IFC Midnight’s latest horror/thriller, The Djinn, is currently in select theaters and VOD. To celebrate the recent release, we spoke with the film’s composer, Matthew James, and had him answer the below ten questions. Matthew’s score for the film is also available on all digital sites.
-When did you first know you wanted to be a film/tv composer?
Honestly, like many of us, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice. I’m a lifelong musician/singer/songwriter and a huge fan of cinema, but I can’t say it was my goal. I’ve only been in Los Angeles for a few years, but I was fortunate to hit the ground running and get in the mix quickly. I absolutely love the challenge and diversity of the role and look forward to grow with it.
-How involved were the directors, Justin Powell and David Charbonier, with the music of the film?
Very. In addition to being astute filmmakers, David and Justin are huge film score fanatics. They were very specific about what they wanted and what they did not want (cough cough piano!). Looking back, that was a bit intimidating at first, but once we developed the tone for the film, we moved through nicely.
-You have mentioned before that you used some of your own vocals in the score. Did this come naturally to you?
I did. Yes, I’ve been a singer in some capacity for many years. In this specific instance, the more difficult part was creating the exact tone the gents were looking for. The sample libraries I have were not cutting it, I ended up surprising them with my own take on it. Looking back, that was fairly risky putting myself out there considering we just met and could’ve gone horribly, but it luckily it paid off!
-Can you point us to which tracks we might be able to hear you on?
Yes! “Book of Shadows” and “Spirit of Fire”, “The Djinn Awakens”, “The Toll” – to name a few. You’ll find different variations on these themes throughout the score. See if you can pick out some other spots where it’s a bit more hidden and less obvious!
–The Djinn is definitely a ‘slow burn’ type of film. Would you say your score fits this description too?
Definitely a slow burn. Yes absolutely, by design we had to grow from a whisper to a giant roar come the 2nd and 3rd acts. We take the journey along with Dylan as he faces the many challenges throughout. It was crucial to not telegraph or get too big before it was time, this was certainly an exercise in minimalism during this build.
-In a previous interview you said there was a lot of experimentation around the Djinn’s theme. How different did his theme sound in the beginning, to what was in the final film?
A big part of the experimentation was the blending of the vocals with strings and synth. Honestly once we agreed on the vocal approach, it only grew from there. When you find the sonic world of the film, at that point it becomes a matter of figuring out the puzzle pieces of what thematic material goes where and what purpose it serves.
-When listening to the track, “Could I Have Stopped It”? you can hear signs of hope in the music. Is this the message you were trying to convey?
Yes absolutely! These flashback sequences were some of the most difficult in the film due to the sensitive nature and the myriad of emotions happening. There is a certain somber, requiem feeling also feathered with hope. I feel that there’s a lot of that throughout the film, as dark as it can be at points, we always find a bit of light.
-Covid made finishing the film pretty difficult for you all. Can you discuss how you were finally able to complete the movie?
Yes, indeed it did! In fact, the directors and I are about 97% + certain we had COVID in middle/late January 2020 before it even had a name. We had all become sicker than we ever had been in our lives to the point where we took a month off of post, it was absolutely brutal. I believe we all were still coughing for months after the fact. Anecdotally, I actually delivered the score during lockdown while wearing a mask inside my studio. Our final playback at the mix stage was all wearing masks AND our viewing in the theater when the film release was also wearing a mask. What a wild time!
-What instrument have you found makes the scariest sounds?
That’s a tough one – really depends on the approach and how an instrument is articulated. A tabletop and a plastic bag can sound scary in the right setting. That’s the beauty of sound in general. I’d say from the traditional orchestral standpoint, strings definitely are the hallmark of scary sounds. The “clusters” and aleatoric sounds we’re all used to hearing can be utterly unnerving. That being said, I love hearing unique approaches to instruments to evoke emotions and sounds we haven’t heard before. That’s a huge part of our job, to play in the lab as an experiment.
-Have you watched any good horror films or shows lately you would like to recommend?
I just binge re-watched The Haunting of Hill House – to anyone who hasn’t seen that I highly recommend it. Also, not necessarily horror, but given the current climate, Utopia with John Cusack is pretty horrific in my opinion, especially during the height of the pandemic.