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Composer H. Scott Salinas on Scoring Hulu’s Wild True Crime Docu-Series, “Sasquatch”

Tuesday, May 25, 2021 | Interviews


In Hulu’s new true crime documentary series SASQUATCH, marijuana, murder, mystery and monsters unite head-on in the hills of Mendocino, California. Produced by the Duplass Brothers and Mel Eslyn, the three part series directed by Joshua Rofé follows investigative reporter David Holthouse as he hunts down a long lingering personal memory. Haunted for decades by the curious story of three marijuana farm workers who were supposedly murdered by Bigfoot.   Holthouse soon discovers that monsters come in all shapes and sizes.

SASQUATCH’s blend of genre and unique narrative angles required an equally creative sonic support system. Balancing a story that is quirky then deadly serious at others, provided a truly distinctive musical opportunity. Intrigued by the idea and the project’s interesting premise, composer H. Scott Salinas (Warrior, Tiger) stepped up to the metaphorical plate. By creating delicately crafted soundscapes, emotionally charged peaks and engaging melodic lines seasoned with local flavor, Salinas delivers a score that blends Bigfoot and beauty easily. In celebration of the score’s recent digital release, RUE MORGUE spoke with Salinas all about his wonderful score, the interesting challenges SASQUATCH presented and working with the iconic Annie Lennox.

SASQUATCH is a wild project and has such a unique premise. How did you get involved with the series and what attracted you to it?

Josh, the director, reached out to me. What happened was, while editing this project he was working with an editor that I had worked with before. They were starting to think about music and they had some pretty cool temporary music in place. So, he asked his editor, ‘Well, who’s the temp?’ And he said, ‘The temp is Scott Salinas.’ And so Josh was then like, ‘Well, let’s start by talking with him then.’ Some of the flavors of previous scores they’d been using were just to flush out the edit, but that’s how they came to me. 

So then I went in and met with Josh and he showed me the opening animation of the film and I was just blown away. Basically, we both agreed really quickly that even though some of these temps were working to create tension, the score really needed to have a very specific tone and identity. He told me that he wanted a score that when you hear the music away from the film, all you can think about is the film. He wanted it to be really specific and kind of iconic. And I told him honestly, I think that’s the only way this film works. Because of the tone, because there is the lore of the Sasquatch which has this almost campy component along with the seriousness of a murder mystery and revelations about our investigator, I told him ‘I 100% agree that we need to do something unique here. The film depends on it.’ We were both on the same page, but it also put a lot of pressure on the music. We didn’t want it to just be background. 

It’s such an interesting project because of that mix of genres. It’s true crime, but also a documentary and there’s a cryptid hunter angle as well. Did that mix of elements open doors for you creatively?

Absolutely. The thing that I tried to fixate on was that, if there’s a message of the film or an essence of the film, I think it has to do with humanity and mankind’s fear of the unknown. How when we fear the unknown it manifests as monsters. Whether it’s an imaginary monster like Bigfoot (or maybe they do exist), or it’s xenophobia or tribalism. I thought that sort of premise and fear of the unknown would also apply well to the fact that it’s a crime story and a mystery. Because, what is the mystery?

You don’t know and you’re trying to figure it out. So that’s where my main focus was. I sort of thought of it like, you’re in the middle of the woods. You hiked in during the middle of the day, but as it’s starting to get dark you’re a little fuzzy on which way is the way out. And now it’s getting darker. And you’re by yourself. Whatever that feeling is, I wanted to capture that musically and have that permeate every aspect for the mood of the score. This sort of fear of the unknown and how actually, in a lot of ways, we try to control a lot as humans, but we’re sort of powerless. If you think about that and some of the revelations regarding abuse that our investigator reveals, that’s also about powerlessness. That was at least a big top level conceptual feeling that I was always trying to draw upon. 

That feeling is very effective and really makes the score very engaging. Especially because you never know where things are going to go next with this story.  

It’s odd and I think we had to take a strong stance because of that. As far as what that means musically in terms of techniques that we used, for our percussion we used things like the sound of leaves crunching. I wanted to create this idea of, what would the forest sound like to Bigfoot? So some of the percussion is like Bigfoot rustling through the forest, but not necessarily far away. It’s more like what it would sound like in Bigfoot’s head. Because, doesn’t the Sasquatch have a similar point of view? At least in terms of the fear of the unknown? They’re always hiding from us and they are this big, giant thing lumbering around, so I tried to create this kind of cumbersome, lumbering presence. Sometimes that was in the rhythm or the use of certain instruments in registers that were uncomfortably low, but I tried to make sure everything went through this sort of filter with this heavier quality to it. 

(Photo by: Hulu)

Along with the interesting folks that live there, the physical location for SASQUATCH’s story is a character all its own. Can you tell us a little bit about how you worked that local flavor into your score?

Yeah, definitely. So, my interpretation of those settlers if you will, I interpreted them with a western kind of musical genre because I figured, in a sense, they were pioneers. They came out to an area and they settled it through this sort of hippie, 60s, peace-and-love lens that really evolved into an industry, to put it nicely. Cartels to maybe put a darker spin on it. And so that sort of, that innocent exploration and transformation into industry, I tried to get at that through these acoustic flavors mixed with western sounds. But then that all has to go through the Sasquatch filter.

So you have these sort of bluegrass elements, but they aren’t being played with bluegrass instruments like mandolin. They’re being played by lower instruments. There are some guitars in some places that are probably the closest thing to that reference, but I tried to still run that through our lumbering thing; our deliberate, heavy, slightly clumsy feel. But you do hear stuff that sounds kind of like a cousin to bluegrass. And that felt right. Although, it felt like a risk at the time. I mentioned I wanted to try that and Josh was just like, ‘Ok. We’ll see.’ But, it fit. It fit really well with some of the visuals and the history. Instead of those just being one-off pieces, I wanted them to still feel like the rest of the score. 

I was unfamiliar with this area going into this series and wow. It really is like the wild west out there!

Yeah! And again, what’s the wild west? It’s the unknown. And it’s sort of the romantic version of the unknown; adventure, possibilities, gold rush, oil and vigilantism. The wild, wild west is one of our romanticized versions of the unknown, but it still really is about that discovery. And that’s really what this whole documentary is about. 

This series is so great about it’s pacing and revealing just a little bit at a time. Because of that, it really made me think about how crucial music is at shaping the style and narrative for documentaries. How do you ultimately know how your music is supposed to function in a documentary and what narrative beats are really going to be the ones focused on?

Sometimes we’ll have a spotting session where we’ll go through and watch the film without music. Which is very tough to do with documentaries. (laughs) They really rely on music to not just shape the story, but a lot of times, to fill in the gaps with sound that would be odd to fill in with ‘Hollywood Sound.’ But there’s going to be a lot of gaps just naturally when you’re cutting between interviews and vérité. It’s not the smoothest feeling so sometimes the music is just helpful to give production value. 

But, one of the things about documentaries that’s different – I do a lot of narrative as well – and with narrative, the goal is to suspend disbelief. To make the audience forget that it’s a story and that it’s not real. In documentaries, it’s the opposite. In really good documentaries, you’ll occasionally find yourself thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I can’t believe this is real!’ These more dangerous documentaries like this, you find yourself having to remind yourself that it’s real. I feel like when that’s the job, then sometimes the purpose of the music is to ground you in reality and sometimes it’s actually to let you off the hook.

Sometimes when you’re dealing with things that are uncomfortable, you may want to let the audience go on a trip for a while and pretend for a moment that they’re watching a narrative. Let them forget that this is real. And then the next scene, maybe the music drops out and it becomes, ‘Oh no. We’re in danger. Hey! Watch out!’ And then, the reality hits you and you reflect back. Sometimes that give and take is actually letting the audience fall into being entertained for some period of time. That’s what I play with – grounding them in reality and then taking them out of reality, so that when we come back to that reality, it’s more shocking. 

That’s so fascinating!

And sometimes you experiment. I’ve been on shows where I’ve said to the director, ‘I feel like putting music here is making this feel too much like a Hollywood movie right now.’ And I’ve had directors then say, ‘Yeah, I want that because in the next scene there’s going to be no music and it’s going to be really heavy.’ So we actually want to lull the audience into that feeling of being entertained and then when we get into this vérité scene, it will be even more powerful because we let them slip away into being entertained. 

I absolutely love how silence like that can sometimes be the most effective emotional tool.

Yeah, absolutely. And that was a thing we talked a lot about on this film. Because of the nature of it, it required a lot of music. And it was important to me that we did carve out moments of vérité, even if they were short breaks. Because, the potency of music is sort of inversely proportional to the quantity of music. You really want to think about that. It’s an excellent flavor or spice, but when you overdo it (just like anything else), it loses its impact. That’s another balancing act we tried – to find places to inject vérité or no music at all. Or we’d have the music dropping down to a subliminal drone or a level where it’s still supporting the scene, but very much in the background to completely in the foreground. That’s another thing we play with; foreground, middle ground and background. And what each of those aspects of the film, how they are performing in any given moment. How much of those we want to feature. 

I’ve spoken with a decent amount of composers over the years and I’m always fascinated by the many different roads that folks take to get into the composing field. How did you get here and what is it that inspired you to become a composer for film?

That’s a great question. I went to Princeton undergrad and I was going to major in economics or something. I didn’t really have a plan. I was already a musician, but I certainly wasn’t planning on pursuing music. And then when I decided to become a music major, by the time I was in my senior year, my thesis was the score to a student film at Princeton. So, I sort of fell into it. I had paid attention to film scores as a musician growing up, but I was more involved with playing in bands. I wasn’t a film music nerd as a kid or anything. My first taste of it was, at 20 years old, doing the job for the first time as my thesis. It just dawned on me, composing music in a vacuum with no collaboration versus helping to tell a story that was bigger than just the music, that was just so much more interesting to me. 

So, I was writing compositions, and I even did one where Yo-Yo Ma was a guest, and Toni Morrison was a guest, and it was like an opera. I just always found myself in these collaborative environments and that’s where I felt like I really thrived. When it’s not just me alone sitting there scratching my head, but there’s a story and there’s other people who are really creative and talented. Collaboration I think is the most crucial part of this job, and if you don’t like that, you really are in the wrong job. Because then you won’t like revisions and you won’t like getting notes from a producer who’s half your age, etc. and blah, blah, blah.

So, for me, going on that journey and getting to meet with someone I’ve worked with before, or someone like Josh who I’ve never worked with before, we have to establish a rapport, a creative vocabulary, a plan and objective and execute that. That’s super interesting to me and I haven’t even said a word about music! Solving that set of problems through the context of telling a story, I find that challenge to be incredibly stimulating and sort of never ending. Yeah, you might think that at some point you’ll run out of musical ideas, but as long as the story is fresh, and the perspective is fresh, that will inform the music and the music will naturally evolve into something you’ve never done before. It has to. 

That seems like one of those things that is so crucial to the job and yet, they don’t really teach you in school. 

I gotta tell you, I then went to Berklee College of Music to really study film scoring officially and I had some friends who went with me on that journey. And along the way, they sort of realized that they were not up for that part of the job. They didn’t want someone criticising their music or second guessing their interpretation. It’s a challenge because nobody really wants to work with a pushover either.  If you’re working with a director and they sense that you’re just blowing with the wind and you’re not bringing any ideas to the table, that can be very uncomfortable too. Because really, you are the expert in this scenario. You should be coming in with some ideas and being flexible, but having a strong point of view. That balance is very difficult for some people and they don’t particularly enjoy it. I like that challenge. It can be very hard sometimes and there can be tension, but I find that as long the movie is getting better and as long as we’re heading towards something better, I’m okay with a difficult and long process. It’s when it feels like it might be getting worse, that’s when it’s really tough. 

I would also imagine that navigating different levels of musical understanding can be difficult as well. I know there’s some directors out there who are very musically inclined, but that there’s also others who have no idea about music and it’s technicalities. 

The ‘no idea about music’ would be the preferred. 

Oh really? That’s so interesting!

Yeah, I mean, music is such a universal thing that everybody knows music. We may not know how to talk about it or how to perform it, but there’s very few people who are like, ‘I hate music. I don’t know anything about it.’ Directors usually have tastes and things that they like even though they may be scared to tell you at the beginning. The people who are musicians themselves, that can actually be quite challenging. If I’m having a conversation about a piece of music for a scene, it should be about story, character development, what we’re supposed to feel and how it fits into the larger picture.

If we’re getting into, ‘In the 7th bar there’s an appoggiatura and I’m not sure if…’ it’s like, ‘Ok. Do you want to write the music?’ I’ve been in those situations and the way I deal with it is I just over-include them very early. I find that when there’s a little bit of involvement and ownership, they get to flex that muscle. Maybe it was something that they wanted to pursue, but didn’t get to. If they get the opportunity to get their two cents in early, then we can go back to talking about the things that matter which are story, character development, emotion, structure. Just like in their film, it doesn’t matter if it’s a wide shot or a medium shot or a tight shot, it’s just a tool. What’s the story that you’re trying to tell? 

I had one final question for you and actually, it’s kind of on the same topic. You wrote a song with Annie Lennox for Matthew Heineman’s film ‘A Private War’ and I’m honestly just dying to know, what was that experience like? What was she like to work with and were you starstruck the whole time?

It was incredible. She’s a gem of a human being first of all. A consummate professional and very, very educated musically. We (me and Matthew) went to meet her for the first time at a place in L.A. that she was renting and she had a little keyboard setup there. And, she also knew the subject of the film personally. So, we went in there and she was like, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about her and I just put together this little thing.’ And I looked over and it was fully written out on music paper! It was fully notated because she’s like a classical musician. It wasn’t like she wanted to sing the idea into a tape recorder so she didn’t forget it, no, no, no, no. She is one-hundred percent fluent in musical theory and composition. Then she performed it for us and although it was just a piano performance and this is a very produced song in the end, she had the whole germ of it there. Matt and I were crying just from getting a live performance from Annie Lennox for this new idea. She hadn’t written anything in a long time and wasn’t planning on it. She was semi-retired and more of a philanthropist. So, just to have that sort of quasi-spiritual experience as my first meeting with her was fantastic.

And she had seen the film and really loved the score. She came in very, very late and the score was pretty much done. She said ‘I love what you did with the score. I trust you and I can tell we’re going to collaborate.’ She was just so generous right off the bat before we ever even stepped foot into the studio. And then I had her over in the studio and it was just, awesome. Just like playtime. We’d collaborate, I’d get her on the keyboard, she’d play different sounds, she had all these vocal things on the track that you might not even realize were vocals. The drums in the track are actually her singing.

She was just very, very giving, but also just really, really clear on what she wanted and where we were heading. It was probably like, top 3 easiest collaborations I’ve ever had. I think we met maybe five or six times in the studio, but we’ve since become friends. We talk now and again and I send her pictures of my kids. Her daughter is an artist and I actually produced one of her songs. So, we got pretty close over it, which is also really strange. I guess I’m friends with Annie Lennox! It just doesn’t feel like that. She’s just someone in my life and she’s so down to Earth. She’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met, but also just a sweet, sweet person. And very passionate. She really cares about the world and philanthropy, equality and she is definitely very involved with trying to shape the world and make it a better place. 

SASQUATCH is currently streaming on Hulu. Scott’s killer score is also now available digitally via MovieScore Media. You can also check out more of Scott’s work in his upcoming Netflix project with SASQUATCH director Josh Rofé called “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents.”

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