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Mikel Hurwitz On Composing Horror-Comedy, “Too Late”

Monday, July 26, 2021 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES

In the new horror-comedy film TOO LATE, director D.W. Thomas pulls back the velvet curtain on the world of indie stand-up comedy. Revealing both clever witticisms and shady practices, TOO LATE takes a literal look at the dog-eat-dog nature of the industry. The story follows young, up-and-coming comedian Violet (Alyssa Limperis) along with many inserted bits of genuine comedic acts. Like many young professionals, Violet juggles her passion with the need for a paycheck by working for L.A. comedy legend, Bob Devore. Portrayed by Ron Lynch (Bob’s Burgers), Bob not only takes advantage of Violet at every possible opportunity, he devours many of the talented young individuals that surround her—literally. What results is a dark, funny, and metaphor-heavy look at the blurred lines between hunger and passion.

Helping the film strike this fine balance between humor and horror is an incredibly original score by Mikel Hurwitz. A multifaceted and experimental composer, Hurwitz’s ability to utilize a diverse palette of sounds and instruments adds layers of engaging auditory moments and crucial character backstory to the film’s narrative. Working effortlessly in tandem with the rest of the film, Hurwitz’s music solidifies and supports the overarching dark humor and allows it to permeate every singular note. Just like a perfectly timed punchline, it is Hurwitz’s music that ultimately signals audiences when to laugh and when to shiver. 

In celebration of the film’s recent release, Rue Morgue spoke with Hurwitz about his experience working on TOO LATE, what unites horror and comedy, and what he learned from his years working alongside the groundbreaking Danny Elfman.

How did you first get involved with TOO LATE and what attracted you to the project?

So, believe it or not, the director D.W. Thomas actually got in contact with me over social media. We’d never actually met and it’s the only time I’ve ever gotten a project that way before. Usually it’s word of mouth and recommendations and stuff, but she was asking me if I knew anyone who scored horror films. So I said to her, “Well, you know, I’ve scored a lot of films, but I’ve never scored a horror film. I’d love to put my hat in the ring to be on a list of people considered.” And she said, “Oh! You want to do it?” And that was kind of it! I think we did like, two or three versions of the opening theme and after sharing them with her, she was sort of locked in and sold on the tone of the score. So, yeah. It’s kind of a funny story. 

While the director D.W. Thomas is no stranger to filmmaking, this is her feature film debut. Because of that I’m curious, how involved with the scoring process was she and what were your initial conversations with her regarding the film’s musical direction?

She was quite involved. She also comes from the editing world and first of all, I think the film was really, really well edited, which always makes my job a little easier. But she’s also really good at describing a scene and the pacing of a scene. We had our initial spotting session and the writer and creator Tom Becker was on the call as well. Honestly, we didn’t talk a ton about where music should come in and where music should come out. I mean, we did do that, but it wasn’t as extensive as some spotting sessions that I’ve had. 

However, what we did talk about that was really cool and really helpful was some of the backstories of the characters, specifically Bob Devore, who is the monster. It’s this whole backstory that we only kind of get from the film that really formed a lot of my decision-making in terms of what instruments to use, where to dip for melodic inspirations and that kind of thing. We do get the idea from this one particular scene where we see Bob’s historical pictures that he is sort of this timeless character and perhaps from the vaudeville period, or even earlier! D.W. and Tom created this whole legend that he’s based on and how he was this traveler from sometime between the Baroque to Victorian era in Europe. So that had a lot of impact on my decision to use accordion and harpsichord for example. I was trying to sort of tell a little bit of that backstory, even though it wasn’t entirely necessary to the film. Ultimately, I think it added a lot of dimension to the storytelling. 

Along with Bob, the character Violet is really a focal point in the film. Talk a little bit about your approach to scoring her and how you worked her personality into the music.

First of all, she’s obviously more of a modern character. Because of that, I feel like when I step back and see the big picture, there’s this juxtaposition and bumping up between the traditional elements and more modern sound. I used a bunch of synths and I was using some more odd and modern keyboard instruments which played as an extension of the harpsichord. I can actually get really nerdy with it and say that the idea was that the pianos and electric pianos are where the harpsichord came from. They’re kind of an evolution, which also analogs the story in a way.

There’s also a tension between her and Bob. He’s this more historical character and Violet is sort of his protege assistant who ultimately wins the power struggle. So I think in terms of her, she brought so much to the screen that I really felt like I just had to support her. I didn’t necessarily have to think that deeply about her backstory because it’s just not quite on the same level as Bob.

You’ve mentioned the harpsichord and the accordion in your score, but some other really interesting sounds are a bit harder to identify. How much experimentation did you do for this score to find just the right sounds and were there any sounds or techniques that you used and are particularly proud of?

Oh yeah. Let’s nerd out. [Laughs] So, I started off with the opening title track and I kind of used it as an overture idea. I was at least attempting to crash the sound of the score and the sound of the movie in that two or three minute opening sequence. You have a lot of what got parsed out into the other parts of the score there in that sequence. We have accordion, we have harpsichord, and we also have a lot of manipulated strings and synths. There’s really a lot going on. 

In terms of fun things, part of the backstory of Bob and part of what his particular kind of monster is, he was based on this Australian Aboriginal mythological creature called the Yara-ma-yha-who. This monster eats its prey, digests and extracts what it needs and then spits out the remaining prey afterwards. And, just like a vampire, once it bites you, you also become this vampire-like character. So, there was this interesting backstory thing as well that I was trying to tell. One of the kind of fun ways I tried to do that was through these pulsing synths that we keep hearing throughout. It’s a low, low pulsing synth that I built from a didgeridoo recording that I made 15 years ago when I used to play. I don’t actually own a didgeridoo currently, but I made all these recordings and was like, “Man. I should go back into those libraries and dig some stuff up.” And sure enough. There were these perfect recordings to make some patches out of. 

Another thing was the harpsichords and accordions throughout the course of the score. When we start off, it’s a pretty dry sound and it’s a pretty direct recording of the instruments. You can actually recognize the instruments. But over the course of the film while we learn about Bob’s character, I was progressively kind of fucking up the sounds more and more. The more standard things that I was doing was just adding delays and lo-fi effects, that kind of thing. So by the end of the film, you are hearing some of the natural recorded instruments, but you’re also hearing in the textures all kinds of weird processed versions of those instruments as well. 

That’s really interesting about how you saved that didgeridoo sound without knowing exactly how or when you would use it again. How often do you save sounds and bank them for later?

I used to do it a lot more but, to be honest, it was because I was less busy, you know? I have a ton of sounds. Like terabytes and terabytes and terabytes of sound. I was really into just recording and going out with a Zoom recorder and recording street sounds, weird stuff in the city, nature or whatever. I’m also one of those hyper-organized people so I know where I can get at it if I need to get at it. But I would say, it’s less often now that I’ll do that. 

However, on every score, I’ll spend maybe a day if I don’t have a lot of time, or upwards of a week or two if I do have the time to really experiment and to kind of make weird shit. I’ll take sounds and make them all totally unrecognizable from what the original sounds started off as. Then, I’ll take that sound and put it into this program called Kontakt. We can basically take any audio, drop it in and then it maps to the keyboard so you can play it. It’s sort of like a sampler. So, I’ll build all these Kontakt instruments that are specific to that particular movie. That then kind of becomes the language and the architecture of the score.

Composer Mikel Hurwitz

You mentioned earlier that this was your first horror score. On top of that, it’s also a comedy about the world of stand-up comedy. For all three of these worlds, timing and tone are really crucial. With all three combined into one film, how challenging was it to get these elements just right?

That’s a good question. It’s funny because with horror, tone and timing are exactly the right words. My main education on horror was through the eyes of Bernard Herrmann and his Hitchcock stuff so, that’s where my foundation lies. But, I intentionally didn’t listen to a lot of other music when I was doing the score and when I was sort of dreaming up the sound of the score. I didn’t want it to sound conventional or contemporary in that kind of way that you would be like, “Oh. That’s a horror score in 2020.” That was very, very conscious. 

Another really cool thing about this process was that I was delivered the edit of the film from D.W. without any temp music. It’s rare that the director or producers will do that for a composer. I really felt like it was about trust, you know? Oftentimes there’s so much temp music in the edit and the editor gets sort of tied to that temp music. And then as a composer, you sometimes end up just kind of recreating the temp music. Which is fine and can be cool. If the temp music has been done well and interestingly, then it can actually create a really effective score…but sometimes it really boxes you in. 

So, in terms of tone, that was really, really important. It left a blank palette for me. When it comes to the comedy and horror thing, I had this sort of idea of what those two things meant to me in my head. And, it was very intentional to just extract that from my head as opposed to going out into the world and listening to other stuff and recreating what’s out there. Then, in terms of timing, I think this is the coolest part. What I realized doing this is that horror and comedy timing are actually really similar. Horror is all about musically building the anticipation and the expectation to that payoff point; that scare, the gore or whatever it is. It’s the music that helps build you up to that.

Comedy, in a weird way, is very similar because you’re building to the joke, right? You’re building the anticipation of the joke. And then, when the joke happens, you don’t want to step on the punchline. You don’t want to crush the joke with music in any way. I learned that really quickly. Like, within the first 10-15 minutes of the film. And I think through that understanding, I think I was able to find an odd balance between the two tones. It’s all a little bit innocuous honestly, where it all comes from, but I just kind of found that balance in my head. And ultimately, I was just reacting to what was on the screen. The edit was really good and the flow was really good as well so that made timing things pretty intuitive. 

There are so many different roads that can lead into the world of film composing. How did you get here and what initially inspired you to pursue it as a career?

Oh, that’s a big question. [Laughs] I’ve always been pretty musical I guess. I was in percussion classes when I was two and then piano lessons when I was five and so on and so on. But, I’ve always been a little allergic to the idea of just staying in the practice room and getting really technically brilliant on your instrument, but not really understanding how that fits into the greater world. Growing up, my desire was really to learn about the world and explore and I think films were a way to do that. 

There was one big moment when I was 15, I remember it really well. We have a family friend who is a composer and when I was 15 he invited me to one of his scoring sessions for a film. I can’t remember what it was for the life of me, but I was sitting in the recording booth and there was a full orchestra in the live room. And, I’m seeing that, with the picture and the dialogue on the TV and seeing what he’s scoring and hearing the music fit so seamlessly. It was being recorded live and it was just these elements of magic. I didn’t really understand how it was done, but it just worked and it was married perfectly to what was happening on screen. I think that was probably the first moment that I was like, “Man. This is really cool. People get paid to do this? You can have a career doing this!?”

While we are the subject of formative career moments, you also spent a good chunk of time working alongside Danny Elfman. How influential was that experience on you and what were some of the biggest lessons you learned from him?

So, I moved to L.A. in 2015 and I moved with the intention of never becoming anyone’s assistant. [Laughs] It’s the system, right? And, it’s such a common Hollywood story—bosses stepping on assistant’s shoulders to become who they are and the assistant never get the recognition. It’s pretty rampant in the film scoring world as well. It can be a great training ground, but there’s also a real culture of staying after hours, working off the clock and stuff like that. So, composers would come up to me, make contact with me and offer me work to assist on. I would sort of turn stuff down because I was trying to really carve my own path as a composer. But, to be a composer, you have to compose. It’s one of those funny things where you’re never going to get work if you don’t do the thing that you’re trying to get work for.

So, long story short, about eight months went by and I got the opportunity to work for Danny Elfman. It was like, “Yeah, ok. This is probably the one guy that I would say yes to.” I then worked for him for about six years in total. And, I certainly thought I knew a hell of a lot before I worked for him. I thought I had a decent capacity. But, working for him and working on his team which has been doing it for the better part of 30-35 years, there’s a lot of workflow stuff that I learned. That’s just indispensable to how I work on my own now. And to be honest, there’s stuff that I really liked and I’ve adopted, but there’s also stuff that I thought, “Nah, I can do better.” Or it’s something that’s going to fit better for me. And I’m talking just purely technical. 

Most days in the studio it was really just him, his other assistant and myself. So, because of that, I did get a chance to become quite close with him. And, I think what I appreciate the most is his devotion to experimenting on every score. That has really rubbed off on me and really inspired me. It’s really cool because, when we think of Danny, we think of the typical sort of Danny Elfman sound which has maybe evolved out of A Nightmare Before Christmas. Or there’s an element of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or something like that. But in reality, while there might be moments like that, his scores are interestingly exploratory as well. Specifically not the huge, huge studio films. There was a score for a film called The Girl on the Train that we did and it was so cool to see him play with synths, synth patches and experiment to create these sounds. 

I would say the other big lesson I learned was how to work with directors and how to work with producers. One thing that he’ll often do, certainly in the early stages of movies, is give producers and directors multiple versions of the same spot in the movie, the same cue. He’ll give one more conventional take on it, one that’s sort of way out from left field and totally wacky, and then maybe one that’s somewhere between the two. That’s his way to gage what people are reacting to and what people are liking, and what people aren’t liking. That’s a technique that I use and that I actually used on TOO LATE quite a bit. Then, based upon their reactions, that would inform my decision making process and how I time things, what instruments to use and all that sort of stuff to use later on in the score. Those are the two big ones I think. There’s also a ton of little granular things I learned, but that’s mostly just nerdy stuff. 

TOO LATE is now playing in select theaters and is also available on VOD from Gravitas Ventures. You can check out Mikel’s score for the film here

 

 

 

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