After any number of oh-so dark comic book pictures where there was barely a line between superhero and super-villain, you may have thought that comic book movies, like “Shazam!” “Aquaman” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were signaling a return to the boyish joy of having meta-abilities as the ultimate expression of being pure at heart. However, that film’s director and co-writer James Gunn also loves mayhem just as much, unleashing the psycho wannabe hero of “Super” as well as “Slither’s” flesh-loving alien invader. Now as a producer along with writer brother Brian Gunn (“PG Porn”) and cousin Mark Gunn (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”) have their seditious way with the legend of Superman – as given a truly horrific twist as “Brightburn.”
Following the iconic origin of an orphaned alien kid finding caring adoptive parents in rural America to a T, director David Yarovesky (“The Hive”) starts taking a significant moral detour as parents Tori and David Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) begin suspecting something isn’t quite right with their son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn). Obsessed with a mysterious insignia that spells out his real purpose, a flight-powered, super-strong, and eyebeam-shooting Brandon dons a red cape and ski mask to make mincemeat of his community – with earth the ultimate goal of his growing destruction. Poor Tori can’t accept that she’s got a very bad seed, even as her life becomes a cosmically powered horror show.
Leave it to a crewmate of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool 2’s” musical team to invert superhero scoring with a lurching, often terrifying score that nevertheless holds the symphonically emotional spirit of a Superman that could have been within its grasp. That identity of roaring sound masses, poignant piano and rural atmosphere is wrapped into the guise of composer Timothy Williams, a composer who now gets to reveal his abilities like never before with his biggest film yet. Skilled as an orchestrator (“Christopher Robin”) and conductor (“Annabelle: Creation”), Williams has long been the Robin to Tyler Bates’ Batman, writing additional music for that composer’s two “Guardians” scores, “Deadpool 2” and TV’s “The Exorcist,” while also contributing music to the likes of “Get Out.” Williams’ own growing career is as prolifically and stylistically impressive, especially when it came to the drama of a Jew in Nazi’s clothing for “Walking with the Enemy,” a seeming western score hero as bloodthirsty psychopath (“Diablo”) the life-hack electronic propulsion of “I.T.” and the moving faith-based drama of a Columbine victim in “I’m Not Ashamed.” Given his often called-upon musical abilities to play both danger and humanity, Williams’ theme-knit “Brightburn” fearsomely captures a wolf in ragtag superhero clothing, yet makes one feel for a kid who just can’t avoid his destiny and a mother who realizes what exactly she’s been fostering. It’s a “superhero” score who’s ultimate reveal is a composer with a power that’s ready to take the spotlight with “Brightburn.”
Tell us about your own musical origin story.
My great grandfather and grandmother both taught at The Royal Academy of Music in England. Music was always important in our family and I studied to become a concert pianist. Around eight, I began to become more interested in writing music than performing it and began to study composition in addition to performance. At sixteen, a film was shot at our school by Paul Almond (“Seven Up”) who invited me to write some music for the film. I was hooked. But I didn’t initially go into film scoring. Instead, I began in musical theater. I always had a goal to have a show on in the West End of London (like Broadway in the US). I achieved that goal in 2000 where a show I wrote, “Napoleon”, ran at the Shaftesbury Theater. Once I got that out of my system my desire to go back to film took over. I studied at the National Film School in England, and the UCLA Extension program and I took part in the ASCAP filmscoring workshop. I have been composing and orchestrating in film and TV since moving here to Los Angeles in 2001.
How did you get into scoring? And did you see yourself as a Jack-of-all-trades in that field, with conducting being a particular specialty?
I initially moved to LA to be a composer, but ended up having a strong career as an orchestrator and conductor. I initially saw these as a way to bridge the gap with composing, but over the years I’ve come to really enjoy doing both. As much as enjoy writing, it’s great to have a change from that, so it’s great to go back to orchestrating as a way to get a break. Orchestrating or conducting for other composers has enriched me greatly and flexes different creative muscles.
How do you think that working with Tyler Bates on “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool 2” set you up for a “superhero” score as such?
There is a language and cadence to these films that is specific to superhero movies. With “Brightburn” the largest challenge for all the creative team was finding a way to try to balance superhero and horror. The key for me was the emotional truth of the central story. It’s a universal question. The boy, Brandon asks “Who Am I”? He is an adopted son, with parents who love him, but he is not their child, or of this world. So the whole theme and heart of the film was finding a family theme that expressed that. It was the first cue I wrote, a simple theme starting with a Major 7th, which I feel is a great “superhero” interval. It expressed his potential and the love his parents have for him.
With “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool 2”, I learned to not be afraid to go epic with the theme, especially where the film needs that size and weight. Building on the simple theme and going big with low brass, processed percussion and large strings was important in “Brightburn”, so as Brandon’s power increases, so does the size of the orchestra, adding that weight and strength.
Do you think that scoring such dark, psychologically driven projects as “Diablo,” “Walking With the Enemy” and TV’s “Exorcist” also helped with your approach to “Brightburn?”
Yes. “Diablo” was a psychological thriller where Scott Eastwood tracks down a hunter, so there were many opportunities for heightening the suspense and tension that I also got to use in “Brightburn”. “Walking with the Enemy” is a story about a Jewish man who impersonates a Nazi officer to rescue Jews, so the music had to carry that tension of a fraud who could at any moment be discovered. Similarly, having tension linked to identity is an important theme in “Brightburn”, although the real threat and tension for Brandon comes from within. I also think “Get Out”, for which I wrote a large amount of additional music, was one of the most helpful projects in terms of telling a psychological story. There are many similar terrifying moments and the build and attack of those had a similar challenge to “Brightburn”.
Do you think that the Gunns have a naturally seditious approach to comic book movies?
Haha! I actually think the premise is an interesting one – a boy from another planet raised on a farm, discovers he has great powers. But instead of using them to help humanity, his natural predatory instincts of his species kick in.
Tell us about working with director David Yarovesky, who’s worked on James Gunn projects like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Belko Experiment”
Working with Dave was amazing and he was also the most collaborative and involved director I have worked with. I remember Simon Hatt, one of the producers, saying “Do we want to get this in the weeds with Tim?” to which Dave responded an enthusiastic “YES”! He’d come to my studio to help find language that worked musically, and Dave was continually engaging and full of ideas.
Tell us about creating your main “Brightburn” theme, and how you wanted it to reflect dark might with what might be called a lurching, stalking “terror” motif?
The heart of the movie for me is Tori’s belief and love for her adopted son. There is a scene in which Brandon asks his mother “Who Am I”. This for me was where I felt we needed that “super hero potential” motif. Dave and Simon always had this vision of taking this innocent and potentially uplifting theme and twisting it so it becomes dark evil and horrific. So I took that simple theme and mutated and twisted it to reflect the distortion and terror.
What kind of weight do you think super powers give to horrific music?
This is a great question. I went along to the first test screening and I remember thinking that the music I had written at the time did not have enough “power” when Brandon finally exercises his super powers. James Gunn likes music that hits hard, and the difference between before Brandon discovers his powers and after was not strong enough. I began to play with the concept of moving from piano/fiddle and a bespoke synth library, to adding layers of large orchestra, especially low dark brass, which ultimately comes to state the three-note them. I was fortunate enough to be able to record the orchestral component at Abbey Road, where the players brought the weight and power of a large orchestra. The musicians were also willing to experiment with distorting their instruments to add the horror elements.
“Brightburn” has several slow-burn sequences of victims falling prey to Brandon’s powers. What do you think is the key to making these deaths especially unnerving and suspenseful?
Silence. I have always felt that silence is the creepiest form of terror. No one likes silence. It’s one of the early discussions I have with directors when they ask about music in key sequences. It shocks them when I say “nothing”. Then slowly adding to silence can be terrifying. But silence is the key.
Tell us about the fusion of music, percussion and sound design that represent the kid’s growing, terrifying powers?
In addition to using larger orchestral forces as Brandon’s power grows, the other element I felt important was percussion. However, I didn’t want the usual heavy Taiko drums or timpani I spent a lot of time taking organic percussion and making it interesting using filters, distortion, delays and other sound toys. Alan Meyerson, one of the top mixers, also added his great bag of tricks. Another element of the score is this amazing bespoke library created for the ROLI, which allows me to take sound and bend pitch. It was designed so as I slid up the note, the sounds would mutate, often speeding up or slowing down.
How did you want to convey Tori’s desperate belief in her Brandon’s innocence, as well as her increasing realization that he’s evil?
There are several emotional cues in the movie that deal with her pain at discovering who her son really is. She is the last to hold out believing in her son’s innocence. I love that storyline and Elizabeth Banks was incredible at portraying Tori’s slow decent into realization. I always came back to the three-note theme of what she thought he could be.
Did you want to get across any kind of rural idea for this film’s ersatz Smallville?
Simple answer – the fiddle. It evokes both a rural simple farm, and can be very effective in becoming a creepy color later. It was one of the producer’s favorite colors, and a running joke “Is there fiddle in this? It needs fiddle”.
When so many superheroes straddle the “dark side,” was it fun to go all in here, but in way that still made Brandon more than a monster?
Playing around with taking the theme dark was fun – There was the low trombone version, with bends and pitching and large low string versions. My favorite though was having the pianist literally climb inside the piano to bend the piano strings while plucking the melody.
Did you want to get the idea of the Superman that Brightburn could have become into the score, if only he’d been good?
Yes. It’s where the film starts, seeing Brandon as a baby with a piano theme. It begs for a full joyous version – which we never get. The closest is a creepy scene where Brandon is talking with a girl he has a crush on. It verges on the point of being beautiful but actually the pitch constantly bends and gives you this sick unsettled feeling.
You’ve got a number of projects up ahead for you. What can you tell us about them?
I’m currently doing an incredible comedy pilot for FOX, as well as several films -an animated holiday film “Piney” starring Jim Cummings and Simon Pegg, a musical dramatic comedy “The Swearing Jar” starring Alison Pill and Iwan Rheon, and an Irish teen drama “There You’ll Find Me” about a violist from the US who spends a summer in Ireland starring Vanessa Redgrave.
After writing additional music for major projects in addition to your own scores, “Brightburn” represents your biggest solo credit yet. What’s your advice to those composers who find themselves as assistants for a long time who want to make that similar leap?
One of my early mentors, James Newton Howard gave me great advice. Learn as much as you can so you are ready. There are so many technical things you need to know and you can’t learn it on the job. Talent alone is not enough. You have to deliver a lot of music quickly and you need to learn how to do that. I think it takes a lot of practice to take on a 60-90 minute score. Doing additional music helps build muscle without the pressure of being the front person. It’s a great way to learn the craft, and I am eternally grateful to Tyler Bates for all he has taught me.
In the end, would you say “Brightburn” is a horror score above all?
I think it definitely employs horror language and tools, no question, and it often needs to function in a suspenseful or full on “hunting” mode. But ultimately the movie is a fun summer film – not meant to be taken too seriously, always with a sly smile. Come on – it’s a Gunn film :)
“Brightburn” opens in theaters on May 24th, with Timothy Williams’ soundtrack available on Sony Classical Records HERE
Visit Timothy Williams’ web site HERE