Having scored films such as IFC Midnight’s At the Devil’s Door and IFC Films’ The Pact, composer Ronen Landa is no stranger to the horror genre. He has also just added another horror title to his resume, Dark Sky Films’ 1BR, which explores the horrors of communal living. In honor of his recent release, we spoke with Landa about creating the film’s haunting tunes.
Landa’s 1BR score is now available digitally, https://ronenlanda.bandcamp.com/album/1br-original-motion-picture-soundtrack.
When creating a horror film score what are some of the most important elements that must be included?
Horror is great because there are no hard and fast rules, and every film is going to have its own sound. The most important element is to understand the drama that is unfolding on a visceral level. What musical path is going to draw the audience in, cement their connection with the characters and terrify them when the time comes? It’s not always about loud sounds, either. Silence is usually the scariest sound of all, but knowing what to play beforehand makes a difference too. I recently did a video for Instagram demonstrating some more sentimental themes I’ve included in horror scores, and that kind of approach is so important. A constant onslaught of violent noise is more likely to bore people than scare them, so you have to draw on all your dramatic know-how.
You have scored a few other horror films, The Pact and At the Devil’s Door. Why do you think your music resonates so well with horror creatives?
Nicholas McCarthy who directed those two films came across some of my experimental concert music and invited me to score his short film (also entitled “The Pact”, which we made one year before the feature). I think that music reflected a certain aesthetic and a certain mindset that matched his approach to filmmaking. He brought me in to write the score even though I didn’t have experience in the genre, and over the years he has taught me so much about horror specifically and cinema more broadly. He is an extraordinarily knowledgeable and brilliant filmmaker, so I count myself as very fortunate to be able to learn from him.
It’s interesting that we ultimately established a sound in those films that is as much about traditional, emotionally-driven score as it is about experimental music. For filmmakers who are focused on those layers of subtlety, nuance and thematic development, it’s a combination that really works.
In a previous interview you said “1BR was a great opportunity to blend my love of musical experimentation with a more traditional emotional language.” What sort of musical experimentation did you do with 1BR?
I should really keep a running list of these things when I’m writing! I’m a very kinetic composer when I’m in my flow and when I hear a sound in my head I have to realize it in the real world— if it’s a piano or violin that’s pretty straightforward, but sometimes I have to invent that sound I’m hearing from scratch by recording new instruments, mangling the audio, layering and so on. I had a specific challenge with the film’s opening theme, where I wanted the music to feel like traditional dramatic score but still somehow color it with sounds that would convey a sense of dread. I created a series of unfamiliar sounds by amplifying percussion instruments and running the signal through my guitar pedals that were then threaded into the piece. But it was a delicate balance to strike because the wrong kind or too much of those unsettling noises would have undermined the dramatic statement.
Director David Marmor said the most important thing the score should accomplish is to help us feel Sarah’s inner journey. I imagine this goes beyond just creating music, but seriously breaking down her inner thoughts and demons. Was this a difficult task?
This goes back to developing an understanding of the story, and one of the most fundamental ways to accomplish that as a composer is through the collaboration with the filmmaker. David wrote and directed this movie, and having put so much work into it he knew the story he was trying to tell better than anyone. We talked at length about how the score could work with various scenes, what our main character Sarah’s emotional state is at various points and so on. There is always some trial and error, so we made adjustments along the way, but it was a true partnership and he was so supportive of my musical vision. A great collaboration like that is always going to benefit the film, and the goal is to be speaking together in one creative voice. I think we achieved that in this film.
You took a lot of familiar instruments and found different ways to use them for this film score. Can you elaborate on that?
For 1BR I had a very memorable recording session with a group of extra-low woodwinds like contrabass clarinet and contrabassoon where we played through a series of experimental textures, and another with our pianist Karolina Rojahn, director David Marmor and myself all making surprising sounds inside the body of a grand piano together! There is a thematic sound peppered throughout the score that a producer labeled the “menacing synth”, but in reality, was a pitch shifted and reversed electric guitar. I could go on!
For all the American Horror Story fans, Naomi Grossman who played Pepper on the show, is also in 1BR. Did you give her a specific musical theme?
Naomi is truly awesome! I’m glad I got to meet her after we finished the score and since then we even collaborated on a little side project together— she is amazingly talented. I hate to disappoint the AHS fans, but for 1BR the score never deviates from scoring Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) and her psychological mindset— but they should still see the movie!
What was one thing you took away from 1BR after you completed the project?
It’s such a joyful thing to be a part of a film like this that really resonates with audiences, and I think the number one thing I take from any film is the collaboration with the filmmaker which is so enriching. David and I worked so closely together, even in determining the temp score and all the way to the mix stage and the festival premiere— so it’s been a really fantastic experience and I love celebrating this accomplishment with him (while maintaining social distance during the pandemic, of course). This was an incredible debut feature and he is such a thoughtful writer and storyteller, so I’m definitely excited to see what he dreams up for his next film. On a strictly musical level, I think I’ve been making strides in my writing for piano specifically, and there are nuances in the piano compositions for 1BR that are definitely new for me as a composer.
The same question about your experiences on The Pact and At the Devil’s Door?
Having worked with Nick on two features and two short films, I feel that our artistic bond runs very deep— it’s a unique connection and I can’t wait to work with him again. I’m so grateful for those particular experiences because they allowed me to develop and expand a musical language for horror films, and at the same time they opened doors to new experiences and opportunities in my career. It’s beyond cool and also humbling that people still want to talk about those films years later, and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of them! I was never a hardcore horror fan growing up, but these films in particular opened my eyes to the artistic possibility in the genre and how my musical approach can fit in.
Is there a horror film you have seen during this time of quarantine you have liked?
Truthfully, I’ve mostly been watching movies with my young kids— so that’s been hard to swing! I introduced The Princess Bride to my daughter and that definitely scared her, so maybe I should’ve waited another year (but she did love it too). I finally caught up on The Lobster, which has been on my list for a long time— that has some horror elements I think you could say? Anyway, Yorgos Lanthimos is terrifyingly creative, and I love his musical intuition.