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Exclusive Interview: Composer Chris Thomas On His Score for “Don’t Look Back”

Friday, November 6, 2020 | Interviews


Karma is one of those mysterious and eternally alluring ideas that filmmakers find themselves playing with time and time again. DON’T LOOK BACK (from Final Destination Creator, Jeffrey Reddick) adds a new horror-tinted spin to this cosmic idea. The directorial debut from the famous franchise spawning writer, DON’T LOOK BACK tells the tale of Caitlin Kramer (Kourtney Bell), a young woman overcoming multiple personal traumas. To add even more to her emotional plate, Caitlin witnesses a man being brutally assaulted in a public park along with several other bystanders. As the witnesses start dying mysteriously, strange visions and feelings being plaguing Caitlin. Driven to unravel the mystery, she puts herself in harm’s way as she attempts to decipher who — or what — is responsible.

Supporting the film’s supernatural undercurrent is the film’s score by Chris Thomas. A versatile and prolific composer, Thomas has scored everything from television, documentaries, video games, and feature films to seasonal haunts and famous theme park rides. Well-versed in the science of the scare, Thomas’ music adds a supremely important layer to DON’T LOOK BACK’s story. Beautifully haunting and expertly unnerving, Thomas crafts a score that balances beauty and fear with ease. In celebration of the film’s recent release on VOD, we caught up with Thomas and chatted all about his work on the film, creating soundscapes for haunts, and his personal love of the horror genre.

Tell us a little bit about your score for DON’T LOOK BACK. How did you get involved and what were some of the initial conversations like regarding its style and direction?

We did hammer some stuff down right away when Jeffrey [Reddick] and I first spoke. In fact, I was just wrapping up a different feature that was a drama, romance movie. I was writing more of a violin concerto for orchestra than I was a film score for that. And I had a friend who was like, “Hey. There’s this other filmmaker who was involved with the FINAL DESTINATION series and he wants to talk to you about a movie. He heard your score for this film and he wants to chat.” I was surprised that he heard that score and thought horror. I was a little hesitant to do another horror film because I do so much of that for theme parks. So then my friend mutes the phone, gets Jeffrey on the line spontaneously, and just drops us off together. Right away Jeffrey was like, “I know what kind of film you think this will be. Even though there will be scares, it’s really going to be more of a character piece.” He was more concerned with doing themes and having a timeless sound rather than just synth drones. I thought that was interesting. They brought me out to the set in Baton Rouge for a while and there I was able to meet everyone. Before the movie was done I just loved the whole crew so much and said, “Screw it. I’m doing this movie! Usually, the green light for me is if I connect with people involved with the film. I’ve signed on to projects that were really good, really visible, but there would be issues with trust or people really listening to each other. But these guys were just wonderful. The whole bunch of them. And the stars of the film were all really sweet individuals. I just wanted to be a part of whatever it was they were doing.

When it came to the music, what kind of director was Jeffrey Reddick? Was he fairly involved with what you were doing or did he have a more hands-off approach?

He was involved in just the right way. Most filmmakers have some sort of insecurity about music that shows up. And it usually takes the form of them trying to sit next to me during playbacks and hitting notes on the keyboard saying things like, “What’s that note do? What’s a tuba? What would that sound like here?” That generally leaves me saying, “Maybe just let me worry about what instrument sounds like what and just walk me through the scene that you said isn’t working.” And some of them just have some other funny things that they do to assert some sort of presence in the creation of the score because most filmmakers aren’t musicians and don’t speak music. But Jeffrey was an exception to this. He would frame out story-wise, character-wise what he was trying to do. And he’d let me write something. Then, we’d throw it up against a scene and he’d say things like, “I dig this. But here’s what it’s not doing for the film. Let’s try something else that gets to the heart of that.” We had this great back and forth until the material would begin to sit naturally.

There’s a lot of really eerie and mysterious sounds in this score. What were some of the unique techniques or instruments you used?

Strings were a very dominant feature in this score. For the more drama, timeless classic film score sound we figured strings were the most versatile. They can also become such great horror instruments. A lot of those windy, bendy, shriek-y notes come from the strings too. They can be really pleasant, but also really grating. But they weren’t quite doing it for Kourtney Bell’s character, Caitlin. So I brought in these two singers about Kourtney’s age and I thought, “Let’s try the Main Theme with their voices and see if that connects us more with this character and where she is.” And we all really thought it worked. I had one singer do most of the lead lines and the other one represented more of the fate and karma element. She sang a lot of textures and layers that I turned into instruments that floated in the background. Then I just had an urge to start beating up pianos. I just thought it’d be so fun to trash a piano. Just open up the top, put some mics around the room, and start hammering the insides of it. I was strumming it with guitar picks and quarters and spoons. You’ll hear a lot of piano guts.

You touched on the idea of karma which plays a big role in this film. Can you talk a bit more about how you embodied this concept in the film’s music?

There’s this thing I started calling “Themes for Unseens” years ago. And it’s rare, but I love when it happens. But I didn’t figure it out until about halfway through this film, which meant I had to go back and rewrite a bunch of things. I felt like there was this one thing missing, all the time. I knew there was this ‘other’ presence. I tried to give it a scarier theme and I’d tweak it to be freaky sometimes, but part way through the film I finally realized, “Oh my god. Karma is a character in this movie.” I didn’t want it to be another horror theme, I really wanted it to have a sense of mystery. So whenever something strange would happen, you’d be caught in the moment with the horror, but as you begin to piece things together there’s this little running rhythm in the keyboards that would happen in the background. I wanted that to start connecting people to an idea that realizes later in the film. So there’s this theme that keeps showing up, but it’s never really identified until the end of the film. And suddenly that theme means something big. But you need to plant that idea along the way in order for that effect to work.

I’d like to ask you about composing a short musical cue. This film seems to have a decent amount of them and there seems to be an art to it. How do you approach these quick, but crucial bits of music?

I have a mixed relationship with little cues. Sometimes I’ve used them and I’ve known for sure that it was a good idea. Like, the picture was just screaming for it. There was an obvious in and an obvious out point. One of my rules for film scoring is to never start a track unless you know exactly how you’re going to get out of that scene. And if you can’t get out of it without being disruptive, if a cue doesn’t really belong there, people will know it during the exit. Rather than disrupt the film, I’d rather a scene just play. Small cues also remind people of TV.  So I’m always really afraid of people feeling like it’s suddenly a Friends episode. A couple of bars of music while we’re doing an establishing shot into the next place. Sometimes they do work. And sometimes I lose the battle trying to insist they shouldn’t be there. But at the end of the day, the producers and the directors decide what’s going to be. I always tell filmmakers when I deliver a score, “Don’t feel bad if you drop anything.”

It’s so fascinating that sometimes just doing nothing is the better choice, but also the hardest.

Well, it’s the scariest for a filmmaker. Music has this effect of moving time forward in different ways. It doesn’t just keep a ticking clock where you feel like there’s forward motion in the scene, but depending on the edit and the speed of the edit, it will tell you a little bit about the tempo time should move at. So it always adds something meaningful to a scene, but the question of whether or not it should be there is still really relevant. And filmmakers are more often than not, afraid to lose something in a scene and will keep unnecessary music.

On top of your film work, you also compose music for haunted attractions and theme parks. How did you get involved with that?

There was always just one professional love in my life and that’s film. Not just film music, but anything cinema is what I’ve always lived for. And I was only good at music so I knew that’s how I could serve cinema. But by complete accident, I was at the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride back in 2010. It just completely blew me away. It’s just a monster of a production. I couldn’t believe how cool it was, but there was this one thing that just drove me crazy. They had this minute, minute and 20-second long synthy loop rolling over and over while you’re in line for hours. And it was the greatest show ever except for the fact that the music just really pulled the rug out from under them. And it wasn’t even my idea. My wife was like, “Maybe you should call them and you could give them some suggestions?” So I called the park because I didn’t know what else to do and left a message with the Griffith Park ranger and asked him to forward my info to the production. And he actually did! So one day my phone rings and I get this call that starts out, “Hey. My name is Melissa. Are you the guy who called to complain about the music at my park?” I was like, “Oh my god! I didn’t mean it to sound like a complaint! What I mean to say is, the show is great! But it’s missing something important. Your show simply deserves a better score.” So we had breakfast like 20 minutes later and while we were talking about the logistics of the ride we realized we were mapping out a soundtrack. So we did it. After that happened, the next year I was getting calls from Knott’s Berry Farm and parks in Europe. It just grew into this thing and suddenly this whole new life opened up in theme parks. It is so fun. Like really, really fun.

You obviously spend some serious time in the horror realm. Are you a fan of the genre?

I am. I always have been. Since I was little too. I was a small child when my mom started conditioning me for horror. She would watch a lot of them, and then my grandma too. I’d go visit my grandma in Portland and we’d watch things like The Silence of the Lambs. And I think I was 8 when we went and saw Spawn in the theater with my sister who was like, 5 at the time. Horror has always been this kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgic thing for me. I have early, early positive memories with my mom, grandma, and horror.

What is it you enjoy about composing for horror?

I think horror is the genre that has the widest array of options open to a composer. Unlike comedies or dramas that are a little bit more restrictive. I find that when I’m doing one of those, filmmakers really expect only a certain bandwidth of sound. For example, The Holiday mixed with Amelie. It’s a little funny and a little quirky. That just blocks me into a corner. Everybody has an expectation of what that will sound like. Nobody wants to be surprised. But with horror, you never know what you’re going in for. People expect to be shocked. And when they are, people seem to appreciate something new. You get latitude to do things you just can’t do in any other genre musically. You can get away with sounds, textures, pacing, and psychological musical experimentation you couldn’t pull off anywhere else. It’s that array of options that I think is just so great.

DON’T LOOK BACK is currently available to stream on VOD. You can find more information about Chris by checking out his site here, and experience his spooky scores for theme parks and haunts around the globe here.

There was always just one professional love in my life, and that’s film.

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