By RACHEL REEVES
In director Jacob Johnston’s new slasher film DREAMCATCHER, masked killers and EDM collide on the dance floor. What starts as a fun, bonding night out for estranged sisters Ivy (Elizabeth Posey) and Pierce (Niki Koss) quickly turns into something much more sinister. Securing tickets to the hottest underground electronic music festival in town, the sisters and accompanying friends inadvertently become entangled in a web of trauma, toxic, music industry manipulation, sexy DJs, and a bloody swirl of violence and mayhem.
With music at the cold, black heart of the narrative, a strong score was not only a good idea, it was imperative. Thankfully for all involved, composer Alexander Taylor not only met expectations, he absolutely crushed them with his rock n’ roll dusted, electronic music hybrid composition. Working alongside fresh, standalone licensed EDM tracks, Taylor’s score adds subtle layers of information and key emotional weight to the overall narrative. In celebration of the film’s recent release on VOD, RUE MORGUE sat down with Taylor (virtually) to talk all about his work on DREAMCATCHER, as well as his score for the hit genre documentary, SCREAM QUEEN! MY NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
DREAMCATCHER is Jacob Johnston’s feature directorial debut. How did you first connect with Jacob and become involved in the project?
I actually met Jacob at a film festival in 2016. I think it was the Idyllwild Film Festival. He had a short playing there called Ticket Like a Man. It was funny, it was cute and it was really well made so I tried to find him. That’s what you’re supposed to do at the film festivals: try to schmooze and meet directors that you can tell are competent. The short was a comedy which isn’t usually what I score, but I could tell there was professionalism behind the end product. So I found him afterwards and we grabbed a beer. I had scored a horror short that year and was up for “best score” so the genre of horror just naturally came up. He ended up talking about how much he loves horror too, how he’s constantly writing and how that’s what his end goal [was], to work in horror as well. That’s really what allowed us to hit it off. We kept in touch for years, and, flash forward to 2019, he tells me about DREAMCATCHER and sends me the screenplay. I knew immediately that I needed to do it. It’s so focused on music which, as a composer, is a fucking dream come true.
Because the film features music so heavily in the narrative, what were the early conversations like regarding the film score’s direction?
Usually, when you sit down with a director for these things, you kind of want to know what the sound palette is going to be. So, we think about whether or not it’s going to be organic or electronic. Obviously he wanted something heavily electronic in this one, which was great because that’s kind of my comfort zone. We wanted to make sure to avoid the ‘80s throwback stuff because that is very popular, and especially during that time. It wasn’t done to death kind of like it is now. No offense, because I love that stuff. I’ve even done some ‘80s throwback scores. But for this, we definitely wanted it to be contemporary; leaning into electronic. We shot tracks back and forth. We made a playlist and there was stuff on there like Cliff Martinez, some Chromatics, some tracks from Claudio Simonetti and a lot of giallo music. That was really cool and I actually didn’t realize how much that influenced the music. That’s really where it started. Establishing what we wanted and trying to keep it fresh and original.
I’m always fascinated by the director/composer relationship and how different those can be. Since this was Jacob’s first feature, how involved was he in the scoring process and what was he like to work with?
You’re absolutely right. Every director is totally different. I always compare it to learning a new language or re-learning a language, because every director has their own way of communicating certain feelings. For example, I’ll work with someone who says “I want it to feel cold.” And that word “cold” will mean something totally different to the next director. You just have to decode everything since most directors don’t really know music theory. And they shouldn’t have to! That’s our job. I don’t mind learning that new language every time I get into a new relationship. But Jacob, he was pretty involved. More so than a lot of directors, which was nice. He challenged me in a lot of ways.
Typically on a lot of these horror scores you’ll tend to use the same palette for each cue. Which, after a while, they can tend to sound…too similar. And Jacob called me out on that after the third cue. He was like, “Hey. That sounds really cool, but they’re all sounding too similar.” Essentially, he wanted me to start with a blank slate for each cue. It was really intimidating at first. Using a similar sound saves time while writing and it uses a similar template for each cue. So, at first it was scary as hell, but in the end it became really liberating and a lot more fun. I actually do that now with every movie. Once I delivered like, the fifth cue, it was pretty much a hole-in-one for every delivery. That doesn’t usually happen. Typically there’s tons of revisions, but once we both found exactly what we both liked, he just trusted me. That’s a real fucking blessing as a composer: have a director that trusts you and lets you play.
Even though the music is pretty electronic-heavy, there’s a lot of really cool guitar present in your score. Why did you want to bring that rock element into this world and how did you achieve that unique sound?
That was actually my favorite part! Finding the voice of the guitar. It kind of became the main voice of the entire score. Guitar is my primary instrument and I really wanted to be a rock star in high school. I saw my cousin playing guitar once and I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool. I wanna do that.” The score itself doesn’t have a lot of straight EDM elements in it. I wanted to use flavors of that and reflect the setting, but I wasn’t writing the straight EDM music. I did learn a bit about it from my older sister who is really big into EDM and dance music. She’s an elder-goth who goes clubbing all the time. And she’s ok with me calling her that! I actually asked her if I can refer to her as an elder-goth. (Laughs) She gave me a quick crash course. I’m certainly not an EDM producer. Those guys and gals are incredible and I think that was really smart of our production team to bring in some of these super talented people. We licensed a lot of really good music from very talented people. But for the guitar, I initially thought I wanted to try and mimic Joe Perry’s guitar tone in “Dream On.” I wanted to riff on that. So it’s kind of twangy and cuts through. It’s tough to get Joe Perry’s tone exactly, but I got close and then decided to just go crazy with reverb and this Uni-Vibe Chorus pedal that I have. I got to play with a lot of pedals and amps. It was a lot of fun finding that tone. And I was using a Fender Jag-Stang for the guitar on the entire score.
DREAMCATCHER is a bit of a scathing indictment of the music industry and as a film composer, you’ve got a foot in both the music and film world. Because of that, it must feel pretty overwhelming when you’re just starting out. What advice would you give a composer or musician looking to get into film scoring?
That’s a really good question and not one that I’ve received yet. I would definitely say, don’t try to mimic other people. There are tons of composers out there who want to be the next Hans Zimmer, Alan Silvestri, Shirley Walker or Danny Elfman. And, they kind of lose their own voice trying to emulate their heroes. Especially Hans. There’s a lot of people trying to mimic his sound. I think when you’re trying to get jobs directors will hear that and you’ll ultimately get lost in a sea of imitators. So, try to find a voice that’s unique to you. Whatever your primary instrument is, if it’s guitar or flute, try to showcase that. Finding your own style is definitely the number one thing I would say.
You also composed the score for SCREAM QUEEN! MY NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. What was that experience like? Did you feel obligated to make it sound a certain way due to that ‘80s influence?
I love talking about SCREAM QUEEN! It is legit one of my favorite things that I have ever worked on and probably will ever work on. And, I’ll answer the second question first actually. Yes. Without a doubt. The ‘80s influence in the music was there. It just made sense. And, I actually started scoring this in 2016, 2017. So, that was actually relatively fresh. It felt right, especially considering we’re talking about the ‘80s, and we’re talking specifically about Mark Patton and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. So, for a lot of people, when we’re talking about ‘80s horror, it just kind of goes into that electronic sort of venue. I definitely tried to bring in those influences. And, I also wanted to make little references to Chris Young’s score since he scored A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. He did this really cool thing that you can hear if you really listen through, he used whale noises or whale songs in recordings. He’s pretty experimental and I thought that was really cool. I didn’t do that, but I did try to mimic it with a synthesizer and a lot of pitch bending and drowning it in a lot of chorus and reverb so it had an underwater, mysterious feel. Just as a little audio Easter egg. If anyone picked up on that I’d be surprised, but I did try to do that.
And then for the first question, it was amazing. I found them on Kickstarter because when you’re a young, hungry composer and you don’t have a manager or an agent you look wherever you can find a job. So, I wrote them and asked if they had music or a composer already. I think they did have a composer at the time, but if I’m not mistaken, it wasn’t working out and I was able to step in. It was very fortunate for me because the other guy is very talented as well, it just wasn’t working out. I shot messages back and forth with the directors Tyler [Jensen] and Roman [Chimienti] and I love them eternally. They’ve become very good friends of mine. They very much made sure that I knew that this wasn’t going to be a horror score. The movie does not focus on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. I think that was a misconception for a lot of people going into the film. But really, that was just a backdrop for the overarching story of Mark Patton, living in the closet in the ‘80s and the AIDS epidemic. That is what the main story is about. Which is obviously just as horrific as Freddy Krueger himself, if not more so.
The first thing I scored was kind of my audition piece. It was a block about Mark’s childhood. I think they just wanted to see if I could hit the emotional notes because I think they had only heard my horror cues before that. And, I knew I could because I could relate to Mark’s story. So, I sent them that and they enjoyed it so they brought me on. I probably started too early on the score, I’ll say that. If you’ve ever worked on a doc or are familiar with documentaries, they tend to go through tons and tons of re-cuts. I scored like, 20 different versions of the film over the course of three years. They kept getting new footage and finding new avenues to go down with the narrative of the story. So, I have a bunch of unused music from that. But, it was amazing. Any success that comes my way I can always trace back to Mark, to Roman, to Tyler.
On top of just composing for a lot of horror films, I understand that you are also a big genre fan yourself. What is it that you love about scoring horror films?
I just think that out of all the genres, it’s the most fun. I think it’s because of the directors and the filmmakers themselves. They tend to give you a longer leash to work with. It inherently calls for experimentation. Whereas with genres like action, it sort of has preconceived notions of what that sounds like. Or, drama or period pieces. You kind of know what those are. But with horror soundtracks, yeah you’ve got the strings and you’ve got the jump scares, but if you listen through, there’s so many different things you can do with a horror score that I feel like you cannot get away with in a lot of other genres. And I just love the medium itself. It’s just fun. Some of the most fun people work in horror.
There’s been a lot of films that have been pushed back, delayed or rescheduled, including a lot of genre titles! So, as a horror fan, assuming we’re all vaccinated and the theaters are all safely back open, what is the first big movie that you want to see on the big screen?
Oh man. I don’t know when CANDYMAN is coming out, but I really can’t wait for that to come out. Nia DaCosta’s CANDYMAN is up there on my list. I love the original and I love everything that’s coming out of Jordan Peele’s camp. I feel like that’s just going to be fantastic. I’m also really excited for HALLOWEEN KILLS and the new SCREAM. Those are the three that I’m drooling over. SCREAM and HALLOWEEN are my favorite of the horror franchises. I can’t wait.
DREAMCATCHER is now available to stream on VOD. SCREAM, QUEEN! MY NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is currently streaming on Shudder.