AMC/Shudder brought us a Creepshow series this year. Film, television and video games composer Christopher Drake, who provided music for the series, sat down to talk with John Harrison, who provided music for the original Creepshow film (1982).
Christopher Drake: So, let's talk about how you first met George Romero.
John Harrison: Well, it's kind of a long story, but I'll be as brief as I can. I was in college in Boston, and I heard about this film that was being made in Pittsburgh called Night of The Living Dead. Since I was studying drama, this appealed to me. I wanted to know what guys in my own hometown were doing. [I] went to see it at the Orson Welles Theater on [Massachusetts] Avenue in Cambridge, and the place was packed. People really responded to it,and I said, ‘Well, if these guys in Pittsburgh can do this, I want to meet them.’So flash-forward a year or so: I'd been on the road as a musician, I had a couple of great opportunities, and when I finally got back to Pittsburgh and decided to really take my filmmaking seriously, I put a small production company together with two of my best friends, Dusty Nelson and Pat Buba, who had great careers of their own. We put a small company together and tried to do what George had initially done with Latent Image, which was industrial commercials and so forth. One day, I read in the paper that he and his then-partner Richard Rubinstein were going to do a series of sports documentaries for ABC. So, I called on the phone, thinking I would get a secretary and offer our services as a production company. Maybe he needed cinematography, maybe he needed sound,maybe he needed editing, and we could provide all of this stuff. George answered the phone! As I stumbled through the introductions, I said, "Mr. Romero, we're a small company in blah blah blah ..." and I gave him a pitch. He said, "Well, where are you guys?" I said, "We're down the corner here in the Oliver building." He said, "Oh, well I'll be there in five minutes." He hung up.
CD: Now John, how old were you around this time?
JH: I was 20 - what was it, '73? I was 22. Anyway, he showed up and came in and we showed him a couple of our little films. He was watching one that I directed, and he hit the button and said, "OK, let's work together."That was it; that was the start of it. We just became best friends over time.One thing led to the next and I ended up working with him for many years; he was kind of my mentor, and that's the story.
CD: What did you work on, on Knightriders? Was it AD stuff, or ... what was Knightriders about?
JH: No, Knightriders was funny because I was actually in it; I acted as Sir Pellinore. At the time, I still had my company, and we were still making commercials and industrials. George had done Martin and he had done Dawnmof The Dead. You've got to remember Pittsburgh, back in the day, was a very small community of filmmakers. Anybody that wanted to be in that business ended up knowing everybody else and working together. That was the beauty of it. There was no Weinstein Company back then, no Miramax, no Fox Searchlight. It was really independent filmmaking, and you just did it by hook or by crook. My partners and I put together 50 grand and did a little movie called FX, which had limited distribution and finally got distribution on DVD and is still out there. It was like that. So, when Knightriders came around and George was putting this production together, my partner Pasquale Buba became his assistant director and he cast me as one of the knights, and that was the story of that.
CD: So, you were just in front of [the] camera on that one, you weren't doing any technical work or behind-the-scenes support?
JH: No, I wasn't doing anything behind the scenes because I was still running my company and I was directing rock videos.
CD: So, let's talk about - you've got your own company going on, and you had a pitch to do a commercial, maybe industrial spot and you get a call from the Dawn of The Dead set?
JH: Yeah, so this was before Knightriders and after Martin. One night, my dear friend Zilla Clinton - who was Pat's wife and the production manager for George on Dawn - called me and said, "Listen, we've got a continuity error in one of our scenes, and George and Tom Savini have come up with a gag to solve the continuity error. Would you come out and just do a zombie gag?"
I said, ‘Well look, I've got to be at this bank tomorrow to pitch a commercial, so it's really important, I've got to be on my game, but yeah I'll come out.’
She said, "Yeah, it won't take long."
I went out around 7 o’clock, Savini put me in the chair, made me up and told me what the gag was going to be: ‘We're going to put you on the ground and after you tackle Scotty and tear his sweater off, we're going to stab you in the ear with a screwdriver.’
So, the night went on, it was 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, and they still hadn't gotten to me. I think finally around one in the morning, George called me to set and told me what we're going to do. Scotty Reiniger was running through JCPenney, I was a zombie and I had to grab him and take him to the ground and rip the sweater off so they wouldn't have it in the next shot. The way he got rid of me was I was a maintenance guy, so I had a tool belt on. So, the way he got rid of me was to take a screwdriver from my belt and stab me in the ear. Savini being Savini, he poured about a gallon of blood into my ear and it's a memorable death. I'm probably known more for that than anything else I have ever done. I got home in time to take a quick shower, take a nap, and get downtown for this meeting with this bank president.
I'm doing my pitch and he's looking at me real weird and says, ‘Hey man, are you all right?’ I said sure. He says, ‘You're bleeding out of your ears.’
I hadn't gotten all the blood off, so I had to tell him the story, which he loved, and he wanted to be in the movie as a zombie.
CD: Did he make it in the movie? Was that part of the deal?
JH: No, he didn't get to be a zombie in that one. He might have made it in one of the later ones; I honestly can 't remember. But we sold the pitch.
CD: You got the gig, nice. You sealed the deal with the screwdriver, there.The old screwdriver play.
JH: That's it. In Creepshow, what happened was that I still had my company and we were putting things together. Richard Rubinstein, the producer, called me one day and was like, ‘We're having trouble with the AD. George isn't connecting with them, and we need to make a move and replace them. Would you consider coming out and being George's AD?’
I said, ‘Richard, I don't know anything about being an AD.’
He said, ‘It doesn't matter. I've got all the guys that'll take care of all the paperwork and the union stuff and all that shit. All you need to do is be out there because you're a friend of George's and a filmmaker. I want you to be by his side for the whole production so you can pass onto the crew what George wants to do."
The way the crews worked, we were like a big family. So, I think Richard felt that because people knew we were friends, that I would be able to communicate to them in a way that would keep the ship moving. So, I took a deep breath and went out and did it, but here was the thing: The greatest part about doing that was that I was by George's side for the entire movie. I sat there and we would talk about the style that he was going for, what he wanted to do with the film, and as you know, Creepshow is basically an homage to the old EC comics. He and Steve King were adamant that they wanted to have both the visual style and the audio style that would be representative of that.
So, we'd say, ‘Well, what are we going to do about music and sound effects?’ George and I would just talk about it endlessly on the set. The thing about George that people don't always know is that he was not a musician, but he had an incredible musical sense. He had one of the greatest soundtrack collections that I ever saw. He loved movie music - not just horror music, but all movie music - and he knew it really well. Because he was an editor, he could put stuff together out of two or three or four cues and make a whole new cue. He had no money, so that's what he always used to do.
That was the intention here; we were going to buy library tracks from the Capitol music library that would be reminiscent of the old ‘50s horror movies and television shows. Once we got finished with shooting, Mike Gornick - the cinematographer who was also the post-production supervisor - and I would start surveying this music and offering up cues for George to listen to, and then see if he could put them together in a way that was meaningful. The fidelity wasn't great, the cues didn't really line up great. I had some gear and he knew that I was a musician, but as it turned out I just ended up writing cues and turning them in.
CD: It wasn't like George told you to do that per se, it was just in your process of experimenting like you said; at first maybe augmenting the library tracks like, ‘You know what, I think I could probably make this work and find some material that just works,’ and you just did it.
JH: Yeah, that's right. Because it was an anthology, you needed segues between the different stories. So, I would just write those segues and he'd go, ‘Man, that's great. Why don't you just write those for this scene? That for that scene?’ Then of course, the inevitable came along: the theme song. We weren't going to be able to get that out of a Capitol library, so I just sat down and started tinkering with something, and that's the theme you hear.
CD: That piano riff, was there anything that inspired you? Did you get any direction from George? Where did that come from?
JH: It was really kind of noodling, but don't forget that I had George's ear the whole time that we were in production; I knew the style that he was going for. Part of that style was to find something that was playful as well as bizarre, because that's the way those comics were. We all grew up with those comics; we love those comics. Had you been on the set to see how we were shooting this, even in the grossest, goriest moments, the sheer fun of doing it was something that we all shared. So, I wanted that in the music.
I didn't want it to be heavy and ponderous and overwhelmingly dark. I also believe in counterprogramming; I think that it's a very good thing when music leads you in a direction that you wouldn't necessarily think of. At some point we can talk about my Day of The Dead score; when that came out, that was very controversial. At first, people didn't like it. They wanted a very horror-type score, and here's this sort of Caribbean-type romantic melody. They didn't get it at first; now it's quite popular. But that was the intention then, it was to be a little counterintuitive. So, I just sat at the piano -- and you're a composer Chris, you know how it happens - you're sitting there and it's like staring at a blank page. You've got 88 keys, and you don't know what the hell to do with them.
CD: I always tell people, the most exciting aspect of this job is signing the contract followed by the most horrifying moment of, "Oh fuck, now I have to do it."
JH: You just have to see what happens, and that's exactly what happened this time. It wasn't something I thought about or that I mentally invented, it was really just a feel thing.
CD: John, how much time did you have to come up with the main titles? How much time did you have to work on the score all the way through?
JH: Well, that's a good question. I am very lucky because unlike the normal way of composer-director relationships, I was a friend of George's and worked for him as assistant director. I had his ear, and the creative team that he built around himself, he wanted through the whole production. It wasn't like, ‘Okay, you shot that movie, see you later.’
Mike Gornick was with him through post in various capacities. Pat Buba, his editor, had been his AD on Knightriders and was with him all through post on Creepshow. So, I was part of the whole post-production process. I didn't wait - as would be traditional - to get a cut of the movie and then start writing.
CD: Oh, interesting.
JH: I was writing all the way through, and I'd bring some stuff down, we'd lay it up, we'd see what would work. He'd say, ‘A little more of this,’ maybe we would shift it here, maybe I'd make the cut on this beat, so it was very non-traditional and it's not something people can do. How much time? I don't know. But it was a couple of months from the time we wrapped until the time we locked picture. I went into the studio with my producer, John Sutton, and we recorded the tracks based on the temp. Here's the other thing that I did on both Creepshow and Day of the Dead, and on all of my Tales From The Darkside TV shows and movies: I temped them first. Then I used those temps to go into the studio and create the final tracks. George would sign off on it before I went in and made final recordings.
CD: So, it's interesting; it sounds like it really comes down to trust. Because of your relationship working with George as an AD and really just as a guy in the trenches with him doing that stuff, is that you both spoke the same language in terms of - nobody had to explain to you what an EC comic was.
JH: Exactly. I totally understand what you're saying. If you look back in history, you look at the great ones: Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Those relationships, you can hear the benefit in the music. It's a blessing; not all composers get that chance. When you get it, it's wonderful because you can shorthand a lot of discussion and you understand tastes of the other person. It's too bad more composers don't have that relationship like the thing you have with Greg [Nicotero].
CD: You know, sometimes I do these little symposiums for students that want to learn about becoming a film composer, and I always talk about the composer-director relationship. The analogy I use is as a composer, you're kind of like an FBI profiler trying to get into the mind of a serial killer. One director's idea of big is different, like, the way Greg thinks about those things is different than Kevin Smith or Guillermo Del Toro or whoever. So yeah,you really have to kind of get into that mindset because at the end of the day, it's not our movie, right? We're here to serve the director's vision.
I'm just an instrument; I bring my own talents and tastes to it of course, but it's what their point of view is. Having a relationship and friendship with them is the real key to a successful marriage of ideas.
JH: I think you're right, and I would add that the music of a movie is as much an element as dialogue or cinematography or anything else. If it's done well, it can elevate the story or the movie. I think, to some extent, composers ought to think of themselves as storytellers, not just as musicians. So, when you have that kind of relationship - or even if you don't - you just quoted Goldsmith who's in the pantheon, and his whole idea was to bring a humanistic element to his score that would support the movie. I think that's what all composers ought to aspire to, because the music is really a narrative element. It's not background noise.
CD: Exactly, and it's another thing I tell my students: The difference between a film composer and rock star or pop music artist is that you’re not writing music about you or your personal artistic experience. Writing film music is a commercial, collaborative art form A composer is first and foremost in service of supporting the director’s vision and story. You have your own artistic tastes and style that you bring to the score, but ultimately a film composer has to be a dramatist. There are unique technical aspects specific to writing film music … You’ve got to know that you’re always in support of dialogue, which is king in the sound mix. If you’ve got two characters speaking, you’ve got to know not to step on dialogue with overpowering music.At the end of the day, it’s all about supporting the story.
JH: I think that that's exactly right. I don't mean to jump ahead, but when you sent me some temp ideas that you had for one of the episodes I directed this year, it was immediate to me that this is the correct tone. I remember calling you and saying, ‘Hey look, I don't know if this is premature, but I would love to use these temps for the episode as I turn it in.’ To me, it conveyed the right storytelling atmosphere for the episode. So, if you can find that right balance between musicality and storytelling, then you've got something good, I think.
CD: Yeah, 100 percent. We're going to get into a love fest talking about Creepshow here. I'm super excited to share that and for everybody to see it. We were talking about your time and your process. I want to get a little nerdy for a second here about gear, because some people are going to be reading this article ... and might be interested. Synthwave is coming back, and everything old is new again. It’s amazing to me that with all of the amazing equipment in the 21st century as a composer that I have, and the luxuries that I have of digital audio and editing and everything, you didn't have - there was no Pro Tools, it was all to tape, there was no click sometimes, and really the only gear you had was - I think it was a Steinway piano?
JH: Yeah, I have a Steinway, and at the time, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 had been released.
CD: Let's just talk about that for a second, because this machine is kind of a magical - for FANGORIA fans - it really is the workhorse synthesizer of the ‘80s. John Carpenter used it on almost everything, especially Escape From New York. Howard Shore, you can hear it in Scanners, it's in Maniac; your buddy Joe LoDuca used it on the original Evil Dead.
I wanted to ask you, was it just the tool you had in your arsenal to use at the moment? When you go back to the style that you thought of in your childhood in the ‘40s and ‘50s and you think about those horror films, they're all orchestral productions but there were elements like the theremin used by Howard Hawkes and The Thing From Another World, and by [Bernard] Hermann in The Day The Earth Stood Still. There's an element to the Creepshow score that reminds me of - the reason I brought the theremin up is because there are these stingers, these moments in Creepshow that remind me of that. I don't know if the theremin was in your mind to replicate, or ... that was just a weird-ass sound.
JH: Well, we hit on it just a second ago, which is to say that most of the movie music that I grew up with and loved was orchestral music. When I did the score for FX, all I had was a piano, some synth drums, and a guitar track. I did my best in the studio to double-track and triple-track and add whatever studio effects I could to make the sound bigger. The thing about the Prophet was it was the first analog music processor that allowed you to create orchestral sounds. Everything that had existed beforehand, as you pointed out, you could not approximate orchestral sounds from them.
CD: The very word synthesize - synthesize the sound, right?
JH: Right. But that's why they didn't call the Prophet-5 a synthesizer, they called it a music processor. It was an analog machine no doubt, so it didn't sample. But the genius of the machine was that it had a variety of processor sbuilt into it that you could link together and manipulate tonally so that you could approximate - now there were patches that they had already created that said, ‘Okay, this is a trumpet sound …’
CD: Right, the original patches were created by a guy named, I believe, John Bowen was the programmer at Sequential.
JH: Yeah, so there were 80 or a hundred patches that you could choose from, but none of us - Joe, me, Carpenter - none of us used those patches naked. What we would do is we would take the patches and we would fuck with them. That's the beauty of that machine. I could, in my mind, compose orchestrally, even though I knew that it's not going to sound like a real orchestra. I could orchestrate as if it were, and therefore it had kind of an orchestral tone to the whole picture.
Then, of course, you could use the original patches and manipulate them for sting use, like Nathan Grantham's hand coming up out of the grave or a warbly theremin-type of sound when Jordy Verrill is looking at the meteor, you can do that, as well. In fact, one of the funnier stories about Creepshow was that George and I did the mix together. He had come to Los Angeles with the Prophet and set it up on stage so that if there was anything that we felt was lacking, I could actually play it live onstage into the mix.
So, when Leslie Nielsen has buried Ted Danson and Gaylen Ross up to their necks and [was] going back home to watch them drown on his monitors, there's a sequence of bongs that I created on stage to go along with the cuts. As we were watching it, I could just play this ‘bong, bong, bong, bong,’ to go along with the cuts. It accompanied the ‘Camptown Races’ theme that I did for Leslie Nielsen. That was the beauty of that machine, you could do that kind of stuff.
CD: It's funny, I bought a Prophet-6, which is the 20th-century version of it but it has the original patches on it, so... [plays synth tones] In ‘Night of the Paw,’ there's a little bit of a homage where that bass sound from - I call it the ‘Tide You Over’ bass -- it gets featured a couple of times when the monkey's paw activates.
JH: Well that's exciting. That was my gear, basically. I had a grand piano and the Prophet. Now, you're right: I didn't have the click track, I didn't have any digital recording devices. I had a Sony 4-track, which I multi-trackedendlessly.
CD: That's amazing. I remember when I was playing you the original title theme and I said, 'I think there's something, like I don't have the cadence right."
You said, ‘Oh, it's multi-tracked, so you'rehearing an overdub of the piano. So, if it sounds like it's a little delayed in some places, that's probably what it was.’
JH: Well, yeah, that was a way to get an effect that you couldn't get otherwise. I didn't have a lot of outboard gear or slapback or reverb or anything like that. All I could do was throw things off.
CD: At the end of the day, there's no rules to this shit. Does it sound good? Whatever you learned in recording school or as a musician – ‘Oh, I can't record in parallel fifths!’ Whatever. Does it sound cool or does it not sound cool?
CD: When I think of Creepshow, the other thing I think about in terms of the production of the sound of Creepshow's score is that it's almost like you have everything washing through a flanger or some kind of chorus. In the main title, there's some kind of outboard effects that the vocals are going through that gives it this kind of weird quality. Do you remember what that was?
JH: Yeah, that's basically what you just said. It's chorusing in the studio,which is just using multi-tracks, throwing them slightly out of phase …
CD: So, it wasn't an actual pedal, it wasn't an MXR unit or -
JH: Oh, those didn't exist back then. So, we did that in the studio and in that studio, we didn't have digital reverb, we had plate reverb. Fortunately, I had a terrific engineer named Don Garvin and my producer John Sutton, and they really knew their way around the board. We could create all kinds of sounds, but it was an old studio so there were quirks about it that were really kind off unny.
One day, we were sitting there, and I kept saying, ‘Look, we've got to wet this down a little bit more, it's too dry. Mak eit cathedral.’ So they'd do it, and then we'd hear this clicking in it. I was wondering if that was a function of these plates, because - well, you know what it is. It's a steel plate and it creates the -
JH: So there was this other sound coming out of it, and we couldn't figure out what it was, and Don said, ‘Oh, I know what that is, those are the rats running around on the plates.’
CD: Well, that sounds pretty on brand for that score. Wow.
JH: Lots of funny things would go on. Listen, this wasn't unique, a lot of engineers had to come up with these kinds of tricks in the studio because we didn't have this other great gear that we can now play with. It was really tricks we could come up with in the studio using the available technology at the time, which was all analog.
CD: Sometimes when you look at films from the past, the technical limitations being put into a box, you kind of find creative solutions. You didn't have an orchestra, so putting reverb, that was a way of making things more cinematic and orchestral in a way. This was an artificial instrument, but it was in an organic setting to give it a symphony feel.
JH: I also found that if you doubled the sounds, if you multi-tracked them,we could throw them slightly out of phase and make the string pad sound much bigger. We could make it sound like there were 30 or 40 violins instead of just the one pad.
CD: I feel like we should do a podcast. Like, maybe a print interview is not ... we should just get into the studio and maybe you could pick up a bass and we could jam out some tunes. Okay, so let's see, do you have any favorite segments on Creepshow? [Were] there any personal favorites?
JH: Well, the theme music is obviously very personal to me, and I take a lot of pride in it because it has a way of identifying the movie. Then in the epilogue, I recapitulated themes from all of the different episodes within the theme music.
CD: Yeah, it's kind of like a suite.
JH: Yeah, exactly. So, the prologue and the epilogue pieces of music are very much my favorites.
But I loved doing ‘The Crate,’ because that whole sort of classical piano theme was something I worked very hard on. The sequence where it really comes to the floor is when Hal Holbrook comes back over and Fritz Weaver has seen the janitor get eaten by Fluffy in the crate, and there's blood and gore all over the place. Then he comes up with the idea that this is going to be the way that he gets rid of his wife, but he's got to clean up first. So, George created this wonderful montage of Hal Holbrook coming to the university, finding the blood and gore everywhere, getting the bucket and cleaning everything up. At the same time, his wife is at home finding the note he wrote for her, luring her to the university so that he could kill her. That whole sequence had no dialogue except for the voiceover of the letter, so I had to fill it all in and that sequence I'm really proud of. It worked really well.
CD: It's certainly my favorite; it scared the shit out of me as a kid.
JH: I'm going to tell you a funny story about Adrienne [Barbeau]. I saw her over the weekend, and she was telling me various things about how people recognize elements of the movie after all these years, and we're all astonished by it. She did a guest shot on one of the daytime soaps last year, a two- or three-episode arc.
In one episode, she has to confront these New York gangsters and tell them to get lost. The director came up to her and said, "Look Adrienne, I really want you to go off on these guys. They're these tough New Jersey goombas and you have to really let them have it."
She said she'd do her best and he said, ‘Well, no, here's exactly what I want you to do. I want you to tell them off exactly like you told Hal Holbrook off under the stairs. I want you to say to them, 'And if you don't do what I tell you, you're going to be wearing your balls for earrings’!
She thought that was the funniest thing, and so she went for it.
CD: Oh, funny. She's coming back in Greg's episode, ‘Gray Matter,’ which I'm getting into right now. What's great about Creepshow -- the original and this one -- is that the score is very eclectic. One scene could be an orchestral scene, then it transitions into this analog synthesizer stuff and it totally works. Somehow, it's never distracting.
JH: Well, that's just the beauty of an anthology. George and I always loved these, and there have been few and far between successful ones, Creepshow being the most prominent. I think you're right: Eclectic is a great word for it.
There is an architecture on which every episode is hung, which is the Creepshow comic book. Every one of those stories is different. What I did and what I know you're trying to do is give each one of those stories its own musical identity so that it is distinct from the other stories and should be unique because of whatever that tone is. But, yet, it's all linked together somehow by the overarching Creepshow aesthetic, if that makes any sense at all.
CD: Right. I think I told you this the last time you were here, but I went and saw this guy Tom Wright who did the original paintings for The Night Gallery. He did a little symposium about his process and he said, "You know, the gig was with Jack Laird and Rod Serling was that I had to make a hundred or so paintings, but each painting needs to look like it was made by some other crazy obscure artist somewhere."
So he was constantly changing his style and paint and oils to have all of the paintings look different and that's what I took away with Creepshow, like, wouldn't it be great for me to be like a character actor, Lon Chaney composer where people are like, 'Wait, ‘Night of the Paws’ is the same guy that did ‘Lydia Lane?’ Each episode on the new show is great because you really have some original wacky stories. There are ones played straight, like "House of the Head."
JH: Yeah, and that's going to make the series feel unique as opposed to a bunch of cues on the shelf that you pull out for whatever you have. These can have their own; they'll be like little mini-movies, each one.
CD: Yeah, exactly. Let's talk a little bit about the new stuff. You've directed three episodes, is that correct?
JH: Four. Four stories.
CD: Oh, that's right. You directed ‘Night of the Paw,’ ‘House of the Head,’ ‘All Hallows,’ and ‘Musky Holler.’ You wrote one of the stories, as well. You didn't direct ‘Lydia Lane.’ So, let's start with that one first, then we'll get into the things you directed. Where did the idea for ‘Lydia Lane’ come from?
JH: That came from some spit-balling that I did when I first heard about Creepshow with Greg and Brian, to see what kinds of stories they would like to have. I knew that they were doing searches through anthology collections and so forth, but I was having breakfast with Brian one day in Los Angeles and they said, ‘You know, Greg has always wanted to do a story about someone who finds [themselves] trapped in a location that he can't escape with the person he's just murdered.’
I thought, yeah, that's a great idea. I had several sort of thoughts in mind of story ideas that I liked, so I wrote a story and sent it to Greg. Originally, it was about a guy who murdered a woman he was having an affair with.
Greg said, ‘What would you think if we changed this and made it two women instead of the usual guy murdering the girl?’
So, I thought about this for a while and thought it would be cool, so I rewrote the story. It was essentially the same story, but now the lead was a real high-powered hedge fund billionaire who accidentally killed her lover in an argument about a promotion that the lover didn't get. She had to get rid of the body, and then, OK, where do we put this person so that they're trapped? I happened to be in LA at the time, and we all know what happens in LA every so often: these things called earthquakes. So OK, she's trying to get the body out of the building, she's in the elevator, an earthquake happens and she's stuck in the elevator. That was it; that was the story. So, I sent it to Greg. Greg loved it, so I wrote it. At this point, we really hadn't started to talk about who would direct what, but he asked me if I would be comfortable having someone else direct it because he wanted Roxanne Benjamin to direct. I knew a little of Roxanne's work, and I knew she would hit it out of the park and said, ‘Definitely, let her have it.’ So I'm really excited to hear what you're going to do with that.
CD: Yeah, that one was interesting because it's very psychological. When I spotted the session with Greg, I asked him what he was thinking and where the story came from, and Greg said that since he was a kid, he loved [Mario] Bava's - is it Black Sunday? The anthology with Boris Karloff?
JH: I think it was Black Sabbath.
CD: I always get those confused. It's the anthology with Boris Karloff and it was the ‘Drop of Water’ segment with the woman stuck in the room with the dead woman and trying to get the ring off, and you can hear the drop of water.
JH: That's right, he referenced that to me, and I knew it, and so that was a great reference.
CD: That score was interesting because it's a bottle story in the sense that you just have two characters stuck in an elevator, they're not going anywhere.There's quite a descent into madness, and the music is quite aleatoric, meaning there isn't a lot of melody. What I used was a lot of piano scrapes, more with the hood open and banging around. It kind of gives the feeling of the elevator cables, a musical sense of that.
JH: Love it. Love it.
CD: Shit gets weird in there, so it's always fun. When you have a good actress like Tricia [Helfer], she just has a great performance and it makes my job a whole hell of a lot easier. Essentially what I'm doing is reacting, reacting to what I'm seeing. That inspires me to tell the story. It almost has a giallo. Even though the period, other than the conceit of the cell phones, it could be a period piece, so that's how I kind of scored it. There's a moment in the office where she's trying to push her through the office, and that has a kind of analog ‘70s thing.
JH: It also has some humor to it. The whole idea that she's got this dead person in a wheelchair and doesn't want anybody to see her, that's sort of the black humor that I think is part and parcel of all of these kinds of shows. We all loved the EC comics with the tongue-in-cheek grotesque kind of humor.
CD: Right, right. So the next one we've got is ‘All Hallows,’ which is interesting. Coincidentally enough, when you think of Creepshow, it's supposed to be like a comic book. Well, this is actually an adaptation of a story by Bruce Jones, one of the great horror novelists and writers and artists. He did a lot of creepy comics, but this is adapted from one of his stories from Twisted Tales, a comic book series he had. So this literally is a comic book story adapted into a screenplay.You want to talk a little bit about that?
JH: Yeah, it's a very interesting challenge for a variety of reasons. Unlike a lot of the Creepshow EC comic ethos, this story, wherein a character gets what he deserved in the most gruesome and hopefully fun way possible, this story had a real tragic component to it. So it was more serious than, say, ‘Lydia’or ‘Musky Holler.’ There was some real sentiment to this story, and I had to find a way to get that across.
Initially, you don't know what these kids are all about on Halloween, except that everybody in the town is scared shitless of them. Yet they're okay, they're kind of nice kids when you see them wandering around by themselves. You wonder what the heck happened. When you find out what really happened to them, there's a kind of tragic element to this which we had to capture emotionally on the story. The second challenge was that when Bruce wrote it, it was intended for preteens. We could not afford to do that with the time and schedule we had. For those of you who know what production is like, children are very difficult to work with because of the labor laws in terms of time that you can have them on the set. Greg wanted me to direct that and ‘House of the Head,’ which were both stories with children in them. There just wasn't any way to make it work with kids who weren't adults.
CD: Not only that, but from a shooting standpoint, the majority is exterior night shoots.
JH: That's exactly right, and so there are further limitations on the hours you can work the children. So we had to go to the network and say that it wasn't possible to do it that way unless we separated out. The schedule for shooting was essentially three and a half days for every story. We could never do that if we had to use children that were under 18, so we had to cast kids that were 18 but they could play a bit younger so there was still an innocence to who they were, so that the tragedy would be more profound in the end.
Fortunately, we found really good actors that could pull that off, but that was the challenge of the story. I hope you're able to pull the emotion out of it because even though it's scary initially, you don't know what's going to happen until the end and when you find out what happened and who these kids are, it shouldn't be a really big shock. It should be more of an emotional tug.
CD: Yeah, out of all the segments, I guess you could say it's got the most heart to it. Music is as my mentor told me: When it comes to sound in a picture, the dialogue is the story, the sound effects is the action, the music is the heart. This episode really had - I'll leave this to the editors, I don't know if they want spoilers or not - but there's some misdirection that we use and I kind of went with an Amblin-Spielberg kind of wonderment and the innocence of these kids, and things get weird.
JH: Yep, that's right. But by the very end, I hope it brings a tear to your eye.
CD: Yeah, it resolves on an … it's kind of sweet. I don't think you could say this before on any iteration of Creepshow, but it's a very sweet Creepshow story. So that's ‘All Hallows,’ and then you want to talk about ‘Musky Holler?’
JH: Well, ‘Musky Holler’ was one of those that I didn't have any idea how to do it. It took me a while to get into the style of it and figure out what would work. It's just a balls-out episode of these horrible people awaiting execution for the way they ran the town, and the town getting revenge. It's so much fun because it's completely over the top. When I was directing it and casting it,there was no subtlety involved at all. Because of the way Greg wanted to do the ending, he wanted me to make it really graphic: Their demise in the stadium is pretty grotesque and the way they are brought into the stadium is also grotesque. Fortunately, I was working with Rob Draper, who is a brilliant cinematographer and has been able to give each episode its own cinematic look.
CD: And let's just take a moment to give a shout-out to Rob Draper. In terms of fans excited about Creepshow, there's so many people that are in the family, right? It's obviously your association with George, Greg going back with George, and Tom Savini and so many others. Mr. Draper goes back to the Tales From The Darkside series. He was part of the original band.
JH: Yes, he was. He did the whole ‘New York’ segment of the Tales From The Darkside series, and that's where I followed him. I was based in Los Angeles and did most of my episodes out there, but then Richard brought me out to New York to work with Rob. The first conversation that I had over the phone was what I had with you: ‘Hey man, do you like film noir?’ He said, ‘You're speaking my language.’ The episode we did won some awards and it was terrific.
Anyway, I got Rob to do the movie I directed, Tales From The Darkside: The Movie. Like Creepshow, it was an anthology. He and I were determined to create a different look and feel for each story and we pulled it off, so I think that's why Greg wanted him for this. So yeah, he's part of the family and that whole tradition. He came on board and he's done that with this latest Creepshow; each one of these stories has a very different and very unique style and, at some point, we can talk about how he lights, and …
CD: I'm jumping ahead a little bit because I wanted to tie that into one of my favorite episodes that you did, and one of my favorite ones to score: ‘Night of the Paw.’ This would be a nice bridge into that. Each one of these episodes, just like I'm trying to create a unique sound palette for each segment, Rob Draper is really doing the same thing visually. You can look at something in your segments, and ‘Night of the Paw’ - when you talk about your and Rob's love for film noir, going back to Tales From The Darkside, I want to say that one of the best episodes was ‘Love With Jerry Orbach.’
JH: ‘Everybody Needs A Little Love.’
CD: Yeah, that had a noir vibe to it.
JH: It was the only one of the series where we talked the producers into letting us film it in black and white.
CD: Yeah, so he gets it. ‘Night of the Paw’ has that great visual language and shadow work.
JH: That was all by design. When I got that script, I called Rob and I said, ‘Look, this is what we can do with this.’ We used all of those light transitions in Tales From The Darkside, too. We could do it all in-camera. He's a visual stylist, so I had no doubt that we could pull this off. It gave the producers a little agita; I think they were afraid that we were going to fall behind because …
CD: -- of the setups?
JH: Yeah, I mean it took a long time because you had to do it with care. We made the schedule without a problem, because we knew what we were doing. That was by design in that episode. It's all really told in flashback, if you think about it. So, we needed to get in and out of the present tense, where Bruce Davidson is telling the story, to the past when what happened, happened. We needed to give it that classic old movie-style suspense. It's all about mood and atmosphere.
CD: It's basically a retelling of the classic monkey's paw story with a bit of a noir twist to it. That was so beautiful to me: You're seeing practical effects work obviously with KNB and makeup stuff with Greg and the team, but there's so many beautiful in-camera transitions to flashbacks which are very tastefully done and cool. Bruce Davidson will be in the middle of a story and as he flashes back, a character from the story will come and the window that was previously raining will turn into daylight. It's a very simple lighting effect, but very tastefully done. I feel like it's one of those film-school things, "Oh, you should watch 'Night of the Paw' to see how to do something efficiently and creatively."
JH: We're not the first ones to have done that; we stole from many great filmmakers that came before.
CD: Of course. But John, in this day and age when we have the ability to digitally do anything, it's really beautiful to see how effective and simplistic something like that is. Every scene could've been done by putting Bruce Davidson in front of a blue screen. It probably would've made the producers happier. But you do it right and it has a tactile beauty to it that you just can't replicate digitally.
JH: I'm pleased that you think so, because that story really required it. I had two brilliant actors in Bruce Davison and Hannah Barefoot to essentially do a two-character episode and make it compelling from the opening moments when she's crawling out of the car to the moment at the end, when she gets back to the morgue. The whole character arc and what he expects her to do, there's a lot of nice twists to it. But we don't have a lot of outrageous practical effects or bloodletting. It's all very graceful storytelling, all about mood and atmosphere and great acting. I can't wait to hear what you're going to do.
CD: As I was saying, there's a little shout-out both to you and to the original score: I used the bass patch from ‘Something to Tide You Over’ a couple of times when the monkey's paw is activating. Let's talk about ‘House of the Head.’
JH: Again, it was another story that frightened me when Greg gave it to me. As you know, it's a dollhouse story with characters in the dollhouse that were seemingly alive in some way.
CD: The concept being, it's not a haunted house movie. What if a little girl had a dollhouse and the dollhouse was haunted?
JH: Exactly right. But here's the key: I had to find a way into the story that made a certain amount of sense. We weren't going to be able to have these dolls actually animated. Every time they moved, it had to be kind of off-camera so that when you looked away, they were in one position and when they looked back,they were in another position. That was going to be spooky enough, then when you introduced the evil force which is terrorizing the family that live in this dollhouse. The little girl who is witnessing all of this, that's the story. But how do you film this? First of all, you're going to have a child; Greg had an actress that he wanted me to use, a little girl that was in The Walking Dead. She is unbelievable.
But I still had to find a way into it directorially. It's more of a psychological study as opposed to an out-and-out horror story. Yes, the dollhouse is haunted, or is it? Is it her mind working all of this stuff out?
CD: Right, and that was a concept I tried to represent with the music, where the music is almost her imagination. You'll notice that the music drops out when mom and dad come into the room to check in on her, almost like when you're a kid playing with your toys and then mom and dad pop in and take you out of it for a moment. It's that idea of them tucking you in at night and everything is OK and normal. As soon as they walk out of the room, though, you really believe that there's a monster under the bed or in the closet.
JH: What I really wanted to play with was the idea that there's this 12-year-old girl with a mom and dad, and like any family, they've got whatever problems they're going through. It's not like there's divorce or abuse or anything like that, but the child views the world in a certain way and needs to work out things in her own mind. To me, the dollhouse, the family in the dollhouse and the head was a metaphor for her own life. So this is what I was operating on as a director: People will bring to it whatever they want when they see it, but in terms of how to tell the story, this was how I could convey to the girl, the other actors, and myself what was going on. Also, you'll see moments where the camera is actually inside the dollhouse. It's her mind; she's moving through the house working stuff out.
CD: Again, shout out to Rob Draper, because there's some really creative camera work there. The way the camera goes into almost a micro-level inside the house …
JH: That's right. We had a probe lens that we could put in the house and give the audience the POV of being in the house. That was important to me because I wanted the feeling of being in her imagination. That was the whole point. So to some extent, this was more of a psychological thriller than an out-and-out horror story, although it does end badly for the dolls.
CD: Right. Again, we were talking about the eclectic nature of Creepshow; it could easily be a Twilght Zone episode. It's not over the top.
JH: Well, I hope that that's what Greg has been able to pull off with this series. I hope that that's what people are going to bring to it. That they're never going to be bored, they're going to have a variety of emotional responses because the stories are all different. You're going to obviously create musical cues for the whole series that are going to be different and take us on a journey.
CD: That was my overall musical concept; that each segment had its own themes, its own sound, its own style, but wrapped up in the Creepshow framework in the comic book. Again, with a lot of love and respect, I tried to maintain that because I felt no reason [to] update the sound. That's the identity of the show; that's George's film and music. I don't look at this as a reboot, I look at it as a continuation. I just wanted to represent that with love and respect to the original, and for the fans to feel like a continuation of the original film.
JH: That's an interesting way to put it; I hope the fans appreciate it for that, as well. To me, that's going to be great, so it's not just all a one-note kind of series.
CD: Yeah, no pun intended.
Christopher Drake is a Los Angeles-based film composer. Known for scoring multiple DC Comics superhero films for Warner Bros. Animation, including the award-winning adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Drake has also provided music for multiple DC Universe video games from WB Games including Batman: Arkham Origins, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Injustice 2. In film, Drake has collaborated with directors Neil Marshall, Kevin Smith, and Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro. His most recent project has been providing music for the new SHUDDER/AMC series Creepshow, produced and directed by Greg Nicotero.