Before The Premiere Of His Alien Rescore, Cory Kilduff Talks The Importance Of Music In Film.
Whether the casual moviegoers even realizes it, music plays a huge role in the way in which a film narrative is portrayed. Its inclusion or absence can heighten the mood of a scene, and its style an wholly influence the entire tone of a movie.
Me? I’m kind of a nut when it comes to film scores, even going so far as to collect them on vinyl. So when we announced our collaborative screening of Cory Kilduff’s Alien rescore at the new Alamo Drafthouse in The Cedars on June 20, I was pretty hyped up by the idea. Turns out, I’m not the only one. Pretty much as soon as the event was announced, KERA’s Art & Seek, also intrigued by the notion, brought Kilduff into its studios for an on-air interview. And, just a couple of weeks after the announcement, tickets to the screening sold out.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean everyone else is being totally left out in the cold. On the night of the June 20 screening, prior to the theater being opened for seating, we’ll be throwing an open-to-the-public party where Kilduff will b DJing some of his favorite ’70s and ’80s movie songs and scores. And, already, there’s talk of more screenings being added at Alamo Drafthouses locally and across the country.
Still, I had all sorts of questions about Kilduff’s motives here. I mean, why even bother recreating something that’s already held in such high esteem? Fortunately, he was kind enough to grant me some time to answer some questions along these lines, as well as others about his process and his thoughts on how he can take advantage of the skills he’s developed throughout this effort moving forward.
There are a lot of iconic movie score out there. Why re-do Alien?
It’s really two reasons. One, I thought there was something cool I could do with it because the original is so orchestral and the look of that movie sort of makes you feel nostalgic for the way it looks. So I thought I could combine that with a nostalgic synth score and have maximum opportunity to have a juxtaposition between the two scores. The second reason is almost 90 percent of it: It’s the only movie out of the ones I was considering that I could get without the original score.
OK. Talk about that…
So there’s this one Blu-ray that comes with an alternate score and the way they set up the Blu-ray is there’s just a track of audio and effects and then an audio score of one score. So when you rip it, you can just get the dialogue without the score. Most other DVDs and Blu-rays are flattened so the dialogue and the music are together.
Musically, you started off in a heavy metal/hardcore band — The Rise — down in Austin. So how did you transition to electronica?
Well, we incorporated synths and electronics because we were such an eclectic group of dudes that it was one of those things I ended up bringing — a love of EDM like Squarepusher, Kid 606, Atari Teenage Riot and Aphex Twin. And, at the same time, we were trying to best incorporated that. We ended up pulling a lot from the Refused record [The Shape of Punk to Come]. We saw that as a roadmap and built on it. So when [The Rise] came to an end in 2005, me and one of the other members, James, decided to do the electronic thing because you don’t need a lot of people or a practice space. We basically cut out all of the things that sucks about being in a band. At the beginning, we started doing very noisy digital stuff and then turned to more “upstanding” dance music and producing loads of other people. So when that project kind of ended, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a while. And I knew I wanted to do filmmaking for a while and I thought, “I need to learn everything about it.” And then I thought of my history with music, so I figured I would start doing a score and I started adapting everything from dance and electronic music into writing more for a movie. I don’t think that my style will ever be as orchestral or traditional like Hans Zimmer, but I think I can do something cool with my synth knowledge.
I listened to both your score and the original Jerry Goldsmith one for a couple of days at work. On the first side, there’s a song with a chorus that has a sense of awe and reverence for the fact this crew discovers an alien life form which doesn’t show up.
That was one of my things I wanted to do. I wanted to try to change the feeling of a scene. I wanted this score to feel a little sadder a little more empathetic. The original is really good about creating suspense and letting there be some space. I wanted to see if I could create tension with repetition and sparse bass all the while building layers.
So you tried to enhance or alter the mood of the scene?
There’s scenes where they’re just to be scary, and I added more “sad” chords to make everything feel more reluctant. So, like, at the end, when Ripley has to kill the Xenomorph, that was very triumphant in the Goldsmith score. I tried to make it a bummer that she has to kill the alien and also that the Xenomorph had to die. It was just doing its thing. So I just wanted to shift the way you feel with just music.
I feel that. I’ve read some essays with revisionist takes on the Alien franchise — and one recurring idea is the thought that the aliens are maybe more sympathetics characters than they’re initially believed to be. In Aliens, when Ripley is fighting the Queen, she’s just trying to protect her babies. So to get a little philosophical, as a budding filmmaker, what do you think is the purpose of a score?
It’s there to heighten and aid the emotional impact of everything that’s going on in the screen. It’s a tool that the director uses to steer your emotions in one direction. I think that’s its function and then I look at movies without scores and how that affects the mood. I was recently coming out of The Witch, which was so awesome. I loved it. But one of the guys behind me was like, “Yeah, it was pretty good but it wouldn’t have been as suspenseful without the music.” And I just wanted to turn around and tell him that this is not how it works. Music is all part of it. It’s not like you go home and say, “Yeah, Pop-Tarts are pretty good, but without the filling they would just be bread.” It’s all about aiding and enhancing the mood.
How many times would you say you ended up watching Alien while creating the score?
It’s tough to say because there would be times when I would just be zoned into a specific 20-minute section, so I would just loop that for hours and then walk away. But I guess if I add up the time I spent, I saw the movie 200 times. The thing is, you’re not paying attention. You’re mostly looking for things happening in conjunction with what I’m writing. I can’t remember the last time I watched the movie and just watched it straight without thinking, “Oh, I need to fix this part.”
To expand on that, can you talk us through the process of creating the score? You mentioned looping the same scene over and over.
I started out with the first song, and that’s actually sort of a remix of a song by a guy named Umberto. He’s done these Giallo-style songs before, so I contacted him and asked, “You have this track and I want to use it, but I need to pick it apart. Do you mind sending me all of the separations?” And he was super rad about it, and he sent them to me in a week and he was really really awesome. So that first one came together and I tried writing around it, thinking he wouldn’t contact me and that I couldn’t get anything as good. So I started with the sound and then, as I went through the movie, I would look at both where the big musical moments would happen and see if I still wanted them there or in other scenes, and maybe look for scene where there wasn’t music. I would start with a synth sound I liked and then start playing to it, finding the sound and the emotion and just doing that over and over throughout the movie. Then I would treat it as a sculpture. I would get a lot of really rough stuff out there, like sounds and whatnot. Then I would go through and chisel away at each section. I would spend one night in this one section and then go half an hour into the movie and move on to the next section.
So how long did the entire process take you from start to finish?
It’s been about a year since the very beginning.
I know that a synth score in a horror movie isn’t always an homage to John Carpenter but I picked up a bit of his sound here — and also Disasterpiece’s It Follows score. Were either of those an influence during the process?
Oh, for sure. I love John Carpenter. He was always on my mind. And I actually saw It Follows about halfway through the process, where I was more or less set in my ways. But, farther down the line, I would listen to something and hear the influence. Also, the Ex Machina score was great with the way they did some dissonant notes. That started bleeding its way into my work. But, yeah, there’s definitely lots of stuff that influenced me.
You just mentioned a few modern movies. Did anything “classic” influence you?
Yeah. A while ago, I started watching Halloween and some stuff from Assault on Precinct 13 and this band called Space Art and their song “Onyx.” There’s also this soundtrack that totally inspired me: It was these two guys that got hired to do the new Dredd movie; they wrote a very throwback score and it got rejected, so they put it up on Spotify as DROKK (Music Inspired by Mega-City One). So it’s this entire Dredd score that’s very Carpenter and on Spotify right now. It’s very cool. I found it during one of the times I was in a two-month break, and it was very inspiring.
Obviously, you have synths and electronics whereas Jerry Goldsmith’s score was orchestral. I know you were aiming for a more melancholy mood, but how else do you think your score differs from his?
What I was trying to do — and it might not work — was match [Alien director] Ridley Scott’s style well. It has a “less is more, what you don’t see is scarier” vibe, so this original score had all of this space in it. Occasionally I would “A-B,” just to compare [with Goldsmith] and make sure I’m not missing an emotional beat by ramming my music through it. I guess the biggest difference is that we’re trying to create tension in different ways. He’s using string trills and letting your imagination take hold, and I take another approach of arpeggios and bouncing bass notes of wanting something to happen so the repetition stops. That’s probably the biggest difference.
You mentioned nostalgia as your favorite feeling. What other movies conjure that feeling in you?
I like The Visitor. That’s another movie where the score really helps. Then there’s Logan’s Run and The Goonies. I didn’t get to flex this much here, but my parents didn’t really listen to music when I was growing up so my musical exposure was music I taped off TV from VHS. If I wanted to listen to Michael Jackson, I was probably watching Moonwalker. If I wanted to listen to angsty stuff, I was listening to a John Hughes movie. So a lot of my influences are mostly ’80s stuff and ballads like the Mannequin soundtrack. Just weird things like that. This project tickles my horror and New Order influences.
Speaking of nostalgia, I know you’re releasing the score as a cassette tape to give to people who attend the screening. How’d you come to that idea?
Well, we had a couple of options. We wanted to do vinyl, but it would’ve taken too long. Plus, tapes would’ve been cooler anyway. Regarding the tape, the idea was to call it “Emergency Procedures for Breach and Abandonment,” and I wanted it to look like something that the Weyland Corporation would give to the crew instead of just calling it “Alien Score.” I wanted it to be this weird companion thing, and it made more sense for them to have tapes in this ship.
I love the thought of spaceships with tape decks.
It kind of reminded of the guy from Lost, Hanso, who left behind a bunch of VHS tapes for the crew to find.
You mentioned how filmmaking is something you want to pursue. Would you rather do composing only or be a filmmaker?
I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole myself. There’s guys that do everything themselves. My favorite guy out of Dallas is Shane Caruth, with Upstream Color and Primer. He did the scores, acted, directed and wrote in his movies. But I wouldn’t mind doing scores for someone else. My goal is to use this project as sort of a resume and burn a bunch of copies and hand them out to people.
Are there any other scores you’d like to re-do?
I’d love to do Eyes Wide Shut. That’d be cool to do. Then, on the opposite side, is The Secret of My Success. I would love to do that with more of a soaring M83-ish score. Then my buddy and I wanted to do The Omen, but with all trap rap music. Make it where any time Damien shows up, it’s Rick Ross-type shit to make him look more menacing. The hard part, which I mentioned earlier, is that these movie are already out, and there’s beats and the scenes are only so long. And then I write and I have a rhythm going, and the scene ends abruptly. So then I have to write a BPM the way the scene is cut — but I only have 35 seconds versus writing a new score where I could write music and it would take 40-50 seconds to breathe and the director could actually cut around it. It’s a lot harder going in the opposite direction. So I would rather do an original thing.
Now, real quick, rank the Alien movies!
Definitely the first Alien movie, Alien 3, Aliens and then Alien: Resurrection. We’re not counting the AVP movies or Prometheus here.
What do you think of the new Neil Blompkamp Alien movie in development, where he essentially erases Alien 3?
I like him as a director. I think that he needs writers, ’cause his movies look incredible but he needs screenwriters to make the movies better. I can’t imagine that he was given the keys to Alien and not have had other people attached to it, so I’m optimistic. I think he’ll have the gravitas of a good narrative to back up his visuals.
Where else can people check out your music?
So, I’ll be playing tracks from the ’70s and ’80s before the screening, upstairs at Vetted Well. That’s open to the public and anyone can come, either with or without a ticket to the screening. After that, I’m diving into some screenplays and film stuff. Hopefully, I’ll do a feature next year. Also, I DJ at Off The Record every third Friday.