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Summoning the Perfect Score: Exclusive Interview with ANYTHING FOR JACKSON Composer John McCarthy

While most holiday films are merry and bright, Shudder is mixing things up with their “wintery anti-Nativity tale”, Anything for Jackson, directed by Justin G. Dyck.

Synopsis:
After losing their only grandson in a car accident, grief-stricken Audrey and Henry, a doctor, kidnaps his pregnant patient with the intention of performing a “Reverse Exorcism”, putting Jackson inside her unborn child. It doesn’t take long to figure out Jackson isn’t the only ghost the grandparents invited into their home. Now it’s a race against time for the couple, as well as the pregnant woman to figure a way out of the haunting they’ve set upon themselves.

The film features winningly demonic practical effects and stars British-Canadian stage presence and character actor Julian Richings (Hard Core Logo, Vicious Fun), Sheila McCarthy (Die Hard 2), and Konstantina Mantelos (A Christmas Crush), and is written by Dyck’s frequent collaborator Keith Cooper. The small cast is rounded out by Josh Cruddas (Polar) and Yannick Bisson (Another Wolfcop, Murdoch Mysteries). 

The film is very unsettling, in the best possible way, for numerous reasons. One of them is the score by John McCarthy. When discussing the scoring process McCarthy says, “The purpose of score to me is to provide the subtext of any film. I try to facilitate transportation into the 4th dimension with my score, and that’s especially true with the frightening nature of horror movies.” He talks about this and many other subjects (including which horror film made him have nightmares for weeks) below. Enjoy!


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John McCarthy

Dread Central: How did you become involved with Anything for Jackson?

John McCarthy: Sheila McCarthy, who plays Audrey in the film, is my lovely sister. She mentioned what a great time she was having on the set which piqued my interest in the movie as she always knows a good project. They did not have a composer signed on yet so I sent in some music which led to a call with the director Justin Dyck and the writer Keith Cooper. The meeting went well and got the gig.

DC: What sort of preparation did you do before beginning work on the film?

JM: Before I started scoring to picture; I wrote and sent in over 20 pieces of music to get their feedback so that we could find a concrete concept for the style and instrumentation of the score. It was a great way to flush out what worked for them and what didn’t. We had pretty much conceptualized what it was going to be before really getting started, which is always an exciting way to collaborate.

DC: You haven’t scored much horror before this film, besides The Possession of Michael D. in 1995. How is your approach different to the horror genre, than a drama?

JM: The purpose of score to me is to provide the subtext of any film. I try to facilitate the transportation into the 4th dimension with my score, and that’s especially true with the frightening nature of horror movies. It can start from the imagination or emotion of a character or from the environment the viewer is experiencing. Since there’s a supernatural element to the movie the score had to reflect that in some way which I did with my sound palette and orchestration. But to be honest my feeling is that this movie is really a twisted love story of family and redemption that just happens to go horribly wrong.

DC: Anything for Jackson is being billed as a “wintery anti-Nativity tale”. Do you think this is accurate?

JM: I guess that is one way of looking at it. Strangely the core of the movie to me is ‘loss’ and ‘love’ what we will do to try and right a wrong. Selling one’s soul to get what you want. The main characters Audrey and Henry believe they are doing the right thing and will do whatever wrong things to achieve their goal. The path they take happens to involve the occult and all the supernatural and mystical elements that ensue with that world.

DC: More so than many other genres, horror film scores almost play another main character. Did you feel any extra pressure knowing this?

JM: I don’t think that one genre of cinema has more pressure or difficulty over the other in regards to score. My process is always to add an omnipresent element which ultimately weaves the drama of the film through its many twists and turns.

One of Justin and Keith’s main notes was they wanted the score to build and build, never letting go. Most movies I start with a ‘theme’ and develop that ‘theme’ throughout the picture, but with Anything For Jackson I tried to not repeat myself. The score is a living organic life that keeps changing and evolving with the story, so I used a pallet of similar sounds that never repeats which dissolves familiarity.

DC: Can you talk about your working relationship with the film’s director, Justin G. Dyck. Did he have a very specific sound he wanted for the film or were you able to experiment a little more on your own?

JM: Working with Justin and Keith was an awesome experience. They were very upfront and trusting, as they gave me an abundance of creative control with clear focus on the sound they wanted to achieve.  As I mentioned, there was the initial concept of not using a ‘leitmotif’ necessarily, rather creating a score that is always going forward, and never really resolving or being too familiar. This took a lot of trial and error, but we are both confident in the outcome.

DC: There are many subgenres of horror. Anything for Jackson falls in the supernatural horror category. Do you think there is a specific formula, score wise, to follow with this subgenre?

JM: That is an interesting question. This score really doesn’t sound like anything I have done before, as I expressly tried to not overpower the intimacy portrayed in the film. There was no real formula I followed except to say that I took a very “aleatory” approach to the sound. Lots of sound design elements actually became my musical sound. I believe the formula I followed was to let the picture and the scene guide the score, almost old school in the precision of sound to picture but a sense that the actual sound of the score was not tradition.

DC: What is your philosophy on jump scares? Do you think bigger is better or are you inclined to be more subtle with them?

JM: Who doesn’t love a good jump scare. The guys said they really didn’t want gratuitous scares in the score so if I put in a ‘jump scare’ it was hopefully for a good reason… less is better, as it’s only scary when it’s not expected.

DC: What are some of your favorite horror films?

JM: When I was young one of my favorite things to do was to go to the local theater and see the double feature horror films on a Saturday afternoon, they were mainly in the Hammer Film vibe starring Vincent Price and his cohorts. I have a memory of my sister taking me to The Exorcist and having nightmares for weeks. Movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby followed. I love recent films like Get Out by Blumhouse and A24 movies like Midsommar and Hereditary, they have evolved the horror genre and carried the torch to a new generation of moviegoers.

Anything for Jackson premieres on Shudder December 3rd.

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Are you excited to check out Anything for Jackson on December 3rd? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! You can also carry on the convo with me personally on Twitter @josh_millican.

Written by Josh Millican

Josh Millican is the Editor in Chief at Dread Central.

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