Interview: SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK Composer Anna Drubich On Composing Nightmares
Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good movie score. The right themes, melodies, and motifs can make or break a scene. That’s why I leapt at the opportunity to chat with composer Anna Drubich, who worked with Marco Beltrami on the score for this week’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the book-to-film adaptation of the Schwartz/Gammell series that scarred a generation.
In our interview, Drubich revealed how she met Beltrami and came to work with him. She also talks about the ways that they composed music for the unique specters that the film will present. Additionally, she let us know that audiences will certainly hear “The Hearse Song”, which appeared in the original books, a fun homage that will certainly be a delightful surprise to those who catch it. All this and more can be read in our interview below.
“It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time—stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying home.“
Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark stars Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur, and Natalie Ganzhorn.
The film comes out August 9.
DC: Hello Anna! To start, can you please tell me about how you came to work with Marco Beltrami?
Oh, that’s a story in itself. Back when I was studying in Germany, and LA was absolutely out of the picture, our professor brought Marco’s soundtrack to class. And the whole purpose of the class was for the students to listen to a score, talk about it, analyze it, and so on. And I immediately connected with his music, but we discussed it like it was from a different universe. It felt like on some other planet there exist some creatures and we can discuss them, but we’ll never be able to come into contact with them.
And then, two or three years later I went to USC and in the second week of my being there, Marco Beltrami just walked into the classroom to do a workshop with us. He handed out the assignment – to write a scene or something like that – I completed it and the next day he came in and my piece was the only one he liked. At least, he didn’t criticize mine… The workshop finished, life went on, but like a year later, we accidentally met on a Fox studio parking lot and he recognized me. He asked me what I was up to, and I really just didn’t have anything going. And he just said that he was going to invite me to work on a project. I thought he was just being polite – “thank you – thank you” and that’s that. So I left for Moscow and suddenly got an email from him: “Hey, where are you? I’ve been calling you but your phone is off. Would you like to work with me on a film?” And I was back in LA in a heartbeat. But that wasn’t for Scary Stories. That came sometime later and we’ve already grown to understand each other. We have very similar tastes in music and it makes working together easy and fun. We just go for the same things.
DC: Marco has worked in horror for a very long time and has scored some really incredible titles over the years. What are some things you learned from him that you know will shape your compositional methods in the coming years?
Marco’s experience as a film composer and storyteller is truly incredible and fascinating. His feeling of how music should play the scene, where it should start or stop, which textures are needed, etc… All these are professional skills I always try to learn from him. At the beginning of the process, besides finding a main theme, we would try to come up with some significant unique sounds that would shape the whole soundtrack. The sounds have, most of the time, very “organic” roots. We would record some of them like female voice, solo cello, bassoon, but then process and experiment with them until we find something that really fits the picture.
DC: Part of the allure of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is that each creature/ghost is so unique. What challenges do you face coming up with music for these characters that give them their own personality yet still feels connected throughout the film?
So, on the one hand, we wanted a good traditional orchestral score. But there are all these different textures, which we wanted to use to inform the story. So we came up with the idea that every horror sequence was going to have its own sound center. And to bring out the sense of uniqueness in every sequence we created this crazy combination of orchestra and electronics. And, in the end, for Harold we recorded these raw-sounding guitars and a broken banjo; The Big Toes came to be a brass-centered piece; The Red Spot revolved around strings; The Pale Lady turned out as a woodwind sequence; and Jangly man came to be a percussive thing. We tried to be traditional in a modern way. The audience will never pay attention to it, because, all in all, it’s one single orchestral score, but we added a twist for every novella.
DC: For many, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is part of their childhood. How do you create a score that appeals to both an inner child as well as the adult sitting in the theater seat?
I do have a trick: when I finish a horror sequence in my home studio, I invite my 10-year-old daughter to come in and check on it! She usually gives me very useful feedback and after her approval, I check in with my husband.
DC: Music is such an integral part of a good horror experience. The right score can make or break a scene, so how do you make sure your work elevates the scene in terrifying ways?
Yes, you are right, music in horror movies is a crucial element. Without it, most of the scenes would look pretty pathetic. It’s always important to match the picture with the right level of intensity, creepiness, energy…which sometimes can be really challenging. Working with such masters of horror genre as Marco Beltrami, Andre Øvredal and, of course, Guillermo Del Toro felt for me like some sort of life jacket. They would guide me to the right direction if they felt that the music is telling too much too early, if it’s too intense and, in [the] opposite, if it needs a more laid back vibe.
DC: In the original run of the books, there was a story called “The Hearse Song”, which included some sheet music. Will that melody find its way somewhere in the score?
Yes, of course! After the very first screening of the director’s rough cut, Guillermo said that they want this melody in the movie, meaning it might be a main theme for the whole piece. But since the tune is more playful and not really scary, we tried to use it in a very twisted creepy way. I really hope the audience will notice it and enjoy our hair-raising versions of “The Hearse Song”.
DC: What was your favorite part of working on the Scary Stories score?
The most interesting part for me was getting the chance to go to all the test screenings. All the producers would then get together and would listen to the test audience and would really try to internalize the feedback. I was really impressed with it because I never saw this kind of process. Then we got a chance to record an orchestra in Moscow and it was a rare opportunity where you have this huge orchestra with all the brass and all the woodwinds, so it was pretty fantastic. Working with Andre was great because he’s so talented and at the same time, he’s a very kind and understanding person. It was a huge pleasure.
DC: What’s next for you?
First of all, I would really like to finish my violin concerto that I’m working on now. There are also a couple “creepy” and really fun projects for me coming up but that’s all I can say for now.