What would happen if you bought a new house and the man you bought it from refused to leave? That is the premise of Deon Taylor’s most recent project, The Intruder, starring Dennis Quaid, Meagan Good and Michael Ealy. From the scenes shown in the trailer, the film looks like one hell of a thrill ride with an epic showdown between the couple and the deranged seller.
Every good horror/thriller is accompanied by a pulsating score, this time by Emmy winning composer Geoff Zanelli. Zanelli shines in this genre, you might remember his scores to DreamWorks’ Disturbia or Columbia Picture’s Secret Window. We decided to speak with him about his process for scoring The Intruder and his on going collaboration with director, Deon Taylor, amongst other things in the below interview.
How did you get involved with The Intruder?
The Intruder is the second film that I’ve done with director Deon Taylor. We met through his picture editor two years ago when he was making Traffik.
About how much music did you create for The Intruder?
There’s just over an hour of music in the film.
Did you create specific character themes for this film? If so, which was your favorite character to compose for?
Yes, I usually write character themes, and it was appropriate in this case. I wrote Charlie’s music first. He’s the character Dennis Quaid plays in the film, and he’s definitely fertile ground for a composer! He starts the film as an affable guy, just looking to sell his house, and, without giving too much away, things go south in a hurry from that point. He’s dark, he’s got secrets, and by the end of the film you’re seeing Dennis Quaid in a character more twisted than any I can recall him ever playing. So that was a highlight for me. Annie and Scott, who are the couple that buy the house from Charlie, needed a theme as well. It’s more of a love them, but I suppose you could think of it as a theme for the two of them combined. That was is more emotional, more tender as you might expect, and so the contrast between the two themes is what makes the score work.
You have worked with The Intruder director, Deon Taylor, a few times now. Each time you work together do you know what types of sounds he likes ahead of time or are you always trying to bring new, fresh ideas to experiment with? A trademark a lot of composers have is creating music out of found objects. Did you incorporate any non-instruments into this film?
It’s funny you ask that, because the soundscape is really the jumping off point for Deon and my conversations; on both Traffik and The Intruder, we began by talking about sounds we thought would be appropriate to use, rather than who needs a theme, or any specific notes we ought to use. We thought since this film is about a house, we ought to go looking for sounds that relate to that. Deon thought of doorbells which are incorporated into both the sound design as a literal element, and the score as a more figurative element. By that I mean I built up an arsenal of bell sounds to use, big ones, small ones, giant church bells for instance, tiny handbells, and ones I used a bit of studio wizardry to torture into interesting sounds.
Then, I thought what about construction materials? Things you actually make houses out of. Air ducts, wood, nails, metal sheeting, that sort of thing. So I took a trip to the local Home Depot and started hitting things in the store with hammers and drumsticks and dragging rubber balls across metal sheets to decide what materials I wanted to incorporate into the score. People were looking at me very oddly…
Then I had a cage built out of PVC pipe, from which I could hang all those metal things, and that became my percussion section, which I bashed on myself until it started to fall apart. I named it the Cacophony Cage, and for the most part it’s my percussion section for the score, rather than the conventional drums you might be used to.
There’s a bit of me chanting in the score as well, just grunting or breathing heavy. I tried to find something to replace those sounds, actually, which were put in while I was conceiving certain pieces of music as a placeholder, but nothing really carries the same weight as a human voice, so they stayed.
And I also bought a cello which I can’t play to save my life, but I can make it howl and beg for mercy, so that’s another sound that ended up in the score.
The Intruder has a lot different vibe than your last films Christopher Robin and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Which is more difficult to score?
It’s all hard! It really is. The day you start writing a new score, no matter what it is, is terrifying. I came to realize that even while we as composers develop our own styles, we also push for originality whenever we can, so what you’re doing by writing music is crossing off things you’ll allow yourself to do in the future. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but it really does feel difficult. The challenge is actually what I love about doing this. It keeps me up at night, but it keeps me engaged every day.
Did you have any musical inspirations for The Intruder?
Those evolved over time. In the beginning, I thought of it as something of a throwback movie and started down a path that might remind you of a Hitchcock film, Vertigo or Psycho maybe, but very little of that approach really felt right. Some of the early part of the movie still plays like that, but as the chaos mounts, the score starts getting more modern, hopefully a little more unique, and it really unravels into something I hope feels bespoke and singular to this film.
Many thanks to Geoff Zanelli for taking the time for this interview.