Exclusive: Composer Giona Ostinelli Talks Scoring Carnage Park, Working with Mickey Keating, and More!
Mickey Keating’s Carnage Park (review) is hitting limited theaters and VOD outlets beginning July 1st, and it marks the director’s fourth time working with composer Giona Ostinelli. Ahead of the IFC Midnight release, we had a chance to pick Ostinelli’s brain a bit with regard to scoring the film, collaborating with Keating, and more.
Read on to learn more and hear an exclusive excerpt of the Carnage Park score.
DC: Thanks for chatting with us, Giona. This is your fourth collaboration with Mickey Keating… how did you two get together, and what keeps bringing you back?
Giona Ostinelli: Indeed, Mickey and I have collaborated on four films together. Our first film together, Ritual, was acquired by Lionsgate; our second film, POD, was released theatrically with the soundtrack shortlisted for the Academy Awards for Best Original Score; and our third film, Darling, came out in theaters in April and was named “the best horror movie of 2016” with my original score being described as “one of the most interesting and innovative soundscapes” by the International Film Music Critics (the soundtrack for Darling was released by Lakeshore Records and is coming out on vinyl from Mondo Records). And lastly, Carnage Park had a powerful premiere at Sundance and then enjoyed rave reviews at SXSW. It’s coming out theatrically in July, and I’m excited to be partnering again with Lakeshore Records, who will be releasing the soundtrack shortly after.
Mickey and I were first introduced by our mutual friend Eric Fleischman, the producer for both Carnage Park and Ritual. Mickey possesses an incredible amount of enthusiasm and energy, as well as an impressive encyclopedic knowledge of films. The wonderful thing about working with Mickey is that he’s always looking for something very particular, completely the opposite from his previous film, something that no one else has even heard before. Therefore, it’s always exciting having the opportunity to create something fresh and unique with a lot of character.
DC: How involved is he when you’re scoring his films? Very hands-on… or not so much?
GO: Mickey is very hands-on, which I personally love because I love the sense of collaboration and having a director 100% involved throughout the whole process. Mickey and I always start discussing the score from early on. In fact, I always find the idea of starting the conversation early on in the process extremely beneficial. In my experience, building the thematic material before having the actual cut to work with allows finding a film’s unique voice from the early stages as well as creating a strong foundation to evolve from. For both Darling and Carnage Park, I was probably one of the very first people to see the first cut. After watching the cut, I usually go back to my studio and start refining ideas and thoughts, having a picture in mind at this point. While Mickey is working on the final cut, we exchange these ideas.
Sometimes Mickey is very specific in his choices; for example, in Darling he had an idea of using a waterphone. After I purchased one, I started playing around with it, recording my various experiments and trying to come up with curious ways of producing the sound out of it. Afterwards, I took all the recorded material and started experimenting with distortion, delay, various amplifiers, etc. Waterphone ended up being one of the main instruments in the score.
Once Mickey has the final cut ready for me, I start working to picture. During this process Mickey comes over to my studio quite often, and I show him new material. I really enjoy this part of the process because scoring a film is like solving a puzzle, and there are times when you get stuck not knowing how to solve this puzzle. When a director comes over and sees the film with the music for the first time, he then starts getting ideas, ‘Why don’t we try this or this?,” and then I get inspired from his ideas and so on. This is what I absolutely love about scoring films – the collaboration with artists.
DC: The synopsis for Carnage Park describes it as a “pure-pulp thrill ride.” How do you begin to approach a project like that? I imagine it requires a different type of energy and “vibe” from a typical suspenseful horror movie.
GO: That’s a great question! Yes, Carnage Park was indeed a curious puzzle to solve, especially being a Neo-Western action thriller. I wanted to have a Western type of score, without sounding anything like the great Ennio Morricone’s scores. I wanted to include the traditional genre instruments like guitars and whistles, however at the same time reinvent the genre in a way. Not an easy task for sure. To achieve that, there was a lot of experimentation involved: recording an acoustic piano and then feeding the signal through a Marshall amplifier, blowing onto the piano and recording the resonance of the vibrating strings, “preparing” the piano and recording various effects and hits on it, recording the breath and then completely processing it, recording a string quartet and then transforming and modifying its sound, etc.
Usually when you score a film, you first write the music and then go to the studio to record it. However, with Carnage Park it was the opposite. I soon realized that in order to create something really particular, I needed to go to the studio first, and that’s what I did. Then I took the recorded material back to my studio and started using the string quartet phrases as the main composing tool, slowly adding other recorded effects and sounds on top. The final result of these experiments was a powerful and disturbing sound. And the best part is that you don’t really recognize what instruments are producing this sound. Once the score was written and approved, I went back to the studio and recorded more straightforward types of instruments like flutes and percussion.
DC: The music in Carnage Park is quite eerie – what’s your technique for creating that type of atmosphere? Any special instruments you utilized?
GO: Carnage Park had plenty of very specific instrumental choices. First, I intentionally wanted to either stay away as much as possible from the traditional instruments you hear in a score or fully transform those sounds into something new. As I mentioned above, I recorded an acoustic piano, a string quartet, guitars, whistling, breaths, etc.; then I heavily processed the sound and applied various effects like distortion, delays, and amplifiers to achieve a different quality of the sound. I recorded an electric cello that was then used to create an eerie soundscape; it also took the lead in one of the climaxing scenes with its piercing disturbing sound. I “prepared” the piano and recorded various unusual effects and hits on it. I threw batteries onto the piano strings, plucked them, blew onto the strings to record the resonance.
Breathing is an important element of the score as well; I used it as a rhythmic device and a percussive element. I also recorded flutes and ethnic woodwinds as well as effects like just blowing through the flute without producing any notes to recreate the sound of the wind, the emptiness of the desert. I also used a lot of percussion instruments. Being a drummer and percussionist myself, I’m naturally very picky when it comes to percussion. For Carnage Park I detuned a surdo and a big taiko drum. Moreover, having all the violence happening on screen, I wanted to use a percussive instrument that would represent that same type of aggression and hit the audience with that same effect. I ended up recording a nail gun. A nail gun produces such a violent and powerful sound that it was just perfect for the film. To give a constant but subtle rhythm to a couple of scenes, I utilized the noise produced by the pedal of the piano. Its percussive sound is so interesting, it naturally has a lot of decay, it’s subtle but ominous at the same time.
At the very beginning, one of Mickey’s requests was for the score to sound like it was done in the 70’s and to retain the fuzziness that those scores had. Nowadays the recording technology has advanced so much that we’re always getting a crystal clear sound. To be able to reproduce the fuzziness of the 70’s era without having to pull out the old tape machine and record on tape, I had to find other ways to do so. For example, one of the reasons why I had a piano going through an amplifier was because the amp added a bit of distortion to the clean piano sound, as well as eliminated a substantial amount of depth, making the sound closer to what Mickey was envisioning.
DC: Looking back, what were the most challenging scene and the most fun scene, respectively, to score in Carnage Park?
GO: There was one particular scene in Carnage Park which was extremely challenging. In this scene our main character, Vivian Fontaine, played by Ashley Bell, is walking around exploring the desert. The scene is roughly 8 minutes long and is continuously cut between Vivian’s character and Alan Ruck’s Sheriff Moss. Mickey envisioned this long scene as basically a “ballet” between the two characters, who are in two different locations but are somehow connected. The challenging aspect of this scene was to find the right rhythm for their ballet, especially because it had to carry on not just for one or two minutes, but for the entire duration of the scene. Moreover, the score had to perfectly match the editing pace between the characters. It was definitely challenging to find that balance between two themes, how present or subtle they should sound, how upfront the rhythm should be, etc. On top of that, every single detail throughout the 8-minute scene had to be captured in the score in a subtle way. I ended up writing something like 15 or 16 versions, which is basically 90 minutes of music for this scene alone. For this particular scene I felt like I was in a way Dante and Mickey was Virgil; he guided me masterfully through this impossible task, and we came out with an amazing result.
Regarding the most fun scene, well, every single scene was a blast to work on; however, around the end of the film there’s a scene where Vivian is inside the shack and getting attacked by Wyatt Moss. For this frantic and violent scene, I needed to utilize a percussive instrument that would reflect Wyatt’s vicious intrusion. Somehow, none of the acoustic percussion really worked for me. For some reason I had an absolutely random thought of recording a nail gun… and guess what, the nail gun revealed to be the best percussion instrument ever for this specific scene with its powerful punching sound. It was so much fun playing around with it producing and recording various hits. As you can imagine, it’s quite a difficult instrument that requires years of training to master the technique!
DC: Your credits include all sorts of genres, but there are quite a few horror movies aside from those you’ve worked on with Mickey, like Indigenous directed by Alastair Orr, Thomas Della Bella’s The Remains, Darrell Wheat’s Recovery… Do you have a preference, and are you a horror fan yourself?
GO: You’re correct; I’ve scored over 28 feature films, all in different genres. I love diversifying myself as much as possible because working on one genre only, first of all, I would most likely lose interest in it quickly; second, by exploring other genres, I believe you expand your horizons. You never know where the inspiration/approach for a film, for a specific scene, for a specific character will come from. I believe that you can learn something while scoring a comedy that later on might come useful in an action film. Or vice versa, learn something from a horror film that will become useful when scoring a drama. Last year was very productive for me. I scored Mickey’s psychological thriller Darling and Neo-Western action thriller Carnage Park, drama The Boat Builder starring Christopher Lloyd and Jane Kaczmarek, sports drama Carter High starring Charles Dutton and Vivica Fox, family comedies How Sarah Got Her Wings with Derek Theler and Lindsey Gort and Christmas Trade with William Baldwin and Denise Richards, as well as BBC’s TV pilot “Zombies Next Door” and Nickelodeon’s “The Massively Mixed-Up Middle School Mystery,” which has just been nominated for the Jerry Goldsmith Awards for Best Score for TV.
I strongly believe that the more you diversify yourself, the better you get and the better perspective you develop. For instance, I enjoy producing albums, and I’m currently working on one with Sonya Belousova, composer and star of the “Player Piano” music series, or writing music for theater like Tobio: The Puppet Master, which I wrote in 2013 and is currently being performed in Moscow, Russia, or scoring commercials, etc. I think by continuously working in the same niche there’s a danger of running out of ideas. To me, the most interesting artists are the ones exploring everything; by doing so, they can produce something fresh and unexpected.
Regarding being a horror fan, I have a terrible confession to make. I’m actually a person who gets scared really easily, and therefore, I’ve always been terrified of watching horror films. I remember as a kid reading Stephen King’s The Mist, and the monsters scared me immensely. However, I know this will sound like a paradox, I love scoring horror films. I simply love creating a score that will keep the audience on their toes, on the edge of their seats throughout. I enjoy thinking and planning how to score a scene in an unpredictable way to get the audience scared. Moreover, horror films provide a fantastic opportunity to experiment with various sounds and soundscapes, creating something less traditional, more particular. I guess you can say that I love working on horror films because I’m in control regarding where, when, and how to scare the audience, and therefore, I’m less enthusiastic watching horror films because in that situation I’m not in control anymore.
DC: When you’re not working, what kind of music do you listen to? Music’s kind of scattered right now; are there any artists you’re excited about – anybody new or even someone who’s been around awhile?
GO: I always try listening to everything and anything. I go from Massive Attack to Thomas Newman, from Brazilian Girls and Foo Fighters to Daniel Pemberton, from Free Blood to Timbaland. I like listening to everything because I can get inspiration from different styles and genres. And that’s also why I love scoring films, because by scoring films you get an opportunity to explore various genres within a film, and that’s simply great. For example, last year I scored Recovery, where for the first half of the film I had to write continuous EDM music and then for the second half [it was an] electronic/orchestral/action score. I love diversifying and challenging myself by exploring new territories and new horizons.
DC: You’re so young and have so many projects under your belt already (28+ features and 60+ shorts)! What else is coming up for you that our readers can keep an eye out for?
GO: As mentioned above, I’m currently co-producing an album with composer and pianist Sonya Belousova, star of the “Player Piano” music series that has gained over 11 million views in a record time, initially executive produced by Stan Lee. My soundtrack for Carnage Park is being released later this month by Lakeshore Records, with whom I previously worked on Darling, which is now available on digital platforms like iTunes as well as on CD from Amazon. Very soon Mondo Records is releasing my soundtrack for Darling on vinyl, which I’m incredibly excited about. My wonderful agent, Becca Nelson of Air Edel, is currently finishing the negotiation process regarding two films. My score for Nickelodeon’s “The Massively Mixed-Up Middle School Mystery” has been nominated for the Jerry Goldsmith Awards, so I’m planning a quick trip to Spain for the awards ceremony and concert in July. Moreover, The Boat Builder starring Christopher Lloyd and Jane Kaczmarek, as well as Carter High with Charles Dutton and Vivica Fox, are both scheduled for release later this year.
You can check out all the news about my projects, as well as listen to my selected soundtracks, on my official website: gionaostinelli.com. Here’s also a direct link to my blog where I break down some of my scores by elements and extensively discuss the scoring process: gionaostinelli.com/#!the-process/g3ktn.
Carnage Park opens July 1st in New York at the IFC Center and will also be available On Demand the same day. Look for it a week later, on July 8th, in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Noho 7. The cast includes Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, Alan Ruck, James Landry Hébert, Darby Stanchfield, and Larry Fessenden.
This pure-pulp thrill ride jumps between past and present as it pieces together the puzzle of a shocking crime. It’s 1978 and a bank robbery gone wrong leaves Vivian (The Last Exorcism’s Ashley Bell) the hostage of two criminals on the run. But things go from bad to off-the-rails berserk when she and her captors wind up on the sun-baked desert outpost of a deranged ex-military sniper (Pat Healy), who ensnares them in his deadly game of cat and mouse.
Rising horror auteur Mickey Keating (Pod, Darling) directs this gritty, grisly homage to the glory days of grindhouse cinema.