e asked Color out of Space producer Daniel Noah to chat with the movie’s composer, Colin Stetson (Hereditary). Read (and listen!) below and go see Color Out of Space, starring Nicolas Cage, in theaters now.
Daniel Noah: What was your first inclination to score?
Colin Stetson: I mean, it’s been a long time in the making. When I was young, before, I didn’t get into thinking seriously about actually being a musician, actually having that thrust be my career focus until maybe 15, 16, when everything went in that direction really quickly. Before that, I was primarily in visual art, and one of the things I wanted to do when I was a kid was to be involved in movies in the capacity of special effects and design. I was a Star Wars kid and heavily into sci-fi and fantasy, so all of that was where my head was at back then. So, I guess it was sometime in my 20s when I realized that I could find my path back to that original idea through music instead of through the other avenue of actually working on design in the production part of things. The first several films I ended up scoring were people who had only heard my solo work and came at me that way. The solo music that I’ve been making has always been visual and cinematic, and it worked as a stepping stone or bridge for me to open this particular door. And now it’s most of what I do.
DN: What would you say are the primary differences between making a studio album and film score?
CS: Well, the primary difference is the amount of people who are all working on it. On a studio record, until the mastering, no one but me has come anywhere near it. With scoring, obviously you’re working for a director’s vision. When it gets down to writing the music, I suppose there’s not a whole lot of difference between the way I would make a solo record or the way that I would make a piece of score. I kind of do this for solo records as well, present it with a visual, a corollary, that’s never made available to the public, but I always have this correlating narrating imagery that I use to bounce off for the music so that I can fully imbue the music with that kind of intention, rather than just going at it blank. And so I guess it’s much more similar on that front, on the creative.
DN: So there’s a visual North Star for you, whether you’re making a record that’s pure music or a score that’s accompanying an image?
CS: Yeah, I wrote a graphic novel in three parts that was the corollary of the records that I put out between 2008 and 2013, and that was where all of the song titles came from. There’s a mass narrative going on through all of that, that was basically just for me in order to shape those records and the songs themselves. I like to work in that way, even if it’s purely for my own benefit and process. That’s how it works.
DN: Interesting to me that you were an early horror fan. One of the things that [we] talked about was how progressive electronic and neo-classical and avant-garde music has so much in common with horror, in that you’re sort of striving to actualize things that are somewhat alien, that might push the observer or the listener into a state of disorientation, of being shocked, of encountering something strange that they’ve never encountered before. Your records certainly have a very similar impact to a horror story in the most beautiful, transcendent ways, which is one of the reasons why we were so excited to talk to you about Color Out of Space. Were you a Lovecraft fan before you got involved with our project?
CS: Not to a Richard Stanley degree! [laughs]. My mom didn’t read me the stories in bed. But I was a Dungeons and Dragons kid. His designs and his creatures and his mythos ran throughout all of that. So you couldn’t help but be influenced by it at an early age and then gradually learn where it all actually came from. For me, musically speaking, it was not the obvious expectation that I would be tapped for horror to the degree that I have been. But after the fact, I guess I could see the sense in it. My approach to music has always been extremity because I like exploring. It almost seems like a waste of time to not go for broke and get into these extreme spaces because like you said, you have to, in order to get people to feel. I tend to think of it not so much as discomfort, but as actually making people feel things, which I think manifests as discomfort. When you go to see certain films, you’ll hear laughter in the weirdest places. And a lot of people’s reaction is just dealing with the fact that maybe they’re not accustomed to feeling the feelings that they’re feeling, and they don’t have sort of an archetype for them yet, and so you’ve caught them in that fresh state of being, truly out in the wilderness, emotionally speaking. So for me, sonically and musically, you have to get your foot in the door with something that feels familiar enough so that they don’t question the fact that it’s there. And then once that foot is in the door, you can completely expand through it in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
DN: What did you do to prepare for Color Out of Space, and what influences did you look to, musical or otherwise?
CS: It was coming up with themes, and the sonic character of those themes. A large part of what is going on in the film is augmented and processed animal sounds. The story is all about this alien color that seeps into the water table and gets into organisms and distorts them from the inside out. I figured I would approach some sounds in nature the same way. In the very first scene, as Ward’s voiceover is coming through, in the distance you hear these cries and these screaming passages, and that’s all elk bugle calls and elks in the rut, which are just horrific as fuck-screams that male elk emit when they’re out there on the prowl, taken and run through different harmonic generators to make them more foreign. So, yeah, there’s elks in there, there’s liberal use of sandhill cranes, a bit of bison, and some frogs.
DN: I look forward to hearing you play this live with your animal orchestra.
DN: I know you’ve scored all different kinds of genres. Do you think that scoring for horror is different from other kinds of films?
CS: I try to not look at it that way. When I did Hereditary, the upside and rare pleasure of that job was Ari came to me and asked me to do the score two years before we ended up doing it. So I had read the script, but I didn’t watch any horror or listen to any scores of that genre. I wanted to be in no way affected, consciously or subconsciously. I go out of my way to not approach a genre through genre-specific lenses or angles. For me, I think people’s reactions can become rote, automatic, when that experience of familiarity is too high, when things become too referential, whether they know they’re doing it or not. The bandwagon tends to telegraph everything that’s happening to the audience, which ruins all your scares and guts most of the emotional aspects out. I like to approach drama the same way I do horror, and vice versa. Keep it open so that there can be dread, and there can be pain, and you can find more of an element of sadness, sorrow, or grief in your horror scene. You can find elements of true terror in more of a dramatic piece because I think those things are certainly not mutually exclusive. Any of us who have been in very real-world situations can attest to all of these emotions. It is possible to feel true terror in some situations that are quite mundane. And most of the stuff I think we find in horror films, it’s a fantastical representation of something that, at its core, is getting at a true human story.
DN: My last question for you is, obviously a composer needs to approach the way that their music dances and interacts with each performer in the cast differently. What is it like dancing with Nicolas Cage?
CS: It is ridiculous fun. I cannot tell you [laughing] how many certain scenes I’ve watched over and over again because he makes me laugh so much. There are a couple things that maybe are my favorite lines, my favorite fucking faces that he makes. In particular, there’s a scene where he’s just been tending the tomatoes and comes back in, and he just turns and yells, “Peaches!” [both laughing] It's the fucking best thing, it’s my favorite part of the movie. And then, if that wasn’t good enough, he dumps the tomatoes and says, “Woo hoo hoo hoo, you do that very well, Tracey Peach.” Where the fuck did that come from? Did Richard write those words? Was that something that he decided what Cage would say to the tomato that day? [both laughing]. For me, it’s a field day. There’s no end to the inspiration. You watch it over and over again, and there are certain performances where you know, I think a lot of people don’t understand that writing, making the scores for films, you’re kind of the last guard against fuck ups that have happened before you, and everybody tries to stick you on those. So they’re like, “Here, the editing’s a little lackluster here,” and “This doesn’t really move that fast, can you help it?” or “The script wasn’t really that tight on this scene, can you help it?” or “This performance wasn’t really happening, so can you help it?” So there’s always things to do where you have performances with limpness or something that’s not really delivering the scene entirely, but with Nick, there’s no such thing. Every time I would watch a scene over and over again, I would just find new gems, new ways of looking at it, new approaches to helping him deliver what he’s delivering. I had a ball.