JEFF GRACE (2009 & 2010)

January 12, 2011 | By

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The following is an unpublished interview from 2009 & 2010 with composer Jeff Grace discussing his scores for Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell the Dead and Ti West’s The House of the Devil.



Mark R. HasanI Sell The Dead began as a short film, right?

Jeff Grace: Yeah, it started as a short (The Resurrection Apprentice), and if you take that just by itself, the tone is quite different; it’s just straight-up, and there’s nothing humorous about it. Then Glenn McQuaid expanded it and turned it into a feature, and it became sort of episodic, so the development of the characters isn’t your usual thing.

The comedic element was definitely part of a delicate balance that Glenn wanted to play between making it funny, but keeping the vibe of this dark world that they’re in. The way Larry Fessenden plays Willy the grave robber is really over the top, so Dominic Monaghan was a bit more reserved in playing Arthur. If the two of them had really gone at it the same amount, I don’t think it would have worked as well.

With all those different things, that film to me is quite different than a lot of the other stuff I’ve done. I Sell the Dead is a comedy; it’s set in a horrific world, but it’s a comedy.

What’s funny about this film is they would shoot for a while, and they’d close down production while they waited for cash to be available or whatever, and that presented an opportunity to start cutting stuff together.

Another thing that assisted them in balancing the film’s tonal design was an actual comic book done by storyboard artist Brahm Revel that was based on the script. Brahm worked very closely with Glenn on it, and they had this great, really elaborate storyboard thing that they could and did refer to, and they actually sent the comic book to the actors.

MRH: One aspect of McQuaid’s direction I liked is his reliance on the actors. There are a number of sequences  – like the prison scenes or the boat ride to the island – where the takes are sometimes unusually long, and he relies on the actors, the dialogue, and I wonder if that was something you embraced because normally in a horror film, even in a black comedy, there’s usually a brisk pace, and I think your music supported the director’s nuanced pacing.

JG: I think the prison scenes with Ron Perlman (who plays a shady monk) and Dominic were filmed after they had done a chunk of stuff in the summer with Dom and Larry, and then they picked up a couple of things a bit after that, so we ended up revisiting some things.

I had started to work on the film in that time-frame, and after I scored some of the scenes with Ron and Dom, Graham actually asked for more music in there, which gave us an opportunity to try some stuff or to re-address some things that weren’t working for Glenn.

When you have a situation where it’s episodic and everything is kind of a new situation, it’s often harder to go back and revisit and develop thematic material, so asking for more music was certainly fun, but it gives you an opportunity to develop some of the themes.

Ron’s character is quirky. He had these ticks and these outbursts of physical activity. We were trying to just figure out how to best play that, and I think at some point Glenn just said, ‘Just definitely play it up and have fun with it. It is a comedy, so go that route.’

MRH: The other film I want to talk about is House of the Devil (2009), but I’m impressed again that you’ve written another terrifying score for Ti West, because for me The Roost (2005) is still one of the most frightening scores ever written. It’s something that you just don’t listen to at 2am because of those intense sounds, and I wonder if there’s something in West’s stories that bring out a kind of musical darkness, or a more daring scoring process with you?

JG:  I think it’s the package with him, and his approach to filmmaking and to collaboration.

When I first met Ti, it was for The Roost. He told me what he wanted to do and they had this limited budget, so I suggested some modern classical music. He definitely wanted a synth kind of thing (kind of what they did in The Evil Dead and all that), so we took those two ideas are married them for The Roost.

Incidentally, we don’t temp track the films. Ti tries to show a film as little as possible to people before we’ve had a chance to start working on sound and music. I think this was the difficulty with him and with Cabin Fever II (2010), because for some people it’s very difficult to see the film take shape without having temporary sound and temporary music in there, but for Ti, he doesn’t see the film taking shape until that stuff’s actually in there.

Now with House of the Devil, we did have to temp the stuff in there because of time constraints, the way the production schedule ended up, and for submissions to film festivals, but we tried to move as quickly as possible and get original score in there and use stuff from other reels.

MRH: One of the things I like about the score is the way you take a compelling main theme on piano and periodically take portions and kind of bend them, using whole chords and stretching them to the limits of their harmonics, and ending up with some really chilling sounds.

JG: Especially with House of the Devil, Ti really stretches things out so deliberately that he really draws you in and builds tension that way. You know something’s going to happen – the name of the movie is The House of the Devil, right? – but he breaks with conventions on where that happens, how it happens, and how he gets to it, and then he really, really plays with people and their expectations. Some people did have a problem with the film for that very reason, but I think the great response that a lot of people have had to the film is exactly because of the way he maximizes tension.

He knows that music and Graham Reznick’s sound design great tools for that, so seeing that film without sound and music is just someone walking around a house. Graham is a great sound designer and he’s a filmmaker himself. The MovieScore Media soundtrack release of House of the Devil is a double-billed with I Can See You (2008), which is Graham’s first feature as a director, and his own filmmaking influences his sound design and his ability to really bring something to the post-production process.

Also, he and Ti grew up together, so those guys think a lot alike and kind of have this telepathy when they work, and I have to work harder to keep up to pace with them because they know each other so well and they work so well together. But it’s also great for me, because it’s like this race to go and see who can come up with the craziest thing for something.

MRH: With eighties slasher films, usually you think of synth scores and pop or disco montages, but alongside major films like Friday the 13th, there were smaller films such as Blue Sunshineand the original Black Christmas and My Bloody Valentine that had solid orchestral scores with sly use of synths and sound effects. Did Ti West want you to harken back to those scores to give his film a kind of purity?

JG: Yeah. He was absolutely for not poking fun at the eighties but actually doing what they did. That’s really interesting horror and interesting filmmaking – much more than a lot of stuff that’s coming out today.

There’s no winking and nudging in House of the Devil; it’s just done in that style, so as you say, there were some musical choices that were made and they’re more affective than some of the things people are doing today.

In the film there are a lot of licensed songs (great stuff by Thomas Dolby, Greg Kinn) and there’s this huge montage where the main character dances around the house listening to The Fixx, and they did a really good job in selecting and fitting all that material.

There’s some synth stuff in there musically, but it’s really just the main title music. I’ve read some of the reviews and they keep talking about how it’s a synth score; there’s a bunch of licensed tracks, and the opening title sequence Mike Armstrong did which is a New Wavish kind of thing, but that’s really it, but the rest of the film is a lot of orchestral stuff and pure orchestra stuff.


. would like to thank composer Jeff Grace for his generous time, and Leah Visser at Amberlight Productions for setting up the interview.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2009 & 2010 by Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

CD: House of the Devil, The (2009) / I Can See You (2008) — I Sell the Dead (2008)

DVD/ Film:  I Can See You (2008)


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/ Film:  House of the Devil, The (2009) — I Sell the Dead (2008)


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