By JERRY J SAMPSON
On the heels of a successful run as one of the most creatively intriguing producers in the indie horror genre, Travis Stevens (Girl on the Third Floor, Jakob’s Wife) has continued to cultivate and vocalize his own unique directorial genre language with A WOUNDED FAWN. The film, shot in 16 mm film, writhing and oozing with dark sexual energy and feminine rage, stars Josh Ruben (Scare Me, Werewolves Within) as Bruce, a disturbed man desperate to appease a haunting apparition who demands of him steady sacrifice, and Sarah Lind (The Exorcism of Molly Hartley) as Meredith, the woman he sorely underestimates.
Other than the striking imagery and outstanding performances from Ruben and Lind, A WOUNDED FAWN boasts a searing, stimulating, and innovatively mind-altering score from VAAAL (pronounced like “wall” with a V). The score is an industrial, gothic-noir exploration of romance and frenzy with VAAAL designing his compositions utilizing chanting vocals, screeching synth, and a sound both wholly unique and warmly familiar, pulling inspirations from Giallo, 70s horror, and classic noir.
Rue Morgue joined VAAAL in the studio over Zoom for an in-depth discussion on ingenuity, collaboration, charting his own course through the world of cinematic composition, and the joys of connecting through social media.
To get into your head right off the bat, how did you get involved in the world of film scoring?
I’ve been doing music almost my entire life in various forms, from death metal to weird electronic music to pop music and everything in between, as well as a lot of focus on cinematic sounding music throughout. And I’ve always been a huge film nerd on top of that but growing up I couldn’t really see how one gets involved in the industry to land a job scoring a film, so it always felt like a pipe dream and a bit unattainable. I didn’t know how I would get into it or what my personal expression would be. I also never interned with a film composer which is the way a lot of people get into the industry.
So about five years ago, after making a lot of music that leaned toward the cinematic, I decided I wanted to score movies, so I started working toward that and really making an effort to get into that world. I started by making film trailer music and had some success early on in that world, which is more marketing than filmmaking even though it’s a very creative section as well. It turned out that whatever I do naturally, it fits very well into music for trailers. I’ve always enjoyed a lot of aggressive and big, epic music and larger than life, weird orchestration, which turned out to be good for that industry. I landed a couple of big trailers like Saint Maud, Call of Duty, Ad Astra and more, and it became almost a shortcut into film, but you aren’t actually around producers or directors.
So, through joining that world, I started to develop my own expression within cinematic music and basically created this artist’s project, VAAAL, that was me making the music that I want to hear in horror film or genre in general. Something that I’d be excited to do. And it’s hard to get into scoring, but you make what you want to hear yourself and put yourself out there, and if it resonates with other people that’s great. Most importantly it was about giving it an honest shot. I started releasing albums and working on my Instagram, which is a great place to share these micro-ideas as well as music I’ve made, and at the same time I started reaching out to directors over Instagram. Every time I saw a movie that I enjoyed I would reach out to the director behind it.
Did you find yourself reaching out to more indie horror and indie genre directors at that time?
Oh yeah, definitely, a lot of indie, but you know, you’ve got to aim high because you never know. But mainly indie as it’s a bit more attainable.
Of course, also in the studio world those directors tend to have the composers they work with regularly, so I’m sure it’s harder to get access.
Exactly, and the indie world is so open and welcoming, I had so many great responses through reaching out to people, and one of them was Travis (Stevens). After I saw Girl on the Third Floor, I had a really good time watching that movie and it felt like I got what he was wanting to do and I liked the experimental nature of that, and then later Jakob’s Wife which was even better. So, after I reached out we became Instagram friends and started talking, and I made my intentions clear that I’d love to work with him in the future if he ever needed a composer. Eventually the day came when he had just finished shooting A WOUNDED FAWN and let me know that he was going to reach out to me about working on the film. It was the best day.
So, when you were starting that process, especially working with someone who you respect and who has a more experimental bend to some of his films, how did you and Travis agree on a style of collaboration? Did he guide you or was it a more open collaboration?
I would say it was a little bit of both. Travis is very open to collaboration but what was special with this project is that the first edit I got to see of the movie was cut with all my own artist music as temp music.
It sounds like he was inspired by you as well!
Kind of, yeah. I guess, I mean I don’t want to speak for him. But it seemed like he was at least a little bit of a fan which was so flattering and also surreal. To get to be one of the first people outside of the production to see the first cut with my music was really strange in a really cool way. It also made it clearer on where I could take the score and how big of swings I could take. Our first meeting, Travis mentioned a lot of characteristics of my music that he likes, I have a pretty percussive and atonal, wooden type of sound with a lot of spikey sounds, screeches, nasty stuff. And that was something he was after for the film. Something that wasn’t just murky indie horror drones, which I also love.
In this score I hear the synth sounds that are popular in modern indie horror scores, but you also step way outside of the norm, putting the listener in a place of real uncertainty and unsafety, setting that tone so early in the film, which pairs so perfectly with Travis’ style of filmmaking which also sets you on your heels. It’s a magic pairing in my opinion. Can you explain your process and what goes into the instrumentation and functions that go into creating the peaks and valleys of the score?
First of all, thank you for saying that, the ambition was to make the score a solid piece that works well both in the film and on its own.
For the actual making of it, one thing I knew I wanted to focus on right away when reading the script, without spoiling anything in the film, was the various types of female presences throughout the movie. I knew that would need to be in the score. Female vocals in horror scores are nothing new and very popular right now, but I wanted to see if I could put my own spin on it and if I could push it further.
So, one of my earliest ideas was to record these kind of choir notes with three singers who represent the three characters in the movie. I brought in my wife and two other singing artist friends, and they became the “Fury” choir. We did one recording session where I cleared space and put two microphones in the middle of the room to create a stereo setup. I had the three singers circle around the mics as they sang controlled randomness.
It was about having something abstract.
We recorded those notes and also Greek words – “murderer” and “thief” – and I would have them scream at random times. I recorded those sounds into a folder and put them onto my iPad and used it with a couple of different granular processing apps – for non-music nerds, granular synthesis is when you have one sound and you break it down into a million pieces, then you can control how it’s played back – forward, backward, jumping in between, it’s not linear. That became my main writing tool for a lot of the vocal-based cues in the movie. It made it so I could be more abstract and swirly and you can tell it’s vocals but it’s broken down on a molecular level.
What a fascinating process. It sounds like you can draw so much inspiration from more than just what you’re presented with in the script or on screen.
Totally, it’s like abstract painting almost.
The gritty feel of the 16 mm along with the dark, looming presence of your score, mixed with the beauty of the cinematography and the radiance of Sarah (Lind), it all works in such a visceral and violent but also gorgeous and haunting way – it almost feels like a 70s exploitation film, but also has hints of Giallo – it’s all so crucial to set the tone of the film and does so well. With all of these different styles that come through in your score, can you give a few composers who creatively inspire your work?
Well, Jóhann Jóhannsson (Mandy) is definitely one of the reasons I saw the possibilities in scoring for myself. In a podcast interview he did years back he ignited a spark in me, it’s very sad that he’s gone before we got more from him, I would have loved to have met him. I also really like Hildur Guðnadóttir, her score for Chernobyl is just amazing. Also Lucrecia Dalt who did the music for the British show The Baby and the movie The Seed, she has a very weird, experimental sound that I felt a kindred spirit to, approaching the weirder characteristics in a score.
Of course, I’m also a huge fan of Howard Shore and everything he’s done with Cronenberg.
I take influences in from not just film composers but also noise musicians, extreme metal bands, also pop music and rap, things that are aggressive in different ways. You can be aggressive without having an orchestra and eighty instruments behind you.
Your score for A WOUNDED FAWN and the language of your composition has married so wonderfully with the film and I think people are really going to respond to your work with this film and beyond.
This felt like a dream job, I couldn’t ask for a more perfect project to work my own interest in with textural stuff, and all of the body horror and Giallo influences – it almost felt too good to be true. And even now, I’m overwhelmed, but I made it through and am relieved that it all worked in the end.
It was also my first film festival run, we got to go to Tribeca, Fantastic Fest, Beyond Fest, and it was amazing seeing so many like-minded people and getting to experience the film with them and physically see the reception and that other people other than just me and Travis enjoy the film and the music.
Do you have anything on the horizon that you can talk about?
Right after the festival run, I scored a short film that Josh Ruben produced, so we’re finishing that up now. For the last two years I’ve been working on a double album with some more beat-based cinematic music, but also some avant-garde work. It’s my most personal expression and it will hopefully come out next year.
A WOUNDED FAWN is available now to stream on Shudder. Listen to the score here.