Interview with Victor Reyes

Few composers are as adept at opening a world within an impossibly confined space as Victor Reyes. Whether unleashing epic suspense for a man imprisoned by a coffin in his breakthrough score for “Buried,” or creating a concert piece that a musician must finish under pain of death for “Grand Piano,” Reyes has shown a classically inspired voice that’s taken him from a prolific career in Spain to impressing Hollywood with an impressively melodic, often chilling voice – a talent that netted him an Emmy for his exotic, pulse-pounding score for the limited series adaption of John LeCarré “The Night Manager.”

Both Reyes and filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes certainly have taste for the cold and creepy, moving upwards from “Buried” to the faith-healing thriller “Red Lights.” Now they unlock the spirits of a seemingly isolated girl’s academy where evil lies “Down a Dark Hall.” Academies have certainly proven fertile ground for terror with the likes of “Suspiria” and “Satan’s School for Girls.” Yet the tormented, intellectual spin that’s at the end of this “Hallway” is certainly a unique trip for the genre. Dropped off at The Blackwood Boarding School in the middle of nowhere by her unsuspecting parents, the rebellious “Kit” (AnnaSophia Robb) and just a few, fellow misfit teens are told by the highly suspect Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) that she’ll help them develop their “gifts” together. However, the X-mansion this is not, as it’s steadily revealed that the newfound, artistic talents flowing through their fingers come from a quite disturbing source.

Reyes is certainly possessed by Bernard Herrmann as he visits this old dark mansion, with impossibly eerie and lush orchestrations echoing through its passageways and hidden chambers. But while his score resounds with an old school spirit, Reyes is also sure to reflect his very contemporary heroines with folksy guitar and alt. rock attitude. making for a musical combination appealing to both mature and YA audiences. Amidst the inescapably lurching rhythms, eerily poignant melodies and youthfully defiant vibes, “Down a Dark Hall” is most musically impressive as Reyes crafts another concert piece. At first thematically evolving from lyrical piano, more sinisterly determined strings, a ghostly chorus and finally an epic symphonic climax make for a memorable danse macabre, Reyes once again brilliantly breaks through the wall between the realm of classical music and score, but to an effectively unholy point here. His score is the architecture of Cortes’ film, giving its target young audience a lesson they won’t forget in the existence of the ghosts of supernatural scoring who are more contemporarily alive than ever.

Tell us about your musical upbringing and how it led you to scoring. Did you have a particular love of the piano?

Well, I have studied the piano career since I was a child, so it can be said that most of the relationship I have with music I have had through this instrument.

You were quite prolific in Spain. What was the earlier part of your career like, and why do you think your country richer more than ever with composing talent?

Spain is, in itself, a country full of talent and passion for life and the arts. I started to develop my musical career as a studio musician in the pop groups of the 80s, in a very important cultural and political environment that influenced a lot of the artists of my generation.

How did you first meet Rodrigo, and what impressed him about your work?

Rodrigo called me for his first film, “The Contestant,” and since then I have written the soundtracks of all his films. He is a particularly attractive man to work with, since we share a lot in terms of musical and cinematographic tastes.

What were the challenges of scoring a one set claustrophobic setting with Rodrigo’s “Buried,” and how important do you think it was for the music to open the film up as it were?

“Buried” is probably one of the most difficult films to interpret for a composer, since we are in a unique and very reduced stage, as it is a coffin. The option we managed was to “represent” everything that happened “outside” the physical scope of the film – that is, outside the coffin, so that the audience had more emotional information about what is happening.

You got to score for Rodrigo on a bigger scale for “Red Lights.” What was the challenge of a film where the mystery was if there was a “real” supernatural element at play?

In “Red Lights” we tried to contain the music in the scenes in which “supernatural” things happened so as not to create an atmosphere of “reality” in them. This aspect of “reality” emerges much better when it refers to the “true story” that underlies the story, that is, by paying attention, it is possible to identify a trickster. That’s what the movie is about.

A score that really set the tone for “Down a Dark Corridor” would be “Grand Piano,” which again had a unique sort of confinement – that of a pianist not being able to stop playing under an assassin’s threat. Tell about writing an original piece that also had to function as the soundtrack?

It is quite complicated, because as in “Grand Piano”, some scenes of “Down A Dark Hall” have diegetic music, that is, that is playing in the middle of the action, as are the pieces that Kit plays on the piano. The process of composing music “before” the production is very similar to that of a “musical”, but without lyrics, since you have to think about how to physically perform these pieces during filming, taking advantage of the artistic skills of the actors.

You’d been working with Spanish directors with most of your scores. How did you finally get your Emmy-winning “international” breakthrough with “The Night Manager?” And what was your experience like on a globetrotting suspense series like this?

The experience of working in “The Night Manager” has been a way of learning, as in any other film. Its director Susanne Bier has won an Oscar, and the cast was made up of such talented actors. The series was also personally supervised by John LeCarré. So I had many possibilities to help me understand such a complex plot. But with so many different scenarios, it was important to be careful so that the music wouldn’t “reveal” much about the final resolution. I had to preserve the mystery.

Not only did we get the Oscar-winning “Shape of Water” last year, but also the far less-seen “Cold Skin” was released, which was about the far less romantic encounter between humans and fish-people. Could you talk about your approach to the film? And having scored it, what did you think of “The Shape of Water” and it’s music?

“The Shape Of Water” is a very different film from “Cold Skin.” One is a romantic story about the need to understand the other, while the film I scored was full of cruel action where the characters kept a distance – although like “Shape,” the movie does become very emotional as the story progresses.

Rodrigo’s “Down a Dark Hall” is his first straightforwardly supernatural film. There have been several “evil boarding academy” movies made, most popularly among them “Suspiria.” But what do you think makes “Down a Dark Hall’s” approach stand out in the genre?

It is a supernatural film in terms of the story, but the film delves into an idea that Rodrigo explained to me during the first months of production, and that has to do with that in this world “nothing is free”. Art is a path of suffering, of perseverance. Advancing in any discipline means sacrifice. You cannot give it away. It is a very deep concept that is not so clear in today’s society. For example, the bookstores are full of books like “Learn to play the piano in a week”. That does not exist. In his last book, Steve Pinker notes that -in general terms- you have to spend around 10,000-15,000 hours practicing any artistic discipline to be able to master it. That is a lot of work.

Melody is literally key to this score. Given that a “piano score” piece would be essential, did you write it before shooting began? And how did you want it to develop from piano intimacy to its epic orchestral finish?

The “melody” of the film is one of the keys that explain the final resolution. I do not want to make spoilers but this melody that reaches the character of Kit from nowhere, has an explanation within the story. Go see the movie, and you will understand what I am talking about. Of course, the pieces that Anna Sophia Robb plays on the piano were written by me and by Rodrigo months before filming began. In the end, music is the vehicle through which the protagonist understands that she is facing herself, and not supernatural beings.

Star AnnaSophia Robb and filmmaker Rodrigo Cortés

Were you on the set at all to work with AnnaSophia Robb to help make her playing convincing, especially given the circumstances?

Anna Sophia is a wonderful actress, and a great collaborator. It is very difficult for an actor to give the feeling that he “dominates” an instrument, whatever it may be. In the case of the piano. Pianists have a “position”, a way of sitting before the instrument, of physically relating to it. She worked a lot with us on this “new” aspect of her character, and she did it with full conviction. Actually, it is impossible to know whether or not he is really playing the piano. We all worked hard on this to give the greatest fidelity to the images.

Given the anger of the young women who are forced to go to Blackwood, how did you want to bring in the idea of the “alt.” music, and attitude that they walk in, especially when contrasted with the “old school” horror- suspense approach of the score?

To give the idea that girls travel not only to a different place in their homes, but to a “different” place in almost temporary terms, we start with a score that is going to undergo a metamorphosis through different musical currents related to the classical music, the farthest thing from the world of these girls. The score travels through impressionism, and serial music to lead to a musical epic that represents the death of the powers that exert their influence on art. What really scares the movie are the people who take advantage of other people. That’s what Kit finds when she goes down the stairs to get to the Dark Hall.

Tell us about your main themes here, especially a powerful, rhythmically “chopping” theme in the score whenever something particularly terrifying happens.

We needed to create a very special environment for the Blackwood mansion, which is a place separate from the world where strange and dramatic things are going to happen. Apart from the “main theme”, which refers to the longing that Kit suffers for his dead father, we needed to represent the character of the Uma Thurman’s character Madame Duret, who is someone you would expect to find in the Paris of the early twentieth century in a bohemian café. So she has a very different character from the rest of the score. Also the house, as protagonist, has its own “musical world”, a kind of beating heart that has the ambition to explode into terror.

Blackwood has suspiciously few students enrolled in it. How did you want to capture their sense of isolation, both psychologically and being in the middle of nowhere?

As I was saying, from the first moment that girls arrive at the house, we use music as an action element to represent that they are in a place where they have no control over what happens. Madame Duret takes away cell phones, which for any teenager means little less than complete isolation. From then on, girls have to live with what the house provides them, which is full of surprises.

How did you want the music to unravel the mystery, and steadily build through it?

From the first beat in the first scene, before anything happens, we use the “main theme” but in a suggested way. The theme itself was developed during the story for the musical emotional support that becomes the character of Kit. At the end of the film, the theme itself almost does not recognize itself, more than when it opens again to the piano the simplest way possible. It’s like removing layers from an onion. At the heart of the onion lies a truth, a disturbing reality.

There’s certainly a romantically lush, Bernard Herrmann-esque feel to your score. Did you use “Corridor” to salute the great, atmospheric horror scores of yore?

The romantic musical parts develop during the learning phase of Kit, who does not really know what the hell is going on in the house. In this sense, there is a mysterious part closely related to Herrmann, but immediately everything falls apart, and gives way to a much more aggressive and contemporary orchestration.

You also make “Hall” a hybrid score as well with electronics. How did you want to employ them here?

At first, we thought that the score should be very purist, only with orchestra, etc. But we realized that the musical representation of the “ghosts” required a more contemporary sound, a combination of orchestral acoustics and very elaborate electronic music. . There are parts of the score in which we have chords of 60 notes in the middle of a diabolic “ostinato”. On top of all this, synthesizers and electronic textures give the soundtrack a much more up-to-date package.

“Down a Dark Hall” certainly has an interesting twist that plays into the idea of the great classics. Like “Grand Piano,” it puts you in the position of capturing artists far smarter than mere mortals. What kind of challenge does that present?

Certainly, this is the central idea of the film. Some pieces that sound in the film were written by a fictional composer that we invented for the occasion. Let’s say that the ghost of this composer dead centuries ago is going to take over Kit’s character through his music.

Rodrigo Corté and actress Uma Thurman

In spite of its scares, there’s also a wicked, subtle sense of humor to “Down a Dark Hallway.” How did you want to capture the overt, Gothic quality of its teachers, especially Uma Thurman’s beyond-French stepmistress?

The character of Uma Thurman treats the girls as what they are, angry girls, and she behaves like what she is, the director of a special institution. Madame Duret is sarcastic with them but at the same time she lends her help with the best intention. At least in the first part of the story. The music represents all of this.

Kit’s character is haunted from the beginning by visions of her father, and a relationship that could have been. How important was it have this emotional angle to the score, especially as all hell ends up breaking out around her?

It was very important, as you say, because the figure of the father represents everything that she believes unites him to the earth, to his life. Actually, what is necessary for Kit to move on with his life, is to say goodbye to him. That’s why the “father’s theme” plans over the entire film until it becomes “something else”, something for the future, that helps Kit to stop looking backwards.

Given the contemporary rhythms and guitar music in the score, do you think it’s important for horror scores, at least when dealing with young characters, retain a youthful appeal?

Contemporary rhythms, or “pop” songs are important in this film, since the protagonists are teenagers of today. We have used them for the presentation of the girls, but once they arrive at the mansion, all this disappears to contrast with “another” reality, both physical and musical.

Your next score for “Finding Steve McQueen” is as differently all-American as can be in dealing with about a gang that tries to steal Richard Nixon’s hush money. What can you tell us about your score?

“Finding Steve McQueen” is a wonderful movie by Mark Steven Johnson, the director of “Daredevil” and “Ghost Rider”. It is a film about people who behave like children, and do not take responsibility for their actions. In a romantic comedy tone, it is a very funny and exciting movie. I am very happy to have done it and I have had the opportunity to handle other musical records.

Given a vast repertoire, why do you think you’re drawn repeatedly to both supernatural, and suspenseful subject matter?

Well, they call me to do this, and this is what I do, but I do not have preferences. I guess it’s the tastes of the public, which is, in the end, for those of us who work.

View “Down a Dark Hall” in theaters and on VOD from Lionsgate Premiere on August 17th, with Victor Reyes’ score available soon.

Buy the soundtrack: “Buried”

Buy the soundtrack: “Red Lights”

Buy the soundtrack: “Grand Piano”

Buy the soundtrack: “The Night Manager”

Buy the soundtrack: “Cold Skin”

Visit Victor Reyes’ website HERE