Exclusive: Composing Grace, A Chat With Austin Wintory
Generally, horror film scores don’t really do much to distinguish themselves within the genre. That’s why composer Austin Wintory knew when he started working on the score for Paul Solet’s Grace that he needed to do something different.
Wintory’s distinctive film scoring approach is one part of the Grace puzzle and his work joins the highly collaborative effort from everyone involved on the film. It’s that collective passion that undoubtedly was responsible for getting Grace accepted into the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
“I generally think of horror movie scores as ‘vacuum cleaner’ scores,” said Wintory. “Lately, the trend has been where they just sound grungy or noisy and I wanted Grace to sound distinctive and refreshing.”
Wintory fell in love with movie soundtracks around the age of 10 when he started taking piano lessons. Rather than getting stuck with the average “by the books” piano teacher, he was lucky that his teacher had a different approach and soon began introducing him to the art of movie scores.
“At that point in my life, music wasn’t really important,” he explained. “But then my teacher played me Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for Patton and A Patch of Blue, and I was instantly hooked.”
The composer met Grace director Paul Solet after he moved from New York to Los Angeles and the two were instant friends. When Solet needed mood reel music for Grace, he went to Wintory who gave the song “Amazing Grace” a haunting twist through the extreme use of electronic manipulation.
Interestingly enough, that idea didn’t even get used when scoring the actual film of Grace. Wintory decided to go in a completely different direction.
“My ideas for Grace evolved a lot from when I knew I was going to get to work on the film to the time when I actually started on it,” said Wintory. “What was great about the process for me was that Paul was specific in what he needed for his film, but he was very hands-off. He completely loosened the reigns for me so that I wouldn’t hold back anything creatively and that’s very atypical of most directors. He would always tell me that the only rule was that there weren’t any rules.”
Austin studied the script of Grace inside and out so that he could compose a lot of the music based on the different character’s points of view.
“Madeline, Grace’s mother, basically has this internal breakdown during the course of movie,” he continued, “Rather than do something elaborate or over-dramatic, I wanted the music to reflect how internal the process was for her. I made some very emotionally intense music to demonstrate this and the end result is very quiet and subtle.”
Wintory also wanted to reflect the themes of maternal instincts and babies in the music of Grace, so he used some unusual every day sounds when scoring the film.
“I created a library of sounds to use throughout the film that don’t generally get used in creating a movie score,” said Wintory. “One of my engineers recently had a baby so I had him take a digital recorder home and just record any possible sound his child made so I could use them later. It’s amazing what kind of alien sounds can come out of a baby.
“I used babies because we as human beings are hard-wired to have a fundamentally anxious reaction to the sound of a baby crying,” Wintory further explained. “We hear that frequency range with greater sensitivity than any other, which is why, for example, you can hear a baby 15 rows away on a roaring airplane. It's an evolutionary thing; the species can't survive if the parents are unable to hear the infants. So rather than rely on the conventions of horror scoring, which often uses aggressively dissonant clusters of instruments and whatnot, I thought I could just add a feather touch of baby cries and it would have the same effect.”
Since there was the theme of death and waste in Grace, the mixer for the film (Brett Hinton) visited a horse farm and recorded all different types of “fly sounds”- from a single fly buzzing to swarms of flies.
“When you isolate those buzzing sounds, it’s just very unnerving and that’s exactly what we wanted for such a powerful and disturbing movie like this,” added Wintory.
One intensely dramatic scene in Grace was the birth scene where Madeline is going through the natural-birth process to deliver a stillborn baby Grace. The scene is not only fierce but emotionally draining and it was one of the biggest challenges Wintory faced.
“There are so many elements in the score in that (birth) sequence,” explained Wintory. “Front and center is obviously the percussion; the use of savage drums. The concept I'd had for this scene, going all the back to the 'script' score, was that it be like a barbaric ritual. Make this as kinetic and visceral as possible. Paul also had thought of the idea of making it feel like it was 'slashing.'”
Wintory went on to describe the piece by saying, “So it's a combination of this extremely oppressive drumming, me slashing away at a violin (which sounded particularly grating since I don't play violin!), and a whole host of other sounds like dijeridoo, screaming (performed by Jordan here in my studio), etc. It was a balance challenge but it's definitely one of my favorite moments in the score.”
To demonstrate a conflict between the main characters of Madeline and Vivian (her mother-in-law), Wintory used a contrast of instruments with a cello for Madeline and a violin for Vivian. It wasn’t a hard and fast rule for Wintory that each instrument could only be used for each character; he just used their general sounds as a representation of different viewpoints within the film.
In order to add some dramatic flair to Grace’s score (especially since the last 20 minutes of film features nonstop music), Wintory knew that he needed to do something powerful and extraordinary.
“We decided we needed to get eight bass and contrabass clarinets all together to record the final piece for Grace but it wasn’t something we were sure we would be able to do,” discussed Wintory. “Somehow, the stars aligned and we got all of these musicians together in the very same studio The Beatles used in Abbey Road and we ended up doing an internet recording session. It was simply an amazing experience for me as a composer and the result was very powerful to hear.
“You can just tell by watching Grace that this movie is so special and a labor of love for everyone involved,” added Wintory. “Paul has such a high level of commitment to this film that I just knew I owed it to him to create something special and hopefully those who see it will realize just how much we all really loved working on such an amazing project.”
Wintory was able to join many of the others who worked on Grace recently during Sundance. This is the second film in two years to play at Sundance that features Wintory’s composed music. Last year, his music was featured in the film Captain Abu Raed, which won the Audience Award in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance.
“Seeing my work with an audience for the first time is a little bit like an out of body experience, because it really feels like I'm seeing it for the first time,” said Wintory. “I had such sweaty palms during that midnight screening at Sundance! It's such a thrill to really see it through their eyes and imagine what it must be like witnessing all this unfold for the first time.”
For a taste of the Grace score, click here to listen to “The Birth”!
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