By RACHEL REEVES
With Willy’s Wonderland, director Kevin Lewis took a silent Nic Cage and delivered an instant cult classic. Now, he’s back with an equally impressive roster of talent for his wickedly witchy, dark family horror-drama, THE ACCURSED. Starring Meg Foster (They Live), Mena Suvari (American Beauty), Sarah Grey (Power Rangers) and Sarah Dumont (The Oath), THE ACCURSED’s strong female cast explores the many terrifying shapes that demons can take.
Part of what made Willy’s Wonderland such a delightful romp was the highly entertaining and effective score from composer Émoi (pronounced /e.mwa/). Not only did Émoi bring the notably dialogue-less Cage to life, but he also wrote and recorded the many diegetic songs that pepper the film’s creepy, fun atmosphere. Knowing full well that THE ACCURSED would also require a range of musical skills, Lewis once again called on the talents of Émoi.
For THE ACCURSED, Émoi intentionally explored a more traditional sound and style of film composing. Drastically different in tone than Willy’s Wonderland, THE ACCURSED embraces the more thematic nature and orchestral palette of horror fare from the ’60s and ’70s. Even while exploring heavier narrative material with a broader sound, Émoi’s playful attitude and strong songwriting abilities still shine through with ease.
To mark THE ACCURSED’s recent release on VOD, RUE MORGUE sat down with Émoi. Throughout our conversation, we discuss his collaboration with Lewis, songwriting, developing the film’s sonic foundation and so much more.
You previously worked with Kevin Lewis on Willy’s Wonderland, so I was happy to see you both working together again. When and how did he approach you about THE ACCURSED?
After Willy’s, I think I earned a lot of trust with Kevin. We worked together really well, very like-mindedly and we became friends – to be honest with you. Like, real friends. So he called me up and said, “Hey, I just got this script. Read the first eight pages and call me back.” So I read the first eight pages, and I was blown away. I mean, the first line of the script is, “Don’t come inside until the screaming starts.” And there’s this little girl carving a crucifix into a tree with her mother standing over her saying [that]. She walks into this dreary old cabin, and you’re just like, “Wait, what?” I loved it. So I called up Kevin, and he was like, “Keep reading, and let’s talk when you’re done.” We finished reading, called each other and were just like, “We gotta do this.”
One thing we really loved about it was how different it was from Willy’s. We didn’t want to get pigeonholed. I think that can happen very quickly, and you can get put in a gimmicky kind of spot. This was a totally different beast and an opportunity. THE ACCURSED is slower, it’s more dramatic and it leaves room for more standard or classic film directing and scoring.
The tone of THE ACCURSED is very different from Willy’s Wonderland. Tell us a little bit about how you both initially approached and developed the music with that in mind.
At first, we didn’t talk about music quite yet. He had to get it greenlit first. So they got Mena Suvari attached, and then they got Meg Foster attached, but through that whole process, Kevin kept me extremely involved. He’d send me the storyboards and all [this] different concept art. And then, the conversation of music started leaking in.
He was like, “I’m getting a real vintage horror vibe from all of this. I think I wanna go ’70s horror, and I kind of want to go classic.” One of the producers, Scott Harbert, who was also a producer on Willy’s, he’s really good friends with Kevin, so he was on a lot of these calls with us. We have a three-way thread between the three of us that’s been going on for, like, two years now. I’ve become friends with Scott by association as well, and he was like, “It would be really cool to do thematic scoring on this.”
[A] side note to this is Scott is a composer who composed Kevin’s first movie. And if I remember correctly, they actually went to film school together. So anyway, he was like, “What about the thematic old scores? Nobody does that anymore. Everything is so atonal and textural. What about old-school scores like John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, or Ennio Morricone?” So the first thing I wrote was THE ACCURSED main title theme which is over the opening credits. And I wrote that before they shot a single frame. Kevin loved it. I wrote it as a suite so we could pull motifs from [it].
But then Kevin was like, “What about just creating the environment, creating the world?” So for that, I suggested that we should try to do some really original musical sound design and just paint the movie with really unique stuff. I bought a bunch of handmade instruments and a bunch of really unique things.
One of my hobbies is picking up instruments from pawn shops, so I [have] a bunch. They’re usually out of tune and unfixable. You can tune them a million times, but they always go out of tune in about five seconds. Most of them have holes in them, but I like the way they sound for this kind of stuff. I would say the instrument that I used the most was actually this broken viola that I have. I did those [vocalizes a screechy viola sound] sounds throughout. Anyways, that’s how we put together the tone of it. We just kept sending things back and forth, back and forth.
Then in the script, there’s a song that is the mother and daughter’s song. And Kevin was like, “This is all you.” Of course, because of Willy’s. He was like, “Write a song. I don’t want to even license anything. Just write something.” We created this whole backstory for the mom and how it was probably a song the mom listened to as a kid. Maybe her mom played it for her. So the ’50s seemed like the vibe, and I wrote: “You Are My Baby Girl” and the opening title theme before they shot a single frame. Kevin liked it so much, he actually used a lot of the lyrics from the song as dialogue in the movie.
I was wondering if you wrote that song! It felt like it had an Émoi vibe to it. But you weren’t the one singing on that track. Can you tell us a little bit about your collaborator for the song?
So a friend of mine, who is a phenomenal singer, her name is Sydney Ember – she’s an incredible singer – and I reached out to her to do it. She was very excited to come on board. We recorded it in my studio, and it was an excellent experience. She really killed it. We worked really hard to use all vintage preamps, a vintage microphone and vintage everything to try and get that ’50s sound. I ran her [voice] through a bunch of tube amps and interesting, cool things. I played the guitar part on an old Fender and got that really warm, high-frequency kind of thing that’s signature to the ’50s. It was awesome.
There’s another prominent song towards the end of the movie. Did you write and record that one as well?
Yeah, and that is me singing on that one. That was another one where it was fun to try and get inside the mind of somebody and what kind of music they would’ve listened to. So I looked at Dorothy Ambrose, as it was her record. Dorothy (played by Mena Suvari) is in her early 40’s, so I was thinking she would listen to ’90s music. It would probably be something in the vein of Toad the Wet Sprocket, ’90s acoustic guitar, John Mayer-ish or something like that. I was trying to picture what Dorothy Ambrose would listen to while she’s sulking about losing this man, who she had an affair with but was feeling like belonged to her.
THE ACCURSED has a really strong female cast, and there are thematic narrative threads that we see tying them all together. Did this aspect of the film impact your score in any particular way?
Well, their performances definitely inspired the score. Meg Foster’s performance in this movie is so unbelievably awesome to me. I mean, she’s on par with Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, you know what I mean? In that opening scene, she is just so amazing. So I was like, “We gotta bring out the horns for Meg’s performance.” At the end of that scene, as the demon gets inside her, I definitely decided to go more grandiose there.
Sarah Grey is more of an internal actress. She’s really good at being reserved and you’re feeling for her in this role. She has to do a lot of things where just a facial expression has to say a lot. So I did that theme for her with the piano just to get that sadness going. It starts when she first drops her head on the porch and carries through. That was all inspired by her.
With Mena Suvari’s character, one of my favorite cues in the film is when she is starting to open the book herself, and you know the demons are coming. You hear this, [sings a low pulsating rhythm] in the music. It’s not too slow, and it’s not too fast. It’s just this repetitive thing. Then the strings come in, and she raises her hands up in the air, and the music just goes with her. So I mean, the music was highly inspired.
That’s the process of filmmaking in so many ways. We have these ideas when we go into a film, but to be honest with you, a movie writes itself. It is in the performances. It’s in the wardrobe. It’s in the lighting and the camera angles. It dictates what the score is going to be. We try to have control, but we really don’t. That’s how I feel. I feel like I’m just a conduit, like a psychic medium who goes into a room, takes the energy and transforms it into music. I just sit there and absorb it, you know what I mean? Then I interpret it, and it comes out that way.
So, Willy’s Wonderland was your first feature film score, and now THE ACCURSED is your second. What did you learn from your experience scoring Willy’s that you were then able to put into practice for this film?
There is a lot that I learned from Willy’s. Willy’s was a lot of trial and error. Most of it technical, to be honest with you. Because working in reels for the first time … when a movie is made, it’s split into reels. So everybody works on a reel at a time. Typically, [there are] five reels, and they’re all roughly about twenty minutes long. What I realized after Willy’s is to color code everything and label everything. If you change an instrument, if you change a patch, if you change anything, take the time to label it. Because if you don’t, it will bite you later, and you will be spending a lot of time going back.
It also makes it easier when you go from stereo to 5.1. Typically I start in stereo just because I like to get my ideas out faster, you know? [That way, I’m] not spending so much time mixing on six channels. That way, when I do go back to redo everything in 5.1 and really do the mixing, really do all the panning and all that stuff, it’s so much easier if everything is labeled. And not only that, but if you do an instrument on reel one and you want it on reel five, you have to go back, copy and paste or export all that to write it all down on a piece of paper and then get it over there. So creating templates is key.
Before I started Willy’s, I didn’t do anything. When I started THE ACCURSED, I went in and started templates before I ever started scoring the movie. I had everything templated, everything color-coded – everything. But like on Willy’s, I did reel one, but by the time I got to reel five, my music had evolved. Even just the tonality of it. I had tweaked the guitar so many times that by the time I got to reel five, the guitar was a totally different tone. Then I had to go take that into the beginning and redo everything.
So just labeling, writing everything down, color-coding, creating templates and making a very smooth workflow is crucial. Because three months to do basically 80 minutes of music is brutal. You barely have time to go to the bathroom. I’m not even kidding. For three months, there’s no day off, there’s no sleeping, there’s no nothing. You want to make life as easy on yourself as possible.
That’s always so fascinating to me. I mean, creating the music is just part of the gig. Then there are all the technical and logistical aspects to contend with.
Yeah! And typically on a movie, you have a sound department, which is a lot of people: music editors, mixers, etc. But on indie movies like Willy’s and THE ACCURSED, a lot of times (and both times for me), I’m the music department. So I’m the music editor, the mixer, everybody. It’s much easier if you are writing themes or cues, sending them to the next guy, he’s polishing them up, editing them, presenting them and doing all the editing and setting levels for the dialogue to sit on top. But that’s all stuff you have to do when you’re on your own. And you don’t want the producers to go, “This sounds like crap.”
I would imagine these are incredibly useful skills for a composer to have so that when you do work on a project and have those people as part of your team, you know the entire process. Then, you’re able to work with them better and set everybody up for success since you understand a little bit more about what they’re doing and what their jobs entail.
Yes. And on this film, I worked pretty much exclusively with Kevin. We had very little feedback from anybody. One of the things that makes us very special is that there was no reference music. Zero. That never happens. When they edit a movie or a commercial, they put temporary music on there to give an idea of the feel or what have you, but Kevin wanted to go in and just play jazz on this and create our own unique-feeling world. So it was awesome because it was a one-time opportunity to have that level of trust. That never happens.
Films that take this approach always feel much more intimate to me. You know, rather than throwing a Hans Zimmer track in there and editing to that.
You got it. Exactly. I feel like it’s more authentic that way too. It’s like if I could do anything on THE ACCURSED, that’s what I would’ve done. Because that’s what I did! You know what I mean? That was one of the coolest aspects of scoring this movie, that freedom.
THE ACCURSED is now playing in select theaters and is currently available on VOD via Screen Media.