Interview with Christopher Young

Christopher Young is an award-winning film composer, who is known for his work on horror movies such as “Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddie’s Revenge”, “Hellraiser” and his latest and my favorite “Drag Me to Hell”. Movie Mikes had a chance to chat with Christopher about his scores and also his upcoming work.

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Mike Gencarelli: “Drag Me to Hell” was one of my favorite scores of 2009, I feel the score adds so much to the film, did you enjoy working on it?
Christopher Young: Well, of course, it was a great opportunity to return to work again with Sam Raimi. Being able to work with him again was a dream come true. Because, being a horror fan, I mean…”Evil Dead”…my God…this was an earth shattering horror film for those of us who love horror movies. And the moment I saw that movie I said to myself, “I have to work with this guy. So here I am fantasizing about working with him…I tried to contact Sam several times…but he was happy with Joe LaDuca and, of course, Danny Elfman at the time. But it happened that his editor, Bob Morowski, was a tremendous fan of mine and, when it became apparent that Danny wasn’t going to be able to work on “The Gift”…that was the first picture we did together…he said to Sam, “you’ve got to check this guy out. I think he’s the right guy for the movie.” I’m truly convinced that Sam and I would never have met if not for his editor. And I give credit to Bob for making that connection. It’s interesting because when I went to meet Sam for the first time I was a smoker. I was a chain smoker and he was too. We realized we both were smokers and he said, “let’s go have this meeting outside.” Now it’s a few years later and he calls me to do “Drag Me To Hell.” He hoped that after doing the “Spider-man” series that the film would give him a chance to return to his “Evil Dead” roots. So he dragged me on board to be a part of that. And I just really connected with the picture. I think it was a film about the Devil (laughs)…and it struck a distant chord with me. I had worked on other films before that dealt with the Devil so it’s not like it was unfamiliar territory. I think three movies before that, come to think of it. So to get the opportunity to return to that world was fantastic. And he encouraged me to take some twists and turns. As you know, the principal instrument on the score is a violin. It’s the instrument that has been historically attached to the Devil, both in music and literature. So there’s nothing I brought to that table that was unique (laughs). What I did try to do, however, that made it fun was to imagine that the violin was being played by a minimum of ten fingers. Everyone that plays the violin, one hand has to be responsible for initiating the pitch, either with a bow or their fingers. And the other hand is responsible for pressing the strings to obtain the pitch. So I said to Sam let’s take the ten fingers and not worry about what the bow is doing…imagine the player has all of these fingers that can stretch and expand and do things that normal violinists can’t do. And he loved that idea. So a lot of the violins material in the score could never be played by just one person. What it is multiple tracking of one guy playing different tracks on top of each other. Other than that, there’s a choir there. That helps. There’s an organ…a pipe organ. I’ve always wanted to use a church pipe organ on a score and this was a great opportunity to use one.

MG: “Hellraiser” has such notable music, did you think that was going to be the case when you originally worked on it?
CY: No. I don’t think any of us knew. I was really lucky to get on this movie because of the provenance of Clive Barker as an author. Of course, he had directed some short films but this was his first feature. I had just finished working on “A Nightmare On Elm Street 2” and that was great to be a part of for sure. But what made “Hellraiser” unique from a composer’s point of view is that it just wasn’t all about a lunatic on the loose, slashing and cutting up people for no real reason. Well, there is a reason behind Freddy Krueger’s attacks on people in their dreams but, let’s face it, it’s not really a reason most people connect with emotionally. But the wonderful thing about “Hellraiser” was that it was a twisted love story…a very sick, sick love story. And to that end it really gave me the opportunity to look at the whole horror genre, as it relates to music, in a different light. And that’s exactly what Clive encouraged me to do. He said, “I know you can do the scary stuff. I know what you did on “Elm Street 2.” But that’s not what I’m looking for here. I’m looking for a sick romantic haunted score. And so I did the score based on that. And I don’t think anyone…I don’t think even Clive knew…that the film was going to be as big of a hit as it was. I may be wrong. Maybe in his heart he knew. We all knew it should have been. And it became a cult classic. And the thing they learned very quickly…he always thought that Julia should be the focus of the film…he thought that audiences would connect with her. But as you know, Pinhead makes his occasional appearances in the movie and that’s what the audience adored. And that’s WHO everyone adored. So he became the star of the whole subsequent series. Even Clive learned a lesson. They loved Pinhead, you know?

MG: Do you ever have issues with distinguishing between sounds for different films?
CY: Good question. Let’s put it this way…every time I start a horror film or a thriller or a sci fi film I always hope that I’m going to be offering up something new. Any composer who isn’t trying to offer up something they’ve never tried before better get out of it. It’s the worrying that you’re going to repeat yourself that makes you anxiety ridden…that you’re not going to get it right. Even if you’d done so many of these movies. I’ve heard so many times from so many people, “Oh, ANOTHER horror movie? You should be able to knock that score out no problem.” And I tell them, “no no no no…don’t kid yourself.” Writing horror scores is no easy thing. Everyone believes that writing dramatic scores…you really have to get inside yourself…and get in touch with your inner self. But there are complications with writing a dramatic score. But when you’re writing horror scores you’re not writing a lot of melodies all of the time. You’re writing a lot of clusters. And writing a lot of clusters for this kind of music is not an easy thing to do. You can’t be random. So when I sit down to write a new score for horror film number whatever or a thriller or a suspense film. I feel the same anxiety. I have to think “what am I going to have to do on this movie to make it unique. And if I’m encouraged by the director or the producer to do something different then great. I will try to do something different. But it’s often the case that what they are really looking for is another “Hellraiser” or another “Jennifer Eight.” I had one film that I worked on that, when I tried to be different they said to me “wait a minute. What are you doing here?” It was like show and tell…the worse show and tell I ever had. And I told them “this might not be what you’re looking for based on what you’re saying” and they said “No, no , no Chris…we hired you because we want another “Jennifer Eight.” Why didn’t they tell me that in the first place. I proceeded to write something that was another take on “Jennifer Eight.” I mean, there’s a film I’m doing now…not the entire score…but the main titles were “temped” with, guess what…”Hellraiser.” That director just happens to love “Hellraiser.” It’s his favorite score. It’s his favorite movie. And I’ve had to try to work my way around that. I can try to give him that feeling but I wrote that score like twenty five years ago! That’s the big tragedy. Being constantly asked to steal from yourself. Very rarely can you out-do something that really worked well the first time. I can honestly say that anyone that works as a composer, or any other kind of art, doesn’t want to repeat themselves. Especially film composers because, as you know, we’re the most prolific music makers on this planet! (laughs) We have very little time to second guess ourselves. So what happens is that we set off with the best of intentions but if that time starts running out and you have to finish about two and a half minutes of music a day at a minimum, it gets to a point where you can’t be so “stiff” with yourself about wanting to reinvent “you.” What happens is you have to rely on instinct, and usually instinct requires that you connect with tendencies that arise from your previous work on those kinds of movies.

MG: You worked on “The Rum Diary”, what was your inspiration?
CY: Speaking of “Jennifer Eight”…the reason I got on that is because Bruce Robinson, the director, is someone I had met on “Jennifer Eight.” He was the director on “Jennifer Eight” and he was so displeased with his experience on that movie that he swore to God that he would never direct again! He’s a very successful writer and actually started out as an actor…he did a few little things and then got into writing. I believe his first Academy Award nomination was for his screenplay for “The Killing Fields.” “Jennifer Eight” is his second film, his first being “Withnail and I.” Now he writes the screenplay for “The Rum Diary,” based on the Hunter S. Thompson book, and Johnny Depp decides he wants that to be his next movie and happens to love…”Withnail and I” is one of his favorite movies. So he brought Bruce out of directorial retirement to direct and Bruce told him he wanted to bring me back to do this. So we reconnected after not having seen each other for so many years. It was a departure for me. Not in the way of style but it was a departure…it’s sort of 1950’s style jazz. It’s got that “Rat Pack” swing-thing going through it. It’s set in Puerto Rico and a lot of the music is influenced by that.

Click here to purchase Christopher’s scores

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