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Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia Jr. Discuss the Music of “Madres”

Monday, November 22, 2021 | Interviews


In the new Welcome to the Blumhouse film MADRES, long-buried secrets bubble to the surface when young Mexican-American couple Beto (Tenoch Huerta) and his expectant wife Diana (Ariana Guerra) move into a small 1970s California farming community. While the move provides Beto a step up professionally managing a farming operation, it separates Diana from friends, family, and her more urban lifestyle. In an effort to stave off loneliness and boredom, Diana begins to explore her new home and soon finds herself engulfed by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the town’s lack of children. 

Based on truly terrifying real-world events, MADRES is a haunting tale of motherhood, marginalized communities, and the diverse immigrant experience. The feature film debut from director Ryan Zaragoza, this multifaceted horror story required an equally unique score. Luckily for Zaragoza, he had not only one talented composer on speed dial, but two. As the previous composers on Zaragoza’s short films, Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia Jr. were a perfect fit. Truly gifted in the artistic manipulation of sound, melody, and their associated emotional responses, the talented composing duo injects MADRES with an intoxicating and effective balance of beauty and terror. To dig into the sound of MADRES a bit more, Rue Morgue recently sat down with the dynamic duo to chat all about the film, their process, and how their creative partnership benefits them both.  

How did you first get involved with MADRES and at what stage of production did you come in?

IE: We came in very early, at the script stage. And, we had actually worked with the director, Ryan Zaragoza, before. We did two projects with him prior to this, Sterling and Bebé, so we’re already kind of in tune with him and his creative style. So, he was the one who brought us on for this. When he got the script, he also gave it to us to read and asked us to start composing. He wanted the music box lullaby that you also hear in the trailer. It’s also very prominent throughout the film. So, we wrote that before they even started to film. 

GGJ: They also had a custom music box with that tune on set. 

That had to be super beneficial for everyone to have a tangible item like that and a great way for them to connect with the music during production.

IE: I actually have it here! We got to borrow it and they sent it to us so I could take some pictures. But, they’re coming tomorrow to pick it back up. 

You mentioned that you’ve worked with Ryan before and how he wanted that lullaby tune very early on. What were the other early conversations like with him regarding the film’s musical direction?

GGJ: So we kind of fell into this place where we had a collective approach. All three of us had talked about how we love Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage. Those were kind of some of our favorite horror films. And, the music from those films, we really liked that approach of a very lyrical, melodic fantastical horror score. Lucky for us, we had already done the lullaby which had that element. That was really what guided our approach to the film’s score. 

While the lullaby appears throughout the film, it doesn’t remain the same the whole time. Can you talk a little bit about how it the melody evolves? 

GGJ: Sure! There are two main thematic materials in the film; there’s the lullaby that kind of represents the fantastical ghost-hunting story, and then there’s a story melody. You first hear that story melody in the title credits. It represents the town, the events in that town, and the more real-life circumstances. And depending on what’s happening throughout the scope of the film, what’s on picture, what’s evolving, and how that story is changing, the music blends in and out between those two themes. That’s kind of how we treated the themes; we based them off of what was happening in the story. 

The main story in MADRES takes place in the 1970s and I found your music to be wonderfully reminiscent of scores from that era. Did that time period influence how and what you composed? 

IE: Yeah, it did. We went more in a traditional direction with the score. It’s very melodic. It’s not a typical modern score where it’s more music design. So in those terms, yeah, we were influenced by the time period. Also, Ryan then gave us references to all these scores like The Omen, The Shining, and Rosemary’s Baby. He had us watch all of those films to get influenced by that time [period]. He was very specific with the style. 

GGJ: There’s also a cultural aspect. We were trying to capture that Mexican folklore feel of hunting past generations and the voices. There’s also a very female-oriented theme that runs throughout the film and we really wanted to emulate that. Isabelle is really, really good at sound design as well so that was another aspect of the score. We recorded with Ralph Torres who is an indigenous Mexican flute instrument specialist. We actually got to record him a lot. Isabelle then did some really cool designs based off of that to use as our base for atmospheres. 

ARIANA GUERRA stars in MADRES Photo: ALFONSO BRESCIANI © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Those traditional instruments and sounds really add such an important layer to the film and its story. Can you tell us about any of the specific instruments Ralph used for the score?

GGJ: One of them is called the Aztec Death Whistle. He also used these shakers that he put on his ankles. He has a lot of Mexican instruments, some South American and some Native American from here in the Americas. He’s based in L.A. too in case anyone needs his services here! [Laughs] We also wanted to blur how it gets mixed in. There’s a lot of female voices as well that come in and out. Then it goes through the flutes, through the female voice, and into the strings, it was fun. 

I’m glad you mentioned the use of vocals in the music because they are almost like another character in the story. From a composing standpoint, what was your intention in utilizing vocals and how do you see them relating to the underlying narrative?

GGJ: So, I’m from South Texas where my family and my relatives are from very Northeast Mexican towns. It’s a little bit like the folklore in the film and there’s a lot of superstition. You would randomly hear little hymns or chants, that kind of thing. And because they wanted to lean heavily into that Mexican folklore world, and because it was about women—both the current and previous women—that was the overall effect we wanted to have. We wanted it to be this little fantastic world through a woman’s voice. 

IE: And this curse that is associated with that.

GGJ: Yeah, you really hear it whenever there is the curse involved.

Without getting into any spoilers, there’s a lot of layers to the horror elements within the film. How difficult was that to navigate and what was your approach to supporting them musically?

IE: One aspect that we paid attention to was when we wanted a hit, when someone appears somewhere or whatever, we wanted to do sounds that we had made ourselves. We didn’t want to use this kind of generic-sounding stuff that you hear a lot. So, everything is very organic and most everything we used was stuff that we recorded.

GGJ Even when we had to hit something, we still wanted to make it seem like it still sounds like it belongs in the world that we’re creating; the world of the film. We really wanted to keep it cohesive. In terms of really pushing the scares and all that, we try not to be repetitive in how things are hit, you know? Because things do lose effect. We wanted more impact, more horror, from the gut. There’s a hallway scene where there’s an incident that happens there and there are women’s cooings and voices, but it starts getting denser and denser before it drops into a full string sound. It becomes more of a dread feeling instead of just very specific hits and dissonant notes. Even in the scarier moments, we try to still have it melodically driven. So even though it was dissonant, there was usually a melody present as well. 

IE: Even with the choir and voice work, even if it’s dissonant, the melody is embedded in there. It’s there somehow, this lullaby. [Laughs] And also just to go back to what Gerry said, when we did this more atmospheric, ghostly, horrific ambiance, we also use the melody, but maybe it’s so slowed down you could never tell it’s the melody. Sometimes it maybe sounds like a flute, but then the real flute comes in. We really just tried to work within this small, ghostly and horrific soundscape rather than typical scary. 

Composers Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia Jr.

That approach is really effective here as so many of the horror elements within MADRES simply speak for themselves. 

IE: Right!? It is true. And Ryan Zaragoza is not your typical horror fan either, so we really leaned into that.

GGJ  Also, big props to Ryan for allowing there to be so much space for music. That’s not often the case with directors and scores and there was so much left for us to be able to have a real presence with our music.

IE: Yeah, even at the script stage he could like point out where it would be very music heavy. Even before they started to film, he already knew that this music box here would be a big, big part of the family. He already knew all of that. 

Seeing as you two often work as a duo, how did you two initially connect and what inspired you to collaborate on projects moving forward?

GGJ: We met at USC and we both got accepted the same year. They have a film scoring program and it was scoring for motion pictures and television. It’s very intimate, only about 20 people. We were always together in class and we had to present our scored scenes, our homework, to the class all the time. And, me and Isabelle, we were always just like, “Yours is my favorite.” [Laughs] We then worked on a student film together and we just really like working with each other. Then, after we graduated, we started working on everything together. It’s been a wonderful joy because it can be a very solitary career. So this way we’re constantly talking to each other, sending each other files, and working on each other’s stuff. 

IE: And then another aspect is that we also compliment each other so well. We come from different directions musically. So when we meet, we have a broad palette to use, you know? I come from more of an experimental side and have a very broad background; from songwriting to jazz to pop music. And then I went into orchestral music. I love to create my own sound, create new sounds, think innovatively and you know, just try to do new things. And Gerardo, he is extremely good at melody. I always say that it’s better that he does the melody. [Laughs] So we kind of meet in the middle there, but we both do a little of everything throughout.

GGJ: Writing music for media, there can also often be a time limit aspect to it. So, we know each other, we have our strengths and our weakness, and in terms of efficiency, I can be like, “Oh, Isabelle, you should take this. You can definitely do this part really easily.” And vice-versa. Oftentimes we will both write material too. Or let’s say I just make a bunch of melodies and then Isabelle will take a part and say, “Oh, this would be perfect here.” Then she adapts and arranges it and makes whatever sounds she wants to make off of that. It’s very, very fun and it’s a great collaboration. We learn a lot from each other and I’m much better myself because I work with her. 

MADRES is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video as part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse film series.

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