As we near the end of the year (how!?) we are inevitably thinking back on some of the hard hitters of 2022. What list would be complete without mentioning Prey as one of the top horror titles of the year? Composer Sarah Schachner joined us to discuss this prequel in the Predator universe. Schachner has a rich background in the world of video game scores, including Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Anthem, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and most recently Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. Prey director Dan Trachtenberg partnered with the composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist to transport audiences to the 1700s.
How did you first get involved with Prey?
I had just been visiting my family and got an email on the way back from the airport saying a director was interested in speaking with me about a new film in the Predator franchise. It was totally unexpected and out of the blue. I was already a fan of Dan Trachtenberg's prior work, and I found out later he had been playing Assassin's Creed Valhalla and really liked the music. As soon as I saw Predator and 1700s in the same sentence, I was in. It just felt like a perfect fit.
How much do the time period and setting influence the sound and the instruments you use to create those sounds? Does that factor into composing for the emotional beats of the story?
The time period and Comanche setting were a huge influence, but I didn't want to be completely locked in as if we were making a documentary. I wanted the score to feel at home in that world but also reflect the sci-fi aspects. This is a film about a totally unrealistic alien hunter, so that leaves the door open to go outside the bounds of realism a bit and make something more bespoke. I love getting to draw outside the lines. Too many rules are never fun.
You use a lot of strings and percussion here, is that something you decide very early on? What the "base" sound will be, so to speak?
Great question. I'll have a general rough idea of a "base," but it can definitely shift and change throughout the process. I knew I wanted to use lots of raw solo strings rather than an orchestra. They felt right for the time period and intimacy of the story. I played and recorded just about all of the strings myself, and that's the most natural way for me to express the characters' emotions through the music. I love the different textures of regional string instruments and collect them from all over the world.
The percussion and woodwind approach took a bit more time to hone in on. I did a pretty focused recording session very early in the process with a bunch of low woodwinds and world flutes. I initially thought that would be a much more prominent presence in the score, but it shifted more into the background tapestry as the strings and percussion came forward. You have to be a bit flexible and unattached with these things, as it's all a process of discovering what works best with the film. The film was also changing every day up until the last second.
How did Alan Silvestri's Predator theme factor in?
This was tricky because the tone of this film is very different from the original. Prey being so centered on a young girl's emotional journey to prove herself in the 18th Century is musically quite different from Arnold and his militaristic macho team squaring off against the Predator in the '80s. I needed to figure out the musical voice of this film before I could even think about that, and it was really Naru's voice.
As we got further into it, it did seem more and more necessary to include it in a way that didn't feel forced or shoehorned. Alan's rhythmic Predator theme is now reinterpreted on cellos as part of the new theme. It acts as the "call" or anticipatory buildup, and the Feral Predator's motif is the response. I quite like how they work together to create something new and subtly weave throughout the film.
While I didn't feel the melodic content of the original score would be appropriate for Prey, one major inspiration I took from Alan's work was how much dissonant tension it had. There are, of course, bombastic action moments, but what really stood out was how suspenseful it was. I wanted this score to have lots of building tension, but with its own unique sound palette.
You've transported gamers to the Great Pyramids and Valhalla, now to the Great Plains. How does this differ from, and how is it similar to your other work in terms of your approach, creating a sound indicative of time/place/culture?
It's actually a pretty similar approach, and my process in games and Assassin's Creed in particular, was very applicable here. On Prey, I read the script and researched the period/culture and what instruments and philosophies guided their music. Then I started exploring musical palettes and ideas before I saw the picture.
When reading about Comanche music, something that stuck with me was how they didn't have set scales of notes. They would sing more loosely around a note center. That inspired a general approach with strings, woodwinds, and percussion; using them for group gestures driven by directional movement more so than specific notes.
I was also trying to mimic the natural world to reflect the vast wilderness setting that was equally beautiful as it was dangerous. Certain species behave in groups like a collective consciousness and move with a controlled sort of chaos. That reminded me of the Comanche way of singing, and it was really fun to experiment with pairings of instruments in this way.
I also have to mention Robert Mirabal, the incredible Pueblo musician who I collaborated with to infuse parts of the score with a truly authentic native sound. I was extremely drawn to his unusual handmade wind instruments and unique way of playing. We clicked instantly, and I'm thrilled to have some of his vocals, woodwind, and percussion performances throughout the score.
Do you want to talk about any Prey tracks specifically?
Dan and I were both aligned in wanting this whole experience to feel like a classic adventure and not just an action-sci-fi/horror. It was interesting having all these genres mashing together within the Predator universe.
One of my favorite aspects of this score was writing music from each character's perspective. The Predator's theme is really from his point of view rather than the viewer reacting to him. It's intense and methodical, with a bit of focused rage. It's what I'd imagine he'd be feeling while tracking and effortlessly slashing through 20 French trappers.
Naru's theme is meant to express her inner emotional journey. In "Naru's Way," the piece goes through all the emotions she went through to become the hunter in the end: longing, self-doubt, building confidence, and eventual commitment to herself. This leads to the drive and determination to prove herself to her tribe, and the beauty of this grand adventure she took on. Pretty sure that was the most I've ever had to fit into one theme, and in some ways, it mirrored my own journey working on this film because it was really intense and challenging!
If you could compose the score for an installment in any existing horror franchise, which would you choose?
I've mostly worked on large franchises, so I think I'd like to do something stand-alone without a big history behind it. I loved the folk-horror Midsommar as well as the music by Bobby Krlic.
A horror set completely in a beautiful daytime environment was so weirdly unsettling. It was fantastic! I think something off-kilter like that would be fun.
Do you have any influences within the world of horror?
To be honest, I've never been the biggest fan of straight-up horror. Specifically, stories about psychopath men killing women are a bit too realistic for me. They give me nightmares. Freddy Krueger and that ventriloquist from The '93 remake of When A Stranger Calls scarred me for life. However, I love sci-fi. Any hybrid of horror/sci-fi, horror-action, or psychological-thriller are totally up my alley.
Last question, favorite alien movies?
My favorite Alien movie of the franchise is Aliens. The first one set up the premise so simply and perfectly, and James Cameron just took it to a whole new level. One of my favorite films about aliens, in general, is District 9 by Neill Blomkamp. The emotional impact he achieved, along with the practical effects blew me away. While not exactly horror, 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite film of all, and HAL9000 is my favorite horrifying AI character, who I somehow feel immense compassion for.
Prey is streaming on Hulu, you can find Sarah here and listen to the full score below.