Australian Christopher Gordon has built a solid reputation as a film composer whose works stand on their own as powerful soundtrack albums – vivid reminders of epic tales like Moby Dick, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World(2003), or his recent horror film, Daybreakers, which features a massive orchestral score and choir.
Prior to the film’s theatrical release, Gordon discussed his work in the horror realm, and creating music that defines a post-apocalyptic, vampire-infested world where fresh human blood has become an increasingly rare natural resource.
Mark R. Hasan: Before we discuss your music for Daybreakers, I wonder if you could talk briefly about your entry into film scoring.
Christopher Gordon: As a child I really loved movies, and watched movies as much as I could. I think somewhere later in life it just grabbed me, and I was always very attracted to making drama and be able to tell a story with the music… [Early in my career] I did a number of very small things and was supported by my wife [laughing] until I eventually got a sizeable mini-series called Moby Dick (1998).
MRH: Is your background mainly classical?
CG: Primarily. That’s very much my area, although during my early twenties I played in a number of rock bands and so on, which is of course a very useful skill to have developed – the combination of the popular music and classical combined.
MRH: You’ve scored a number of contemporary and period films, and I wonder if you could share your thoughts on scoring such a full-out horror film like Daybreakers?
CG: Well, it’s always great fun. One of the good things about horror movies is that it gives me a lot of room to move and really make a statement.
My very first horror movie was a small a kids Halloween movie for Fox called When Good Ghouls Go Bad(2001), and so the scares were much more appropriate for a ten year-old then for an adult, and there’s a lot of humour in it.
My next one, though, has become a little bit of a cult movie. It’s a short film called Ward 13 (2003), an animation film made by an Australian named Peter Cornwell, who’s since gone on to direct The Haunting in Connecticut (2009). Ward 13 was just fabulous. It was roughly fifteen minutes of full orchestra blaring away, and we had a fantastic time doing that film.
Then the next horror movie I did was a mini-series called Salem’s Lot (2004), the TV remake, and that was a huge amount of fun creating a very tense and very eerie sort of sound world, and it’s quite different from the other two that I already mentioned.
MRH: Did projects such as Moby Dick (1998) and particularly On the Beach (2000) provide some insight into capturing a sense of isolation, madness, and a need for salvation in Daybreakers?
CG: Absolutely, and for me that’s really the crux of what I like doing: getting into the character and finding the psychology, the emotional state and the emotional journey that the characters have to deal with.
Certainly with Daybreakers, there’s an undercurrent of deep emotion in there, which I think is very important for the music to bring out since there’s so much hopelessness; we’re talking about the end of humanity, and so there is one side to the Daybreakers score which is certainly very tragic, and certainly that does hark back to On the Beach and somewhat to Moby Dick.
But the other side of it is there’s a great deal of power in there as well, and this is sort of the other side of Daybreakers score. The power is mostly handled by a very large set of drums that we have, but also other techniques, and perhaps that sort of masculine, testosterone drive.
MRH: Did you do any research for creating some of the imaginative sounds, because there’s some really chilling use of vocals, brass, and unique sounds that envelope the listener as if evoking a swarming entity, and the percussion isn’t a standard array that you would use with an orchestra?
CG: No, and indeed it’s not. What I did was I set up the entire studio as though we had thirty-six percussion players, and I actually only had two players, and they moved around the room, playing various parts, overdubbing the various parts so that the effect is that of thirty-six players playing percussion, but it was always the way I set up the room so that the actual sound spectrum sounds like all those players.
In terms of research, probably not really; just a great deal of internal thought. ‘What are the best sounds for this movie? What’s the best way to go?’
I probably have three distinctive areas in the film: there’s the drums; there’s a subtle use of electronics in there just to extend the palette of the orchestra; and there’s a choir, which is used in a specifically eerie sort of manner, which I did a little bit of in Salem’s Lot, but mostly that was slightly more religious with a Satanic sound to it, whereas in Daybreakers it’s much more eerie, spooky – you can’t put your finger on it.
MRH: Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the full orchestral approach you used for the film, which is very rare for a contemporary horror project, since most producers want a hybrid of rock and electronica with slight orchestral elements. Was this deep, almost Wagnerian scope of the score your idea, or was it something the filmmakers wanted from the start?
CG: No, it’s what they came to me with, and probably why they chose me out of the group of composers they were considering. They wanted an orchestral score, they wanted a sense of melody (not an over-the-top melody, but a sense of theme and so on), and I was please to provide that for them.
MRH: You make use of these deep, resonant chords that kind of swirl around, and I like the way those sounds begin rather intimately, and then build and envelope the listener, which I imagine in a theatrical surrounding really enhances the mood of a scene, particularly when it involves something that’s very violent or very foreboding.
CG: There is a lot, and not to get technical, but normally you’d have a whole lot of violins in the orchestra, and I kept the violins out of the orchestra for a lot of the score.
I associate them with light, and being able to go into light and the sun is a crucial part of the story, so the violins are out of most of the movie. When they come in they’re only down in the low register, and then slowly they go up into their high register, which means that a lot of the film doesn’t have violins or high strings.
There’s a melancholy angst to the whole sound, and I had quite a lot of violas and cellos which gave a rich mid-range and low range, which was a sound that I felt suited the style of the movie emotionally, and also the look of the movie, which is quite dark.
MRH: I wonder if you could briefly explain some of the elements you used, and their function in the film, such as the huge array of percussion, and the horrific chorals that are paired with deep, resonating strings?
CG: I think they mostly work in terms of vampires rather than humans. Sometimes it’s not the choir but the music that the choir sings that’s played by the orchestra, [and it’s] like a drug haze; it’s like they’re all addicted to human blood, and they’ve all become sort of hazed, if you know what I mean.
I wanted to create that atmosphere a lot with the vampires, and the only clarity comes when you’re with the humans. That’s the nature of that sort of textural choral writing; where they’re all sort of sitting around one note or a few notes, being quite dissonant.
MRH: And the percussion is mostly for action sequences?
MRH: I also liked the way electronics and processed sounds were used with great discretion and subtlety, which is a change from the more formulaic horror scores.
CG: I guess my first love is the acoustic instrument. I find that having ‘human’ players gives the sound much more depth and meaning than the synth sounds, which are very much in the moment. It was also just important for the film to provide that underlining sense of emotion and humanity, and I think the directors made the right decision in going with an orchestral score rather than an electronic score. I think the electronic score would’ve maybe distanced it a little bit more from the characters.
KQEK.com would like to thank Christopher Gordon for discussing his latest work, Angie Burns at Maple Pictures Canada for facilitating this interview, and Rue Morgue magazine for permission to publish the complete Q&A.
For more information on Christopher Gordon, visit the composer’s website HERE.
Visit the official Daybreakers website.
Original soundtrack album available from Lionsgate Records.
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This interview © 2009 / 2010 by Mark R. Hasan
Related external links (MAIN SITE):
BR/Film: Daybreakers (2009)
Categories: Composer Interview