What starts off as a reunion between four friends in the Louisiana bayou, soon takes a dark turn as they accidently summon, Erzulie, a mermaid water goddess and locals intervene. This is the premise of Erzulie, directed by Christine Chen from a screenplay co-written with Camille Gladney and starring Zoe Graham, Jason Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Trieu, Alexander Biglane, Timeca M. Seretti, and Isaiah LaBorde. Nick Longoria served as the film’s composer; he has previously worked with Christine on seven of her short films, including A Bird’s Nest. It’s worth noting that his band, Infugue, also has a few featured tracks in the film. Below we spoke to Nick about everything from how he got into the business to why his Erzulie score is not your typical horror score.
Can you talk about how you got into composing for film? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I’ve always enjoyed film scores since I can remember. One of my earliest memories is rewatching the final battle in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, while John Williams’s Duel of Fates played as my brother Joseph and I reenacted the lightsaber battle (RIP Qui-Gon Jinn). At some point in my early teens all I would listen to was classical music and film scores. It wasn’t until I got into writing rock music my senior year of high school that I was able to use my new recording skills to channel my passion of film scores into creating music for friends’ short films and student projects.
How did you first get involved with Erzulie?
I had previously worked with Christine Chen, director of Erzulie, on 7 other short films, the first being A Bird’s Nest, which won top 5 in the Louisiana Film Prize. I’ve known many colleagues in the film industry, who have roughed it through the lower tiers of the industry with their colleagues who kind of got left behind once they came onto bigger projects, so I am so grateful that when Christine got this opportunity to direct a supernatural horror film, she called me back to once more collaborate in bring her vision to life.
What attracted you to the Erzulie script?
Firstly, this was the first feature film I was offered to score, and that had always been a dream of mine. Most of everything I had scored up until Erzulie had been drama short films, which is how it goes with low budget indie short films. As I mentioned before, the types of scores I loved and wanted to create were of epic magnitude like Star Wars and The Batman Trilogy, so this script being a thriller with fantasy and horror elements excited me a lot.
How would you describe your score for the film?
Definitely not a typical horror score. It’s odd how that’s how the film is being marketed because after my first read of the script and talks I had with Christine, I wasn’t really getting that vibe. To draw a very palatable reference, a film like Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan) where you had this mystical mermaid and vague ancient lore, you had moments of “horror” to scare the audience, but overall there is a variety of themes that conveyed the mystical and unknown. The film score is very synth heavy, with splashes of mangled guitar in tense scenes, and epic strings, horns, and percussion for the finale scene. So I would classify the score more as an 80s supernatural thriller type of score. As I mentioned earlier, most of my early influences were classical and orchestral film scores, even most of the Hans Zimmer scores I would binge were mainly orchestral, e.g. Gladiator, The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean. It wasn’t until The Dark Knight Trilogy that I started to dig into his earlier synth scores like Rain Man. I do probably owe a little credit to Adam Jones of S U R V I V E, whose band mates went on to score Stranger Things. I was introduced to Adam one night in 2008 after a show with my band Infugue (then Knights) by our drummer at the time, Matt Herzig. Adam lived in the area so we went to chill at his house after our show. The guy was an encyclopedia on synths, and he was kind enough to download a ton of his extensive catalogue of synth music onto my iPod ranging from the electronic band Tangerine Dream to virtuoso theremin player Clara Rockmore. As we waited for the giant transfer of songs to finish moving to my iPod, he schooled me on the deep lore of analog synthesizers.
Christine W Chen directed Erzulie. Did she have a very specific idea of what she wanted the score to sound like?
All of my previous film scores for Christine had been orchestral with bits of guitar, as it meshed more with the indie drama vibe, so with the prospect of the supernatural, Christine really wanted me to lean heavily on synth, which she knew I had the chops for. 80s synth pop was something she had mentioned, so I rolled with that as a basis for much of the scenes without tension and horror. With that initial direction I began to create a Spotify playlist for Christine that had lots of synth scores I loved to help guide me in the exact direction she envisioned.
Did you create specific themes for the different characters? If so, can you discuss those?
I definitely had motifs for many of the characters, some being melodic and others being tonally. For the character of Ari, played by Diana Rose, I used lots of melancholy clean guitar to mirror her lamenting the loss of her brother. For the villain Rhett, played by Jason Kirkpatrick, I use a tuned down distorted guitar that droned menacingly, with an angry pulse of synth that never let the tension rest. Rhett’s motif also extended to the chemicals in the water he was responsible for, which gave me a fun opportunity to psych out the audience by redirecting the evil energy lurking onto Pierce as he investigated the origin of the chemicals. For Faye, played by Zoe Graham, I thought it would be cool to have her motif be the same as her abusive boyfriend James, as to show how the fear he put in her was always looming on her mind. The James theme was similar to Rhett’s, a pulsating synth, although faster than Rhett’s, to mirror his surface rage and motorcycle. For Wendy, played by Courtney Oliviér, rather than using a recurring motif, I crafted her tones around her changing motives to push the girls into the unknown. So lots of mystical melodies and tones in tandem with her wanting to summon Erzulie. For Erzulie, played by Leila Anastasia Scott, I used a ringtone motif, similar to what John Williams did in Close Encounters, whenever her ancient symbol was shown. Once Erzulie appears, I began to use lots of huge synth pads and choirs to give her presence a god-like feel, with hints of the vastness of outer space, which isn’t blatantly cannon by any means, but more of my own conclusions I drew from other supernatural horror films like the space turtle Maturin from It.
What would you say was your hardest scene to score? Why was it so challenging?
The hardest scene to score was the summoning of Erzulie. That scene goes through a rollercoaster of emotions, first ranging from mystical and eerie, to sorrowful as Wendy desperately explains her spell casting with her friends who think she is having a mental breakdown, to the frightening splashes in the water that attempt to pull Faye into its murky depths.
Thanks to Nick Longoria for taking the time for this interview.