Earlier this month I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Dara Taylor about her work on The Invitation, a horror film that puts a modern twist on the vampire story. Taylor studied composition at Cornell independently with Zachary Wadsworth and Steven Stucky. In 2009, she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s in Music and Psychology. Taylor then received a Masters of Music from New York University in 2011 where she studied Film Music Composition with Mark Suozzo.
I hope you enjoy our interview!
How did you get connected with the film?
I heard about this film, and I sent in a reel and then I had a really great meeting with Jessica Thompson, the director. And I was able to read the script. It seemed like so much fun to work on the film and with the whole team. So that’s how that happened.
When you read the script, what did you think of the story? Because it’s a bit of a twist on a vampire story, isn’t it?
I think it was a fresh take with the twist that you didn’t necessarily see coming from the script standpoint. So, yeah, it was a really fun ride to read through.
As you were putting together the music, then, knowing that this was a vampire story, were you influenced by any previous vampire stories or films?
I tried not to look too hard into it, because we wanted to start fresh with the visuals and seeing the graphic nature of it, I know we wanted to try and find a way to speak to that Gothic nature but finding ways to modernize it.
How did you go about modernizing it.
Part of it was processing parts of the orchestra and then also adding these really processed and reversed vocals on top that are at the forefront of the score. And also adding just strange elements from found sounds or synthetics and those sorts of things to make it feel a little less traditional.
So speaking of unusual sounds, is there a theremin in the mix somewhere? I was listening to the score earlier and I swear I hear a theremin.
There is no theremin. Actually, there are some other synthetic sounds, there are a lot of vocals and processed vocals that make that sound strange. It depends on which scene or which track you mean, but there are things that are just whistles that by the end of it had this high screaming nature.
That is so awesome because it didn’t feel like vocals.
Yeah, it depends on where it is. It might be a combination of vocals and strings. but yeah, [it’s about] trying to find things that give you that eerie feeling without necessarily going straight to what might be in a traditional horror film.
What people have all known about this music is how it combines the modern sound and the romantic and gothic style. Was that always the general idea going into this? Or did that come about over time?
Um, no, I think it was always the purpose. It’s the purpose in the script, as well as trying to find smooth transitions from romance to horror to the Gothic feel. So it was definitely a thing that we planned on at the beginning and worked to find that balance of a modern gothic romance, or score.
So, are there are other themes then for each of the characters?
Yeah, so there are some themes: Evie has a theme that starts off with a soft acoustic guitar and grows more strident and bold as she does. There’s a theme for Walt, which also acts as a theme for the manor in general. And their mission for having her there.
Then there are a few other motifs. There’s this screaming reverse vocal thing with a lot of distortion in it, which are three vocalists that we recorded here in Los Angeles, and they represent the three brides. So [it’s] this beckoning siren call to Evie, but then there’s also a taunting theme that’s related to that as they toy with her as she’s going through the manor.
Is there any one theme that you would say is the most important or are they all equally important?
I think they all have their importance. But we probably hear the Carfax manor theme the most often and it’s full form. I think the other ones are often interwoven in, but sometimes they’re a little more variations of the theme. Just because they develop the most. Because Evie is the one developing the most during this.
So, I’ve been wanting to ask this, there’s jump scare moments in this movie, right? How does one go about writing music for those. I’ve always been curious how that’s done.
It’s seeing what works best for each moment and whether that’s leading up to the jump scare. A lot of times it’s being pretty violent. And then having both the music and the end of the scare come in, either at the same time, or having the music a half a fraction of a second after the scare, just because light and sound hit you at different times. So it’s jarring for both visuals and sound.
So when you do it, do you watch the film play out and just mark the spot?
Yeah, and sometimes there’s a little trial and error there. Moving it around a few frames at a time to see, okay, it feels like it’s giving it away a little bit here. Let’s try a few frames later. Or oh, now it feels too late. So there’s still a bit of a little trial and error in that regard.
So you said mentioned there’s a whole mix of instruments in this film, synthetic and whatnot. What specifically was used, because you said you modulated the orchestra.
There’s a lot of vocals, a lot of either found sounds or things that are reminiscent of found sounds. There are a lot of bells visually, like the service bells. It’s finding ways to have ethereal ringing bell sounds that make you think of bells to echo back having some sounds that are almost croaky. Because the vampires, they climb on the walls and the ceilings lizard-like. There are instances where we have things that sound like scraping tile, and which speaks to Evie and her love of ceramics. Yeah, so just a bunch of elements that are put together.
Could you define what found sounds are?
So [found sounds] are sounds you’d hear in nature. Or, for example, the sound of you scraping your fingernail, or a tile, or something like that, something that feels very organic and using that for more of a musical purpose.
So not traditional instruments stuff.
It almost sounds like what foley artists use?
Yeah, so it’s using some of those things, but using them musically, and using the rhythm of something or using the salient note that you might hear from that, and using that in a musical way.
How did working on The Invitation compare with other projects you’ve worked on?
I feel very fortunate to have a lot of variety lately in projects. I mean, [it was] definitely a very different tone than some of the more recent animation or comedy work [I’ve done]. But I love the freedom of finding strange sounds and having that sandbox to play around in. But something that’s very similar between, say, comedy and horror is how important timing is. And choosing moments that should have no music or when music should come in after the scare or after the joke. So that lead up to it. So like fine tuning those timings for the purpose of storytelling, it’s similar between a lot of genres.
You talk about timing, is there any one specific moment where the timing was absolutely crucial?
Actually, the moment when they reveal where the bride is, I suppose that would be it. But there’s not really a big reveal musically. I think we wanted to more feel the dread. But yeah, there are moments, other than the obvious jump scare moments, in terms of tone, and choosing when to change the tone from eerie and unsettling to dark. Like there’s a theme in the beginning where she was watching all these housekeepers being given their assignments and one thing that Jessica Thompson the director and I discussed where we should be eerie and unsettling, because she doesn’t know what’s going on. And then once she leaves the scene, then we can go back into the darker Gothic nature of everything that’s happening, but not to tip our hand too soon and really stay with [Evie] and her discovery.
So musically, you’re dropping hints to the audience, but not to Evie, as it were.
Yeah, yeah. In a way.
That’s cool. Where in the filming process, were they when you came in to do things?
So I was brought on right before they started shooting. And that’s when I started working on a suite of thematic ideas, just throwing everything at the table to see what was working and what wasn’t working. And that was a thing that Jessica [Thompson] specifically requested during production to be able to percolate these thoughts as early as possible.
So the director wanted you in there as early as possible, even before they’d shot anything.
Yeah. So we can all get on the same page.
I’d have to imagine that was very helpful for the process to have so much collaboration.
Yeah, it was great. And working with Jessica [Thompson] was a really phenomenal experience.
Did she give you a lot of feedback then?
Yeah, and it really gave me the license to just think outside of the box. And think of strange instruments and make it a little weird and unsettling.
Since you came in so early, how much time did you have for the actual scoring process?
I guess, from the time where we spotted so they finished, they finished a director’s cut. And we walked through where the music should come in and out and what the tone of that music should be. To the final delivering for the final mix, I’d say there’s probably two and a half months or so. But before then there was a couple of months where it was just working and thinking of ideas and all of that while they were in their editing process.
So I’m curious that as you were working these themes together, what theme, what part ended up coming first?
I started with Evie and Walt’s themes and the melodic structure of those, but then made some slight changes to the instrumentation and how they developed once I was able to see the picture.
Cool. So Evie and Walt are at the center of the whole thing.
Yeah, and then everything else came from from watching it. And the visuals really give you so much.
So now that the movie is out and people can go see it is there any musical detail you’re hoping the audience notices as they’re watching?
In the very beginning theme there’s a scene where one of the previous brides sees the grand piano and the piano wires. And she has to find a specific use for that. And when we see that I play around a lot with the prepared piano, which is like a piano, but things are done to the keys and to the inside to make strange sounds. That’s when I first introduced this instrumentation. And then, and in other instances of like escape and fighting back, I bring back these kinds of prepared piano sounds to harken back to that moment.
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Dara Taylor about The Invitation. I want to thank Dara for taking the time to speak with me about this film.
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