Interview with West Dylan Thordson

Long before the idea of a shared comic book universe was a glimmer in Hollywood’s eye, M. Night Shyamalan introduced a “real world” superhero and arch villain for 2000’s “Unbreakable.” Little did security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realize he was an ersatz Superman until his true identity was revealed by wheelchair-bound, brittle-boned, comic book collector-cum-evil genius Elijah Price – a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). It was a shocking journey of discovery guided with a mournful, symphonically lush score by Shyamalan’s then-frequent composing collaborator James Newton Howard (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs”). Given perhaps his best twist ending to that point in a career made on them.

“Unbreakable” was arguably Shyamalan’s biggest highpoint for the next sixteen years until his critical comeback with “Split.” Transforming his work into a far darker, murderous meditation on identity, Shyamalan not only introduced his far darker side with a personality-filled “Horde” (embodied by James McAvoy), but also a new, impressive scoring collaborator in West Dylan Thordson.

Starting off as a Minnesotan rocker leading the band “A Whisper in the Noise,” Thordson’s spin on Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A’Changin” proved notable Shyamalan, who used the version for “Lady in the Water.” With his scoring travels taking him to New York and then Hollywood, Thordson’s work was mostly in the documentary realm with such projects as “The Atomic States of America,” “Dixieland” and “3 Generations,” Thordson showed he had bloody money running through icy, creative veins when he played the cunningly, lethal sides of heirs John Du Pont in “Foxcatcher” and Robert Durst for the HBO documentary series “The Jinx.” With “Split,” Thordson channeled eerie empathy and bone-grinding rage, conveying vulnerable multiple identities helpless before the emergence of a wall-crawling, flesh-ripping Beast.

Of course saving the best surprise for last, the far more human strains of Howard’s David Dunn theme appeared at “Split’s” end to reveal that this hooded avenger (along with his arc-nemesis) shared the same “real” world. It was a promise for a comic book team-up that had Shyamalan’s fans salivating for the possibilities. Now nineteen years after this unexpected saga’s first chapter, “Glass” brings the three meta-humans together for the ultimate throw-down of powers real, or perhaps imagined. As staged in an asylum run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), “Glass” veers from intensive psychotherapy to sinister plotting for a climax that might seem to move Shyamalan into Marvel and DC movie territory. But given the writer-director’s moody take on the nature of heroism and evil, “Glass” takes an expectedly unexpected route, especially in Thordson’s inventively psychological score. While Howard’s more mainstream signature is still in the mix, Thordson assumes Dunn’s identity with his own poignant approach to the security guard. Mr. Glass becomes a sinister, melodically crystalline force, while The Horde’s nerve-wrenching sampling becomes even gnarlier.

Varying between experimental dissonance and hauntingly intimate melody for piano and chamber orchestrations, Thordson finds a humanity that links the characters, especially in the relationship between Casey (Anya-Taylor Joy), a Horde survivor determined to reach the victim within his rage. Driving the score is the sense of a clock ticking to a confrontation governed by cosmic forces beyond anyone’s control. It’s a striking soundtrack as far away from the traditions of comic book scoring as imaginable as Thordson embodies Shyamalan’s subversive take on the genre. Like “Split,” “Glass” announces an especially forceful identity on the scoring scene, now more impressive than ever in its multiple guises.

Tell us about your musical beginnings and how they led you to composing?

I grew up in a fairly remote rural region of Minnesota. Early on, my most impactful connection to music largely came from messing around on my grandma’s old spinet piano that was next to an old wood-enclosed television set. Much of my upbringing was spent as the only child at my grandparents’ dairy farm. While they would be outside tending to farm work, I was often inside with the TV as babysitter. Music from movies, TV, and video games was a huge influence on me, and I remember spending many hours at the piano plunking out my versions of things I’d hear. Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme was something I was particularly obsessed with. No one in my family was a musician or artist, and like many areas in the Midwest, pursuit of the arts tended not to be strongly encouraged, especially within working class families.

The music teachers I attempted to learn from tended to have a tough, pretentious shell to survive the area. Being very shy, it was difficult for me to establish trust or connection with these educators. Understandably, the musicians my age tended to have similar qualities to the local teachers, so many of my attempts to connect musically with other children was met with condescension. None of this was necessarily a bad thing, but it did cause me to introvert even further with my interests. Perhaps protecting a more unique inner world of creative perspective, but with diffidence attached. I became more secretive with my interests. For quite a while, I focused mostly on visual arts, which definitely had a big influence on how I perceive music. But creatively, what I really wanted to make was music with layered development.

The day that I discovered 4-track cassette recorders existed, things clicked for me. I became obsessed and began saving up money. Music has been focal for me ever since then. Long before I attempted playing music with other people, I began using the 4-track to make sense out of multipart music. No one I knew had one, so it was my world alone to develop within. The 4-track recorder became both a great tool and a crutch. Its limitations shaped me towards the composer I am today. Eventually, I worked my way out of my shell enough to start working with other musicians. I began learning to read and write staff music by going to the public library. This was all pre-internet for me, so there was a lot of isolated logic at play.

How do you think scoring a true, murderous series like “Jinx” set you up for “Split?”

From the start, Night mentioned that “The Jinx” series was the main reason I was hired. He said everyone at Blinding Edge, his film company, was obsessed with it, and he sought me out for “Split” because of it. Oddly enough, he hadn’t realized that he’d previously licensed a piece of music I made in an earlier movie. All this definitely helped with the interview process. To move forward on film projects, relationships with filmmakers take trust and feelings of connection between each other.

Much of the music from “The Jinx” played with a POV perspective for an audience peering in as if staring into a snow globe at a bad dream. Frequently, it scored an inner Robert Durst taking control of his own narrative. Durst obviously wanted to be understood, but to tell his story, his way, within the truth he wanted to be seen. As dark as it was, I wanted to humanize his crafted storytelling as best as possible, keeping it veiled and controlled, but with a yearning for connection. At one point, I thought of it as scoring the thrill and awe of a child feeling safe in his home, looking out a window at a tornado that’s destroying all the neighbors’ homes.

Yet aside from Durst’s POV, there was so much painful tragedy in the “The Jinx.” A family lost a young daughter and sibling, and they were unable to find closure with what happened. Any score music here needed to feel of a sincere place with both overt and complex feelings of loss.

In reverse of this sincerity, other parts of the score needed to play with a dark, wry comedic sense. Music from the original “Terminator” film was one inspiration for some of it. With Robert Durst, it played sort of in an over-the-top, tabloid news way.

Photo by Marion Curtis / Starpix

For “Split,” Night was looking for music with some very similar perspective and energy. He wanted a score that played from the POV perspective. Much of it needed to feel dark and controlled. The music for Kevin Wendell Crumb needed to hold a sincere sense of tragedy. The Beast needed unique colors that felt unexpected. There was also a darkly playful energy, and I definitely pulled from some of “The Terminator” influence for this. For me, much of this played to the perspective of Hedwig watching from within, scoring this child who spoke with a thrill when bragging about the Beast.

Were you a fan of M. Night’s films before doing “Split?” And how do you think his style set him apart from other director-writers in the genre?

I was a fan before we met. I’d seen all of his films from “The Sixth Sense” onward, regardless of critical conscientious. He’s the real deal – a true filmmaker and artist. Whether or not people like what he does with his movies, he makes them from a genuine place. When “Unbreakable” first came out, I watched it twice in a row. On the first watch, I remember not knowing quite what to think. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but I felt compelled to watch it again. So I did and loved it. This stuck with me. I feel Night chooses a very difficult approach to filmmaking. He goes for things that are complex and difficult to achieve cinematically, though not in an esoteric way. He genuinely wants to make movies that many people connect to, yet still veer on the fringe of what many people might accept.

What did you discover about M. Night’s approach to music on “Split?”

On “Split,” he frequently commented that the score should always feel as though it comes from the internal perspective of the characters appearing within each scene. Through the music, he wanted to feel the ride that the characters were on. For me, I took liberties with what this means, but I really love this concept.

Talk about creating the guttural, nerve-ending sound for “Split,” and how it would lead to the appearance of The Beast.

For this sound, I started by recording several loose takes of some simple harmonic bowing ideas with a cellist and violinist. The intention was to heavily modulate the captured sounds. While playing around with an idea in the past, I’d accidentally captured something like this and wanted to explore it more.

For the initial take, it was basically two mics, a Coles 4038 and figure-8 condenser, setup in M/S. I recorded this digitally with Ableton Live. Afterwards, I individually sent both sides of stereo out to a mono Nagra 4.2 tape recorder running at it’s fastest speed. The tape was played back slowed down to the lowest speed and digitally re-recorded. The Nagra is extremely consistent for a tape machine, but when the two stereo sides are re-synced from tape individually, the result plays back with really unpredictable phasing issues. Next, the new stereo audio was time-compressed in Ableton so the slowed-down tape re-recordings played at approximately the same speed of the original recordings. To finish it off, I used a plugin called Elastique Pitch to further modulate the pitch to where it sounded best. I also with messing it up ever more using two separate Roland Space Echos and a plate reverb.

The resulting sound was extremely chaotic, unpredictable, and scary. It felt haunted and seemed to capture the otherworldly, tortured, animalistic quality I was looking for. I wanted it to feel like “Jaws,” foreshadowing the existence of this malevolent being.

Were you as surprised as everyone else by its sequel-promising ending the first time you saw “Split,” and what it portended for your involvement in a revealed M. Night “universe?”

When I began the project, I saw a version that didn’t include the final scene. Some of “Split” was still being shot, and I was told of the connections early on. All said, I still didn’t expect a third film would happen. So when I saw the first version of the film with the final ending, there was still an element of surprise for me.

Did your collaboration with M. Night differ on “Glass,” especially when it came to this film’s tone?

In the early stages, it did a lot. Having developed communication and trust from “Split” allowed me to be able to freely experiment a lot early on and feel like I was on the right path. When they shot at the Allentown State Hospital, I spent a lot of time on set. Experiencing the film process while cameras were still rolling inspired a lot of feelings about tone, which I was able to immediately explore with great depth.

How did being on “set” inspire you?

The Allentown State Hospital was an enormous property. I believe there were 28 buildings with a tunnel system connecting many of them. It was desolate and abandoned, with numerous vast spaces I found acoustically inspiring. Recording musical silence within the buildings captured otherworldly room tones I was dying use in the score. So soon after getting there, I brought in an assortment of drums and percussion. After the film crew fully wrapped for the night, I’d often go in and record ideas with a mobile rig. Generally from 9 PM until 4 AM. Aside from a couple roaming security guards, it was just me. Some might say it would be a very spooky and Kubrickian experience. But for me, the hospital at night tended to feel strangely inviting and electrifying. There were only a couple times I felt like I needed to pack up and get out quickly.

Mr. Glass and West on set (photo by Adam Bailey)

A friend mine, the violinist Tim Fain even came to the hospital. We recorded much of the violin work used in the score within the super creepy tunnel system. There was also an enormous upstairs auditorium we used. It was just down the hall from the main surgery room, which I’m certain held many dark stories. The “Pink Room,” with all the lights off, was used too. To say the least, it was an unforgettable experience. I can still feel a vibe from it sometimes.

What was it like for you to adapt, and expand upon the theme that James Newton Howard created for David Dunn in “Unbreakable,” especially when battling with yours from “Split?

In the beginning, it was intimidating. It felt as though any way I approached his work would be wrong. In the process, I ended discovering a lot of thematic material of my own that seems to flourish from these genuine feelings of doubt. Much of this worked well within the story of “Glass.” At some point, I felt that the best approach with James’ material was keeping it sincere and sort of naked, as if it was a far-off, ghost-of-a-tune that David was hearing.

How does your own music hear David?

To me, I saw David as a man who had still not fully believed that he was all that remarkable, even though he discovered he had superpowers. He chose to stay hidden, keeping a lifestyle of an ordinary, working class man. While staying mostly in the shadows, he had grown old, only choosing to take these gifts so far. Musically, new material was written for David that contained a lot of doubt, but with hesitant yearning to fully believe in the extraordinary.

What was your approach like to the brittle, calculating quality of Mr. Glass, especially given that you’re scoring another criminal mastermind?

Within “Glass,” I saw Elijah moving with a sociopathic precision and unstoppable persistence. He also has this playful energy, as if it all is just a thrilling chess match for him. To express this approach, I wanted to find sounds that felt brittle and sharp. Violin and metal percussion became clear voices for me to build from. At the core of Elijah is a philosopher, always in pursuit of knowledge and his perception of truth. So I felt there needed to be a determined feeling of the pursuit of truth. I loved the concept of recording the instruments and sounds I was gathering as they echoed down the halls of the empty asylum. So much tragedy and sadness was present there, and it seemed to attach to the sound of the recordings.

What is the challenge as well for scoring a film that brings together so many characters, especially given one with endless multiple personalities?”

For a good while, bass clarinet was something I explored intensely for Elijah. My concept was to link it into the world of the Beast sounds from “Split,” eventually melting them into one sound. I wanted to take the chaotic, animalistic growls and moans of the Beast theme and have it evolve with the meticulousness, chess-like nature of Elijah. As you score a film, music takes shape to picture in unexpected ways. For the collaborative process of filmmaking to keep moving, one needs to constantly detach and simply roll with it. If things don’t come together fast, alternative approaches need to happen. This is a challenging process, but embracing this is necessary for the craft of scoring films.

Talk about the metallic effects you created for The Beast this time out?

Much of this originated from taking the chaotic, animalistic sounds of the Beast theme and attempting to have it evolve with all the sociopathic precision of Elijah’s thematic concepts.

How did you want to play Casey this time out, especially given her sympathy for the multiple personalities, even after what they’ve put her through?

There was a strangely worn-in sympathy between her and The Horde. It felt as though Casey held a mild exasperation with this sympathy that balanced against her fears in this relationship. Within it was a yearning to reach through The Horde so she could explore deeper into this genuine connection she felt to Kevin Wendell Crumb. I wanted to find a theme for this that felt hopeful but could never fully find itself. Music that kept climbing and climbing and reaching but never quite got to where it was going. From the soundtrack release, the whole piece is played out as the track titled “Cycles.” Yet within the film, this piece only appears within fragments and slivers.

There’s a “ticking clock” aspect to “Glass” as the characters figure out how to escape. How did you want to play this element, and the setting of an insane asylum?

This sound was attached to Elijah, but I wanted it to integrate into the other characters as well. Early in the film, this sound appears within David, leading to his pursuit of the Horde. I wanted it to play as if David was already beginning to feel Elijah’s presence again. It seemed that David had been floating around for years with a feeling of being incomplete. He was becoming more and more lost and tired. Suddenly emotions in him were beginning to reawaken. I liked the idea of crafting a clocklike sound, but I wanted it to play at a much faster tempo. For some reason, 161 bpm seemed right to me. This tempo seemed more like time was running out, combined with a feeling of something unstopped and inevitable.

How experimental did you want to make the combination of melody and dissonance for “Glass,” especially in how you balance more intimate orchestrations for piano and chamber strings with gnarlier sounds?

Mainly, I wanted the combination of melody and dissonance in “Glass” to play to Elijah’s thrilling and playful energy. To me, this was in connection to Elijah’s defiant desire to shake things loose and turn everything around him upside-down while he calmly played chess – dissonant and chaotic, but fully in control. The longer gnarled sounds combined with the pristine orchestral elements seemed to work well to represent the melding of light and dark. Having them paralleling or harmonizing somewhat together, as if towards an awkward acceptance of a chaotic existence rather than a clear yin and yang opposition. To me, the score for “Glass” is largely about discovery and acceptance.

Do you think that that comparing the M. Night collaborations of you and James Newton Howard shows just how more experimental genre scores have gotten?

Yes, in many ways. Hiring Mike Gioulakis was very much in line with this, and there are similarities between him and me here. Within this era of filmmaking in general, there seems to be an openness to utilizing more unconventional scores, but much of this is directly related to current technologies of filmmaking. Many filmmakers have been tending to favor fast, loose results with a lot of energy over what they might consider to be the traditional, conservatory-trained approach. This can be extremely deflating when you have been envisioning music to be recorded by a full orchestra ensemble, especially when you feel the quality difference is dramatic. Yet for many modern filmmakers, the difference they hear between the results of a quickly-made, less-costly scoring approach and the recording of dozens of living, breathing, human beings – that are all making music together at once in one room as orchestral ensemble – has turned into a choice of preference and taste over a clearly perceived difference in quality.

For a clear example, I (along with other composers I know) have created music for scenes where I provided a demo mockup for a full orchestral recording. The filmmakers responded strongly to the demo piece, but agreed that it doesn’t quite sound full enough for the final picture. So they authorized the recording of a live orchestra, regardless of cost. The recording was made, and the results were extraordinary. The room felt alive and electric. When watching the picture with the live recording, one could clearly feel more air within the scene. The emotions became more focused, yet nuanced and human. I was overjoyed to share the material with the filmmakers. Yet somehow when the new recording was presented, the filmmakers listened back and forth between both recordings and found themselves unable to let go of the original demo. To them, the demo held some sort of cinematic magic that the full orchestra didn’t capture. Some of this is simply “demo love,” but some of this is a clear example of how people now hear music differently. It’s all down to a matter of taste, but tastes are always changing.

For “Glass,” Night’s decision to hire me seemed built around his intimate process of filmmaking. He seemed to want someone he could work very closely with so he could feel deeply bonded in the process of building the score. He wanted someone he fully trusted to fall in love with the film and pour everything into crafting the score. For much of the editing of “Glass,” I set myself up in a space just downstairs from his office. I relocated from NYC to Philadelphia. Night was looking for a very particular score. He specifically wanted music that he hadn’t heard before, yet echoed back elements of the first two films in some unique way. We searched for musical ideas that felt unpredictable and developed them alongside familiar ideas. Early on, we made plans to record everything live with a large orchestra ensemble. As the film developed, we chose a different route. The film we were making seemed to call for different music, utilizing a lot of the unusual sounds I captured at the Allentown State Hospital and smaller chamber ensembles.

How do you think “Glass” shows off your distinctive approach to the genre, and would you like to see him bring other elements of his movie universe together in the future?

I genuinely love the collaborative energy of the filmmaking process and thrive on finding a childlike joy in diving deep to discover unique sonic colors, motifs, and melodies that help shape storytelling. For me, scoring film is all about unearthing nuances in the story that could not be experiences without music. I tend to love scores that operate with an invisibility while doing this. No Country for Old Men” is one of my favorite films, and almost no music is used. When Carter Burwell’s score occurs, the story needs music to be there. “Glass” is an entirely different film. It seemed to thrive with lots of music. For the filmmaking process, about three times as much music was created as was used in the final version. As the film was edited, I attempted to remove music wherever possible. This approach aside, I also love melody and theme use. The score for the first “Jurassic Park” is another of my favorites. Though melody in “Glass” is very different, there was still a lot of influence from “Jurassic Park” in “Glass.”

As far as Night’s movie universe, all I wish for is that he continues to explore filmmaking in his own unique way, with childlike joy and fearlessness.

photo by Marion Curtis / Starpix

“Glass” opens in theaters on January 18th, with Wes Dylan Thordson’s score available on Back Lot Music HERE

Listen to the previous issues with ”Unbreakable” HERE and “Split” HERE

Special thanks to Nikki Walsh