By RACHEL REEVES
When looking at Brittany Allen’s resume there are a few things that become crystal clear. For one, her strength as an actress is as versatile as it is impressive. Along with winning a Daytime Emmy for her role in the long-running soap opera All My Children, her credits include bonafide genre projects like Jigsaw, It Stains the Sands Red, What Keeps You Alive, The Prodigy, and the Amazon Original series The Boys.
Secondly, while it’s easy to be blinded by the wealth of cool roles that she has embodied over the years, Allen’s skills don’t stop with her acting abilities; she’s also a composer. After making her film composing debut in 2018 with Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive, Allen solidified her prowess for intuitive, emotionally rich soundscapes with her score for the Shudder hit, Z. Artfully adept at balancing terror with genuine heart, it is no wonder that she has quickly become an in-demand talent. Along with composing for both seasons of The CW’s Two Sentence Horror Stories, she recently scored an episode of the new AMERICAN HORROR STORIES series titled, “Feral.”Rue Morgue sat down with Allen to discuss her dynamic dual careers, working in television, and the changes that are still desperately needed within the film composing industry.
You’ve been acting for a long time, but have recently started composing for film as well. What drew you to the world of film scoring? How did you get here?
I studied musical theater from a very young age. I specialized in it in high school and it was my major in college. Congruent to that, I was acting in film and TV from a really young age as well. But then interestingly after college, I kind of shifted my focus entirely into film, TV, and acting, and music just really fell out of my life. It was a rude cut of something that I loved dearly and, throughout my twenties, I found myself turning to my voice memos on my phone and recording melodies that came into my head. Over the years, it was in the hundreds and thousands of recordings.
And, there came a point where as an actor I’d had some good success and I’d been a part of some fun, interesting projects, but just being a very creative person, I didn’t like the fact that as an actor, you’re always kind of waiting for someone else to give you the opportunity. I needed to find another outlet for myself and I needed to have something that was my own. So, that kind of burning need came to a peak around the same time that I looked at my phone and I thought, “What the hell am I building all these voice memos for? Like, literally thousands. There must be something that I’ve got in my mind.” So it all culminated with me going, “I’m going to start writing songs again. I’m going to truly bring music back into my life.” I opened my computer and GarageBand, which is like the most basic music production software that you can start with. I had taken a course on it back in college, so I had a rudimentary understanding of it. And, I remember the night very clearly when I laid down the first song on that. It had been years since I had really expressed myself musically and suddenly it was just like this dam had been lifted and the water came rushing out. I also was at the stage where I could really see the power in a program like GarageBand and what comes after.
I realized [that I didn’t] have to be classically trained. I don’t have to have gone to school for jazz or whatever. I can teach myself all of these things and then I can apply everything that I’m hearing in my head. I don’t need to be able to play it live necessarily. I can build out orchestras! I suddenly realized the possibilities were endless. And that, to me, is the most exciting aspect of creativity and all that there is to learn. So then I set on this journey of learning music production and teaching myself the software. Over the course of a couple of years, I went to YouTube school basically and just pushed myself to get as good as I knew I could be in my head. After a couple of years of doing that and building a small library of songs, my partner Colin Minihan and I were about to make our third movie together, What Keeps You Alive, and we just kind of threw out the idea that maybe I could try scoring it. He was hearing and watching my progress and we both realized that my music was kind of theatrical in nature and cinematic. So we thought, “Ok. Fuck it. Let’s let me just try it.”
After his rough cut, I sat down with a couple of scenes, we talked about it and then I went for it. At this point, I was graduated from GarageBand and I was working in a program called Logic. I knew the tools a lot better and it was a very big moment to kind of fall into it as effortlessly as it happened. Once I sat down to score the scene, I just kind of knew intuitively how to take it musically where it needed to go. I think a lot of that came from growing up in the musical theater world where, you know, a big moment happens and people break into song. It was a huge moment of, “Holy shit. I love this. This is something that seems to come naturally to me and I see huge potential in terms of what I can learn.” And that’s just something I love to do. So, the opportunity for growth was big — both in terms of the craft itself and the career.
It was nice to broaden my opportunities as an artist and to not be completely bound by acting as my only source of creative output and income. I just really kind of took that and ran with it. What Keeps You Alive was a really positive experience and the film ended up doing really well. That led to me getting a great manager in composing. With acting, I started when I was so young, so it’s been nice stepping into a career now that I’m a bit older and I know myself better and can really go after it in a way that is focused and mature. You know, not kind of clouded by the young hopes and dreams of an actor kind of thing. It’s given me freedom and a strength that I didn’t necessarily have as an actor.
Music has clearly been an important part of your life all these years, but were you at all intimidated or nervous about putting yourself out there as a composer publicly and professionally?
Yes, I was absolutely nervous about revealing this part of myself. But I have learned that you do have to run towards your fear. And I have always had a lot of fear inside of me. Even as an actor, every time before I start a project, I’m utterly terrified. I usually don’t sleep at all the night before. But I think one of the reasons why I get so scared is because it is important that I reveal something vulnerable about myself in my work. I don’t like to hide behind a wall when I’m creating.
I think the best art comes from exposing what’s underneath. Naturally, there will always be a lot of fear, but I’ve only found that it’s a good thing when you step through that. And actually, when you step through it, the response hardly matters. You think the response is going to matter so much in the lead-up to it; that’s what your fear is telling you. Then once you step through, you’re just so proud of yourself for stepping through. You recognize what you had to do to get there, that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks and you’re just empowered. Then, you can do it again, and it does get easier.
How does your skill and experience as an actor impact your music? Do you feel that part of yourself has benefited your composing style and your ability to create music for film?
Definitely. I think the skills that I developed as an actor were really focused around how to deeply empathize with the character that I was embodying and how to then fully embody them — physically, emotionally, spiritually. To get inside their thoughts. To move like them, to speak like them, to fight for their needs in a way that came from a truthful place.
I use all of that when I’m scoring too. Because, as a composer, I think it’s really important to do that exact thing; to connect deeply to the journey of the characters. You’re translating one language into another. You’re translating the story, the words, and the actor’s choices into music. There’s something intangible that happens there I think, but all the tools that I’ve learned and honed, of analyzing a story and connecting to the character and then physically embodying it, I think that’s a big thing for me; the physical embodiments. You get the rhythm of it, you understand pacing and you understand where the character lives emotionally.
So, when I’m watching a scene or reading a script, I’m doing all of that. Then I’m kind of, without necessarily thinking about it, I’m feeling it. My body will kind of give me clues as to, “Ok. This is the pace. This character, maybe they live up here in this very intense state so the music needs to reflect that.” Or, “This is a moment where they’re utterly terrified and their body is super tight.” Whether it’s reading the script and making those choices myself, I’m thinking about what the character would be doing and then musically interpreting that. What I also love about composing is watching other actors work and really getting to know them through their choices and their rhythms. It’s this kind of transference of, “How does that feel in my body? What does that feeling sound like?” That’s a weird kind of intangible moment, but you just kind of trust your intuitions. I think if you are rooted in the character’s journey and emotionally connected to them, then your intuition will kick in in a way that works for the story.
One of your scores that I think really captures this idea is your score for Brandon Christensen’s film, Z. You’ve got these really bold and beautiful themes that develop in a really unexpected and engaging way, but also feel really natural and organic. Because themes can be so important in laying the emotional foundation for a film, how do you approaching creating these major musical moments? Where do you start?
I start at the piano. Whether I have a full piano or just a weighted keyboard, I use whatever I have. I’ve learned that I kind of feel like maybe I played that instrument in a past life. I took a year of piano lessons as a kid, no more, but when I sit at the piano and I’m trying to interpret something I’ve just seen or read, my hands just kind of guide me.
It’s interesting because it’s a visual thing too. When I’m looking at the keys and I’m kind of anticipating where my fingers might want to jump to next, all of these things come together where I’m maybe painting something with the keys. Also, just holding on to whatever rhythm I think is important in the moment I’m trying to capture. That will guide the pace at which I move. I’ll also read the script and maybe I’ll read it multiple times. Or I’ll watch the finished cut multiple times. And while I’m watching, I’m kind of getting clues and thinking, “Ok. This part of the character’s journey will need a theme and maybe that theme can come in later when it gets really dark.” So, I’m getting these ideas and I’m just clocking them. Then, I’ll sit at the piano without necessarily a clear idea of which theme I’m after. However, sometimes that’s important. Sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I need to crack this family theme.”
I remember the family theme for Z was a moment I needed at a certain point. Ideally, I have some time before I’m officially scoring specific scenes and I can just try to build the overall themes for the film. I can then sit at the piano for a few hours and just kind of play and let my hands wander with this knowledge in the back of my brain. Like, “I’m probably going to need this scary theme with Z. I also really want something haunting for Z himself. I really want to capture the mundanity of their suburban life at the beginning and the pain of the effort that they’re going through as parents. How can I empathize with that? There is a theme at the beginning of Z that comes in a lot and it changes throughout, but it starts out a little bit like a, “Oh just another day dropping Josh off at school” kind of thing. Ultimately, I wanted to make it more than just the banal aspect of that activity and really capture the characters, their heart, and that daily struggle. I also know that I want these certain feelings to hit throughout the thing and, as soon as you hear it, if you can achieve one of those feelings with three or five notes, that’s really powerful. Then, I can build so much out from there and strip it down to something that affects me in the way that the script and the story do.
On top of films, you’ve been working on some really cool TV projects lately. One of which is Two Sentence Horror Stories. As an anthology series with a lot of different plots, directors, and general vibes, I can only imagine it posed some interesting challenges.
It’s been a great first foray into television because of the fact that it is an anthology show, but it is very challenging. The show does all live in the same world, but every episode has its own distinct style. It’s exploring different themes and different characters of many different ages, races, and experiences. So, it was important for me to have a unique sound for each episode.
My process with them was very similar to any other process, but the only difference was it was kind of my boot camp to learn how to work really fast. Television moves a lot faster than film generally, but what I did that was helpful was, prior to the season beginning, I read all of the scripts and then sat down for a couple of days to just let my instincts guide me. And, I built a bunch of pieces. They’d just be like, one minute or two minutes long, and while I was building them, I wouldn’t necessarily know which episode it was for, but usually at some point during the process of making it, I’d go, “Oh! That’s where this would fit! Great.” So that was super helpful to have this kind of overall palette and bucket of ideas that I could turn to when I’m seven episodes in and the eighth episode is due less than a week from now.
You also scored an episode of the new AMERICAN HORROR STORIES series called “Feral” which was directed by Manny Coto of Dr. Giggles fame. Did you work with Manny directly at all? What was it like working on this long-running franchise?
You know, with TV there’s not usually a ton of direct communication between director and composer. In my experience as the composer, you’re working more with the showrunner or the executive producer and maybe the editor. But Manny and I definitely had a dialogue without ever speaking directly. What’s interesting about the process of AMERICAN HORROR STORIES is that you’re involved from the get-go. So, there is a fun dialogue and kind of development process with the editor as they are building their cuts and you are finding the sound. It’s all happening at kind of the same time which makes for a fun and challenging ride.
In terms of being involved with the show, I was so honored and thrilled to be asked to do it. And actually, I owe it all to Mac Quayle who, you know, is the maestro over there. We share a manager and he heard my work and put me forward to be one of the composers on the show. I very much appreciate that he did that for me. That in itself, and just kind of chatting with him at the beginning of the process was such an honor. He’s someone who I’ve really admired as I’ve been stepping into this career and he’s just a very giving, kind, and talented composer. So, that was a really great way to start. It was also awesome to be on a project with such high production value. The horror is really fun and really dark and the set design, the creature design, it’s all just top of the line. Sometimes, as a composer, you ideally want everything to be amazing on the screen and then you’re elevating it, but sometimes you’re also like, “Ok. This moment isn’t quite working so well and I really need to step it up here.” But with AMERICAN HORROR STORIES, you’re getting a product that’s really high-end from the get-go. It’s fun to be inspired by all of the choices made on the production side, writing side, and acting side. Then you’re going, “How do I rise to the occasion and beyond?” It was a challenge that I was really honored to be able to take on.
As someone who has had a wealth of experience in the film world, both as an actor and composer, I wanted to pick your brain about something. It’s no secret that hiring practices in the film composing world need some serious work when it comes to representation and diversity. I mean, for women alone, the 2019 Celluloid Ceiling report found that “Women comprised only 6% of composers working on the top 250 grossing films of 2019. This represents no change from 2018.” Why do you think the industry has been so slow to change and evolve when it comes to this issue? Any thoughts or ideas on how this imbalance can be fixed?
I think that all of us have been programmed from a very young age to see certain types of people in certain types of roles. And so we all feel — without even knowing it — a sense of trust that a certain kind of person can handle a certain kind of job. That has then been reinforced in us so much over the years. We, again, without even necessarily being consciously aware of it, assume that anyone who is not that certain type of person cannot handle that certain type of job. And, I also think for young people who are considering what they want to do with their life when they are looking at their options and they don’t see themselves in certain kinds of jobs, they are less likely to pursue that job and less likely to think that maybe they could do that.
I know this for myself as someone who got into the industry when I was very young. As an actor, I started when I was 9 years old and I was working throughout my teens. And, I think over the course of 10 or more years, I worked with two female directors. I remember a moment in particular on one of my first bigger U.S. films, sitting with the whole creative team at lunch, and it was all men of a certain age. And, I’m married to a straight white guy so I’m definitely not of the mindset that all straight white men are bad and that every straight white man who is alive today is responsible for the state of things. I do not think that. I also believe in opportunities and equality for all — including straight white men. I’m not of the mindset that they need to be pushed to the side, silenced, or punished for the actions of those who’ve come before. I’m also not a huge fan of the harsh punishment that is coming down on people for certain actions or things spoken 30 years ago when the time was different. Because, as I said, we are all the way that we are and have our own biases because of what society was programming into us from birth.
I think, and I hope, that we can allow for people to grow and learn instead of just expelling them from society for something that we now have decided is inappropriate. Because maybe, sadly, society didn’t see it as inappropriate 30 years ago. It’s a great direction that we’re moving and I’m thrilled about it, I just hope that we can continue on that path with more compassion moving forward. So that’s one side of it.
In terms of composing, as a young girl, I don’t think that I thought, “Oh. I could be a director.” I don’t think I thought that I could be a composer. I don’t think I thought I could be a music producer because I didn’t see women in any of those roles. So, of course, that’s where I come back to the extreme importance of what’s happening and the desperate need for there to be broader representation in all of these roles. Even as I was beginning down my musical journey, I was initially writing lots of music, but I kept thinking I needed a male producer to help me finish and help me get it all radio-ready. I sought them out and I worked with a few. They were all nice people and very skilled technically, but in every instance, my song would suddenly lose what was so great about it. It would lose its heart. That’s not going to be the case every time, but it was a big lesson for me.
There was a moment when I had tried that multiple times in a row that I was like, “I think I just need to learn this myself. Why is it that I keep thinking that a man needs to come in and do this for me?” That was because of my own programming and my own inability to see a woman in that role – to see myself in that role and to think that I can handle it. When I first started composing about five years ago, I was watching all The Hollywood Reporter Roundtables and I was shocked that, over so many years, it was only ever a table of men with like, one woman. Maybe one of the years out of 20 or something. It was shocking. And these are all composers who I think are rad and I look up to and it’s nothing against them as individuals at all, but I definitely looked at that table and I thought, “I’m going to fucking sit there and I’m going to break that ceiling. This is all the more reason why I want to become a composer. I want to stir shit up in there because that is not okay.”
So, I think it’s unfortunate stereotypes. If we’ve only seen, for so many years, a bunch of men in the role of composer, I think it’s literally something we do without examining it. We just assume, “Oh, well that’s a man’s job. A woman can handle that? A woman can handle her way around a computer?” Because for many years, we’ve been programmed that men do the more scientific, technological type jobs. We’re still told that women are meant to just be pretty by many sources and by many people in the public eye. So, it’s just going to take time. I don’t have reason yet to doubt that. It’s moving in the right direction in terms of composing. I have found that it’s been an exciting time to step into it because doors are opening more for all different kinds of people.
You’ve now composed scores for several different horror projects over the last couple of years. What do you personally like about working within the genre?
One of my favorite things about working in horror is the freedom to build unique and dark sounds. Experimental sounds. I just find that that’s such a fun part of the process. Buying a violin and just making a bunch of distorted unusual, unpredictable sounds with it, bringing it to my computer and taking it even further from where it originally started. What I love about horror scores is when a composer is able to make a sound that you as the audience are like, “Holy shit. I’ve never heard that before.” Or, “That makes me feel really uncomfortable. Like I can’t breathe right now.” That’s a success as a horror composer. So I definitely strive to do that with the horror elements. I just find that it kind of brings out the mad scientist in me. Like, “What does this knob do? How do I push this into territory that is unsettling and unique?”
I also really love that it’s the most heightened kind of drama, really. The fact that themes and a character’s emotional journey are really important, horror doesn’t leave anything on the table. Hopefully, the characters are going to their lowest points and they’re going to the most raw parts of themselves, and, usually, you can really go there too. Subtlety is a beautiful skill, but so is swallowing the audience with sound, feeling, and emotion, and that’s maybe a little bit more of [what] I lean towards.
AMERICAN HORROR STORIES is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu.