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Walter Mair on His Chilling and Experimental “Till Death” Score

Wednesday, July 28, 2021 | Interviews


In director S.K. Dale’s new horror-thriller TILL DEATH, marriage vows are taken to a whole new level of literalness and depravity. Starring Megan Fox (Jennifer’s Body) as the unhappily married Emma, the “Blood List” qualifiying script from Jason Carvey recounts the final, harrowing days of Emma’s toxic and tortured marriage. While unhappy unions are certainly nothing new in the world of horror, it’s the efficient and atmospheric execution that makes TILL DEATH a tight, terrifying, and engaging watch.  

Contributing to the film’s bleak and chilly atmosphere is a score by Austrian composer Walter Mair. Featuring a range of innovative techniques and a custom-made instrument dubbed the “contra-hurdy,” Mair effectively blurs the lines between landscape, soundscape and emotion. Well known for his experimental and creative approach to composing, this distinctive approach to sound and music has garnered Mair an impressive and diverse resume. Along with TILL DEATH, Mair’s projects include Netflix’s docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Henk Pretorious’ The Unfamiliar and video games like Call of Duty: Mobile, Grand Theft Auto, Killzone and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time

Rue Morgue sat down with Mair to chat about the film’s icy cool soundscape, how he came up with an entirely new instrument, and why composing music for video games is a creative beast unto itself. 

How did you first get involved with TILL DEATH, and what initially attracted you to the project?

I got the script first and that was quite nice to read the story first. I thought, “Okay. This could be some really good fun.” Just with the kind of landscape and being set in the winter where everything is doom and gloom, yet it’s beautiful. The winter is amazing, but if you have no heat, you’re just going to die. It’s exactly what becomes the issue here. Eventually, in this case, we have the murderers coming in and stuff, but it was really the setting of the film that I liked.

So, I got the script to read. Loved it. Then, later on, I was sent the first assembly edit which is a temp edit of the film. At that point, I knew it was going to be a really good film. Even though all of the visual effects weren’t in there yet and the lake was kind of green-screened at parts, I could still see that it was going to be epic. Then, I had a spotting session with the director, Scott [S.K.]. He’s super cool, he’s young and he’s eager to do something very cool. He’s also such a nice, nice guy. We also worked with the editor, Sylvie Landra. She did The Fifth Element, Léon: The Professional, Catwoman, and is just a legend. She always had ideas and Scott always had ideas, but she was also super open. Working with that temp score was a great kind of first approach to see and hear what they had in mind. Then, we eradicated and deleted the temp score and decided to do something that’s very unique. I knew roughly when something needed to be scary or not. Then, when I really got into the scoring process, all hell broke loose from a music point of view.

Seeing as this film is Scott’s feature directorial debut, what were those early conversations with him regarding the film’s musical direction? Did you have a lot of creative freedom or was he fairly set on a certain sound palette? 

He had an idea, but he left the interpretation totally up to me. It could have been electronic-y at some points, but he knew he wanted some strings in there, or at least, some kind of string instruments. It could have been anything. So, he knew he wanted those strings in there, but he didn’t know that I was going to take strings to a different level. [Laughs] 

I took him by surprise when I said to him last year around Christmas, “I’ve got this idea. I’m going to do this very bespoke, unique instrument. I’m going to call it whatever,” and he was just like, “Oh! Sounds fantastic!” I found this guy named Thomas Mertlseder who is an instrument maker who lives in Vienna. He sent me an early draft of what I had in mind. I just believed in him to know what it should look like. He did some drawings and when I sent them to the producers and to Scott the director they said, “Oh my god. We need that bad! It’s Christmas! Get it done ASAP!” We were going to start in January so I had to get it fast. They ended up coming up with the name of “contra-hurdy.”

When you’re thinking about creating a whole new instrument for a project, how much sound experimentation do you do beforehand? Or, do you just kind of throw an idea out there see what sound it comes back with? What is that process like?

Both are possible. Totally. Sometimes it’s just made-up stuff that kind of grew from somewhere where you don’t have an end product in mind. Or sometimes you have a clear idea and vision of where you want to be. In this case, I had this vision of having something that was quite dark, pulsating, and quite off-putting and unnerving. That’s how I got to the hurdy-gurdy, which has this kind of motor in it. In the old days, you’d have to play it, but I had them put in a battery so it was able to rotate on its own. Each string would be attached to one of those motors. So, as they’re driving, they’re causing the strings to resonate and it creates this kind of drone. It’s quite eerie, spooky, and dark. Then, the corpus itself comes from a double bass. That’s why it’s quite huge and big in size. The strings are also from a double bass so they’re quite thick strings. They’re not like violin strings or guitar strings which are quite thin. If you switch the engine on, so to speak, it starts the resonance and it sounds quite, “Wow. That’s doom.” Then if you play it with a bow and she’s stroked, it just sounds insane.

I had this all in mind, but I didn’t know how to get there. So Thomas was the person to say, “Okay. I’ll create your ideas.” It was like me being a director and occasionally I want something crazy for the music. He sent me the first drawing and I was just like, “Nice.” And then in the next one, we could really make it look like what we wanted and we could shape it into anything. He used this beautiful wood, this kind of timber and it just looks gorgeous. It was so fun. And in the end, because we could use any shape, it ended up coffin shaped. 

You mentioned earlier being really drawn to the setting and landscape of the film. Not only is TILL DEATH physically cold for the characters, but it’s also a really emotionally cold film. How did you end up incorporating this general chilly atmosphere into your music?

I don’t know how it quite started, but I was CC’d on an email where I was getting introduced to the lead sound designer [Ryan Nowak] for this job. He said to me, “I’m going to send a foley artist to Finland to record some ice and wind sounds.” So I was like, “Wow. That sounds very interesting.” Then he asked, “Is there anything that you would like to also be recorded.” At that point I was like, “Yes. It’s going there.” Once you have the opportunity, why not? 

So I asked the foley guy to record all sorts of wind and atmosphere sounds. I also asked him to play with the frozen lakes by throwing stones of different sizes onto the lake. You know, if you throw a stone onto a frozen lake, like a massive frozen egg, it doesn’t just make a plunking sound. It’s more of a skipping whoosh sound; like a Stormtrooper’s laser gun sound. It’s quite cool. So I said to him, “Ok. Do different versions. Throw the stone on its side or throw it straight. Use a big rock and then use a pebble.” And, I ended up with this library of different sounds. 

Then, I would run them through my modular synth rig and put some effects on it. In the end, I would slow it down by 600-1200% which makes that rapid skipping sound more like a textured soundscape. I would pitch it down by two octaves or even do the opposite. I would then use those sounds as part of the music. So, the sound design became part of the music, but it was specifically recorded for the music. It was always part of my creative process on the music side. 

You literally incorporated the landscape into the music. Not only is that amazing, it really highlights the close relationship between the sound department and the music department.

I mean, when it comes to a composer like myself where I like to be on the electronic side at times and work with sound design, there is an overlap. There’s a point where the music becomes the sound design. It’s a thin line between music sound design and the actual sound design. So, it’s always important to talk to the sound designer so as not to step on their shoes and to make sure that we are clear, and, frequency-wise, that I’m not stealing anything away. 

That’s quite important from a communication point of view. But in general, they usually send me their work in progress so I get a rough idea of what they are doing so I can stay away from those frequency areas. For example, if they have a big explosion or something, then I would take what’s left or would just dictate what I need. There’s a bit of a back and forth relationship there, for sure. And you know, there’s definitely composers who go right to school and work with like, piano and strings, so there is no real overlap. It’s very kind of classic what those people are doing. Sometimes I’m like that, but I like using other sounds and playing things that end up tipping into the sound design at times.  

Throughout the movie, it’s really all about Emma and her experience. Tell us a little bit about your approach to scoring her and how her sound evolves throughout the runtime. 

Because we open up differently on her life and her kind of backstory, we see it as a flashback to her earlier life. There’s also this love interest and her husband. So, there are a lot of emotional themes in there and the same has been done with the music. We have extremes in there and a bit of piano, but very subtle with a few electronics and pads. My job is to make these scenes sound more emotionally engaging. When her husband takes her on this car ride to the lake house while she’s blindfolded, that’s when the eerieness starts to set in. It starts to set this false perimeter. It lets us know this could get dark here and we don’t know what will happen. Of course, the love theme comes back in again and you feel kind of comfortable and safe, but then it twists it again. 

Composer Walter Mair

TILL DEATH is not the first horror film that you’ve scored, you’ve actually scored quite a few. How is composing for the horror genre different and what is it that you like about working within the genre?

There’s a certain element of instrumentation that’s been associated with the horror. Of course, we have twisted strings and stuff, but at the same time, it could be fully electronic or could be anything. I like that. I like the creative space and the freedom that you have with those stories that are slightly on the darker side. 

You’re also a very experimental composer and I would think that the horror space would be particularly welcoming to your skill at crafting new tones, sounds, and instruments. 

Yeah. It’s hopefully off-putting, you know? It just kind of triggers something in your brain you’re not quite sure of. I also like to have the music come in for a reason. So sometimes it can be quite loud and mixed really quite aggressively. At other times, it’s just barely noticeable. By the time you notice the music, it’s too late. At that point, you’re fully in the emotional wake of whatever happens; it could be dark, it could be positive. I like to sneak in somewhere in the subconscious and then literally, as soon as the audience begins to pick up the music…it is too late.  

On top of your work composing for film, you have also made music for a lot of video games. How is composing for an interactive user experience different than composing for film?

I would say, when you’ve got cutscenes that tell you the story, where they’re kind of defined length-wise, it’s kind of the same as scoring for film. But, the majority of the music is being used outside of the cutscenes. It’s used in the actual game that you play as a player. Just to give an example, if you play whatever first-person shooter, let’s say it’s Call of Duty, and you’re just running from point A to point B, but you engage in a fight. One player might engage, but the second player might say, “Actually, I need to tank up, freshen up, get some plates of armor,” or whatever. So, there’s this constant flexibility that the music needs to have. Like, if you go into a fight, but you don’t execute. You just leave again and then go back to it later. The music has to adapt. 

Because of this, you have to have the music delivered in a very modular way. There are different sets of tracks that can be played back at the same time and can be layered and transitioned into. So, there’s a lot of organization that comes on top of it. In the beginning, I had no idea. I just delivered my music and was like, “Guys, deal with that in the programming.” I didn’t fully understand what was needed. Now, I can actually work with the programmers and the teams to make sure that what I deliver works in the new context as well as it can.  

That sounds incredibly challenging.

Oh yeah. I mean, for games you deliver at least a hundred minutes, sometimes two hours more than that. And, they’re like three-minute pieces that are just ambiance, the next level variant, when you’re about to engage in a fight, the next intensity up, and when you actually engage in a fight — each of those are different tracks, but they should all be related. That way you can transition from one to the other. There’s a lot of thinking about what works together and while it’s a challenge I have to say, it’s a good challenge. 

TILL DEATH is now available on VOD from Screen Media Films. Walter Mair’s digital score is available here.

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