Composer Nathan Barr Talks True Blood and The Last Exorcism
For composer Nathan Barr, even though he didn't start off in Hollywood scoring movies, he always felt that somehow both music and film would be in his future. Little did this lifelong horror fanatic know in what unexpected way his dream job would come into his life.
"I've always had two loves growing up: music and movies," explained Barr. "When I came into the industry, it was on the business side of things, working as an assistant. But one day I randomly found an ad that said a prominent composer was looking for an assistant composer. I decided to respond on a whim, and it turns out that composer was none other than Hans Zimmer. It was an amazing way to start, and I ended up working with him for eight months. The experience of working with someone like Zimmer inspired me to continue working as a composer when I finished my time with him. When he told me that he thought I had a future as a composer, I knew I had to go for it."
These days Barr regularly calls prolific television producer Alan Ball boss as he's the man in charge of creating the luscious score for Ball's pop culture juggernaut, HBO's "True Blood". Barr said that from the start his experience working with Ball has been a dream collaboration.
Barr said, "It was between me and a few other composers for 'True Blood' in the beginning. We met with Alan and his team, and I pitched him my take on the score and how I thought the songs we picked at the end of the show should be what define the Southern style of the series, by finding songs that incorporate the blues or instruments like the harmonica. This would then free up the score for the episode to complement the story being told each week. He really liked my approach, and from there I got hired."
"Starting off, I had no idea when I was putting together music for 'True Blood' that the cello and guitar would work so well for the series and become the heart of the series' central theme. The first character theme I wrote was the Bill and Sookie love theme because it was so central to Season One. The audience had to fall in love with them falling in love, and I knew if there was one piece of music that could not fail, it was that theme," Barr added.
Part of being a composer is knowing when to go for the gusto and when to rein in the music and let the characters do the storytelling. For Barr "True Blood" is the perfect marriage of intricate storytelling and a subtle score to enhance the cast's performances.
"The 'True Blood' cast is so strong that when I score an episode, it's less about helping make a scene work as it is more about the music gently supporting the characters and their stories," explained Barr. "I like to see it as giving these amazing stories just one more layer. A lot of times when you're scoring, people come to you and need help with scoring a scene just to get it to work, and with 'True Blood' that's never the case, which makes my job a lot easier."
Early on in Barr's career he made a living scoring projects ranging from the eye-opening wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat to From Dusk Till Dawn 3. It was one fateful meeting with an up-and-coming horror director named Eli Roth that would change the course of his career forever.
"One of the producers for Cabin Fever introduced me to Eli to see if I was the right person to score the film," said Barr. "Eli walked into my studio and saw my DVD collection filled with horror stuff, and we talked about reading Fangoria as kids and he said he knew right then I was the guy he was going to work with."
After Cabin Fever Barr found a kindred creative spirit with Roth and continued working with him on other projects he was involved with including both Hostel movies as well as the upcoming docu-style chillfest The Last Exorcism (review here). "I love collaborating with Eli; he's such a great guy to work with. I think part of why we click is that we are both still fanboys for horror at heart," Barr added.
For The Last Exorcism Barr found his source material a complete 180 from the deep and sultry context of "True Blood". The film required Barr to venture into an entirely new territory for him as a composer.
"I think the biggest fear of any composer is that you find your 'sound' but that you won't ever be able to depart from it enough so that you still make unique sounding music for different projects so I was nervous going into Last Exorcism," explained Barr. "But I have to say that Daniel (Stamm) was a lovely director to work for. He sent me a really long email right before I started on Last Exorcism, and I distinctly remember him saying to me he wanted the score to sound warped. I immediately thought of what it sounds like when I am tuning a guitar so I used that sound a lot in the score."
"Since they're selling Last Exorcism as a documentary-style film, a lot of that score is very minimal and uses a lot of jarring effects, much like what I did with Cabin Fever. The last thing you want to do with a movie score like this is to do too much too quickly so I had to let all those sounds build to something huge near the end. I think what I created really lent itself to the creepy feeling of the movie. I actually got creeped out watching it," Barr added.
Now that Season Three of "True Blood" is sadly drawing to a close and The Last Exorcism is set to hit theaters on August 27th, Barr is looking toward tackling a new genre for him: drama.
"I just finished scoring the last episode of 'True Blood' two days ago, and now I'm about to start working on a drama called The Ledge starring Liv Tyler and Terrence Howard. I haven't had much of an opportunity to work in drama yet so it's exciting. I feel like it's a genre that I have so much to say in so hopefully I'll get to continue to work in drama for a while," Barr said.
Our thanks to Nathan Barr for taking the time to speak with us, and for more info on the prolific composer, be sure to visit the official Nathan Barr website, befriend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.
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