Nightmare on Film Street Interview - The Call
Just in time for spooky season, director Timothy Woodward Jr. (The Final Wish) has released his latest film, The Call. A neon-infused 80s throwback, the film centers around a fierce group of secret-keeping teens and a mysteriously sinister older couple. Although boasting a bevy of young familiar faces like Erin Sanders (Zoey 101) and Chester Rushing (Stranger Things), the undeniable strength of the film lies in the potent on-screen combination of horror icons Lin Shaye and Tobin Bell. After years of individual involvement with James Wan and Leigh Whannell through the Saw and Insidious franchises, The Call finally (and satisfyingly) unites the dynamic duo in a powerfully creepy way.
Sonically supporting the nostalgic vibe and intersecting storylines comes an incredibly fun and emotionally engaging score from composer Samuel Joseph Smythe. A talented and versatile composer, Sam’s work can be found in films like The Final Wish, Gangster Land as well as video games like Star Wars: Battlefront and Halo Wars 2. In celebration of The Call‘s release on VOD and at select drive-ins, we caught up with Sam and chatted all about his work on the film, his famous mentors and the often underappreciated art of the jump scare.
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: The Call is just one of many projects that you’ve worked on with director Timothy Woodward Jr. How did you two first connect and what is it that you enjoy about working with him?
Samuel Joseph Smythe: I actually have a friend named Ned Thorne who is an editor, and he worked on Timothy’s film called Traded from back in 2016. Timothy was looking for a composer back then and Ned offered up my name since we were friends. So, Timothy gave me a call and I ended up working on Traded. I’ve worked on pretty much every film that Timothy has done since then! I love working with him. He’s a really creatively freeing director in the way that he really trusts my intuitions of how to tell the story in a scene. He always tells me, ‘I want you to use your instincts while you’re scoring this.’ He doesn’t give me a whole lot of constraints, so it’s really nice to be able to go through and really craft a story through music.
NOFS: Do you ever find constraints beneficial?
SJS: Some kinds of limitations are absolutely beneficial. And a lot of that comes from what I initially set up as a template or a palette of sounds. They often come from our discussions together where we want to use specifically synths, and melodic elements, theme and maybe the sound of a little voice. So I’ll craft a palette of instruments and sounds that I constrain myself with while I’m writing, based on those conversations that we’ve had. It’s a lot of going back and forth about what scores we’re using as inspiration and things like that. That way while I’m writing I’m not just using every instrument in the entire world. I’ve constrained myself down to ‘Ok, these are my synth sounds that I want to use. This is my melody. And here are the core orchestral instruments that I’m going to mash everything up with.’
NOFS: I did definitely want to ask you about the synths in this score. They’re just so pitch-perfect for the era that the film takes place in. Where did you and Timothy draw inspiration from in regards to the film’s musical direction?
SJS: I think one of the big inspirations was A Nightmare on Elm Street. Just as far as the overall mysterious vibe and tonal elements. Timothy was talking about, ‘I like how there’s this creepy voice kind of thing that happens in it.’ And Timothy, is not a musician. And again, I love working with non-musicians because I’m able to interpret what they’re talking about. And with that one it was kind of ironic because I actually studied with the composer for A Nightmare on Elm Street, Charles Bernstein back in the day. And he totally taught me about how he had bought this synthesizer, and it was brand new in the day. I actually can’t even tell you which one it was. I wish I could. But you could record little samples of your own recordings and for him it was his voice. He connected a microphone to the synth and actually recorded his own voice and then manipulated it in the synth. So when Timothy said that I was like, ‘Oh, I totally know what you’re talking about.’
Another one that I’m always inspired by in terms of creepy, orchestral elements are Christopher Young scores. It’s not necessarily a huge film, but I love his score for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. When I saw that film I was like, ‘This score is so weird orchestrally and I love every single second of it. How is he making an orchestra do this!?’ I always have that one in the back of my mind when it comes to horror scoring. I love to use my knowledge of studying orchestral scores to add that element into it. It was really a hybridization I’d say of the really 80s synths as well as orchestral, melodically weird elements.
NOFS: You just dropped two really big names there and I was going to ask you about them anyways so I’m glad you brought them up. You studied under both Christopher Young (Hellraiser) as well as Charles Bernstein. So, how was that? What were some of the key things you learned from these masters of the craft?
SJS: Well, I studied very little with Charles Bernstein. I took one course from him, which was awesome. But I studied quite a bit under Chris Young and worked for him while he was doing Drag Me To Hell for Sam Raimi. And one of the biggest things I learned from him, and it was always amazing to see, was how he’d watch something and capture his first emotional instinct, and then capture that immediately musically. The idea that even if you don’t know what the notes are yet, capture some sort of element of it on any instrument that you have. Whether it’s a piano or a guitar or whatever instrument you play, create some sort of noise or sound that captures what you’re seeing for the very first time.
Because that very first instinct is really important. As you’re scoring a scene, you can go over and over and over it again, but you can lose that kind of initial intuition. And you start shaping and shaping and shaping. And so with him, he really taught me how to watch something for the first time and trust and listen to your own musical voice. For me, that kind of comes naturally now with the way that I watch scenes. And that’s another things that’s so great about Timothy is that he trusts me to have that instinct and that intuition. Like, ‘Ok. View this from the point of view of the audience who hasn’t seen this film. What do I want them to feel? How do I want to manipulate their emotions?’ I learned a lot about that idea from working with Chris Young.
NOFS: While the score does have its historic influences, it also beautifully blends together different styles. Is there a part of the score you’re most proud of or would consider most indicative of your personal style?
SJS: One of my favorite scenes that happens early on in the film is an important moment involving Lin Shaye. And building up to that moment, it’s Lin Shaye and Tobin Bell talking about her hopes and dreams for her daycare center and how it’s all been destroyed. Basically, she’s talking about her life as she knew it, is ruined. In all of that, there’s so many emotional elements that I really latched onto. There is so much to be said about this person’s life and why she’s resorted to this seemingly sudden and crazy action. I really got to use the theme in a really big and sweeping dramatic moment. There’s these big shots of the house and the stairs and Timothy really just let the music shine there for a moment which was really fun. I always like to have the kind of big musical moment in times where it fits. That was one of my favorites.
NOFS: Now don’t get me wrong, as a child of the 80s the synth elements of the score definitely resonate with me, but I think its fascinating how emotional moments like these fall on more acoustic, orchestral instruments to really convey those aspects of humanity.
SJS: Yes, that was exactly what I was going for. I struggle with the idea that using an orchestra isn’t necessarily the trendy thing to be doing, but it’s kind of in my blood. When I was little, I was listening to Bernard Herrmann doing the scores for all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. I was obsessed with them when I was a kid. I was like the nerdiest 13-year-old watching nothing but Alfred Hitchcock films. But ever since then, that kind of musical impetus has just been in my blood and it comes out in pretty much everything that I score.
NOFS: I’m fascinated by the art of the jump scare and its intimate connection with sound. Can you talk a bit about your approach to scoring these moments? Do they require anything special from you as a composer?
SJS: Something I’ve learned along the way, and it applies to not just this, but if you want something to sound really loud, it has to be next to something quiet. It’s the idea that even just looking at something, if you’re looking at a 2D image of something, it doesn’t look big unless it’s situated next to something small. So in these jump scenes, it’s not going to make you jump unless you’re kind of sitting comfortably beforehand. Maybe on the edge of your seat, but you’re still in your seat. So that you’re calm enough that when that jump does happen, it’s totally by surprise.
I like to get the audience settled into some sort of sustained, held, on the edge of your seat and then something big happens. It’s just a burst of something crazy. It took a while to kind of realize that. I’ve done a lot of things where it’s like, ‘Man. Why is the loud music so quiet? It’s not translating.’ Because without dynamic range there’s not the storytelling range. You’ve got to be quiet and calm and peaceful first. Then you can slam em’.
NOFS: On top of films, you’ve also worked on a variety of video games including several of the Star Wars games. How is composing for an interactive user experience different? Or is it?
SJS: Yes. It’s very different. In both elements you’re still telling some sort of story, but with video games the music is not linear. It’s all based on the video game player’s experience playing in that moment. And the next time they play the game it will be different. And a different person is going to do something else. All of the music has to be adaptive to every move that each individual player can make. Whereas with film, every single person who sees the film, it’s always the same. It’s linear start to finish. It creates more constraints with video games, but also more possibilities, which I love.
There’s a lot more creative possibilities for the music in the fact that you can really dive into, ‘Ok. This person will likely be playing this section of the level for 3-5 minutes, so they need to have a 2 minute piece of music that keeps them at this energy level.’ Then, depending on how quickly they complete that task, we jump into the bad guys are now here and the music needs to amp up several notches. But you can’t just have calm music and then immediately trigger really loud, fast music. There needs to be some sort of transitional element. It basically creates a whole new level of creative possibilities and what you can do with music. There’s all of these interactive elements. I love both, I do. But they’re both definitely very different.
NOFS: I feel like everyone involved in the film industry has those pivotal films that really hooked them. What was it that inspired you to pursue film composition specifically?
SJS: Ok. It was the score for Psycho. From my earliest memory, I think that was the first film score that I ever really noticed. For obvious reasons. Everybody knows the shower scene, but there’s so much more depth in it. I purchased that soundtrack and I listened to it like it was just my normal listening music. And then, several years later when I was in high school, the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out. And John Williams had scored that. And that was the moment where I was like, I want to be a film composer. This music is so magical and so amazing and I want to be this person. I’ve been pursuing it ever since.
NOFS: Alright, final question. It’s officially the spookiest time of the year. What is your favorite Halloween movie go-to?
SJS: Definitely the first one I’m going to watch is Poltergeist. One of my favorite horror films. Also because the Jerry Goldsmith score is so brilliant. It’s such a weird story and it’s put together so strangely and creepily. That’s definitely where I’m going to start.
The Call is now available on VOD as well as playing select drive-in’s. Also, make sure to keep your eyes and ears peeled for Sam’s killer score for the film. While a firm release date is not quite set, the score is set to be released digitally here in the not-to-distant future. Have you checked out The Call yet? Share your thoughts with us by heading over to Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!