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Composer Matthew James Shines a Light on “The Djinn’s” Unforgettable Sound and Score

Monday, May 17, 2021 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES

In IFC Midnight’s new film THE DJINN, the horror is as heartfelt as it is, well, horrific. Written and directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell (The Boy Behind the Door), the movie follows a young, mute boy named Dylan (Ezra Dewey) through a pivotal transition in his life. Set in the late ’80s, Dylan and his radio DJ father (Rob Brownstein) are moving into a brand new apartment. While the situation surrounding the move is initially shrouded in mystery, the eeriness only continues to build when Dylan discovers a mysterious spell book in his bedroom closet. After summoning an entity known only as “The Djinn,” Dylan soon realizes that not everything is as it seems and to always be careful what you wish for.

Along with Dewey’s wonderful performance, the film’s sound and score quickly rise to the surface as notable high points. Composed by Matthew James, the score presents a stunning blend of period electronic sounds, traditional orchestral elements and unsettling soundscapes that not only support the emotional undercurrent, but define it. With large portions of the film existing with minimal use of traditional dialogue, these auditory aspects take on huge levels of importance. To celebrate the film’s recent release on VOD, Rue Morgue (virtually) sat down with James to talk all about THE DJINN, his killer score and the importance of top notch sound design. 

Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the film and what attracted you to the project.

Initially it was through my contact at Kinogo Pictures, the producer Ryan Scaringe. We met back in 2019 and he’s the one that brought me into it. At the time we were working on a film called Useless Humans and he was really happy with how that was turning out. So, around June of 2019 he sent me a screener that was kind of like an assembly cut of the film. I wouldn’t even say it was a director’s cut yet. When I saw it, I knew these guys were brilliant instantly. When I heard about where the budget was at, how they shot it with it all being so self-contained, it just goes to show what storytellers they are to be able to get all of this crammed into just shy of an hour and a half. At first Ryan was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to be involved,” but after I watched it I was just like, “Are you kidding me, man? You need to get on this.” [Laughs] It was great. Ryan had worked with them [Charbonier and Powell] on The Boy Behind the Door, so he knew them, but I thought they were just so great. That’s what really got the ball rolling there. 

Then I had the opportunity to pitch a couple tracks and I think I definitely had some competition. I certainly was not just grandfathered into that job. I think Ryan originally thought he could just bring me on because Useless Humans was such a difficult, crazy adventure score. And he thought I would be good for this. But I think the guys originally had, well, I don’t know how many folks I was going up against, but I had written them a quick track and it ended up kind of sealing the deal. Before I had even seen that assembly cut. Ultimately that track ended up being called “Artifacts Required.” So that was the one that sold it apparently. I found that out later. It was really synth-heavy since it’s an 80s throwback. 

I didn’t have much to go on honestly. I knew I wanted to be on it, but they were pretty tight-lipped. Sometimes you can read people really well, you can get in there and you can charm them. Especially pre-COVID, you could bring them to the fancy studio spot and have some drinks or whatever. But these guys weren’t having any of that. It had to be done on true grit. I ended up getting selected around October of 2019. It was a pretty slow process and I wasn’t even sure if they liked anything until then.

It’s interesting that the film was mostly completed when you were brought on board. With that in mind, how did this interesting palette of sounds and approach to the score develop? Were these your ideas that they just happened to really like? Or were there conversations regarding the score’s direction for you to work off of?

They’re a couple of gentlemen that, as filmmakers, know what they want. They have a grand vision. There was no mystery about what we were going to do. There was still a lot of room for experimentation and what not, but we knew that it was set in the ’80s and we knew that there was going to be a lot of those hallmarks. We were going to use old Yamaha CS-80 sounding synths and these big, larger than life things. Things that really just hammer home that time period. I think the thing that was the biggest, most crucial point to the score was that they had this temp score of Thom Yorke’s “Suspirium.” There’s a lot of really cyclical, leitmotif type of ostinato that was kind of a dreamlike thing, kind of like a trance. So there’s a lot of stuff like that in the score that constantly repeats and just gets ingrained in your head. The thing that they really liked about that was that there’s a certain minimalist approach to it, but it grows throughout the movie. Another part of the “Suspirum” track was these vocals that also had these, especially for the Djinn’s theme, sort of incantation-like, ambiguous vocals. They wanted vocals in the film, but because of budget, samples and things weren’t really working. So, I ended up doing the vocals. That ended up shaping the rest of it and that was the first time I’ve used vocals like that. All the little whispers and vocal harmonies, it’s all feathered throughout the film. 

I love that you bring up the vocals in the score because interestingly, the film has a notable lack of traditional dialogue.

That was kind of the subtextual juxtaposition since Dylan has no voice. Especially during the scene where he’s doing the bloodletting and lighting the candle, in that sequence you start to hear the vocals come up with this string piece. Then part of those vocals become part of the creepy Djinn theme. They wanted something that sounded neutral, not something that was overtly female or male, just this neutral vocal. So I played with different timbres, falsettos and deeply affecting things. Dylan got a voice through that and his theme plays throughout, while the Djinn has a completely different voice. 

So often, a film the score is supporting the emotional undercurrent. But when a film doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, it really puts extra weight on what the score has to do. Was that fact extra intimidating to you? Or was it more of a welcome challenge?

A bit of both honestly. Suddenly you’re in the forefront and sound design and the score are basically another lead character. Ultimately, I think that I welcomed it. That being said, it certainly was a magnifying glass on it. You’re totally exposed and there’s no hiding anything. It is a film that really plays on silence. Like, absolute silence. I did welcome the challenge, but it was difficult at points. Even some of those opening sequences, David and Justin were really astute about really crawling into those scenes. Where you get to get really big and you have these 30 decibel variances. You go from a whispered drone to a blood curdling hell. That was honestly not really that difficult melodically because it’s not really a score that’s ticky-tacky or action oriented, but they really hammered on feelings. They’re very emotional and intelligent directors. Once we got our language developed they were very specific about, “Can you pull down those strings there?” Or, “You need to come in a little slower.” Then, I’d start to realize they were right. It was like I was on a main stage and they ended up being right about a lot of stuff. It was a learning curve for sure. Everybody is different, of course. For instance, I had just come off a couple films that I felt were slam dunks, but these guys really made me sharpen my tools up. 

Dylan and The Djinn both have their very own unique sound throughout the film. How did you end up working their individual identities into your music?

As far as Dylan, everybody can empathize with being a kid and feeling left out, lonely or in a state of transition. Obviously, we find out at the end why he’s having these daydreams and whatnot. In the beginning of the film where we really start with him on moving day, it starts off sounding really lonely and kind of pensive. It’s very timid. And, I think that as we get on, when he realizes “Hey, I’m not going to take this shit” and starts fighting back, it gets bigger. Especially when we start rocking some of that groovy 8-bit synth, his borderline triumph stuff, it’s like a video game almost. It’s a game of cat and mouse between them. 

And with The Djinn, historically, it is an ancient entity. Ironically, I had never heard of the term “Djinn” before this. Maybe I was in the box or something, but then I did the homework on it and found out it was kind of like a genie. It’s this ancient spirit that is not necessarily evil, but also not necessarily good. They’re tricksters and it’s a “careful what you wish for” type of thing. But we knew that it was going to have this sort of choral, harkening back to something, dare I say, Gregorian even, though that’s the wrong region. The directors really didn’t want to go exploitative or derivative. They definitely didn’t want to go Middle Eastern because that wouldn’t have been correct and they didn’t want to go into those kinds of chord structures or scales. And you’ll notice it is very atonal which makes it very unsettling. There’s all this heavy texture underneath that goes on. I think the real identity is that we were trying to make it sound like it was from some ancient layer of hell. It’s otherworldly, but it’s something that we know. It’s familiar, but at the same time, what the hell is this? It’s all kind of wrapped up into one. It’s very supernatural and we did tap into that. Everything was very intentful. There was a fair amount of experimentation, but once we had the language, that’s how it was. So Dylan is a bit more delicate, but gets stronger as it goes on. While The Djinn is overtly really dark from the first minutes of the film. We know this is some bad stuff coming. 

Yeah, there’s definitely no question that, whatever The Djinn is, it’s not good.

No, it’s not good. (Laughs) There’s that moment when Dylan first does the spell, that’s where it’s still a little ambiguous. We’re not telegraphing it yet at that point even though we’ve given you a taste in the opening sequence, but there’s a lot of trickery. And that’s also part of it. It was all about the juxtaposition between those two elements. 

Photo by Lacey Neumann

What was it like working with the sound design department?  How does their job affect what you do? 

That’s actually a really, really good question for this film. Without going into too much detail, this was the second sound designer. I knew Will Tabanou [Bubba Ho-Tep] from previous films and I knew we had to get him on it. He’s my go-to if anyone ever asks, especially in the indie realm. You’re never going to find a better sound guy. Plus, he’s just a great, positive, can-do kind of guy. 

Sometimes the post-sound world can be kind of jaded. Especially on these smaller budget films they can sometimes be like, “Ok kid. You’ve gotten your two revisions and now you’re done.” They’re tapping their watch the whole time. But Will and I have a really good working relationship and this is the third film we’ve done together. So I told Ryan, “You gotta get Will on it.” Honestly, that’s what caused a huge delay on wrapping the film, getting it sold, etc. The big linchpin was that the sound design was not happening at that point, until we got it to Will. He’s a really big fan of score too. Sometimes he actually tends to play the music louder than it should be. Which I don’t think is something a composer should be complaining about. [Laughs] He was really very cool about it. The film was already done at that point so I had known about temp sound design and where certain things were going to happen. But, Will also knows what I do. He knows how to duck and move and I hope to have the chance to work with him again where I have his temp and get to know where he’s going first. Truly, he saved the film when it comes to audio. 

And you helped save it by recommending him! That’s incredible and it really makes sense now why the two elements work so well together. 

It was one of those things where, I wouldn’t say it’s super common for composers to get phone calls like that. I’ve worked closely with Ryan and he trusts me, but it’s not super traditional. But, I really love that and I love getting calls like that. I’ve been a producer on smaller shorts and things like so I like when people come to me and say, “What do you think about this? What do you think about this script?” I’m very honest. To a fault I think. [Laughs] But I knew the mix wouldn’t pass QC and it wasn’t usable. I think it had something like, 100 notes. I’m very passionate about sound in general and just filmmaking. Especially knowing this film, which clearly, all the sweat and blood we’ve put into it had paid off. I just had to tell him, “You can’t cheap out here. You’re never going to get it sold. It’s going to ruin the whole damn thing.” Fortunately he listened and we pulled it out. We went this far, we had to. 

You definitely don’t want to trip yourself up at the finish line.

No! Sometimes, indie filmmaking and filmmaking in general is tough. More money, more problems is a whole other thing. But, when you’re scraping the barrel at that point, how are you going to find another $10,000? This was during COVID too which was even more insane. It was right when things were getting pretty gnarly and we didn’t know what was going on. That’s also what made the finishing of this film quite difficult and delayed it even more. We were very lucky to have Will come in. He definitely saved it and I can’t say that enough. 

From what I understand, you were a multi-faceted musician prior to pursuing a career composing music for film. What attracted you to the field and prompted the transition?

Honestly, life is very haunting in it’s own way. It’s very cyclical and strange. A friend of mine was in L.A. and I was in Chicago just spinning my wheels working in the office world. I had done the band scene throughout my teens and my 20s where I had built up a decent name with a couple of the bands there. They’re not relevant now, but at that point we were chasing after that ever elusive record deal. And then, in my late 20s, I was just like, “I can’t do this. What am I doing?” It wasn’t happening. It’s a miracle when a band makes it. It’s a lot less miraculous when you’re like, “Ok, fuck it. I’m doing this all myself.” I know that sounds crazy, but then it’s all on you. You’re not trying to pull a team up the mountain anymore. And yeah, there’s things that get in your way and you’re waiting around. As a composer you’re still waiting around for filmmakers to call you so, that’s the adversity there. 

I just wasn’t happy and I wasn’t going anywhere, so my friend was like, “Your music has always been so cinematic. Why don’t you try this?” So, I found an old computer at my parents house and suped it up with Cubase and honestly, I’ve only been in this game about 4 or 5 years. It’s just nuts when I think about it. I just picked up a machine, got Cubase and started playing around with MIDI stuff and it just kind of took off. It became a super passion that I would pick up when I got home from work and as I learned more and more about it. Of course, the dawn of YouTube and the existence of that was like, hell, I might as well have gone to USC. The stuff you can learn on there is immeasurable. 

From there, my friend actually ushered in my first opportunity to do a short film while I was still in Chicago. He sent that over and I had no idea what I was doing, but I was trying to pretend. But it was awesome! And the bug just bit me from there. Then, in 2017 I had the opportunity to come out to L.A. and be an assistant to a composer for the Black Lightning TV show. The reason this all kind of came together was that the company that I was working for at the time was supposedly on hard times and during my review, they gave me a 16 cent raise. It actually became that moment where it was like, “Fuck this. This is my last chance at doing music.” And that moment became the cornerstone for me to do this. That was the turning point. And it was a really weird thing during a really difficult time. My mom was sick with cancer at the time and it was a “Choose Your Own Adventure, Door A or Door B?” type of thing. I had no time to think about it because the job here in L.A. for the assistant gig was “Hurry up and get here. You want it? Then be here next week.” At the time my mom unfortunately was terminally ill and she was just like, ‘You gotta go. This is your last chance.’ It was heartbreaking, but that’s what it was. And here I am. Still hanging on. 

THE DJINN is now screening in select theaters and currently available on VOD. Matthew’s killer score for the film will be available digitally on May 21st via MovieScore Media.

Rachel Reeves
Rachel is a record store nerd from Boise, Idaho with an obsession for horror soundtracks and all things creepy.