david j. moore chats with composer Imran Ahmad about his work on the Ford Brothers’ The Dead…
Classic zombie films don’t always produce classic scores, but occasionally a classic zombie opus features music that helps define the film. Imagine George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead without the iconic source music or original scores composed for them and what you’d have is an incomplete film. When directors Howard and Jon Ford hired composer Imran Ahmad to compose an original score for their epic zombie apocalypse film set in Africa, they found a collaborator who completed and enriched their film. Their collaborative effort, known simply as The Dead, is the result of what the Ford Brothers’ described as “guerrilla filmmaking,” but more importantly, Imran’s contribution gave the film its sound and its singular voice. Without his score, The Dead simply would not be complete … or as iconic.
david j. moore: Imran, thank you for doing this interview…
Imran Ahmad: Many thanks, David. It’s a pleasure.
djm: Tell me a little bit about how you became involved with the task of scoring The Ford Brothers’ film The Dead.
IA: I met the directors, Jon and Howard J. Ford in London. Howard sent me a web link to the initial trailer just as the film was going into post-production for sound. I was thrilled at seeing images of the African landscape, (shot on 35mm), which was the stunning backdrop of the story. So I immediately composed a short music demo inspired by these images. I also felt that the music would somehow be an enchanting presence in the story. Howard and Jon were really excited with the demo and my ideas regarding the music score and so I came on board the film.
djm: You’d previously scored a few short films and documentaries. What was it like for you to really explore the feature-length world of The Dead?
IA: Working on the short films were of invaluable experience. I worked with some very good directors and learnt a great deal about filmmaking in general. The Dead was definitely an opportunity to explore a longer musical narrative and due to the unique visual language of West Africa, it was a chance to explore a rich musical landscape for a movie of this genre.
djm: Would you talk a little bit about how you prepared to assemble your cast of musicians and singers who contributed to the score?
IA: The Ford Brothers wanted the movie to be original in every way possible including the score. They were very keen to communicate the fragile sense of hope the characters were left with in this post-apocalyptic world. Also, in one of my initial conversations with Howard, I described the intended music as arising from nature itself and turning the environment into a twisted and distorted reality. So musically I wanted to develop a delicate sound for the inner journey of the main characters and use experimental vocals and percussion for the natural world and the horror. I worked with a singer friend of mine, Saba Tewelde, from Eritrea in East Africa. She had the exact vocal dichotomy I was looking for to represent the natural world becoming corrupted … something beautiful and unforgiving. Her vocal tones pursue the two main characters throughout the film giving them no chance of respite.
djm: The Ford Brothers talked a little bit about you and your substantial contribution to The Dead on the commentary of the film. They called your music “natural” and that the audience of the film is more than intelligent enough to know how to feel during any given scene. Would you talk about some of the decisions you made in scoring the picture in terms of allowing the audience to discover their own feelings while watching the film instead of telling them how to feel with your music and decisions you made in the sound design of the film?
IA: The challenge was for the music to carefully embody the main characters’ individual thoughts and to also convey it ambiguously to a certain degree. We wanted the audience to become self-aware and contemplative in such moments. These decisions evolved throughout the scoring process as the Directors and I attempted to calibrate our intention for each applicable scene with music. For example, there was music in the scene when Lt. Brian Murphy is talking to Sgt. Daniel Dembele in the car for the first time. We later removed the music as we didn’t want to imply any kind of relationship between the two as they are unknown to each other at this point. And also we didn’t want to highlight Brian’s vulnerability. So later on in the story, when Daniel and Brian are leaving the airport and implicitly committing to help each other, the music here has a stronger underlying effect of an emerging friendship. In another scene there was music when a zombie walks underneath the tree that Brian is sleeping in. The Directors removed the music and used the sound ambience to convey a moment that any noise Brian makes in the tree could be heard by the zombie. The audience can relate to this tension in their own way and so it was more effective.
djm: The film allows the audience to absorb many nuances of African culture and local language where the movie was filmed. How were you able to incorporate African and ethnic influences into your score? Was it an easy process, or did you really have to involve yourself with African cultures, or research?
IA: I was very honoured to work with a kora player, Jally Kebba Susso, who is from The Gambia in West Africa. The kora is an ancient African stringed instrument – very beautiful sounding. Jally comes from a long tradition of kora players – 75 generations. He brought the wisdom of his ancestral experience, which is embodied in the kora playing and the singing that he performs. The words that Jally sings right at the end of the movie loosely translates as “we are all one, we all come from the same Mother”. So there are these African musical nuances that are present in the consciousness of the film throughout.
djm: The Ford Brothers described their process of filming The Dead as “guerrilla filmmaking.” How would you describe the process of your work as the composer on this film?
IA: By the time I met The Ford Brother for the first time, the guerrilla filmmaking was over! I would’ve loved to have gone out to Ghana and Burkina Faso to research music, although the filmmakers had a very challenging time on the shoot. My process began by establishing the reality of this particular story. For me this film is like a neo-realistic take on what it would actually feel like to be involved in the main characters’ situation. They do not want to kill the living dead as some of them are people they were emotionally connected to. Daniel is distressed at having to slay his own people. Also they’re up against the unbearable heat, lack of food and water, and tiredness, which they could possibly die from. The zombies in a sense are another force of nature. The main characters need to rely on their primal instincts in order to survive. Based on this I primarily wanted to experiment with vocals and percussion – two of the most ancient and primitive instruments known to human beings. It had to sound earthy and natural as the music was representing, in essence, a spiritual force. The counterpoint to this would be the light of hope carried within the characters. This is what led me to discovering the delicate voice of the kora, which would represent the internal journey of Brian and Daniel. After establishing the musical language for this film’s reality, it helped me to continue the process in creating themes and new sounds.
djm: There’s very little dialogue in the film. The audience receives information through the images and through the sounds and music of the film. Your score, essentially, is the voice of the film. Would you talk a little bit about bringing your own voice as a composer into the wide-open space of this film? Would you say that your score is the voice and sound of The Dead?
IA: Yes, I believe the score is the voice and sound of The Dead. Due to the little dialogue and laconic exchanges between the characters, the music and sound naturally become more apparent to the audience. The music is another presence in the story. In terms of bringing my voice into the film, I composed using Indian musical scales and most of the live woodwind that you hear on the score is played on an Indian flute (bansuri) by flutist Alex Teymour-Housego. Even though we are in Africa and there are zombies, this is a very human story and I felt the bansuri would still be able to express universal feelings of longing and memories.
djm: There’s a lot of percussion going on in your score. There are many scenes of the slow-moving zombies getting closer and closer to the two main characters, and each of those scenes is heightened by the fast rhythms and beats on the soundtrack. You create a lot of tension and heat with your score. Would you describe some of your choices to enhance the experience of suspense in certain scenes?
IA: Firstly I would like to thank my friend Sass Hoory who performed great live percussion on the soundtrack. I really wanted to experiment with vocals to heighten suspense and tension. I worked with Saba and another singer friend of mine, Claudia Foston, from Ghana. In the scene when Daniel meets Brian for the first time and is pointing his gun down at him, there is an unsettling broken and crying breathing sound as Daniel does not trust him. Conversely, in the scene on the beach, in the section just after the man on the beach gets eaten, (played by Howard Ford!), you can hear the tense screaming – that’s Claudia. In fact throughout this whole scene she is gasping, crying and shrieking. It was my aim to embody these unsettling vocal sounds throughout the score.
djm: Would you talk a little bit about the sound design of the film? There are whole scenes without music, but there’s definitely noise on the soundtrack filling in the spaces.
IA: The sound design was created by Andrew Wilkinson and Francis Ward Lindsay who both did great work. We purposefully had scenes without music as this absence also creates an unsettling silence and threat that you may experience if you were alone in an unknown natural environment in that given situation. It was a great way of connecting the audience with the African wilderness. As half the world now lives in cities, we seem more disconnected from nature so it was great to let the environment be a living entity in the story. There were great uses of sound design throughout the film. In one scene the sound design was used to express the heat and delirium that Brian is experiencing when he is lying ill in bed while the witch doctor is whispering an incantation from the top of the hill.
djm: The Ford Brothers mention on the commentary that they are not fans of using too much music in films. They said they’d “put in more music than they thought they would,” which is a compliment to you. Did they ask you at certain points in post-production and in your scoring process to keep adding more music, or did you come to them with more music than ended up being used?
IA: We had established the music cues at the spotting session and I did compose more music than was used in the film. There is one complete cue and a few unused sections of cues that I have shaped and added to the CD soundtrack. After all the music was placed into the film, it was a process of stripping away cues or sections of cues from the relevant scenes that didn’t need it. Also, I worked closely with Andrew as we knew that at key points in the film there could be both music and sound effects used to achieve the same effect. However, some of the decisions to use either sound or music was made by the Directors at the final dubbing session.
djm: Your score for the film has moments of hope and release when both of the main characters refer back to the photographs they have of their families. Talk a little bit about giving these two characters their own moments of hope in the score.
IA: This was a very important moment in the story. We had to convey their internal motivations as the audience is about to embark on this journey with them. In fact this is one of the rare moments where they have a chance to express their inner feelings and grief. It’s cathartic in a sense as they need to steel themselves before venturing into the unknown. This is why the music is heartfelt as the feelings towards their respective families are pure and filled with hope.
djm: There is a scene when the actor Rob Freeman, who plays Lieutenant Brian Murphy, realizes the journey he has ahead of him. When he sees how far he will have to go for the prospect of safety, the music swells, one of the few times your score has a swelling point. Try to describe your process of scoring that moment in the score.
IA: This is another important moment in the film as we wanted to convey at this point that Brian is now a changed man from who he was at the start of his journey. He’s alone and in order to continue he has become incredibly resilient and hardened. The music is a variation of the main theme expressing how far he has come along on this journey and that his future is still unknown.
djm: In the end title of the film, you have more space to really bring out your themes and motifs. This is where listeners and viewers of the film can really enjoy your music uninterrupted by images. Talk a little bit about writing the music for the end titles.
IA: An earlier version of this piece of music was actually the initial demo I had sent to Howard Ford. They really liked it but there was nowhere appropriate to place this music in the film due to its pace. However, we found that it worked for the end titles as the Directors wanted to hint that the journey may not be over and that the real journey is about to begin.
djm: Will you be scoring The Dead 2 for the Ford Brothers?
djm: Tell me what you can of The Dead 2 and where your score will be headed thematically for that film.
IA: The Dead 2 will be another journey story taking place almost parallel to the timeline of the first movie. We have yet to talk about the direction the music will take. However, I personally would like to build on musical themes that I began in The Dead, and if you have seen the teaser trailer you will know why there will also be a strong Indian influence!
djm: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
IA: Please check out the following short documentary I made on composing the music for The Dead. There are insightful interviews with the musicians Jally Kebba Susso and Saba Tewelde…
“The Music Behind The Dead” – http://youtu.be/1VhjTsvY7uI.
Many thanks to Imran Ahmad for taking the time for this interview.
(Side note: The soundtrack to The Dead has been released onto CD via Howlin’ Wolf Records. Please visit: www.howlinwolfrecords.com for details.)
david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES will be published in late 2013.