Montreal’s genre-based Fantasia International Film Festival just unveiled their full 2019 lineup with notable titles including Fox Searchlight Picture’s Ready or Not, Hideo Nakata’s Sadako and recent Cannes debut Vivarium, starring Jesse Eisenberg. Also getting some buzz is David Marmor’s 1BR starring Alan Blumenfeld (Heroes), Taylor Nichols (PEN15, Jurassic Park III), Naomi Grossman (American Horror Story), Giles Matthey (Once Upon a Time, True Blood), Earnestine Phillips (Here Comes the Boom), Susan Davis (WarGames) and Nicole Brydon Bloom. The film follows a young woman starting over in a new city. She lands a perfect apartment, only to discover, too late, that the place is not at all what it seems. In anticipation of the upcoming world premiere, we decided to speak with one of the film’s creatives, composer Ronen Landa. Some of Landa’s previous credits include IFC Midnight’s The Pact and At the Devil’s Door. Below Landa discusses everything from what instruments were key for 1BR to his working relationship with the director.
How did you get involved with 1BR? What was the initial appeal of the project?
I’ve known producer Allard Cantor and his partner at Epicenter Jarrod Murray for several years, and we’ve bonded over a shared love of certain bands and music. Allard knew about my experience with genre films, and when they set out to make this film he sent some of my work to the other filmmakers and even invited me out to the film’s wrap party. Luckily, I was on reasonably good behavior that night and made enough of an impression on director David Marmor to land a meeting.
We hit it off right away and stayed in touch through the editing process. I suggested some creative approaches for the temp score and that helped us develop a very productive collaboration.
When I first read this script, it was clear that this is exactly the kind of genre film that I love working with, part psychological exploration and part unmitigated terror. It was a great opportunity to blend my love of musical experimentation with a more traditional emotional language.
How would you describe your score for 1BR?
This score stays trained on Sarah’s perspective — helping the audience establish a deep connection to her point of view is the key. I started composing this score by sketching out a piano theme that captured her innocence and naivety at the beginning of the story.
As we move through the film, Sarah’s world starts to get uncomfortable and strange sounds begin to creep into the music. The idea was to take typical musical sounds and turn them on their heads — much in the way a typical apartment complex becomes something very, very different on screen.
Did the director of the film, David Marmor, have a specific idea of what he wanted your score to sound like or did he give you more creative freedom to decide?
David was drawn to my earlier work so I had a sense of where we were going, but we worked together very closely on setting a creative direction, which was a really beautiful part of our collaboration. This started even before I wrote any music— I shared some music with David that resonated with the script in my mind, and we spent a lot of time talking it over.
One of the great accomplishments we had was using music to accentuate some complicated visual storytelling — David would come to my studio and together we made sure every musical element was helping us tell the story perfectly.
I definitely had a lot of freedom to develop the unique sounds and specific melodies that I thought would work best, but the best scores are always a mind-meld between the composer and director and I think we achieved that. It’s really a credit to David; 1BR is his first feature, but he’s a natural artistic collaborator, a music lover and a great creative mind. It was seamless.
What instrument(s) did you find were key in this particular story to set the tone or musical theme you all were striving to achieve for 1BR?
As weird and terrifying as things get, the melodic themes are the heart of the score. We recorded those themes with a small ensemble of piano, harp, violin, clarinet and brass. There is still nothing quite like acoustic instruments to build the emotional core of a film, they add that sense of depth and dimensionality that only live recordings can achieve.
Some of my favorite examples of sounds we transformed for the creepier moments are a vocal line that is run through some discordant echo effects, a detuned electric guitar electronically slowed down and then played backwards, and percussion played through guitar stompboxes and an amplifier. They are organic sounds and feel familiar, but the effect is very unsettling.
We also recorded an ensemble of extremely low woodwinds to fill out the bass spectrum. We got these thunderous growls from a contrabassoon and airy low ambience from a contrabass clarinet along with a few others. I need to add up how many feet of tubing we had in the studio — it was monstrous.
You have scored numerous documentaries. Is scoring a horror/thriller like 1BR a lot different than scoring a documentary?
They are very different and very alike! And I love them both. At the end of the day a successful score is going to serve as the film’s emotional glue, and as a composer I’m looking to connect to those emotions that drive the storytelling and then translate them into themes and textures.
That process, the collaborative work with a filmmaker, the technical work of music production — those are all similar whether I’m working on a doc or a horror film (or any other genre).
The amazing thing about horror films is that they offer this musical opportunity to experiment very creatively in a way most other film genres don’t usually call for. A scary sound can lose its punch over time too, so the genre pushes me to stay consistently inventive. I’ve always felt a kinship with the experimental composers of the last 100 years or so, men and women trying to create and organize sound in new ways. So I’m fanatical about these opportunities— it’s not just about the sounds themselves, but about that spirit of pushing the musical and artistic envelope.
1BR takes place in Los Angeles. How much did the story’s setting affect your score?
Los Angeles is full of people who made their way here to chase their dreams. As a transplant from the east coast myself, I definitely connected with that feeling of possibility and also apprehension about life in LA. Sarah embodies that in the film, and our main theme captures her state of mind as she seeks out a new future in a new city.
How can music, in your opinion, reflect the descent of someone who we hope will be good and kind but instead descend into anger and destruction?
I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone, but this was one of the major challenges of the score. The characters are complicated, and that kind of nuanced writing is one of the reasons this film works so well. It challenges expectations in the best way. I think the key was to always stay focused on how Sarah responds to her environment as it warps around her. The score definitely travels into some dark territory.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I recently launched a very different kind of collaboration, a mixed media album with visual artist Sheila Darcey called A∞A//Art on A Loop that I am so proud of. Sheila is an exceptional artist who works from a meditative place — she created original works listening to my music, and then I scored the time-lapse videos of her process. We are continuing to find new avenues to work together and we are currently exploring some live and possibly interactive performances next.
In the coming months I also hope we’ll see releases of two films I scored. Yinz is a dark comedy and I had the pleasure of recording a full orchestra for that one. Do No Harm is a documentary about the epidemic of physician stress plaguing our medical system with terrible consequences for patients and physicians alike — it’s an important film and exposes a fundamental problem with our healthcare.
You can learn more about Ronen Landa at http://ronenlanda.com/
1BR will celebrate its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 18th, screening during the esteemed Frontiéres Co-Production Market, in Montreal, Canada.