The Darkness of Comedy: Composer Mikel Hurwitz Discusses His Monstrous TOO LATE Score
In our exclusive interview, Jordan von Netzer talks to Mikel Hurwitz about combining horror and comedy in his score for TOO LATE!
Who hasn’t sometimes thought their boss is an actual monster? In the case of Gravitas Ventures’ new horror-comedy, Too Late, this thought becomes all too real for Violet Fields (Alyssa Limperis).
Related Article: Check Out Our Exclusive Clip from the Horror-Comedy TOO LATE
Set in the Los Angeles indie comedy scene, Too Late centers around Violet, who works a thankless job as the assistant to Bob Devore (Ron Lynch), famed comedian and host of the live variety show called “Too Late”. But what only Violet knows is that Bob is a monster both literally and figuratively. Resigned to her fate, Violet is caught by surprise when she meets aspiring comedian Jimmy Rhodes (Will Weldon) and sparks fly. But as her feelings for Jimmy grow and Bob starts to doubt her loyalty, she and Jimmy could end up as Bob’s next meal.
Adding another layer to the story is the score by composer, Mikel Hurwitz, who made sure no detail was overlooked when it came to the authenticity of the score. Bob is believed to be from somewhere around Baroque to Victorian Europe, so Hurwitz used instruments such as the accordion and harpsichord, which are both European instruments that have historical/nostalgic ties for his character’s themes. In the below exclusive interview, Hurwitz goes into detail about this and many more topics, including his time working with the legendary Danny Elfman. Too Late is now in theaters and Digital VOD. Mikel’s Too Late score album is also available digitally.
*Hurwitz participated in an episode of “Dissecting Horror”, Dread Central’s live panel series, last night along with Too Late‘s director D.W. Thomas, production designer Sam Slosburg, and two of the film’s stars: Alyssa Limperis (Violet Fields) and Ron Lynch (Bob Devore). You can see the episode in its entirety, HERE.
Dread Central: Too Late is a mix of different genres, including horror and comedy. Would you say your score is also a mix?
Mikel Hurwitz: My take on Too Late is that it’s a comedy superimposed over a horror landscape with an underlying satire of the entertainment industry. There are moments of horror and moments of comedy, and I think (and hope) that is reflected in the score: the comedy moments have a darkness to them and the horror moments are intentionally not ‘full-blown adrenaline knock your socks off’, but rather almost tongue-in-cheek horror moments (except for a few real scares maybe).
DC: Did you watch any other horror films before beginning work on Too Late, to get inspiration?
MH: In the initial conversations with the director and writer, we talked about Witches of Eastwick as one of the references for the score (among others). It’s a film I remember watching as a kid and I did revisit that one before I started scoring. Other than that, I wanted to keep as clean a slate as possible and actually didn’t go out of my way to listen to any contemporary horror films – I really wanted this score to be something that came from my head, rather than from over-listening to references.
DC: How involved was the film’s director D.W. Thomas with the scoring process?
MH: She was involved every step of the way: from spotting the film to final delivery. We talked a lot about which perspective we wanted to score certain moments from and she found a great balance between communicating her desired dramatic intent of the score and giving me enough creative freedom to bring my own dramatic point of view forward through the music. I felt it was a really great collaboration.
DC: Can you talk about the film’s opening credit sequence. It’s very whimsical, yet menacing and uneasy. Was this your goal?
MH: I think those are good adjectives to describe it. The whole opening scene is from the dog’s perspective, who is really an innocent bystander to the story. That informed my decision to score it in 6/8, to give it almost a childlike feel and a rhythmic lightness juxtaposed against all kinds of darker sonic elements. I viewed it as an opening credit sequence in a very traditional film scoring, in almost an operatic or overture-like way. It contains snippets of most of the thematic elements and instrumentation that we hear later throughout the score. Ultimately, my goal was to write something that set the tone of the film and said to the viewer: ‘Get ready for a scary, fun, quirky & thrilling journey for the next 80 minutes’.
DC: Did you score this sequence first or after you had gotten warmed up with other scenes?
MH: The opening sequence was actually my warmup. It came first and gave me a great opportunity to define the sound of the rest of the score before I got deeply into the scenes and storytelling.
DC: Bob Devore is the not-so-liked character in the film. Did you give him a special theme to heighten his evilness?
MH: He’s certainly the antagonist and his character’s backstory is something the director, writer and I talked about in great detail during the spotting session. Bob is ‘believed to be from somewhere around Baroque to Victorian Europe’ and was given vampire-like immortality when he was consumed by the Australian Aboriginal mythic ‘Yaramayhawho’.
To speak musically to his backstory, I gave Bob the accordion and the harpsichord as leitmotivic instruments (both European instruments that have historical/nostalgic ties). They began more comically at first, then as Bob becomes more manic, I ran the cleanly recorded instruments through delays, distortions, and sound processing to score his descent into villainy. Melodically, his thematic material has snippets of harmonic minor scales to set him as a historical figure (we often associate this scale with classical music), which did double duty to help score his creepiness. As we learn more about what Bob does to his prey, I incorporated a synth pulse patch (among other things) that was built from a digeridoo recording I made years ago. It’s a little musical easter-egg that I doubt many would get if I didn’t talk about it.
DC: A lot of films that take place in LA tend to have very trendy and electronic sound. Yet you chose a different approach with an accordion and other like instruments. Why did you take this approach?
MH: I think there are contemporary moments in the score, but it seems that the memorable moments people are remembering from the score are the accordion and harpsichord. I think in a way the answer is in the question: to me, the function of a film score is to be memorable so that the film is memorable, and I always intend to be memorable when composing for film to help the film sit with people after the end credits. If I chose a ‘trendy’ and ‘electronic’ sound that sounded like every other contemporary score, I believe that the score would run a much greater risk of falling short of accomplishing that fundamental goal.
DC: You have scored a lot of Hallmark movies. Then comes a film like Too Late. Which type of film is more challenging to you?
MH: They both have their challenges. Hallmark films have an expected story arc, defined act breaks & are almost their own sub-genre. For that reason, those films are tricky to give the score its own identity while balancing the need to fit into the genre. Oh, and they typically only have about 2 weeks from the time I receive them to the delivery, which is its own unique workflow challenge.
Too Late, on the other hand, had a much longer schedule which allowed me to really think deeply about characters and sonic development (building custom synth patches, etc.). The real challenge of Too Late from a scoring perspective was to walk the line between comedy and horror, and a longer schedule allowed us to get the tone of each more correct to serve the film better.
DC: In a previous interview you mentioned that you score Hallmark movies in 2 weeks. That seems pretty quick. How long did it take you to score Too Late?
MH: We did the Too Late score in three bursts, all of which spanned about 5 months, I think, but it wasn’t 5 months of continuous work because I had other projects interspersed. It was likely 2-ish months of work if you took away the mini-hiatuses.
DC: You worked with Danny Elfman for many years. Do you have a favorite moment from your time with him?
MH: I did. Among many great moments, there’s just nothing like being on the scoring stage – Those moments, of which there were many, are for sure my favorites. For a composer or someone on a music team that has been working with MIDI and orchestral samples for months to finally hear how a live orchestra plays the music – how it’s meant to be played, with all the emotion and intricacies that only live players can bring – is just magical. I think it’s similar to a director working with a script and table reads for months then finally getting to the set to see actors bring it to life.
Also Read: Danny Elfman is Scoring “Fantasy Action Sci-fi Movie” Called 65 from the Writers of A QUIET PLACE
DC: Would you say you have a similar composing style as him?
MH: I do and I don’t. I certainly never set out to compose anything like him, nor did I ever do a mockup of his music before I started working for him. We come from very different backgrounds: him from vaudeville-ish music, rock & new wave; and me from jazz, orchestral music and hip-hop. Not to mention that I went to a music school, and he was never formally trained; both of which can have their impacts (positive and negative) on one’s compositional voice.
That all said, in no way could I claim that working with such a creative powerhouse for 6-ish years didn’t seep into my creative subconscious and evolution as a composer in some way. I think I’ve likely morphed some compositional techniques that he uses and into my own compositional toolkit, but ultimately, they are resonating through me and hopefully will be my mangled interpretation. Furthermore, it’s always been my goal as a composer to become more myself with my own unique voice every day I sit down to work, rather than to sound like someone else and grow from that archetype.