Demonic Instruments: The Art of the Score with THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER Composers

Composers David Wingo and Amman Abbasi walks us through their collaborative process on David Gordon Green's latest.

By Richard Newby · @RICHARDLNEWBY · October 5, 2023, 10:31 AM EDT

The Tubular Bells are ringing once again, ushering in a new era of possession. Of all the elements The Exorcist is best remembered for, the music is one of the most essential. Those familiar notes from the opening of Mike Oldfield’s "Tubular Bells" are more than enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Coupled with Jack Nitzsche’s subtle yet effective score, you have a musical marriage that’s horror movie history.

Now, with The Exorcist: Believer, a new musical marriage has taken place. And just like the possessed girls at the center of the new film, two is the magic number. FANGORIA spoke to composers David Wingo (Snow Angels, Take Shelter, Barry) and Amman Abbasi (Halloween, Halloween Kills, Halloween Ends) about their collaboration, influences, and finding new notes to explore within the legacy of The Exorcist.

So, tell me, you guys find out that you're doing the score for The Exorcist: Believer. What's your first reaction when [David Gordon] Green approaches you?

Amman Abbasi: Well, I was in Rome, and David called me and he was like, "Hey, I think it'd be cool if you and Wingo collaborated for this. Maybe you guys should talk." And I was just floored, because it's such an iconic film, and also [features] such iconic pieces of music. So it was just such a tremendous honor, honestly.

David Wingo: I've been working with David since his student films in college, so quite a while. And then I've not gotten to do so much recently, with those three Halloween movies; that was John Carpenter, of course. But David had told me pretty early on that they were in talks to do The Exorcist. I didn't want to push it, but I was like, "Oh, please, please come back. Please come to me!" (Laughs) So yeah, when he finally came back I was just beyond excited. And then we pretty quickly started talking about the idea of working with Amman on it, because Amman had helped with some Halloween stuff just in the editing phase, and I saw some screenings that actually had some of his music in there and it was amazing. I don't remember if it was my idea or David's idea, but we were both completely on the same page about me and Amman working together on it.

David, since you've known Green since childhood, and you’ve scored most of his films, do you guys have a kind of shorthand at this point? How much does he just say, "Go off and do your thing” versus being very involved in the conceptualization?

DW: Oh, very much so. David's very hands-on in the best way possible, because sometimes it can be very hard to talk about music. David loves and has a pretty deep knowledge of music, which makes things helpful. But yes, it could still be hard to talk about music, no matter what your knowledge of music is, but the fact that, yes, we've been working together for so long, is part of the great thing about having these long collaborations and relationships.

It becomes like a coded way of speaking, and I know what his coded way is. And like I said, it had been since 2015 when we last worked together, on Our Brand Is Crisis. I've done a lot of work since then, and he's done a lot of work since then. So I feel we both kind of came back a little more experienced, and I feel it's been even smoother. I mean, what would you say, Amman? Would you notice me and David kind of speaking in a way that felt like we kind of had a shorthand?

AA: Definitely, yeah. Hearing Wingo and David talk, it's very similar to how brothers would talk. It's clearly such a creative trust there. And it's inspiring because a lot of ideas come and go so quickly, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of ego in that regard, either. It's just very, very creative and inspiring in that way. I think it's that sort of brotherly language where there is clearly a shorthand. And to dovetail off of what Wingo is saying, David Gordon Green is a very, I would say, musical individual in his own way and can speak to music in quite a creative way.

Amman, you worked on the Halloween trilogy, where you had the title of Music Consultant. I don't have any music background, but I'd love to know what that title entailed.

AA: That was just a fun bridge of a position where I would write ideas, regardless of whether it was going to work for the film or not, and just tonally find something just to get people excited, or help them see where the direction could go in terms of musical themes.

DW: Independently from Carpenter, correct?

AA: Exactly. Yeah.

When you guys met up to discuss scoring The Exorcist: Believer, what were the early conversations that you guys had? How did you guys start getting the ball rolling?

DW: I think we met up at a coffee shop nearby and just started talking about music that we liked and are inspired by. I don't remember if we had read the script yet at that point, even. Do you remember Amman?

AA: I don't think we had, no.

DW: So, it was really just talking. This was my first horror movie, but I feel like I've been preparing to do horror movies for the last 20 years. I did the score for Barry and I'll listen to it and someone will say, "That sounds like horror movie music." Which is true, just the way that Bill [Hader] wanted the music to be for that show. Jeff Nichols' movies, which I’ve worked on, often have a lot of very creepy music. But all the same, I was still really stepping into a whole different world with the horror stuff. So, I was excited about that, and I actually considered Amman to be more experienced because of his doing the Halloween movies. We just talked about ideas for bands, music that we were inspired by, scores that we were inspired by. Textural ideas, some instrumental ideas.

And it all was just throwing out stuff just to get ourselves inspired and excited because we hadn't read anything, hadn’t seen anything. I don't even really remember a lot of the specifics of what we were talking about. I remember talking about the new Suspiria, that we both really loved that movie and that music. I don't know how much of that ends up coming through in the final [product], but it's just something to get you pumped up about getting started. And then we started sending some piano demos back and forth. It was just a way to start getting that musical language flowing, whether or not it's going to be very applicable at the end of the day or not. It's how it usually works for me with films.

In terms of writing the specific tracks of the score, how does that work between you? Are you guys equally contributing to each track, or does one of you write one piece and someone else writes another one?

AA: That's been a ton of fun, honestly. It's been a new experience for me, and I'm learning a lot from Wingo, just his depth of experience. But basically, we get in a room and we really just tinker away with ideas and let that sort of guide us. Obviously, there's some goalposts in mind, but realistically, it feels very much like a genuine creative collaboration of just playing as somewhat of a band in that moment. And obviously, then it refines and it finds its voice beyond that. But the initial seeds are always sitting in a room figuring it out together.

DW: Yeah, I've collaborated on several projects with several other composers, and sometimes it is just like, "I'll start this theme and send it to you, and you'll flesh it out and vice versa." And it was really fun this time. It's way more improvisational than I'd done before. We would just get together and I'd bring some strange instrumentation over and we would just work with it. We'd probably seen some footage from the film, but we didn't have a lot to work with. And then once we saw it we had some better ideas and just started to think thematically.

A lot of this was just laying down the atmospheric beds and textures that a lot of the score ended up being very much based around. So, it's always different. That's what I love. It always depends on, especially with collaborating, who you're working with and how you connect together. This was way more truly collaborative than my other times where most of the music you're hearing is foundational stuff that we came up with together when we were just trying to find the sound that works for the movie.

In terms of influences, you mentioned the Suspiria score that Thom Yorke did, which is amazing. I'm curious if there are any other scores that were on your mind, not necessarily as a main influence, but something that you felt inspired by. Did you go back to the Jack Nitzsche score or were there other horror films over the decades that you guys wanted to pull from in terms of the feeling or mood?

DW: I love Jack Nitzsche and I love that score, but we stayed away from the original Exorcist. I mean, just to not feel beholden to it or feel like we're doing [anything] too similar. I just wanted to have a real arm's length to develop our own sounds. The last thing you want is for everyone to just be comparing this to the original. And that's such a masterwork, too! You don't want to hold yourself up to that bar. It's pretty tricky. But what else did we talk about, Amman?

AA: I mean, there's a lot of stuff, and beyond just soundtrack stuff, too. I think that was what was keeping it interesting. I'm trying to think of what comes to mind. But yeah, it wasn't just horror stuff.

DW: I made a pretty great Spotify playlist for stuff that we were inspired by.

AA: Oh, some good old Ben Frost. Mica Levi. Jóhann Jóhannsson. Lalo Schifrin’s The Amityville Horror. And we listened to some old-school and avant-garde non-score stuff. We just let that all collide a little bit.

DW: Yeah, the Ben Frost was big, because I remember David also being like, "Yeah, this is a great way of thinking about it." It was very soundscapey and gnarly and distorted, but still not overwhelming.

I read an interview with William Friedkin recently, and he was saying that he thinks the score for the original Exorcist amounted to about 17 minutes in total of the two-hour film. He said that he wanted it to be understated and in the background. I know you guys said you weren't too beholden to the original, but what's the balance between using a score or letting silence make its point in the film? What were your conversations with Green in terms of when to draw out these themes?

DW: That was the interesting thing about revisiting Exorcist, because I probably watched it, most recently, about 10 years ago, but once we knew we were doing this, I watched it and I was like, "Holy crap. There's really very little score in this." For being such an iconic score, it is very, very minimal in its usage, which is amazing. I always try to have a less is more approach when I can, anyway, and just coming off of Barry where, by the very end of the last season, we weren't using much score, I was already up for that.

David wanted to maintain that sense of using silence in a really great way in this film, and we were never pushing to have the score overshadow that. David was very definitive in terms of where he wanted silence. There are some pretty great sequences that utilize that silence, and that's more like the '70s way of approaching filmmaking. So that's a way David was trying to stay with the spirit of the original to some degree, I think.

AA: I mean, silence is bold in terms of horror. And I think going back to that, the original Exorcist, the reason why "Tubular Bells" work so well is because it's so potent, you don't get much of it. So, when you do get it, you really get invested in it. I think that philosophy permeates through this one, too. Just that silence takes a big presence in a really great way.

I think it's so fascinating what music does when it's removed from the context of seeing an image on screen. So, let’s say horror fans sit down and pop on the vinyl of the score for The Exorcist: Believer. What would you say is the ultimate mood you want to evoke?

AA: Ooh. Okay. I'll say mine. And then Wingo, I'm curious of yours: A demon possessing a few instruments.

DW: Yeah, we talked about that. We got the demon writing some music for sure. And that was when we had our sessions of just improvising. It was fun to keep that idea in mind. Like, "This music is subjective to the demon." That was always fun. And David liked that idea, too. Just so much of the time the music is expressing what we all know is to come. We know we're watching an Exorcist movie. I’d say it's the eerie stillness before the storm, something you feel in your gut where you know that there's some demon action going out there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.