October 20, 2010 | By

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With the release of her scores on a recent limited edition CD from La-La Land Records, film music and horror fans finally got a chance to hear the funky sounds of Jaye Barnes Luckett (aka Poperratic), writer/director Lucky McKee’s longtime composer and collaborator. Luckett’s career has followed the director’s own tough trials, going from the deservedly praised indie hit May, about a wonky girl who just wants a perfect friend, to what should have been her first score for a major studio film, The Woods.

Kept on the shelf for several years after falling victim to fractious studio polictics when MGM/UA underwent a regime change, The Woods was ultimately given a brief theatrical run before popping up on DVD in a bare bones edition – an indication the studio had little interest in the movie beyond fulfilling a distribution agreement.

In this sometimes harshly honest interview, first printed in a shorter version in the August 2007 issue of Rue Morgue magazine and published here in its original Q&A format, Luckett offers a window into what happens when indie artists are courted by studios who later seek to shape them into something conventional, and the tough battle to protect your vision when too many cooks are mulling about in the kitchen.

Canidid, humorous and affable, Luckett has the right instincts to compose and perform music that transcends genre limitations, and in the primary works showcased in her CD – May, Sick Girl, The Woods, and Roman – she demonstrates a balanced use of original score and songs, and shows a rare gift in combining two components of a film that, when composed by disparate talent, often battle for dominance in the final mix: the original score, and songs.



Mark R. Hasan : Had you always thought about writing film scores, or did the career sort of fall into place because of your familiarity with the Mayscript, and friendship with Lucky McKee?

Jaye Barnes Luckett : I grew up mostly wanting to be a songwriter for other artists, work in the theatre and hop around in bands on the side. I didn’t have evidence that any of those were realistic choices, so after religiously watching a TV show called Movie Magic, I decided that I was best suited to become a stop-motion animator. But while I involved myself with all sorts of things in college, other kids noticed before I did, that I spent most of my time writing and recording songs.

became the go-to girl for some of their student films and eventually scored a 35mm short , but it still didn’t occur to me that scoring would ever be a career option. With May, it was definitely more of a case of Lucky seeing something in me as a friend, sibling and bandmate, that I hadn’t thought to see. I had been around from the beginning of the story’s existence, and he was always surrounded by my music, so I guess it made sense to him. I was just looking forward to him going onto a bigger film and finding his Bernard Hermann, while I was off making records! Honestly, it wasn’t untilRoman that I stopped thinking “This might be my last one.”

MRH : Were you initially asked to write songs for May, or did McKee request score material for specific scenes?

Lucky suggested in college, that he could see me writing some songs for any feature that might ever come of the script, but when it actually happened, he insisted that I do an actual score, too. He already had a list of songs I’d written around the same time he was writing May, which he was set on using, along with songs by The Breeders, and Nirvana.

I later wrote a bunch of new songs for him, when we began talking about score and sound design. We had a pretty solid plan laid out for a much more layered and intricate soundtrack, but unfortunately, we ran into some interference from third parties. We had to scrap the original plan, which left me with only one score piece and a few of the newer songs, that I knew I could still easily record with what I had, but everything else was owed to Lucky’s faith and trust to let me run free and make up the rest as I went along.

If he wasn’t already in the room, as soon as I would finish a something, I’d run down the hall of the apartment building, signal him to take a listen and get an instant response on specific scenes, so I could keep plowing through. We spent more time talking about scenes where we didn’t feel we should have music than we did actual music, though. I think because we spent so much time talking about the emotions, the new music still came together quickly.

MRH : The impression I get from your résumé is that you enjoy all kinds of creative outlets – performance, post-production, visual – because they test and further your creativity. How has film scoring affected your approach to composing music overall?

It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I always seemed to approach most of my songs and albums as though they were miniature films or books. They tend to be very cinematic in structure and the way the characters and stories are handled, many different twists, layers, and surprise endings. So while scoring hasn’t changed the general approach of my writing, it’s had a little bit of effect on the result of the output.

The process of scoring has influenced more sparse writing on occasion, because in film, you have audiovisual accomplices and so aren’t required to tell every piece of the story 100% musically. Before May , the majority of what I was writing was very aggressive, borderline punk and experimental, but since then, I’ve come to write more straightforward, mellow, three minute songs than I ever have, and also written more electronic music, mostly because scoring led to me having the equipment around to play with.

I haven’t abandoned my roots, but scoring has exposed much more potential for me as a songwriter, and encouraged me to explore them. And since I’m primarily responding to the contributions of other people, film music requires a specific kind of focus. The feeling is that it’s led me to be more aware of how my own actual creative process works, and as a result I’ve learned to be more confident, decisive, trusting of intuition, and committed about my ideas and choices.

MRH : Some composers maintain a very specific sound or writing style when they work with certain directors. Mark Mothersabaugh, for example, knows Wes Anderson doesn’t like strings (though he has tried to gently include the instruments in subsequent scores), and Angelo Badalamenti, for a time, was writing a kind of neo fifties string pop with rockabilly guitar for David Lynch.

I find your songs and scores for McKee seem to include elements of sixties pop with contemporary blues, electronica, and dance, and I wonder if that style comes from your own sensibilities, if it’s a familiar reaction to McKee’s characters, or whether it’s a musical style he’s specifically asked for?

JBL : We’ve been fortunate to usually be on the same page right off the bat, and to have a lot of musical tastes in common. As long as I stay away from cowbells, there’s room for negotiation with him! There’s definitely genres of music that I touch on that he’s not normally really big on, but I tend to think he gives me more leeway than he might if it were someone else, because the unpredictable aspects of it make it fun for us both. If I tell him I’m giving him a polka track, he figures it’s probably going to be the most jacked up ghetto polka he’s ever heard, and he looks forward to seeing what I’ll do.

We’ve been in several bands and co-written songs together and since I’m always involved in the script phase, I also know what he’s listening to and watching while he’s writing or reworking a screenplay. That helps with cutting down the dialogue, because I already know his frame of reference and influence. All he has to say is that May‘s soundtrack should be like a patchwork quilt, or that [his Masters of Horror episode Sick Girl] should incorporate more sound design and give the bug a musical voice as a character, or that he wants to have 1960s schoolgirl chills when he watches the choir in The Woods.

From there, the specific genres, rhythms and instruments come from combinations of watching someone like Angela Bettis, an actor whose performances are very musical to me, or the pacing of the camera or editing. But it’s also partly in finding a common link between different influences we’re paying tribute to from specific movies, filmmakers, songs, bands, paintings, sculpture etc, throwing it in a blender and running with whatever ideas come of it.

MRH : W ere you originally engaged to score The Woods, as your compilation CD contains a suite of unused and demo material, or were you primarily brought in to write the pivotal choral material?

JBL : There’s been a lot of confusion surrounding that, for sure. I was originally asked to do both, but in a nutshell, it was a case where the director wasn’t allowed to use his crew. It wasn’t just me, but people in other key roles as well. Really no one involved with May was allowed on board, even though we were willing to work for far less than they paid our counterparts.

I only got so far because the music was treated like two separate jobs. I did Job One, the pre-recorded choir songs, at a time when the project was in more encouraging and respectful hands at the studio. But then the administration changed before I had a chance to formally submit anything for Job Two, the full score. The demos on the CD were among about 20 different scratch tracks I made for Lucky right after he signed on to direct… rough sketches of proposed themes, for his ears only. From those, Lucky chose the two needed for the onscreen choir scenes, we knocked out the recording in lightning speed, and the music went over very well with the cast, crew, and early test audiences.

I was told by the production, that a separate contract would be coming for me to do a full score. However, the same changing of hands at the studio that plagued the movie otherwise over the following years, through a wrench into it. The folks who took over, came in wanting an established composer. They came to Lucky with a list of composers, said, “Pick one.” and that was that.

So my temp score and demos never had a chance to be rejected or unused. No one listened to them except for Lucky. Even though the choir material were already the main themes of the movie, we never had a shot to develop the demos into anything more. I unfortunately couldn’t get the cooperation needed to include those choir tracks on the CD, but I’m glad people can hear the demos as well as “Bad Girl,” which is actually in the film… just to know that what happened wasn’t for a lack of ideas, effort or ability. And also, in the ending of “Bad Girl,” people can hear the type of techniques we wanted to play around with, using the themes from the other demos, and eventually letting them be taken over by natural sounds of the woods.



MRH : The long limbo period of The Woods marked an unfortunate experience with a major Hollywood studio, and I wonder if the politics, delays, and ultimately hasty release of what was to have been a high profile genre picture has given you a specific impression of Hollywood studios, and whether you’re more comfortable dealing with the more personable, direct, and singular creative minds on independent productions?

JBL : It seems to depend upon the personalities, motivations, and attentiveness of the actual people who are in charge. There’s just as many people who seem determined to ruin a good thing out of arrogance and ignorance in the independent world, as there are in the studio system, but I think the responsibility’s mostly up to artists to decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice and what compromises they’re willing to make when crossing that line between art and commerce. Not every battle is worth fighting, but if you’ve got any integrity, you’ll fire off at least a couple of shots in all the important ones, hit or miss.

Film music in particular, seems to be largely disrespected and its importance and process are underestimated by many who fund pictures as it is, indies and majors alike. Many well known composers would agree it’s true on everything from payment, schedule, expectation, promotion, to even the lack of archival care of production-owned materials. To date, there hasn’t been a single feature I’ve worked on where there hasn’t been the threat of or actual interference with the soundtrack, despite the fact that every time out, there’s always a great reaction to the music.

Part of my experience as composer on May was every bit as senseless as on The Woods. In that case, once we were accepted to Sundance, the producers decided that all of a sudden that it would be the end of the known universe if the film was sporting a first-time composer. Changed their whole tone towards me. I had been a part of May from the day it was conceived in Lucky’s brain, and now I was having it posed to me to become apprentice to an older composer, who would use my compositions as a basis for his own, while I fetched him coffee and made copies, and it was suggested that I would later find myself grateful for the opportunity.

It broke my heart, but I simply walked off the project, and encouraged Lucky and the rest to hang in and focus on making a good movie. And as you may have guessed, eventually the entire music budget and schedule was burned through, just for them to learn that they made a mistake. The composer had credits and he was a nice fella, and definitely talented, but the score was wrong to the point where no one knew what movie they were working on anymore. So after a whole month of this, they asked me to return to my original post, but I now only had a week to come up with something, with no budget, and it severely limited what we were able to do.

Next up was The Woods situation. And even though I eventually had my share of fun and freedom on both Sick Girl and Roman, both of those also presented situations involving soundtrack as well as payment-related conflicts. So the surface impression I’m left with more than anything, in both studio and indie situations, is that I’m perfectly fine and capable to work with either, if everyone can receive the proper resources and respect. But so far, there seems to be this rampant thing of wanting a wildly creative and fun filmmaker to be attached to a project but then not allowing him to make the kinds of decisions that enabled him to do the kind of work that garnered their attention to begin with.

I don’t have to work on films that are high-profile, or films that are seen by more than three people to enjoy what I do or to measure my success by. But in either situation, I don’t want to be pre-judged by a piece of paper, but by the reaction my work inspires, my work ethic and ability to be resourceful and save you money, and I also can’t stand by and watch other people get screwed. I don’t actively go out and pursue projects for that reason, but instead, just leave myself open to inquires if someone appreciates what I have to offer, even if it means I work in films less and/or make less money in the long run.

t’s more important to me that everyone’s having a good time, so a good film can be made. It’s folly to be in a supposedly professional business, and having to be concerned with getting contracts and payment properly addressed, having to buy a copy of the DVD from a store just to have a sample of my work, and not being sure if I’m actually the one who’s going to be working on the picture until the second the “record” button is hit, even if I’ve already proven that I can write good music for a film. It’s unnecessary.

MRH : Are there certain horror stories you find more intriguing than others?

JBL : I love all kinds of different horror films, but I’m a sucker for stories that involve regular people doing disturbingly realistic things, and psychological horror that really cuts deep, maybe some supernatural stuff. Some favorites are Les Diaboliques , Fulci’s Murder To The Tune of The 7 Black NotesPlanet TerrorThe InnocentsPeeping TomDonnie DarkoNight of The Living DeadThe UninvitedWith A Friend Like Harry, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre,Shaun of The Dead, Fritz Lang’s MAmerican PsychoHalloweenAuditionA Clockwork OrangeAmityville II: The Possession, and anything by Alfred Hitchcock or Dario Argento.

I also tend to have a weakness for well-done ghost stories, and pretty much anything with a “devil-children” theme, in the vein of The Omen, even ridiculous ones like The Godsend. Children hellbent on destroying everything in their paths are always righteously creepy. In literature, I find that a lot of classic children’s stories are beyond insane… Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, and Heinrich Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter, and I also have a giant anthology of ancient children’s literature from around the world, that’s fantastic. I also repeatedly re-visit Edgar Allan Poe, and William Golding’s Lord of The Flies.

MRH : Roman is less reliant on songs, and I wonder if the film marked a major creative shift for you, since the suite of themes on your CDs reveals a greater variety of melodic material, and efforts to move towards a more dramatic orchestral sound?  


JBL : Definitely a HUGE shift. Roman was the most satisfying experience, from a creative standpoint. I knew it as it was happening… it’s the first feature I’ve worked on so far, where once I got to the stage of working out my ideas, there were absolutely no third-party distractions or interference standing in the way between concept and getting it recorded.

It’s also the first where I wasn’t working a 9 to 5 day job at the time of recording. I was still broke and still had to work pretty fast to meet a deadline, but at least I wasn’t at the mercy of anyone else’s daily schedule, nor having to worry about any sabotage! For the first time, the recording was pretty much 100% me holed up in my apartment, hitting the record button, occasionally jumping on the horn with Angela and Lucky.

Angela seemed to know from the beginning that she wanted more score than songs, because as an actor herself, she’d been very invested in the emotions and psychology of the characters. She might agree that the process of sculpting the movie further through score and sound design was an exciting learning process and became a great tool for deeper expression, as opposed to slapping a bunch of songs in.

I hope, at some point, to be able to release the full Roman score unedited, in chronological order. The La-La Land CD gives a taste of it, but hearing the whole collection of Roman‘s cues one by one, gives off the feeling of pure unfiltered creative expression, because that’s really what it was. There was no budget, so it was impossible to spend more time dialing in the mix.

But like I said, I at least had the uninterrupted time and freedom to get specific about followingRoman‘s mindset and transformation over the course of the film, getting inside of his head, assigning themes and sometimes instruments to each of the characters, playing with those layers and all the other things I couldn’t do with MaySick Girl, or The Woods.

That’s where the increased sense of orchestration seems to come from. Some of that flow was changed in the actual film, as some of the tracks were edited, and layers removed and that wasn’t my intention. But I still find that it works and it’s still the most enjoyable and intriguing soundtrack to listen to, in full.

I also tried to take aspects of each of the three features I’d done for Lucky and bring them intoRomanMay was heavy on plucky piano and strings. Sick Girl was synth-heavy, and my bits inThe Woods were inspired by 1960s pop arrangements. For Roman, a delayed guitar is the dominating instrument, but there’s musical nods to the other three films in there, too. Angie had already chosen some indie, experimental and alternative country-style tracks before I started, so that also influenced the decision to work more heavily with guitar on this one, to build a bridge between those and the more layered orchestral score.

In terms of my own songs in the movie, some were written as replacements for things we couldn’t get the rights to, while others, I used more as a foundation for further layering the score. For May, I had Angela sing on the score, so for Roman, while Lucky was out of town and couldn’t record with me, I pushed for him to let me cover one of his songs and I incorporated that into some of the themes.

MRH : What film composers do regard as personally influential, and what film scores do you see as landmarks in horror?

JBL : The main composers I feel were direct influences on the way I see film music on the whole and in the genre, have been Bernard Hermann, Wendy Carlos, Ennio Morricone, Giorgio Moroder, Goblin, Beethoven, John Carpenter, Danny Elfman, Quincy Jones, Gert Wilden, John Cage, Stewart Copeland, Modest Mussorgsky, Mozart, Henry Mancini. There’s also musical influence in many other ways from The Beatles, Schpilkas and Lucky McKee.

As far as horror landmarks go, Goblin and Claudio Simonetti have stunned me time and time again with their work for all those great Argento films, as well as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock scores and his final one, for Taxi Driver. The motifs used by John Williams in Jaws, Jerry Goldsmith in The Omen, Harry Manfredini in Friday The 13th, John Carpenter in Halloween, and Hermann’s Psycho are probably recognized anywhere in the world, and also left me with my share of nightmares. More recently, I still haven’t been able to shake Robert Rodriguez’s score for Planet Terror or Michael Andrew’s score for Donnie Darko.

MRH : Are there other film genres that you would like to tackle?

JBL : I have always wanted to do musicals. But mostly, the kind of musicals for people who hate them. Not really showtune-ish, but the kind of music that you really put on when you’re going through something or get in a particular mood. What people actually listen to and where; when people break into song, it’s done in a less unnatural way.

I think it’s possible to pull off musicals that are darker in theme, too, than you normally see. Another genre I always wanted to do, was a western of a Leone/Morricone type. I actually just wrapped up a super duper independent short that allowed me to do that, and later, I’ll likely be on board for a planned feature to come of it.

Some darker themed animation or puppet films would be nice, too. And basically, a stop-motion film of any kind would be a dream. But I also would love to do more full-on horror… and could see myself doing something where I’m required to stay extremely dark the whole time, with a good chunk of unnatural and unsettling sounds, maybe even where only vocals are used. The Woods, meets The Omen, meets Opera, meets Fran Drescher and Joan Rivers.



KQEK.com would like to thank Jaye Barnes Luckett for answering our questions in such candid and informative detail.

Visit Jaye’s official website HERE

To read about composer John Frizzell’s contributions to The Woods, click HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2007 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Dawn of the Dead (1978) — Halloween (1978) — Night of the Living Dead (1968) — Woods, The (2006)


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