JOHN FRIZZELL (2007, Part A)

October 20, 2010 | By

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Unlike John Frizzell’s prior horror scores for Dark Castle ‘s graphic Thirte3n Ghosts and Ghost Ship (2002), The Reaping is a major shift in pacing and style, and is less overtly infused with experimental concepts and harsh, bristling cues. In our discussion we touch upon aspects and conventions of the theological thriller, and the qualities that make the music for The Reaping a noteworthy entry in this oft-visited genre.

John Frizzell : When you read some reviews, people say the score is very loud, and it just isn’t… There’s a lot more emotion in it, and a lot more melody. The first conversation I had with [co-producer Joel Silver] is that ‘this is a different kind of film; it’s different from what Dark Castle has done before, and we’re going into a different territory.’

Mark R. Hasan : Which is pretty fresh for the company, because their horror films have a more formulaic style: there’s always a shock, plenty of graphic murders, and bits of suspense in-between; whereas musically, The Reaping seems to reflect a more measured approach. In listening to the score, I don’t get the impression there’s a series of shocks that happen throughout the beginning.

JF : No. In fact I think this film is very patient in taking its time to pull you in.

MRH : You also mentioned people were surprise at the score’s melodic elements. There’s quite a number of long, melodic passages that you develop and flesh out much later, and it’s a nice contrast to the more dissonant and experimental-styled scores you’ve done.

JF The Prize Winner from Defiance, Ohio is a little film, and one of my favourites. It’s on Milan (and I think it’s going to be up on iTunes very soon) and it’s definitely one of my melodic sides, as is Gods and Generals… It is nice to do this in a film which has some genre elements in it… I thought, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to sort of break the mold and go into more traditional film scoring, but also towards the experimental things that I like to do.

MRH : Was there a particular aspect of the lead character or story that made you choose woodwinds and piano to emphasize a palpable warmth?

JF : It was something about [Hilary Swank’s] character, and maybe because this film is about femininity and motherhood. I also knew that if I took my theme and played it high on the piano early on in the film, then when I had the entire orchestra and choir bark it out later, it would certainly have grown.

MRH : The Reaping was directed by Stephen Hopkins, whose own career includes a number of stories with explosive elements – he’s very adept at horror and action – whereas his new film is less typical of his prior works, like Predator 2,Blown Away (1994), and Judgment Night.

JF : [Stephen Hopkins’ The Life and Death of Peter Sellers] is a very character-driven work; very soft-spoken and delicate in the way that it approaches its subject of a very complex character. I think Ghost in the Darkness has its big, wild moments, but it definitely takes its time building up the tension, too. Stephen is definitely one to blow a thing up here and there, but I think you can see in his style his love of photography and colour, and his love of shape and motion.

MRH : I wondered if it was difficult to compose music for a director whose prior films, particularly Ghost in the Darkness, contained really dense layers of dynamic sound effects plus score?

JF : I really love working with sound designers. On The Reaping it was Danetracks (they did the Matrix films and have done a lot of pictures with Joel Silver), and we had a lot of conversations where we’d meet, we’d talk, we’d play things for each other and know who’s covering what… I’m not so out to write a score and put it on a movie; I try to think more of making a movie now, and try to be objective with my score when we get to the final process, and just think what’s going to serve the film.

MRH : I guess when you get to the final mixing stage, that’s where you’re confronted with all these different sound opportunities; you can add or enhance anything, but you have to use a lot of discretion.

JF : If you write a delicate cue and it’s played too loud, it takes on a whole new character. Dave Campbell mixed the music on this film, and I think it’s Dave’s last film – he says he’s retiring – and I’m incredibly honored to have worked with him, because he’s just so good at finding that place where a score should fit into a film.

MRH : Theological thrillers have a long legacy of giving composers great opportunities to exploit musical styles, and I wonder what is it about the genre that’s so attractive to composers?

JF : I was trying to think to myself when did the first one start being made? I’m trying to think as far back as I can, and it seems like they didn’t really come about until the sixties, unless I’m wrong. Can you think of any before then?

MRH : I guess the problem for me is that The Omen and The Exorcist are the two that really stand out. Exorcist is really just a pastiche of material and doesn’t really have a formal score running through it, but Omen was the one that sort of codified everything within the genre; because it did that, it established a template that everyone feels obligated to work towards, which isn’t really fair because a lot of the later filmic imitations were scored by all kinds of different composers. Even Ennio Morricone scored a few, and his stuff is really out there, such as Holocaust 2000 (aka The Chosen), plus Bruno Nicolai’s The AntiChrist (L’Anticristo).

JF : I think the biggest thing that comes to mind when you’re dealing with a theological thriller is that you’re dealing with theology, and you’ve got a couple millennia of music history to pull on, and I think that’s what you’re focusing on: you have Gregorian chants, you have the concept of chant, you have the Mass; you have all these types of Western religious music to pull on, and that’s probably why there tends to be a common thread in many of these theological thrillers – we’re pulling on the same liturgical music.

MRH : And I guess they’ve allowed composers to dip into some eccentric, if not dissonant concepts, even in straightforward horror films.

JF : They’re probably using voices with that, too.

MRH : I guess one key aspect is the use of large chorales, and to use such a component requires great skill, if not finesse.

JF : It’s complicated. In thinking about ‘What is a theological thriller?’ Is 2001: A Space Odyssey a theological thriller? It’s a lot about theology, and a lot of great uses of voices in the music in that film. It’s a broad area.

MRH : In terms of your own skill, I particularly liked a cue [“Costigan Blues”] where you repeated a particular rhythmic pattern and subsequently bring in large chunks of the orchestra and chorus to further the tension – something you also employed in Alien Resurrection in two specific places. It’s admittedly my favourite part of that score, and the primal cue appeared in its longest configuration during the end credits.

JF : I do know what cue you’re talking about, and it is a further exploration of some ideas that go way back, and probably an idea that I’ll keep pursuing, as I really like the build; it’s hard to put into words as to what it is.

MRH : I think it’s the concept of using brass to introduce something with a great deal of weight, and the rhythmic pattern that gives it an ominous momentum, ultimately slamming the audience hard with an aural payoff.

JF : I’m always going back and listening to the master, John Williams… It’s challenging to use brass in contemporary scores, especially higher trumpets. It’s easier to be kind of growling on the bottom, but to sound modern with brass [is much harder]. That may be why you’re hearing less brass in some scores these days. That’s something that I don’t want to give up on… because I love their power.


. would like to thank John Frizzell for speaking with us, and Tom Kidd at Costa Communications for facilitating the interview.

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This article and interview © 2007 by Mark R. Hasan

Related interviews with John Frizzell: Legion (2010), Primeval (2007), Stay Alive (2006)


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film: Ghost Ship (2002) — Thir13en Ghosts (2001)


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