Thing He Wanted” contains some of the largest arrangements I’ve done for film to date as well as the widest range of instruments from electric guitar to Afro-Latin percussion, orchestral brass and percussion, synths and a string ensemble. It was a butt kicker with a lot of moving parts, and I am better for it.
When there’s a film with very little music like “The Assistant,” how important is it to make an impact when the music finally appears in the end after a particularly horrible day for this oppressed character?
There is an opening piece that introduces the film. I guess I did my job in creating underscore that supports the piece seamlessly. The director, Kitty Green had a very clear vision about employing music in a bookend fashion as a lead in and a lead out of the story. The stark stillness of the film required a tactful and delicate touch. The most noticeable piece of music is the 3rd and final cue that serves as accompaniment to the audience’s immediate response to the film during the credits.
Did you expect the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein when “The Assistant” came out? And do you think the film made a difference in terms of how high-powered creative men treat subordinates hoping for their big break, especially women, far lower down the rung?
The film is a commentary on abuse of authority in the workplace and highlights how it is the countless tiny fissures that over time collapse an organ. So while it has the horrible legacy of Harvey Weinstein as a point of inspiration it is a commentary on how we as a society in general, perpetuate and tolerate the building of these ecosystems that support the abusers. I hope that the timing of its debut and release (coinciding with the trial) allowed people to connect the dots between the acceptance and banality of a toxic culture and the dramatic demise of a powerful figure with a history of predation.
Were you familiar with Shirley Jackson’s literary work, or the movie adaptations of them before “Shirley” came your way? And once you got the assignment did you immerse yourself in her work?
I had begun watching “The Haunting of Hill House” previous to being approached about the film. Once I booked the project, I sought out as much information on Shirley Jackson, the person, as possible since the film is a fictionalized depiction of her life. Her work from short stories to novels is making its way into my collection of fiction.
Could you talk about working with Josephine Decker?
Working with Josephine was an awesome experience artistically. The cut I initially received was pretty heavily temped, but it was possibly the most creative temp approach I had heard so far. I felt confident that I could capture the dreamscape elements it sought to convey and craft original music tailormade for Josephine’s ‘fever dream’ style of film making. She was insistent that I take it as far as I dare and that was exciting.
“Shirley” is shot in a highly artistic, often surreal style where story and reality intertwine. How did you want the score to suit the rhythm of the editing and visuals?
My approach in creating the score was to lean very deeply into the psychological underpinnings of the characters’ motivations; a ‘portal’ as opposed to ‘pointer’ approach. It is a vehicle into the world of the film and accompanies you through the journey as opposed to telling you where to look.
What inspired you to take a chamber approach to the score?
Necessity is the mother of invention and working with less made me really hone in on the specifics of my expression. I settled on string quartet and piano with some instances of synths to function as an aural extension of the psychological elements as the instrumental palette. I really leaned on my past experience as a choral classical vocalist and sang all the parts myself
What brought out the idea of using female voice?
In early discussions with Josephine she expressed an interest in the female voice as a grounding element.
How do you think the music captures the writing process, especially when a famed author has writer’s block?
There is a cue, ‘What a Writer Does’ that represents the moment where Shirley begins to get a flow going in her writing. I think that the energy of this piece in particular was quite reflective of the gathering of momentum into consistent movement that the scene represents as a part of Shirley’s process.
Shirley and Rose merge in both personality and attraction. How did you want the music to bring them together, while also differentiating their characters – especially when it comes to Shirley’s caustic worldliness versus Rose’s innocence?
The thematic elements are aligned to experience more so than character; Shirley’s visions, her psychological challenges, Rose’s repression etc.
Their scene on the porch together was a chance to explore a new element in their relationship; a consensually, playful sexual tension and flirtation.
How did you want the score to vary from more modernistic, experimental passages to cues of a more melodic nature?
I really allowed the drama and motivation of the characters to inform me as opposed to attempting to taking a genre-based approach. There is an internal/external pattern that aligns with psychological as opposed to physiological experiences. The more experimental cues accompany instances of psychological disruption whereas the more melodic cues mark the passage of time or physical movement.
With Shirley best known for her more terrifying work like “The Lottery” and “The Haunting,” do you think there’s a quality to “Shirley” that might befit a horror film?
As a fictionalized depiction of her life; not in my opinion. There are certainly some elements of magical realism in her vivid waking dream style of divining the characters and the story line of the novel she is creating in the film.
In that way, do you think there’s something naturally maddening about solo, slowly drawn strings, especially when it came to personifying how both Shirley and Rose are progressively losing their minds?
I took a largely percussive approach to the strings. I sought to convey the sometimes-erratic business of the mind. In addition, the dark minor tonality of piano chords with an echoed effect layered with synths pulled the energy into a drowsy, woozy direction to emulate the almost hallucinatory state we find Shirley in at moments in the film.
There’s a malicious, game playing dynamic between the older, intelligently caustic couple Stanley and Shirley and the fresh-faced Fred and Rose, one whose collegiate setting reminded me of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” How did you want to capture that dynamic?
There isn’t too much music that accompanies the dysfunctional, passive aggressive and co-dependent pact that is Stanley and Shirley’s relationship. It is played so well by the actors; we were careful not to step on it. What is there is minimal and functions to support the discomfort their interaction evokes. In terms of Fred and Rose, there is a frantically kinetic sexual energy they generate in their love making scenes that was enjoyable to convey through music.
Stanley enjoys listening to black artists, and even plays Leadbelly for his class. In that way, did you want the score to subtly capture the tunes that are heard in “Shirley?”
The score is apart and separate from the diegetic music you hear in the film. It exists on the outskirts of the characters’ perception.
Could you identify with Shirley in terms of her artistic struggle?
I related to her divination style of inspiration as a creative process.
Given the characters losing their minds in a somewhat cluttered mansion, how do you think the situations viral-confined viewers watching “Shirley” will add to the effect of the film, and its music on them?
The confining element was that of Shirley’s own consciousness as depicted by her agoraphobia. The reminder that our interpretations and perceptions can greatly affect our well-being regardless of our physical reality might be right on time.
Would you say that you’re part of a new school of progressive, and tonally challenging composers that would include Mica Levi among them?
I certainly feel aligned with other artists whose creative expression includes solo work as performing and recording artists. While my body of work in film is still expanding, it’s been pretty eclectic so far. I’m just interested in seeing where it will go from here.
Do you think the “new normal” of how difficult it will be to have an orchestra will bring out a new level of invention from composers, and assignments for musicians like yourself who specialize in an intimate sound?
Yes, there will be new exciting pathways created to meet the challenges of this current status, but I don’t think the big budget grand orchestral score is going anywhere. Ways are being found as we speak to maintain that tradition in this new climate.
On the other hand, if normalcy does hopefully return, would you welcome the opportunity to a big, “conventional” orchestral score for a multiplex film?
I am open to the opportunity to collaborate with other artists across disciplines, the size of the project doesn’t matter.
Would you hope to do the scores for any new Shirley Jackson adaptations? And if she’s listening, what do you think she’d say about how your music personified her and her writing?
Hadn’t thought of it but if the opportunity presents itself I would consider it. The idea of her listening from the afterlife and critiquing my score is a film idea of its own. This film and the novel it’s adapted from, are fantasy. I hope she would take it all in good humor.
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