Composer Ariel Marx on the Sweet, Sinister Sound of ‘Candy’
On Friday, June 13th, 1980, Candance “Candy” Montgomery killed her friend Betty Gore by striking her with an ax — 41 times. As a young, devout Methodist, middle-class mother of two with a seemingly happy marriage, the news about Montgomery’s actions rocked her local Wylie, Texas community. With a swirl of shocking information becoming exposed during her subsequent trial, Montgomery had even her closest friends and family questioning if anyone really knew her at all. A truly dramatic and complex event, Montgomery’s story has now become the focus of Hulu’s five-part miniseries, Candy.
Created by Nick Antosca (Brand New Cherry Flavor) and Robin Veith (The Act), Candy takes an intimate look at the two women involved in the crime. Starring the one and only Jessica Biel as Candy and Queen Melanie Lynskey as Betty, Candy looks beyond the headlines. The show never shies away from the horrific circumstances that catapulted Montgomery into the national spotlight. It also probes the suburban mundanity, loneliness, and situations that led up to it. As much an exploration of 1980s gender roles, societal expectations, and performative happiness as murder, the showrunners knew Candy would require a dextrous, sensitive score.
For this particular assignment, the team turned to composer Ariel Marx. An extremely protean, eclectic, and explosive multi-instrumentalist, Marx’s credits include a wealth of interesting projects such as Shiva Baby, American Horror Stories, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, and The Tale. Expertly aligning her music with the overall tone of the show, Marx’s music provides Candy with a powerfully emotional undercurrent. Utilizing a mix of catchy, prominent melodies, vibrant orchestrations, and experimental explorations of sound, it is often the music of Candy that hints at things simmering beneath bald-faced lies and polished facades.
Dread Central: How did you first get involved with Candy?
Ariel Marx: Alex Hedlund from Eat the Cat reached out to my agent and set up a meeting. I met with Nick Antosca (Channel Zero), Robin Veith (The Expanse), and the pilot and finale director, Michael Uppendahl (American Horror Story). He’s also an Executive Producer and, we just talked through the script. They had sent me the pilot and they had seen my work on Shiva Baby which I think initially attracted them to me. This exploring of more violent, unexpected atonal textures.
That was one side of the story. But then, the other side of the story is that it’s very clear from the pilot script, and then also the pilot in its completed form, is that it’s a day in the life. We are not introduced to the crime or the violence explicitly at all. It’s very much about Candy’s world and the strive for perfection. This idea of being able to do it all, having the perfect life, and denying any dissatisfaction you have or boredom you have with it. So a lot of the initial conversations were, how is that reflected in the music?
DC: It feels almost Hitchcockian or Bernard Herrmannesque in the way that it has a romantic hue to it while also harboring something much darker. Talk a little bit more about your initial approach to creating this sonic universe for the series.
AM: It was these lush melodies that sort of get stuck in a rut and repeat themselves. These unfinished sentences and fake smiles. Those kinds of ideas made their way into the more melodic music as a contrast to the more violent, darker music for when we address those moments. But, darkness was always simmering underneath the surface. Even in the sweeter cues, there’s something a little off-kilter about them. Just like Candy, and basically all of us, having this ability. Who knows how close to the surface that darkness is in all of us and what would make us snap.
It’s this idea of simplicity and basically believing you are supposed to be happy with the life you’ve been given, right? Especially with Candy and Betty, they’re both kind of going through the same thing of feeling overwhelmed with their responsibilities and trying to balance it all. And Candy, at least on the outside, is a little bit happier with her situation than Betty. But they’re both obviously struggling internally.
So, these melodies came from a very kind of exaggerated, forward-facing place of “Everything is great.” It has this old-school, romantic, lush, orchestral palette that is very simple but defined. And also, hummable melodies to illustrate this pretending. There’s always a gauziness to it all. There’s always something where the music never really finishes its sentence or it detunes by the end. There are lots of ways throughout the series that the music deteriorates and the gauze of it all kind of comes away. That was the initial intention.
DC: Melody, and one theme in particular, play a big role in this series. What was it like working so heavily with melodic themes? And, how did you navigate having them evolve with the story while also retaining their sonic identity?
AM: It’s world-building in the first episode. But then as the episodes progress, that’s very much “Candy’s Melody.” And, Betty has a theme as well. But specifically, there are two themes that are used throughout the show quite a bit — “Candy’s Theme” and the theme that’s used when she’s telling this parable at the beginning of the series.
It was really fun to actually get to make so much use out of them and to be encouraged to use so much melody. Sometimes it would be extremely spare and detuned, right? Kind of a haunted, ghost of that melody. The last dregs of that melody. Sometimes it would be over-exaggerated when there’s a retelling of the story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but when there is a courtroom episode, the story is being retold. Candy is very coached and very sure about her perspective. So, what does that do to the melody? It’s kind of overdramatized and overly lush while still having these off-kilter elements in these awkward moments of pause. And again, detuning, whether it’s full orchestral of just a single instrument. Sometimes that melody is also overlaid on top of much more violent, darker textures.
So, it was a lot of fun. The spectrum of the score lies at opposite ends. That’s really meant to be like this beast that comes out. In the end, that is kind of when I start using these guttural, more violent, melody-less textures. Just like a fight or flight experience of blind rage. That was very much how it was used and its intentions. It was very much tracking how well [Candy] was able to keep it together. Candy is very good at compartmentalizing and going through the rest of her day. You know, this murder happened in the morning and she went through the rest of her day with various degrees of keeping it together. So, the music would reflect that in terms of its ability to keep itself together.
DC: It really plays such a crucial role in giving the audience a glimpse into Candy’s headspace. On the outside, we may only see Jessica Biel’s incredible smile, but it’s ultimately the music that tells us something else is going on. I’d love to hear a bit more about this and how you deconstructed the themes to support this aspect of Candy’s story.
AM: [Biel] just gives an exquisite performance in this and her face does so much of the talking, right? She’s so good at these micro-expressions and it’s very clear when she’s putting on something for someone else or when she’s sitting with her own experiences. I would say that the music doesn’t have a consistent treatment to how it fits her expressions though.
Sometimes it’s completely committed to her story and her forward-facing confidence or facade. And then sometimes, it does show a crack and it does show the violence peek through. Whether it was a kind of unfamiliar element that was added underneath something that was detuned, out of tune, atonal, or some little flourish that isn’t supposed to be there. Or the melody might take a pause in an awkward place, or repeat in an awkward place. Or maybe it was sputtering trying to get back to the confidence of her story. And sometimes it would just completely devolve into texture and more eerie, simplistic, and disturbing elements.
It was all very closely tuned and calibrated to her. And she was, an expert. I think a lot of these women depicted in the show, especially Candy and Betty, were very good at (and Candy was better at it to a certain degree) hiding their emotions. So the music was very much up, but if it takes a misstep, it snaps back and we’re back to clean again. So that was kind of the approach; that inconsistency of the melody in its purest form.
DC: The series plays with traditional linear storytelling in a really interesting way. When it comes to the editing and pace of a show like this, how does that affect your job? Are you often aware of that aspect when you’re creating your music ahead of time?
AM: I had a great relationship with both of the editors on the episodes, Tom Wilson and Ryan Jones. We were incredibly collaborative and trusting of each other. I think the music is so successful because it’s not overused. When it is used, there’s a strong sense of melody or a strong sense of violence. It’s never used as wallpaper. There was no fear of sitting in silence for a moment.
Obviously, each episode is a little different, but the first episode is so good at conveying a day-in-the-life. What it was for these women and the assault of the sounds of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, ceiling fans, and babies crying. I read the pilot and this quote totally resonated with how I would approach the show — “oppressive sameness.” And also the everyday violence of everyday objects like pouring red, powdered Kool-Aid into a pitcher, opening an Oreo bag with a large cleaver, all these things. There was a lot of beautiful attention to detail to all of the mundanity that drove these women to feel so overwhelmed, lonely, et cetera.
So anyway, that’s all to say, we wanted to leave room for a lot of that sound design and a lot of the everyday experience of oppressive sameness to come through. In terms of where the music went, it was a back and forth with the editors. But they were so brilliant at temping the episodes. And, the great thing is that I came on so early that I created a lot of music. I think the episodes were temped with 100% of my music. I think for the exception of one or two places, it was all music original to Candy that they were working with.
It all felt very natural and their first pass at putting in music was very much to the voice of the show. I definitely followed in their structure and then of course we tweak, take out music where we didn’t need it, or put it back in where we did. But again, there was so much beautiful intention and detail in sitting in moments that drove these women to do what they did.
DC: If I may pull on that thread a little more, Candy is based on real events. Candy Montgomery is a real person and there was a real victim who lost their life. Do you ever find projects such as this — whether based on reality or not — take a creative or emotional toll? If not, is there a key to balancing the material with the work?
AM: I’ve worked on a lot of pretty dark material and I have to say, I’ve never felt like it’s bled into my life in a negative way. In the projects that I’ve worked on and especially the ones that deal with real people, the creators are so responsible and delicate with the material. They have such clear visions and, it was so wonderful. We [recently] went to the Candy premiere and it was so wonderful to hear Robin and Nick talk about the creation of the series again and reiterate all of the work they had done in their research, writing, et cetera. To make and tell this story in a respectful, but honest manner and give these women dimension. So, when that’s done, when it’s done so well and with such a particular voice, it’s just really meaningful and exciting to be a part of. I would never say it takes a toll. It just feels like really important work and that’s really exciting to me.
DC: You’ve mentioned working directly with a lot of different people on this show. How important is the art of collaboration to you?
AM: To be honest, the reason why I’m working in television and film as a film/TV composer is because of the collaboration aspect. I feel more inspired to collaborate and work with a story to build off of than were I to just be on my own writing my own concept album. Which, I have because I’ve had the itch to do that, but I really do find deep, deep, deep joy in collaborating with other people. And, the directors and showrunners, and creative teams I’ve had the privilege of working with have been just wildly supportive and trusting.
It’s so exciting to be working on something bigger than just your music. I find the idea that I’m working to tell a story, or a certain part of a story, and all of the nuances of the story is really exciting to me. I think you also have to get good at, if something just isn’t working, you have to remove any personal connection you have to that. You have to be humble in that way. You’re serving a larger project. Some people struggle with that more than others, but I just really love the aspect of being part of something bigger than just my own composition. Not everyone is drawn to that aspect of it, but I actually really, really love it.
And, it’s so interesting how what works as a piece of music doesn’t necessarily work with a scene. Sometimes it’s too present. Sometimes it’s not present enough. And sometimes the rhythms of the phrases are working in the wrong ways, you know? But when you do find that way and that piece of music that just fits in the scene like it was always meant to be there, that’s such a magical moment. It’s really hard work, but it’s wonderful. I’m always very excited to do it.
Candy is now streaming exclusively on Hulu. Marx’s score for the series will also be available via Lakeshore Records later this May.