DOCTOR JEKYLL Composer, Blair Mowat, on Horror Scores
Sounds of Terror
“I think all the best film and TV composers are storytellers first, and musicians second.”
Blair Mowat understands what scares us. Realising he wanted to become a composer as a teenager he studied music and conducted orchestras at university, eventually receiving an MA. His conducting became a major part of gaining the skills needed to write for film and television and he would go on to produce and arrange scores for various productions including Ghost Stories for Christmas and Doctor Who for the BBC. Currently splitting his time between London, Los Angeles and Edinburgh, his most recent horror score for Doctor Jekyll specifically delves into those university days experimenting with techniques such as serialism, often reserved for the concert hall. Blair recently joined me to discuss his work and what makes a great horror score.
Looking at your experience with scoring horror, what have been your main influences as a composer? Your music feels diverse; a touch of Philip Glass here, a hint of Tim Burton there… even the likes of Max Richter (“Thursday” is beautiful — reminded me of The Blue Notebooks).
For me, it all starts with the director. What do they want to say with the film? What do we need to support or enhance in the picture? When I work with Mark Gatiss, he usually comes to me with a concept, an idea, or a piece of existing music to draw some inspiration from. When working with Joe Stephenson on Doctor Jekyll, at first, we were looking at a more serious tone but then he realised we needed to be bigger and bolder; a bit off-the-wall and melodramatic. So, the music ended up being this epic, gothic, almost operatic score! It’s funny you mention Philip Glass as I met him when I was 14. I saw him play piano at the Edinburgh Film Festival and he was a very early influence on me, so clearly it’s still there somewhere in my work if you heard it!
Aside from the story, how do you find your sound… the way in? Some scores are very classical then others lend themselves to a more modern sound such as synthwave/electronica? How important is this flexibility?
For me, I need to be constantly writing for different styles and instruments — I need that intellectual stimulation and variety to keep me going. Some composers have amazing careers working in one style and that’s totally fine, but, personally, I just think it would drive me a bit mad. I’m constantly trying to reinvent myself with each score. Of course, that’s not always possible but in trying to do so, you get mini breakthroughs. You can see it in the work of other composers like Hans Zimmer — Interstellar one of those films where he went off and clearly said to himself “How can we approach this from a slightly different angle?” I think there are limits where I might say no to a certain style of score, but I’d better not say what or someone might find this quote in ten years and throw it back in my face!
What do you feel makes a good horror score?
I think horror can be many different things — I don’t think it’s the same for each score. Is it a jump scare film? Is it a slow creepy psychological horror? Is it a pastiche of an existing type of horror film or is it trying to redefine the genre in some way? Do the performances need some extra support? Is it epic or is it intimate? All these questions come into play. I will say though: in horror, when not to have music is just as important as when to have music. There’s that classic thing of if you lead the audience too much then the scares don’t land… silence often works better up until the moment the scare happens, then you can really let loose. I also, personally, find the ‘texture’ of any piece of music really important, and horror forces you to think about that a lot. Not every moment can rely on a strong sense of melody and harmony and horror often explores extremities… and I think that’s something we’re very attracted to as composers: being giving permission to see how far we can push something musically.
Any favourite horror scores you often go back to?
I love all of Goblin’s music for the Dario Argento classics, such as Suspiria, but it’s very much of a time — I’ve had to pastiche that style a few times and it’s really fun to do. I’d say A Clockwork Orange is arguably a horror score — Wendy Carlos’s music for that is phenomenal. And then if you look at the early Radiophonic Workshop stuff for Doctor Who, by people like Delia Derbyshire, then some of those scores are utterly terrifying, still to this day. Some of the ambient stuff they made sounds almost exactly like the recordings we’re starting to get out of the electromagnetic solar winds from planets like Jupiter. It’s fascinating the foresight they had. When it comes to the more gothic horror, I love the music of the old Hammer composers, such as James Bernard and Elisabeth Lutyens — their crossover between concert music and film music is fascinating. For Doctor Jekyll, you can also hear elements of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Danny Elfman — all of whom have composed horror scores in their time. Actually, if you look at James Bernard’s music for The Quatermass Experiment, (another Hammer Horror film) then it’s a full five years before Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho… but you can hear the DNA of Hitchcock’s film in how the strings are used.
Let’s focus on haunting music. You have worked on Mark Gatiss’ more recent Ghost Stories for Christmas over the past decade. How much of these projects were attempting to capture the ‘spirit’ of the original ’70s versions, in terms of sound, and how much was making it more contemporary?
I’ll be honest, I don’t think we ever looked back to the old scores. Some of our music is certainly drawing from the past, but not those stories specifically. “The Mezzotint” is the closest I think we get to a more traditional horror score. If you look at each year in succession, we tend to get more ambitious with what we can achieve… which is tricky as it’s a very tight budget — I mean really, it’s so tight, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s a miracle what they’ve pulled off on what they were given. With “Count Magnus”, we picked up on the setting a little and you can hear the use of a Tagelharpa, which is an old, bowed instrument dating back to 14th Century Scandinavia. I think things like that help to really give each story a unique quality. But really, it’s usually a case of thinking, right, how do we make this happen on the limited budget we have? I’d love it if the BBC gave us the money for an orchestra one year — Mark works so hard on those stories, and he deserves a nice juicy budget to play with.
What do you feel differentiates the scores for British material from the US?
American horror seems to be a little more modern in general. It has lots of synths and shocking hits that are very compressed and dense. I think some of the modern horror output is starting to blend into each other a bit, but you do get really interesting scores like Marco Beltrami’s score for the original Scream or Disasterpeace’s music for It Follows. What I loved about Scream (and I know it’s actually almost 30 years old now) is that it had a real sense of emotion and melody in it, which is something I hope we’ve achieved with Doctor Jekyll. British Horror tends to be a bit more raw, rough and ready, while leaning into contemporary classical music more. It’s maybe a bit more ‘arty’ but I think these days in the age of globalization we’re so influenced by each other I’m not confident I could tell the difference.
I often think of Frank Ilfman’s incredible work on Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories (2017), which was so emotional. Obviously, music is a huge part of connecting with (and often manipulating) a feeling, but how do you find those specific sounds and elements that connect and resonate so powerfully?
I think that often happens at the start of a project. For me, I actually sampled a few old string instruments and created my own bespoke sounds to manipulate, as I went through the score. I worked with a string player called Sarah Davison, in Brighton, who had this thing called a ‘Stroh Violin’, which had a little metal horn on it creating these metallic overtones. That and an instrument called the ‘Bass Viol’ became the sound of Hyde, which just helps to make the score feel more unique. We also used a lot of choir sounds which always helps with conveying emotion — the human voice is so evocative and having 30 voices chanting Latin in a big room is always going to make you feel something.
What were you looking for with the Doctor Jekyll score? Were you left to your own devices or was there a specific brief?
Once Joe realised he wanted to go big and bold with it we ran with that brief. We’re taking that big melodramatic Hammer Horror style and running with it. There are more subtle moments but when Hyde is on screen the music really lets rip, in a way I’m not sure I’ve often been allowed to in many previous film scores. Film score fans seem to have really resonated with the music of the film, as I just don’t think we get to hear this kind of score as much these days. Joe is very trusting of me and incredibly easy to work with. We sat down for about 8 hours together talking through the whole film scene by scene. I recorded that conversation and was able to refer back to it whenever I needed to remind myself what he was looking to achieve in a particular moment. One thing we were both adamant about, is that we had to spell out the name ‘Doctor Jekyll’ in the titles, just like many of the old Hammer Horror films did for their titles. I know, from those who have seen it, that that little easter egg has already tickled many who knew to expect it.
What else are audiences to expect going into this film?
Well although Hammer are a studio it’s really an Indie film made with love, and I think films like that realy deserve our support. Eddie Izzard fans are in for a real treat too, as she’s wonderful in this. It’s quite a divisive film — critics can’t seem to make their minds up — and I think that’s really interesting in itself. All of my friends who have seen it have enjoyed it. It’s a popcorn film, so turn out the lights, get yourself some snacks and enjoy the camp gothic nature of it all. It’s quite odd and I think that should be celebrated. We need more films like this that take risks, and I think Hammer Horror are going to deliver that. They have a reputation for delivering on a tight budget and that gives them more freedom to be bold and brave, which is an exciting thing for British filmmaking.
For more information about Blair, you can visit his website here.