Interview with Tim Wynn

From “A Quiet Place” to “10 Cloverfield Lane,” movie theaters have become fortified houses amidst an apocalyptic future. Inside of their boarded-up structures, people are taught to fear what lurks outside world under pain of death. Children longing for escape can only create their own magical worlds. For “Freaks,” its adolescent Chloe (Lexy Kolker has been relentlessly warned by her beyond-fearful Dad (Emile Hirsch) to stay out of sight, particularly from the truck of Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) – lest her appearance and the power she holds within instantly lead to their destruction. As Chloe longs for any kind of connection, composer Tim Wynn weaves a lovely, haunting spell that conjures her mother (Amanda Crew) and the friendships with girls her age that she so desperately wants – all while building to a breakout into a vastly threatening world.

“Freaks” continues to show the expanding abilities, and visibility of composer Tim Wynn, who brings a striking combination of emotional intimacy, hybrid musical powers and high flying orchestral might to this singularly impressive co-writing and directing effort from Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein (“Mech-X4,” “Kim Possible”). With its story calling to mind an even more nightmarish spin on “Heroes,” this team puts their distinctly impactful, metaphoric spin on the genre’s re-invention of meta-humans and a villainous world of outclassed humans trying to contain them at any cost. Wynn has been a long working, stylistically diverse composer in the fields of videogames (“Command & Conquer,” “The Punisher,” “The Simpsons”), indie films (“To Save A Life,” “Superfast!” “McKenna Shoots for the Stars”) and television (“Lucky Seven,” “Tokyo Patrol,” “Wolfpack of Reseda”). But it’s his ability to turn from the brotherly bond of the cult series “Supernatural” to get inside the headspace, and heart of a oppressed girl that shows his breakout cinematic potential like never before. With “Freaks” impressive and memorable thematic structure, Wynn shows his own ability to capture an ever-surprising and emotionally captivating thriller with a distinctive musical signature, conjuring a sense of wonder and might in finding one’s true voice – no matter how helpless it might seem at first.

Tell us about your musical background and what intrigued you about scoring?

Growing up, I think my interest in music came from endless hours of experimenting on the family piano. I would start by writing short melodies and then improvising three-note chords underneath. I was very interested in music theory and how music “worked”. When I was 10, I started to take guitar lessons and began to seriously consider, as much as a 10-year-old can, a future in music. I formed rock bands in High School, where we would play my original songs and a few covers. At High School, I was extremely fortunate to meet Dr. Ralph Opacic, the future director of Orange County School of the Arts. In my senior year, he established OCSA and I was asked to be one of its founding members. Dr. Opacic saw my rabid interest in music and introduced me to the session guitar player and producer Mike Ferenci.

For three years Mike mentored me in guitar, music production and composition. That’s where I first discovered scoring. We would re-write the music to scenes for films and TV. I was amazed by how much the music could control the emotion of a scene. And how the lack of music would alter the story in profound ways. I knew this is what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how I could do it. After High School, I went to Junior College. I enrolled in music theory and production classes, excited to learn new things. There I met Rose Ann Wood, a fantastic music composition and theory teacher. She saw something in me and recommended I try out for the film music program at USC. To get accepted at USC, I had to face a jury of Dr. Skip Lauridson, Dr. James Hopkins, Dr. Erika Muhl, and Dr. Frank Tichelli. To say I was nervous would be a great understatement considering I just had my first official panic attack minutes before entering. Luckily, I was able to pull it together and with Dr. Hopkins testing my ear training on the keyboard, I succeeded in being accepted to USC.

The main thing that led me to score films is I have always been inspired by the marriage between music and visuals. Some of my favorite classical composers (Debussy, Ravel, Holst) used their compositions to paint musical pictures and I was inspired to do the same. Scoring films seemed like a natural extension of this desire to help tell a story with my music.

What was it like studying with such composers as Elmer Bernstein, Christopher Young, and Jerry Goldsmith?

It was truly unbelievable. I am so thankful that I had an opportunity to learn from these legends that were responsible for so many of my favorite scores. You really can’t top an action cue by Goldsmith, or a comedy score by Bernstein and a horror score from Young and I got to study with them. And it wasn’t only their musical knowledge they shared. They taught me how to be a professional and how to handle the ups and downs of their careers. I was even there at Todd-AO studio when Elmer got fired. Unreal. I have always tried to incorporate their lessons into my music and my life.

How did your extensive video game work shape you as a composer? What game scores of yours have particularly stood out for you in that respect?

The scale of video game stories is in many ways identical to film. That’s what initially drew my interest to work on them. They allowed me to write music for these huge worlds and amazing stories. I think my experience writing video game scores allowed me to develop the more epic side of my writing style. Most of the video games I scored have so many in-game movies, it’s very much like scoring a film.

Some of my more notable video game scores would be “The Darkness II,” “Command and Conquer,” “Red Alert 3,” “The Punisher” and “XCOM 2.” But my favorite game experience was working on “The Simpsons” game and spending a week recording it at Skywalker Ranch. It was an experience I will never forget.

Do you think your stint on the giant robots of “Mech-X4” and the horrific menaces and brotherly bond of “Supernatural” helped set you up for “Freaks?”

I think you take something from each score you write but writing for feature films and episodic TV are two entirely different beasts. Probably the most important thing which I carried forward from my work on “Mech-X4” was my relationship with the future directors of “Freaks.” Musically the two were nothing alike but we laid the groundwork for our creative relationship. I learned how to translate what they wanted from the music. What they meant when they wanted a certain hit or sound. How they wanted music to help tell the story. Every director uses a different language to speak to a composer so most of that was out of the way when I started to score “Freaks.”

How do you think “Freaks” fits into the genre of films and score (both fantastical and dramatic) where parents and children are essentially trapped in a house by terrifying forces?

I have read that “Freaks” is being called a “genre-bending thriller”, and I think that’s an apt description. I don’t think that “Freaks” is any one genre and from my perspective that makes for powerful storytelling. The movie isn’t formulaic per se, but it shares the ingredients of those films while adding its own unique voice.

What’s it like to work with two directors, as opposed to one?

directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein

For one thing, there are twice as many notes! Actually, it was great. They were both very secure in their vision for the music in “Freaks” and didn’t feel compelled to push their own view as the only right direction. There was an openness to explore all opinions that was refreshing for me. If you think about it, modern filmmaking always has multiple voices for the final approval, so for “Freaks” only having two masters was actually less than normal.

Was it important that “Freaks” would be a score that would work just as well as a relationship movie, sans its sci-fi aspects?

Yes, I think so. I didn’t want any one element to dominate more than the others, rather, I tried to use a multi-layered approach in telling the story. The score is mostly dramatic music with a sprinkle of sci-fi for effect.

Tell us about using music to convey as a little girl trapped in this kind of dark, fairy tale existence created by her father?

After experimenting with a few different instruments and sounds, I ended up recording an upright felt piano and a few processed bell sounds and scrapes to capture the mood. I had to create a delicate balance between scary and magical. I kept the melodies simple and the textures small. I wanted the sound to have a familiar but unique feeling.

How did you want to capture Chloe’s desperate need for love and companionship, especially with what might, or might not be her mother’s ghost?

I had to balance her feeling of emotion and isolation. Chloe wasn’t really sure what to make of her visions and it was scary for her. She wasn’t sure how real her visions were. So, when the mom’s theme starts on the piano, I kept a thread of uneasiness weaving through the melody. It allowed the theme to have the needed emotion but tell the audience that something isn’t quite normal.

Tell us about how you wanted to convey the male characters in the film? And what opportunities did Bruce Dern’s ice cream truck afford you?

At first, I wanted the viewer to sense danger. I didn’t want to give away the nature of their relationship too soon. Her dad (Emile Hirsch) and grandpa (Bruce Dern) are each trying to keep Chloe safe in their own ways. But at first, you aren’t aware of what their motives are. When it comes to the ice cream truck motive, I wanted to meld the traditional bells of an ice cream truck with a whimsical touch of the “Freaks” theme. It’s what draws Chloe out of her safe space and needed to feel magical, yet still scary. I guess you could call it “creepy fairytale”.

What are your main themes?

The score is dominated by “Chloe’s theme” and the “Freaks” theme. The other themes of importance are the “Sno Cone” theme for the Ice Cream truck and “Mom’s theme”.

Given that the beginning of “Freaks” takes place in Chloe’s house, was it important that the score open up her world so the film wouldn’t seem claustrophobic?

The directors and I actually wanted to keep it a little claustrophobic. I only used the upright felt piano and some sparse textures during those scenes. When she ventured outside, the score began to evolve and add motion. I started by adding instruments to the texture and melodically it started to get more complex. This gradually continued and by the end of the film, we ended up with a full orchestra.

How did you steadily want to reveal the clues of what the “freaks” are? And how did you want to respectively play their powers?

For most of the film, Chloe doesn’t really understand her special powers and how truly powerful she is. I was focused on her emotional journey and how each new discovery affected her. At first, she is unsure of herself and how to use her powers so along with developing her theme I had to keep an element of uneasiness. I also added a slight touch of wonder that occurs when she discovers that her father has the same powers as she.

How did you want to chart Chloe’s evolution from a completely trusting girl to one who asserts her own take-charge will?

Her theme starts by using bells and a solo piano to convey her naivety and wonder. As the story evolves, I start to add string quartet and pull back the bells. As her power increases, the size of the orchestra gets bigger and bigger. During the climax of the film, I started to use brass in the lower octaves to convey her power.

Did being a father of two daughters help emotionally put you into the story? And in some respects, could you identify with Chloe?

Absolutely. When I was writing I thought about how I would handle the same circumstances if I were her father. I could really identify with the feeling of trying to protect your child at all costs might not be the best thing for them. In many ways, children are going to be who they are. It’s our job as parents to nurture that.

“Freaks” has an interesting “hybrid” approach that mixes the emotionally ethereal with suspense and action. Tell us about the instruments you used. And what did their styles represent to you in merging their orchestral and electronic natures?

I used the piano, bells, and strings to signify Chloe’s emotional journey. As I mentioned before, as the story of “Freaks” develops I expanded the textures and size of the orchestra. The electronics were used mainly as a supporting texture for the backdrop of the film. I used them when I needed the audience to feel uneasiness or fear.

Having scored many independent films with both artistic and straight-ahead ambitions, what kind of musical “tricks” have you learned in the trade to make the movies seem bigger – especially in the case of a picture like “Freaks?”

I always like to approach any film from what’s the best way I can help tell the story. Big budgets, little budgets – it doesn’t really matter. As long as the composer makes the artistic decisions with the story in mind, the score will turn out great. With “Freaks,” the budget wasn’t really an issue or a focus. We started from the premise of what the film needed. The idea was to start sparse and small and when Chloe’s world got bigger so would the size and complexity of the orchestra.

How did you want to play the metaphoric aspects of “Freaks” – i.e. the lethal fear of the outsider?

If you look at the score for “Freaks,” the live instruments represent the character’s story arc and the electronic instruments represent the fear of the unknown. There is some crossover but that was how I approached it. The natural vs. the unnatural.

In the end, would you say that “Freaks” becomes a “superhero” score as such?

That’s a good way to describe it. Chloe’s story arc needed to have a big, energetic ending and the superhero vibe seemed to work. With her powers at maximum, it becomes the biggest statement of her theme and gives a nice ending to the movie.

What kind of path do you think your music might take should the story of these “freaks” hopefully continue?

I think it would be interesting to explore where their powers take them. Would they be used for good? Justice? Rebellion? So many places the story to go and I would love to help tell it.

What’s up next for you?

I have an interesting drama called “The Experience” being released in the winter and a comedy called “Later Days” that starts to shoot later this month. I also will be scoring the 15th and final season of Supernatural.

In the same way that “Freaks” is about the next evolution of man, how do you think that your approach shows the direction in which genre film scoring is going, especially having been taught in an “old school” tradition?

I think the approach of the film is not to stick to any one genre or be afraid of being a blend of a few. Focus on telling a story and let that define the genre rather than the other way around. “10 Cloverfield Lane” was a little like that. It didn’t necessarily fit in a little neat box. And that makes for a fresh approach to storytelling, as the audience doesn’t know what to expect next. “Freaks” and my score for it act in the same way. It’s a scary fairytale that has elements of horror with a bit of a superhero movie. You can’t ask for more than that!

“Freaks” opens in theaters and on VOD September 13th, with Tim Wynn’s score available on Movie Score Media HERE

Listen to Tim Wynn’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Tim Wynn’s Website HERE