Post-apocalyptic storytelling is painted by the fears of its filmmaker. The way humanity devolves into chaos and the balance of light and dark looking for a better tomorrow. Whether it is a natural disaster, unspeakable violence, disease or belief, the end of the world storytelling is a platform for emotional performances, cinematography, and score at the forefront. What Still Remains tells the story of a young woman named Anna (Lulu Antariksa), who has cut herself off from the world which is now rebuilding after a terrible disease. Isolated and dead inside after the loss of her family, Anna meets a traveler named Peter (Colin O’Donoghue) who offers her a new home and chance to come live in the community he is from. Understanding her chances of survival and being open to what these survivors might be able to offer her, Anna agrees to follow Peter to the community and escaping the danger of being alone. Lead by survivors Judith (Mimi Rogers) and Zack (Jeff Kober), the community follows the law of religion to keep order amongst the chaos of a new world. With each day that goes by, the personal agendas and religious conflict from within divides them. Each moment causes more tension to mount as the community must deal with not only the direction going forward but also the siege by an outside tribe of savage humans called the ‘Berserkers.’ As these events unfold and the community deals attempts to keep order, Anna must not only deal with the grief of her lost family, but she must be true to herself amongst the darkness and find her way in this new world. In the same mold of storytelling (minus the zombies) like AMC’s The Walking Dead, comes What Still Remains.
Blending a smart and reactionary array of instrumentation to fully flush out the film’s pulse, the score for What Still Remains tells more than a story but the scope of a journey where the pieces are being picked up from a lost world and its survivors who have to rebuild. Infused with an emotion and power, the film’s score finds a partnership with the sound design to help to fully flush out the films narrative, conflict, and characters. Over the last fifteen years, composer Jonathan Beard has been involved with film music in nearly 100 major studio music departments and on every level. Beard has worked in a variety of studio music departments on the likes of Deadpool, The Nun, The Cloverfield Paradox, Happy Death Day, The Dark Tower (that’s only a portion since 2017), plus more. Gaining experience and honing his craft, Beard’s first genre feature film composition is brought to life with this thriller. Leaving his fingerprint of this emotional and tense themes, we grabbed Beard to talk about that fingerprint as a rising composer. We talk with Beard about the relationship between him and director Mendoza, where his influences fall within the genre, the process of creating a score for the lead character of Anna, as well as what challenges came when taking on a feature of this nature.
Dread Central: Hello Jonathan, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions on What Still Remains. First, can you discuss how you became attached to the film?
Jonathan Beard: Thank you so much for having me, Jay! My path to getting attached to What Still Remains came through a short film I had previously scored called A Killer of Men. That film was directed by WSR’s producer Gregg Meller and produced by WSR director Josh Mendoza. We all became friends through that project, and I was thrilled when Josh invited me back to the team for What Still Remains.
DC: This is Josh Mendoza’s first feature. What was it like to collaborate on such an experience and what did your experience in film score and music bring to the production to make this the best overall collaboration?
JB: While Josh had not directed a feature before, his previous production and writing experience (as well as personality) made him a very steady hand leading and guiding the ship. Often with music, new directors have minimal previous experience dealing with the scoring process. It’s my job as the composer to help work through the process with them! However, we worked very quickly. He was very secure and clear about what he wanted musically. He gave precise creative notes when they were necessary, and was simultaneously open to ideas I had, that he wouldn’t have necessarily thought of. This is an immensely enjoyable type of creative environment in which to compose!
DC: If I am reading this correctly, this is your first project as a composer that borders on horror. Can you talk about if you are a fan of the genre and what genre films you are a fan when it comes to scoring?
JB: I am a huge fan of psychological thrillers that overlap into the world of horror. Silence of the Lambs, for instance, is one of my favorite movies of all time. Howard Shore’s score is so claustrophobic in its intimacy; to me, it plays a huge role in the effectiveness of the film. It is also a special thing when the music gets to speak on multiple “emotional levels” of an unsettling story simultaneously. A number of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock, as a classic example, or more recently Bear McCreary’s scores for the last two Cloverfield films, do this virtuosically. I love that!
I also have a fondness for the inventiveness of many classic slasher film scores – Friday the 13th, the original Halloween, etc. I was fairly young but remember vividly when Scream came out, and Kevin Williamson’s script so smartly reinvigorated the genre. Some of the self-awareness of that film, as well as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Marco Beltrami’s score for Scream was so evocative and unsettling. It helped take him to the A-list of film composing. His score played an important role in Scream’s dramatic success.
DC: How does your experience in the music departments on TV, video games, and genre work (like Penny Dreadful, Kong, Brimstone, and 10 Cloverfield Lane) influence the score and help to form it?
JB: The composers of the scores you mentioned, and I’m thrilled to work as an orchestrator, are some of the best in the business. I learn so much from them, just seeing (and being a part of) how they work, seeing their musical approaches to dramatic challenges, and how to deliver excellent work at an elite level. While the films I take on as a composer are usually smaller and quirkier, there is no way I could not be positively affected by the examples these composers set!
DC: What Still Remains is an ensemble piece for the most part. However, you have one main character in Anna (Lulu Antariksa) who is the thread throughout this narrative. What was it like to compose themes that represented a community in flux and a young woman who is at a crossroads?
JB: Lulu’s portrayal of Anna is so wonderfully understated, subtle, and strong. The most notable element of Anna as a character is that she is the one constant force for good in the film, whereas every other person around her exists in a dark shade of gray at best. For the musical motifs in the score that primarily represent the community she joins, we wove layers of subtle sound design and “unnatural” sounds throughout their arrangements. The theme for the Berserkers, the most straightforward “villains” of the film (though they too exist in shades of gray), is 100% electronic sound-design. Anna’s thematic material, comparatively, is primarily made up of acoustic strings – quietly strong, accompanying her journey, but also anchoring her decency and hope.
DC: How did the score evolve from the first time you saw the film to what we hear on the final product?
JB: It depends on the definition of first seeing! I was signed to the project before production started and composed the Berserkers’ “whistling motif” before shooting began (since it shows up on screen throughout the film), based off of the script. I also visited the set during filming and recorded some of the actors’ performances for inspiration. I then started composing my main themes inspired by my set visit as well as early bits of rough footage, and some of that thematic material went into the film largely unchanged. By the time we were looking at the first rough-cut assembly of the film, a number of the score ingredients were solidly in place, including our primary musical “colors” of sound design and chamber orchestra. From there, it was mostly a process of passing music back and forth with Josh to get his insights and finesse cues into their final versions.
DC: Did any other post-apocalyptic films influence how you constructed the score for the film? Did locations and sets influence it?
JB: I would say my approach to the score is more directly influenced by the psychological thriller genre than post-apocalyptic films per se, though I recognize there are a number of them that make use of sound design in their scores, which What Still Remains certainly contains. The locations definitely influenced me, along with the performances of our stellar cast.
DC: What challenges came with composing the score?
JB: The biggest challenges were the ones we attacked early on: finding the right sound-palette and dramatic tone for what is both a subtly complex emotional story and a slowly building dread into explosive violence. We tried out a few different versions of the Berserker “whistle” motif, which needed to be both strangely menacing and easy enough to whistle! The whistle motif gets woven into the orchestral fabric of the score as well. Also, because I was brought on early in the process, we were able to take our time to find that electronics-vs.-orchestra color balance representing our different factions of characters, and I think the score is stronger for it.
DC: What scene from this film, do you feel defines your work on this project?
JB: I would offer three if I may. #1 would be “Peter’s Theme,” which we first hear in full during a very unsettling baptism scene. #2 would be a scene that, on its surface, doesn’t necessarily seem that exciting: a dialog scene between Anna and Ben, the village head of security. (The music cue that accompanies this scene is “Ben and Anna Dance with Words.”) However, what’s being discussed on the surface is 100% cover for what’s being insinuated below the surface, something that this film does repeatedly so well. The score gets to weave between those two levels. Finally, #3 would have to be the final scene of the film (“Requiem and the Ocean”), where we hear Anna’s theme in its most affirmative iteration, celebrating her own sense of strength and self-belief.
DC: There is a lot of gray area with these characters due to the situation they are put in to survive and the amount of power in a post-apocalyptic world. Does that pose a challenge for you as the composer to find the right theme to bring them life and show who they are?
JB: In many ways, this lack of clarity on characters’ motivations, the ambiguity of whether they are “good” or “bad” people…that was the most fun element to tackle in the score. For example, Peter (O’Donoghue) presents a delicious musical opportunity: an intriguing and initially sympathetic character that is ultimately not what he seems. The theme for Peter is built around an unsettling four-note motif that blurs major and minor modes, as well as a repetition that becomes more claustrophobic and intense as it progresses. Without giving too much away, there are a couple of major scenes (including the baptism) where this theme gets to flex its dramatic muscles!
DC: What instrumentation did you feel fit this score? Did that change from the beginning to what we see on the screen?
JB: We figured out pretty early on that the electronic sound design/chamber orchestra hybrid would work well. That was pretty much set before the film was even finished shooting. From there, it just came down to execution and filling in the remaining gaps. On the electronic side, the very talented Sam Estes came in and collaborated with me on some austere and unusual sound design, which you hear in the Berserkers theme every time they show up. As an example, on the acoustic side, when we figured out that the contrabassoon should take the main melodic solo in Peter’s Theme, it gave us all chills!
DC: How does it feel now to see the film out and the score such a crucial part of this film?
JB: In a word: fantastic. The response to this film has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m thrilled to have been a part of the immensely talented team that Josh and Gregg assembled. The cast is so talented, and to have the music join them – as almost a quiet behind-the-scenes character – in telling this story is an honor.