Red Stewart chats with Colin Stetson about Hereditary….
Colin Stetson is an American composer who has been working in the film and television industries since the mid-2000s. He is best known for his compositions for projects like Blue Caprice, The First, and Hereditary.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Mr. Stetson, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. Even though most composers play instruments, many of the ones I’ve spoken to don’t have your extensive discography when it comes to that aspect. So thank you so much.
The press release described you as an avant-garde composer. This is a word that has a definition, but I don’t feel it’s been particularly specified in the music industry, which is constantly experimenting. What would you define avant-garde as, as it pertains to music?
I probably wouldn’t define it as it’s described in music. It’s really just a catch-all phrase used by any number of people to vaguely describe anything that isn’t “normal” or “mainstream” or “conventional.” So I don’t really consider myself to be definitively an avante-garde composer. But then again, I don’t tend to spend too much time, or anytime for that matter, really trying to describe the music I make in those terms.
That makes sense. As I said, music is experimental and constantly changing. What may be non-mainstream one year could become popular the next. Labels can be restricting. Now as I said before, you play many, many instruments. And one thing I found interesting on your IMDB page is that you contributed to many big movies as a player, like Rust and Bone and 12 Years a Slave. Have those experiences shaped you as a composer, being a part of the recording process?
Oh, for those films, those are instances of my material having ended up in the soundtrack to a film. So, my role wasn’t active in either of those in the process of building those films. It was simply music that I had already made for a record was used in the score. Like, in the case of 12 Years a Slave, Joe Walker and Steve McQueen had been using one of my pieces of music as temp in the editing process, and when they gave the temp score to Hans Zimmer to go ahead and replace, Hans decided that he didn’t want to replace two of mine because he said that it works too well. And so they talked about it and called me and we talked about it and agreed to keep them.
So, my involvement was not enormously creative in that instance, but it was one where I was thrilled to have been a part of something that was such a monumental work and excited to operate alongside Hans’s music, which I have always admired. Good experience overall, but not one of collaboration.
That’s fascinating to hear regardless, and really speaks to your talent if Hans Zimmer wants to keep your music in the final project. Now, let’s talk about Hereditary. This movie came out earlier this year and really made some news, because of its unique horror aesthetic and societal themes, one of those being mental illness. Now mental illness is of course sensitive to talk about, but in a horror movie your goal as a composer is to double down on the scary, otherwise the film loses tension. So I’m wondering, what was that process like, having to make the movie scary, but the specific topics not?
Let me say that the whole challenge for me was finding a path and sticking to it, while being as minimalistic and lean as possible. So, when Ari Aster, the director of Hereditary, and I first started talking about what he had envisioned for the score, the general direction was specific in that he wanted to feel evil and he wanted to avoid all touches of sentimentality.
And so, what I set out to do was to assign a character to the score, or rather the score to a character: an unseen character in the film that would interact with the unfolding narrative and interact with each of the other characters on screen as everything developed throughout the course of it so it could then have its own reaction: it could taunt or lust or grieve.
For me, it wasn’t that hard of a thing to dance around and pull all the strings with regards to the extremity of those moments dealing with potential mental illness, because it is one of the most horrific a thing a mind can experience. And so, to me, in presenting the score as a whole and trying to mirror the unfolding drama, it really was not much of a stretch there.
And it shows in the final score, which I had the privilege to listen to prior to this interview. You hit it out of the park, and I definitely think the themes are clear in the music. You mentioned the director, Ari Aster, who actually wrote the script with your music in mind prior to even asking you to do it. When you were composing, did you find that that musical influence made Hereditary’s score easier to do than other films where you’re going in without that pre-production aspect?
Most of the scripts that I’ve done have been influenced in some capacity by my music.
So it’s a common thread. People who’ve reached out to me have heard my music initially, and part of it has been their impetus for reaching out, so that has not been entirely unique to this project.
Does it make it easier? I don’t think it’s ever easier. I was very fortunate to have as much lead time as I did on this one so that I could spend more time doing it. I started writing music for Hereditary well before I saw any footage, only having ever read the script, and a lot of that original music that I wrote ended up being kept in the final edit. Those things created the print for what ended up being the entirety of the score. Again, I wouldn’t qualify it as easier, but it definitely was something of a luxury that you don’t normally get. Being able to start out early and establish the entire score not based off of temp at the last minute, but based off of a true understanding and interpretation of the script, from the beginning.
That’s cool to hear that you’ve had these experiences where your music has been used to get you involved in a project, and that you ended up not having to change much in the final edit of Hereditary. I’ve talked to composers who’ve told me how things have changed significantly from that first music they wrote to the final product.
Now, one of the benefits of talking about a movie post-release is you can see the reception, and Hereditary actually polarized audiences like The Witch did back in 2015 and It Comes at Night did in 2017. I’m curious, what do you believe caused this disparity in audiences?
That doesn’t seem like a notable occurrence. Not to be a jerk, but the fact is, right now, we’re living in an era where everybody has the opportunity to say everything publicly about everything, and so you’re going to hear from everybody. And the idea that there will ever be anything that everybody agrees about is insane. But also, you have to think about how it is that people react. There are strong incentives to line up on one extreme side or the other of certain things.
And also, the fundamental of all of this is that marketing is just different now than it ever was before. The same kind of beef, but it’s unleashed in an extreme way. I mean that, in order to get clicks, to get people’s attention, websites need to force people, psychologically, to click on their ad in their article. So when you’re talking about a scary movie, you’re going to have to say that it’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen; this is the most disturbing thing you’ve ever experienced. So that someone on the other end of the screen will click to see and hear about that thing that is the most of whatever it’s trying to be.
The fact is nothing is the most that it ever was. But you hear about it daily. There’s a whole other host of “the best” and “the most” and all it is they’re pulling one on all of us and trying to make money off of us. And so, when you have the foundation established that way and people go to see the thing that everybody seems to be saying in lockstep is the most of this one thing, and someone experiences it and goes “oh that was good, but is it the most?” then their will be a pile of people who go “hey, I actually didn’t agree with you, and I disagree in a way that we do now on the Internet, which is to say I completely oppose this and I take the opposite.”
And so, it’s all just symptoms of this ridiculousness that plays out everyday in that sphere, and ultimately is made even more ridiculous by the notion that all it is is a scheme to pay advertisers. That’s the reason why it’s all structured that way: they are making a living. Advertising is the way that everything fuels itself.
So, I feel like that’s kind of a structural issue that runs so deep that there’s nothing to be done about it, so it’s almost not even worth noting.
You’re definitely right in that marketing and critical reception work in a way that are about fostering extreme opinions. Especially with regards to horror movies, which have a set template, yet are oversaturated at the same time. My last question is a sign-off I like to ask every composer I speak to, and that is what are three pieces of music that have had the greatest influence on you as a composer? It can be a band album or a film score or a video game score. Three pieces that have influenced you the greatest.
I would say Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s for Prisoners, and Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood.
All great choices! The Thin Red Line is, of course, one of Mr. Zimmer’s most iconic pieces. But thank you once again Mr. Stetson for taking the time out of your day to speak with me.
My pleasure man, take care.
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Stetson for sitting down with us. Hereditary is out on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital HD from Amazon Video and iTunes.
Special thanks to Cas Spencer and Adrianna Perez of White Bear PR for making this interview possible.