The wait is finally over! From New York Times bestselling author Michael Robotham comes the newest book in his Joseph O’Loughlin series, Watching You. This suspense novel builds tension and raises the stakes with every page—Booklist notes in their starred review that “Robotham slowly, expertly begins tightening the screws…Revelations increase rather than release tension until the last page.” And when you get to that shocking ending? Entertainment Weekly promises, “It’ll keep you guessing and gasping.”
Watching You introduces us to Marnie Logan, a woman in a desperate situation. Michael Robotham explains:
Today Mulholland Books has the great pleasure of publishing two chilling, supernatural-tinged thrillers: The Stolen Ones by Richard Montanari and We Are Here by Michael Marshall. While the two novels make for complementary reading, they couldn’t be more different. The Stolen Ones centers on killers who haunt forgotten catacombs and our dreams; We Are Here ventures that some of us really are being followed, but not by anyone we could imagine.
In the exchange that follows, Michael Marshall and Richard Montanari discuss their new novels and question each other about setting, genre, the writing process, and that all-important question for any writer: “How do I start?”
Michael Marshall: What was the genesis moment for The Stolen Ones? The idea that, in retrospect, caused the book to eventually exist? Was it recent—kind of like “This is what the next book’s going to be about”? Or did this book have to wait its turn to be ready to be written?
Richard Montanari: All my books begin with a “what if?” The Stolen Ones began with “What if the dreams of a killer could be implanted in another human being?” I put the idea on a shelf for a while, until I was able to gather together some of the shadowy research that has gone on in this area. The dream therapies in The Stolen Onescan happen. Once I was satisfied with that, the story took off.
We Are Here moves effortlessly between first and third person. Did you know from the start that John would be a first person character? What are the challenges of writing a novel from alternating points of view?
Marshall: I started using the combination of first and third back with The Straw Men, purely because I thought it might be interesting. I hoped to combine the intimacy of the first person with the broader perspective and freedom of the third person, and I’ve been doing it so long now that to be honest I’ve stopped noticing I’m even doing it — except when it comes to selecting the first person voice for a particular novel.
John was the obvious choice for We Are Here, partly because he’d been the first person voice in a previous novel, Bad Things (though it might have be interesting to switch him to third, precisely because of that), and also because he and Kristina form the backbone of the novel as a whole. The first person needs to be the person inside the book, the mainspring of the story’s action. John’s that guy.
Are you a planner as well as a writer? Do you hold this stuff in your head, or write it down? How much of what’s going to happen, big and small, do you need to know before you’re comfortable firing up the word processor and starting?
Montanari: I’d love to be a better planner and outliner. I’m convinced I would write more if I were. Usually, when I begin, I have an idea about who is doing the very bad things and why. From there the plot begins to take vague shape. The best part of writing a series, with recurring characters, is that I have a pretty good idea how they will react to certain things. They still surprise me, though.
Marshall: Which comes first—plot or research? Do you come up with story elements and then seek information to confirm or substantiate or support them? Or do you find ideas coming out of things you were reading for the fun of it, or places you just happened to be?
Montanari: The more I write, the more I realize (thankfully) that not everything is a good idea. I do a good bit of walking in circles at a running track trying to establish the connective tissue between two wholly disparate elements. Sometimes I’ll move forward anyway, but most of the time it is a matter of residue. If I can’t shake an idea, I have to deal with it. For me, research is the fun part. If I don’t know too much about a subject, I feel I can infuse a story with a sense of discovery. Research for The Stolen Ones took me to the sewer system beneath Philadelphia and to a mental health facility in northern Estonia.
Marshall:The Stolen Ones feels very firmly rooted in its city and locale. Is that important to you—the sense of place as character? How important to you is it to be able to see specific locations in your mind’s eye?
Montanari: I think sense of place is very important. The city of Philadelphia is one of the oldest in the United States. It has a long history, a diverse citizenry, many ghosts, and an underground culture that lends itself well to the stories I want to tell. I’ve used settings other than big cities in my work, but I always come back to the urban locale. Philly has more than one hundred neighborhoods. I am always discovering something new.
With its many parks and backstreets, New York lends itself perfectly to the “following” aspects of We Are Here. Did you ever consider setting those parts of the novel elsewhere?
Marshall: No — New York City was always going to be the venue once I decided to write the novel, not least as it’s effectively a character within it, too.
Your novels often take the mystery/thriller theme and imbue it with a strong vein of what one would have to call—much-maligned term though it is—“horror.” Is this a conscious attempt to blend genres, or simply where your imagination takes you? Do you enjoy playing with these distinctions, or do you wish people would stop trying to impose labels and let you write what you damn well please?
Montanari: It is purely unconscious. In fact, it never occurred to me that there were elements of horror in my work until a review pointed it out. Most of my work is, at its heart, police procedural, which means that the narrative is bound by certain rules and measures—a body is found, police show up, science is collected, witnesses are interviewed, investigations begin. Perhaps it is because I am drawn to basements, catacombs, abandoned psychiatric hospitals, and crawlspaces—fertile landscapes all for horror stories—that components of my work are considered horror. That said, some of the greatest writers of all time (certainly my favorites) have written horror. I don’t mind the label at all. For some reason, my short fiction is more mainstream horror, and my screenwriting is fantasy. I think form often determines genre for me.
I believe I read that The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub was instrumental in your decision to try your hand at fiction. Why that book (one of my favorites), and how do you think it has influenced you?
Marshall: Partly just because it came into my life at the right time. I think I’d started to realize I wanted to write, but hadn’t established the kind of story and imaginative landscape. I read The Talisman and immediately thought “Yeah, that. That kind of thing.” Quite apart from the majestic spread of the story, it represents an almost perfect combination of prose styles, seamlessly mixing the emotional warmth of King’s voice with the poised precision of Straub.
Montanari: You’ve written successfully in a number of genres and forms. When you have an idea for a story, do you instantly know where it will fit in your body of work? Have you ever started a project in one genre or form, gotten into it, and realized you needed a different set of narrative tools and rules to make the story work?
Marshall: I always work outwards from the idea, and so I tend to know where I’m going when I start. The factor that drives the decision about where a novel will sit in the—for me—rather nebulous and malleable genre landscape is that core notion, and it will always announces itself as being of one type or another. It either works within a totally “consensual” universe, or requires the doors of perception to be opened. I guess what I enjoy doing most is opening those doors as little as I have to—taking “otherworldly” ideas and grounding them as firmly within reality as possible, because they have much more resonance that way.
Montanari: What is the determining factor for you that an idea should be a short story, a novel, a teleplay, a screenplay? Is it the number of POV characters you have in mind, or something else?
Marshall: I seldom write original screenplays, though I have a few ideas stacked up for when I’ve got the time. I tend to think in fairly low-budget terms for the screen, and am drawn to ideas that need a simple, direct, visual treatment.
With prose choices it’s usually a matter of scope, how much time and space—and how many characters and locations—are required to support the central idea and story. I love the way you can come in fast and hard with a short story, say what you’ve got to say, and call it done. Sometimes that sparse, pared-down approach is the very best way of communicating an idea or emotion or atmosphere. Novels can be sparse too, but they need a breadth of ideas. Shorts can be just a single one.
Montanari: Congratulations on the BBC America project, Intruders. If you’re permitted to do so, what can you tell us about your role in the production, and what is involved in developing a novel into a series?
Michael Marshall and John Simm
Marshall: My role is primarily being an extra pair of eyes on the scripts as they’re developed, and consulting on possible arcs for future seasons. This first series will effectively encompass the whole of the novel, and so the next step is working out how to develop the idea in a compelling way in future years. I’ve been in meetings around this, and have provided some initial discussion notes toward another four seasons.
The main challenge in developing a novel into a series is working out what to cut, what to add, how to show rather than tell, and how to move everything around to preserve suspense while proving the audience with enough information and drama to maintain their interest and excitement. Luckily, in Glen Morgan (lead writer, exec producer and showrunner for the series), they have a master of the form, with the experience to make it all work. I’ve read the first four episodes—and was present at the Table Read with the cast, just before principal photography started last week—and they’re looking great. It’s very exciting.
London, 1968: the time and place evoke strong sense memories, but in William Shaw’s new novel, not everything is swinging. The police are called to a residential street in St. John’s Wood where an unidentified young woman has been murdered. Detective Cathal Breen and policewoman Helen Tozer, two investigators on opposite sides of a generational divide, must work together to solve the case. Shaw describes what WPC Tozer would listen to in his note below.
Police culture was very different in 1968. A lot of this was to do with the fact that the police lived communally, in police flats or section houses.
WPC Tozer lives in Pembridge House, the Women’s Section House just off the Bayswater Road. She shares a room with another policewoman. They squabble over what records they put on. Her roommate likes Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdink. She like The Beatles, but doesn’t think much of The White Album.
When she’s alone, this is what Tozer plays. You can listen to some of these songs through the Spotify player above.
There is a point on any project when you know it’s going to work.
When my agent asked me, in the politest possible way, never to send him another piece of fiction again, I understood. He was trying to be kind. Stop wasting the long months it takes to write a book.
To be fair to him, I had never been convinced that either of the manuscripts I’d handed to him had worked either. He had done his utmost but enough was enough.
I was quite relieved to find that in spite of his advice, I couldn’t stop writing.
And when I found myself writing a scene in which one of the Apple Scruffs, the young fans who hung around The Beatles in 1968-9 was found dead in an alleyway, close to EMI’s soon-to-be-famous Abbey Road studios I remember having this peculiar feeling; “I have no idea where this is going but I know this is going to work.”
Part of it was discovering the right form. I am a huge fan of the 60s and 70s thriller writer Nicholas Freeling and novels like Love in Amsterdam and Guns Before Butter. With the massively growing popularity of European noir, I think it’s well worth revisiting his work; set in Holland, it has a remarkable sense of time and place. They are novels which immerse you in the culture of northern Europe, its food and in all its social spikiness.
“The past,” L P Hartley famously says at the start of The Go Between, “is another country.” What if I wrote about 1968 as if it was another country? In many ways it is. Our image of 1968 may be all tie-dyes and acid but the truth is that 45 years ago, Britain was a very different place. It’s not just different from Britain in 2013; it’s different from how we imagine 1968 to have been.
I realised that the book would work if I regarded it as much as crime fiction as a cultural fiction—attempting to tread in Freeling’s footsteps. This was a Britain which was being overtaken by a tidal wave of pop culture that pitched one generation against the other. People like my parents were from a generation that struggled with the idea of pop music.
For all the supposed radicalism of the Vietnam marches and the Paris uprisings, 1968 was a man’s world of jobs for life, Sunday dinners and limited pub opening times. This was an unrecognisably racist country in which Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech struck a chord with the majority of British people. Feminism had yet to arrive. There were policewomen like my character WPC Tozer, but they were allowed to do only a fraction of what a modern WPC is allowed to do. The pill was available, but in the 60s the idea of free love was a man’s fantasy come true rather than a liberation for women.
And then there was Biafra. A forgotten largely war but one which, by 1968, had turned into one that was incredibly violent. This was territory I knew about because my own family had lived in Nigeria and had had to leave the country in 1966 as the upheavals began and had returned there in 1970 after the bloodletting and mass starvation had subsided.
What if some of the ripples of that war had spilled over into the London of Carnaby Street and Abbey Road studios?
So I ignored my (former) agent’s kind advice and carried on. And was thrilled when, over a year later, my new agent called me up to say that Mulholland Books thought it worked too. And they wanted the first three books in the series, a narrative arc that takes WPC Tozer and her superior DS Breen into the even more uneven year of 1969.
She’s Leaving Home arrives in bookstores today! This essay is adapated from Crime Time—many thanks to them for letting us re-run the piece.
C.J. Sansom‘s DOMINION hit bookshelves all across the country this week! A highly acclaimed, #1 internationally bestselling alternative history thriller of what might have been had Churchill never become Prime Minister, Sansom’s newest has popped up all sorts of places in the past few days.
Stephen King kicked things off with a pairof earnest and enthusiastic tweets on the book, calling Sansom’s novel a “great alternate history-thriller…check it out…and no, this isn’t one of those publisher-sponsored blurbs. I just fell in love with it.”
(King isn’t the first author to enthusiastically endorse DOMINION–Kate Atkinson declared Sansom “one of [her] favorite writers” and praised DOMINION in particular as “a wonderful example of what the novel can do–a through-the-looking-glass glimpse into a world that might have been, and almost was.” And Charles Cumming, New York Times bestselling author of The Trinity Six and A Foreign Country, proclaimed DOMINION “Dazzling…the best novel of its kind since Robert Harris’s Fatherland.”)
Looking for more review coverage? Be sure to check out the Seattle Times review by Adam Woog, high praise from earlier in the year from trades like Library Journal (“Intriguing, page-turning and delicious”), and Kirkus (“All too real”). Not to mention the laudatory reviews from across the pond from the likes of The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times.
Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s magisterial new novel, hinges on a big what-if: What if Winston Churchill had never become Prime Minister in 1940? What if a coalition government, headed by Lord Halifax, were to choose a policy of appeasement toward the strengthening Nazi party, instead of one of opposition? But Sansom’s novel isn’t just about World War II and what might have been; it also asks a big what-if of contemporary politics: what if we became obsessed with nationhood? What happens when a country becomes so consumed by its myth of selfhood that it forgets its own people? Sansom elaborates on this idea in the historical note that concludes Dominion—which has been updated since its 2012 publication in the UK. Below is an excerpt from the original historical note, and we leave it to you to read the US edition of Dominion to find out what, if anything, has changed.
I find it heartbreaking — literally heartbreaking — that my own country, Britain, which was less prone to domestic nationalist extremism between the wars than most, is increasingly falling victim to the ideologies of nationalist parties. The larger ones are not racialist, but they share the belief that national identity is the issue of fundamental, overriding importance in politics; it is the atavistic notion that nationhood can, somehow, allow people to bound free from the oppression — nationalism always defines itself against some enemy “other” — and solve all their problems. UKIP promises a future that will somehow be miraculously golden if Britain simply walks away from the European Union. (To what? To trade with whom?) At least they have the honesty to be clear that they envisage a particular type of political economy, based on that other modern dogma which has failed so often and disastrously, not least in Russia, that “pure” free markets can end economic problems.
Far larger, and more dangerous, is the threat to all of Britain posed by the Scottish National Party, which now sits in power in the devolved government in Edinburgh. As they always have been, the SNP are a party without politics in the conventional sense, willing to tack to the political right (as the 1970s) or the left (as in the 1980s and 1990s) or the center (as today) if they think it will help them win independence. They will promise anything to anyone in their pursuit of power. They are very shrewd political manipulators. In power, they present themselves as competent, progressive democrats (which many are) but behind that, as always, lies the appeal to the mystic glories of independence, which is what the party has always been for. Once ruling an independent state, they will not easily be dislodged. How people who regard themselves as progressive can support a party whose biggest backers include the right-wing Souter family who own Stagecoach, and Rupert Murdoch, escapes me completely. Like all who think they will be able to ride a nationalist tiger, they will find themselves sadly mistaken.
The SNP have no real position on the crucial questions of political economy that affect people’s lives, and never have; their whole basis has always been the old myth that released national consciousness will somehow make all well. They promise a low-regulation, low-corporate-tax regime to please the right, and a strong welfare state to please the left. The wasting asset of oil will not resolve the problem that, as any calculation shows, an independent Scotland will start its life in deficit.
It does not take more than a casual glance at its history to show that the SNP have never had any interest in the practical consequences of independence. They care about the ideal of a nation, not the people who live in it. They ignore or fudge vital questions about the economy and EC membership. In recent times, before the Euro crisis, they cheerfully talked of an independent Scotland joining the euro (they evade the huge issue of whether an independent Scotland, as well possibly as the remainder of the UK, would have to reapply for EU membership, a legal minefield). Before 2008 they spoke of the banking sector, of all things, as the core of an independent Scottish economy, forecasting a Scottish future comparable to that of Ireland and Iceland, shortly before both countries went so catastrophically bust. Now they talk of keeping the pound but following an independent economic policy. (How would that work? Why should the rest of the UK agree effectively to write a blank check? How would that be independence exactly?) But the practical problems of the real world have never been of interest to parties based on nationalism; on the contrary populist politicians like Alex Salmond ask people to turn their backs on real social and economic questions and seek comfort in a romanticized past and shared — often imagined — grievances. National problems are always someone else’s fault. The unscrambling of the British economy and British debt after three hundred years of intimate unity is impossible to calculate using any accounting formula. Arguments are already leading to bitterness and growing national hostility on both sides of the border. That is what nationalism does, and what it feeds off. And all the arguments, all the ill feeling, are tragically unnecessary.
Meanwhile the SNP are trying to manipulate the independence referendum to secure a maximum vote for themselves, by holding it in the anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn and lowering the voting age to include sixteen- and seventeen- year- olds, because polls have shown that age group is most likely to vote for them. This smacks dangerously of electoral manipulation by a ruling party to stay in power and increase its power. God knows we have seen enough of that in modern European history. John Gray has recently written that while the dictatorships of the 1930s are unlikely to return, “toxic democracies based on nationalism and xenophobia” could emerge in a number of countries and be in power for long periods.11 Scots are proud, rightly, of seeing their country in a European context. This, today, is the context.
Calling it “dank and sweaty and fabulous,” Twitch reviews Cold In July, directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) and starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. The way the film is described can also be applied to Joe Lansdale’s writing: “dark, grim, all-too-real, refusing to stay within a predictable path.” Please join us in congratulating Joe as Cold In July is positioned to be one of the most buzzed-about films at the Sundance Film Festival.
And when can plebes like us watch the movie? Cold In July was just snapped up by IFC Films for nationwide distribution, and they’re expecting to release the film theatrically and on Video On Demand this summer. Read the full press release on Deadline.
Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors of Weaponized, is a true cineaste. In this post, written at the end of 2013, he shares with us his favorite film scores of the year. You can stream these scores as a playlist via the Spotify widget below.
There’s still a few scores I’ve been waiting to get my hands on: Roque Banos’s Oldboy, Arcade Fire’s Her, Danny Elfman’s Unknown Known, and Explosions in the Sky and Steve Jablonsky’s work on Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, so I hate to make this list without hearing them—because judging from the composers’ prior work, I’m sure one of them would have made it—however, December is winding down and being cursed with a sense of impending time comparable only to a Italian railroad official, I wanted to get my thoughts down on film scoring in 2013.
I’ve been told by those “in the know” that lists of ten are so common they tend to get passed over by search engines, so here are the 11 best film scores of 2013.
CLIFF MARTINEZ – ONLY GOD FORGIVES
It’s hard to justify one’s love for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up, Only God Forgives, without dropping caveats up front—yes, it sure is excessive and slow; luckily, you don’t have to do the same for Cliff Martinez’s score.
Refn and Martinez both hit it big with Drive, which relied as much on songs from Johnny Jewel’s “Italians Do It Better” label—as it did Martinez’s score—to back a meticulously executed, but seriously derivative film that at times felt like a cryogenically frozen fetish object.
Only God Forgives is Martinez’s solo show and this film—which has been compared to a vomitorium—is the furthest thing from derivative, excepting a few discreet borrowings from The Grifters. Refn has seemingly invented his own genre this time around; if not invented, then thrown so many together, from Leone and Jodorowsky to Hitchcock, that Martinez gets the opportunity to put his unique stamp on five different film scoring standards.
With tracks like “Sister Part 1” Martinez evokes his traditional eerily moving ambient sound that he’s patented during his years with Steven Soderbegh. In tracks like “Chang and Sword,” he creates a soundscape with twanging guitars and long plucks that sounds like electro-Morricone, or a Spaghetti Western unfolding on the banks of the River Styx. With “Mai Quits Masturbating”, we’re almost in Bernard Herrmann territory, with anxious, mournful strings providing a sonic analogue to distorted sexuality. With “Wanna Fight” we enter something akin to John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” with an Asian flair. However, the most stunning to my ears was Martinez’s descent into what can only be called Thai Hell, which consists of Mike Oldfield pianos, gongs, chimes, shrieking strings, and an avant-garde rumble—almost Pendericki—that truly sounds like sulfur spitting or tectonic plates shifting.
Whether or not you think Refn’s film will endure—I tend to think it will—I have no doubt that Martinez’s score will.
THOMAS NEWMAN – SIDE EFFECTS
The penultimate film in Steven Soderbergh’s mad pre-retirement dash (including Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra) was this unjustly overlooked thriller that takes place in the nebulous world of healthcare kept afloat on big Pharma money. It’s the type of movie that rarely escapes from Hollywood these days: mid-budget, actor-driven, provocative without being preachy, and R-rated for all the right reasons. And it’s the type of film Soderbergh tends to do best: rigorous formal control (bordering on icy) with a burning center.
Soderbergh has a stable of composers and tends to dole out scoring duties depending on the genre, illustrated in the brief breakdown below:
Cliff Martinez: Has been with Soderbergh from the beginning (1989’s Sex Lies and Videotape) and tends to be his stylistic soul mate. They both employ a hypnotic ambient arsenal of texture, misdirection, and tonal ambiguity. In fact, I’m shocked Martinez didn’t get the Side Effects job, but I’m going to bet it had to something to do with the fact that he already had three movies lined up to score this year.
David Holmes: Generally gets the job within the crime/thriller genre when Soderbergh wants a funkier, lighter, 70′s Schifrin-esque vibe to complement his Pop-Art visuals.
Alberto Iglesias, Marvin Hamlisch: The biopic composers. Both superlative talents brought in for Che, The Informant, and Behind the Candelabra respectively, and finally,
Thomas Newman: Tends to get Soderbergh’s—for lack of a better word—“prestige” projects: Erin Brockovich, The Good German, and Side Effects. Newman—more than any composer today, I think (outside maybe James Newton Howard), is a master of giving the director what they need musically to tie a film together. In fact, Newman’s music is so good that in some cases he can literally create the illusion of continuity and sense (see The Adjustment Bureau for example) where none exists.
Side Effects didn’t need his sonic glue to hold it together—Soderbergh’s craft has never been better—but let me allow the late Roger Ebert to say exactly what Newman’s spell-binding and spine-tingling music brings to the project, because I can’t put it any better:
The music tells us what kind of movie Side Effects is going to be. It coils beneath what seems like a realistic plot and whispers that something haunted and possessed is going on. Imagine music for a sorcery-related plot and then dial it down to ominous forebodings. Without Thomas Newman’s score, Side Effects would be a lesser film, even another film.
SHANE CARRUTH – UPSTREAM COLOR
Steven Soderbergh may shoot, edit, and direct his movies, but Shane Carruth can go one (nay two) better: he also scored and acted in Upstream Color, the movie I’m sure all Terrence Malick fans hoped To The Wonder would be. A film that’s simultaneously about romance, recovery, thieves, parasites, mysterious pig farmers, and the interconnected heartbeat of the universe. Somehow it works. The highest compliment I can pay it is this: It rewards all the attention you give it; there are mysteries in there worth searching out. And Carruth’s own score plays a huge role in making the viewer feel this way; the music binds together and deepens the film’s mysteries.
One can use all the stock terms to describe the score: ambient, airy, pillowy, ethereal, Eno-esque. And they’re all true. But there’s something more going on here, and it’s what makes both the film and the score vault past abstract metaphysical concerns: the beautiful, broken romance at the center. Although neither the film nor the music make it explicit, they both seem to say the same thing:
There are more mysteries in the world than one can even begin to conceive of, nothing makes sense at all, and the thing that makes the least sense of all is love. And be thankful for that.
STEVEN PRICE – GRAVITY
I’ll be upfront about this one: I don’t think Gravity is the most overrated movie of the year. I think it may be the most overrated movie since American Beauty or Crash (another Sandra Bullock project. Ha! I just realized that). But this is a list about film scoring, and on that front, Steven Price’s score is such a marvel of mood and scope (moving from ambient to all out action) I didn’t even have to think about its inclusion on this list.
On top of which, the score itself is also a potent illustration of two larger trends in film scoring:
1. Bands or single band members (Air, Arcade Fire, Alex Ebert, Kevin Shields, Jonny Greenwood, Steven Price comes from Basement Jaxx) or electronic artists (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, M83, Daft Punk, Skrillex) muscling into film scoring, and snaring it away from traditional orchestral sound, which brings us to point two…
2. Narrative film has fundamentally changed, thus so have the traditional requirements of film scoring.
Movies have become fractured, employing editing techniques something akin to digital cubism, and the music itself reflects this, falling somewhere between electronic scoring and sound design. Some movies today aren’t even designed for a traditional big-screen intake; they’re for you to stream on whatever’s handy. Modern life just doesn’t sound like Korngold or Herrmann or Miklos Rosza anymore, and film music must reflect this fact. Modern life doesn’t go from A to B anymore. It’s pulsating, digital, discordant, and poses more questions than it answers, and at this point in time, the only current films that require some of the old sturm-und-drang of traditional Hollywood scoring are genre epics and comic-book movies.
The preceding two paragraphs may seem counterintuitive since “Gravity” is by all counts a space-opera, the most tried-and-true of all genre gambits. But it’s a space-opera subjected to the minimalist art-film aesthetics of director Alfonso Cuaron, a true visionary, whom a big space score was never going to satisfy, and who, with Steven Price’s work, got a score so good that it made me wish I enjoyed the film even more.
HANS ZIMMER – 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Hans Zimmer has changed the sound of film scoring more than any composer since John Williams. Whether you like where he’s taken it or not is an entirely different matter. On four separate occasions he’s reset the template for modern action scores.
Black Rain in 1989 was the first action film to seamlessly employ both synth and traditional orchestral accompaniment. (Jerry Goldsmith tried this combination with considerably lesser results through the 80s.) With Crimson Tide in 1995, Zimmer finished what he started in Black Rain and, since then, literally nothing has changed in action scoring except for when Zimmer decides it should…
Which he did in 2000 with Gladiator, where he started the now ubiquitous trend of ethereal female vocals over action scenes (Lisa Gerrard in this case)—that reached its zenith or nadir, whichever you prefer with Horner’s score for Troy. Ten years after Gladiator, Zimmer added to the synth, orchestra, and female voice template with the now infamous “Inception trombone” (which in all fairness actually originated in Zack Hemsey’s trailer music), but was strewn throughout Zimmer’s film score as well.
All of that preamble was to remind people that although Zimmer is known for bringing the bombast, he first gained recognition for his smaller more character driven scores—Rain Man, Thelma and Louse, True Romance—and actually excels at finding the heart of a movie. And sadly he’s been doing less and less of that lately, which is why his work on 12 Years A Slave comes as such a pleasant surprise. It was a simultaneous reminder that Zimmer can do this type of material, and that when he wants to, he’s one of the best.
Sure, he recycles some of his greatest hits moments—parts of 12 Years sound a little The Thin Red Line-by-Inception at times—but when it sounds this good who cares. Zimmer does what Zimmer does best – he finds the sonic heart of Solomon Northrop just as acutely as he did Thelma and Louise. Try not to be moved by it.
TINDERSTICKS – BASTARDS
Claire Denis can be hit-or-miss for me. I’ll go to the mat for Beau Travail and I Can’t Sleep, but I genuinely have no idea what the hell she was going for in Bastards, which plays like a Gallic Get Carter without any of the suspense or humor. Denis is such a deliberate director that on some level I have to believe that the utter absence of tension, character, and efficient plotting must be intentional.
Thank God, then, that her frequent composers Tindersticks seem to have kept their eyes closed and gave the movie the score it deserves. In fact, the score is so good, you can almost picture in your head the movie it was supposed to accompany—and what a movie that is:
A smoky, mournful Parisian noir with synths that sound close to organs, something heavenly but blasphemous, because an angel was dragged to Earth and abused. A revenge thriller with a twist—the avenger may be just as unstable and dangerous as the people he seeks. Even the music doesn’t know what to make of him, evidenced by long, ponderous silences between the notes and question marks in the form of endless reverb. An investigation into the seamy underbelly of high-finance and cheap, underage sex set to a dance-beat. And then the kicker: the cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” when you realize just how sick the movie really is. The vibrating bass line matched by the tremor in Stuart Staples’ voice. Even the music seems shocked by the depravity.
And once again, like Steven Price’s Gravity, this is a masterful score in search of a better movie.
PINO DONAGGIO – PASSION
Not to sound like Christopher Walken in The Comfort of Strangers, with his oft-repeated monologue (“To talk about me, I have to talk about my father”), but to talk about Pino Donaggio, one has to talk about Bernard Herrmann.
Bernard Herrmann provided Hitchcock with his most memorable set of scores until they parted company after a particularly acrimonious dispute over the score to Torn Curtain. Herrmann wanted to sound like Herrmann, and Hitchcock wanted him to sound “jazzy” to capitalize on new trends in film scoring. Enter a long fallow period for Herrmann, until Brian De Palma burst onto the scene with 1973’s Hitchcock/Polanski pastiche Sisters, to which Herrmann lent a Moog-infused symphony of sexual dread. De Palma and Herrmann collaborated until Herrmann’s untimely death in 1976, at which point De Palma enlisted Pino Donaggio to score Carrie, and—except for a brief flirtation with Ryuichi Sakamoto—Donaggio has been De Palma’s go-to guy for scoring his now-infamous brand of erotic thrillers. And truth be told, he might even be a better fit for De Palma’s work than Herrmann.
What makes a De Palma thriller a “De Palma” thriller is also what makes a Donaggio score a “Donaggio” score—they tinker with the audience, providing light-on-their-feet, neo-classical sexual languor before the horror starts. They don’t just actively flirt with self-parody; they step up to the line and obliterate it. And Passion, which is their seventh collaboration, lives up to their previous triumphs.
The centerpiece of Passion is a full-on set piece at a performance of Debussy’s ballet “Afternoon of a Faun,” complete with the now-infamous De Palma split-screen. But Debussy has been with the score even before we go to the ballet. He was there subtlety imprinting the gleaming high-rises, the deco apartments, the constant flirtation, and sexual ambiguity. Donaggio’s score, like Debussy’s ballet, can be up-tempo, erotic, confrontational, misleading, but most importantly, like most symbolist-influenced impressionists, it’s beautiful.
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT – VENUS IN FUR
Alexandre Desplat has been omnipresent on the American film scoring scene since 2004, when he broke out with his work on Jonathan Glazer’s Birth—incidentally, one of the best scores of last decade. Post-Birth he has literally been scoring between 6 to 8 films a year, ranging from blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight: New Moon to intimate films like Tree of Life and Philomena.
Roman Polanski has always been one of the most musically astute directors. Try to imagine Chinatown without the way he used Goldsmith’s score, or Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby without Komeda’s eerie jazz fusions. Plus Polanski has also directed opera for the stage. Hell, he even starred in Amadeus in Paris. The guy has an ear.
So when Polanski and Desplat joined forces in 2010’s The Ghost Writer, I had high expectations, and their work together leapt over even my highest hopes. And Desplat’s work on Venus In Fur, although not quite The Ghost Writer, still makes a powerful minimalist mark with 36 minutes worth of music.
To explain why what Desplat has done is remarkable, allow me a brief anecdote. Famed screenwriter William Goldman once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that for a director, shooting a desert vista is the easiest thing in the world, but shooting two people talking in a room is fucking hard. Polanski’s Venus In Fur is an adaptation of David Ives’s two-character play about a sexual dance between an auditioning actress and a director who keep turning the tables on each other. And I’m going to imagine that scoring a film about two people talking in a room isn’t much easier than directing it.
The score begins with a powerfully baroque organ that feels like the sonic equivalent to a carnival barker inviting you in. The carnivalesque feel remains throughout the score, fading in and out, and supplemented by tinkling chimes and bells—reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s motif for Lucy in Coppola’s Dracula—and playful piano and strings. But make no mistake—and this is where both Polanski’s film and Desplat’s score truly impress—just when you think you have the mood nailed down, it turns on a dime.
PHILIP GLASS – VISITORS
If there’s one underlying thread linking many of these disparate film score choices, it’s the fruits of a long-term director/composer collaboration. We’ve already had Donnagio/DePalma, Newman/Soderbergh, Tindersticks/Claire Denis, and here’s another one that stretches back to the mid-80s: Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. Their first film together was Koyaanisqatsi, a silent juxtaposed tone poem about the effects of modern civilization told through still shots of nature photography and sped-up images of worldwide urban life. Their latest effort, Visitors, is told through the eyes of a lowland gorilla, and is an effort to make humans see themselves through the POV of an animal, and to appreciate all our strangeness and contradictory behavior.
I sadly can’t comment on how the music works alongside with the images—the film hasn’t been commercially released yet—but I can tell you that the score is among the high-water marks of Glass’s career in composing for film (his day job is writing symphonies and biographical opera).
Glass has made a few inroads into traditional film scoring with Stephen Daldry’s The Hours,Cassandra’s Dream for Woody Allen, and the Angelina Jolie thriller, Taking Lives, but his best work has always been for non-narrative work and documentary for filmmakers like Reggio and Errol Morris. Not for nothing did Morris say Glass “can create a feeling of existential dread better than anyone I know.” And let’s be honest, there’s not much of a need for that in current Hollywood film, and in some cases (Notes on A Scandal) Glass’s music can seem downright oppressive against conventional narrative.
Those who listen to Glass regularly will notice certain hallmarks present in Visitors: the minimalist maelstrom on tracks like “The Day Room” and “Off Planet 2.” The flutes of dread popping up on “Off Planet 1.” But there’s something new in this score that’s been steadily creeping into Glass’s work of late: a transcendental longing, a spiritual questioning. His work on Visitors is magical, simultaneously one of his lightest and most dexterous scores and also one of his most thematically heavy.
ALEXANDER EBERT – ALL IS LOST
No director this year enacted a larger pendulum swing than J.C. Chandor, who debuted in 2011 with the ensemble financial thriller talk-fest, Margin Call, and two years later created an almost wordless sea-faring adventure staring solely Robert Redford and the regrets etched in every crevice on his mesmerizing face. On the surface it may sound like Gravity for the AARP set, but Alexander Ebert’s score keeps the film from drowning in the manufactured sentiment that ultimately sunk Cuaron’s lone survivor tale.
Ebert’s score does the seemingly impossible: it functions both as “environmental music”—using water as one of its prime elements—and the soundtrack of Redford’s mind, literally becoming the film’s second character. The score can be deceptively simple, using alto flutes, whistling, male voices, and silence—at times it feels like Britten’s Billy Budd adapted by John Cage—but it’s doing the nigh impossible: it’s providing the aural counterpoint to Chandor’s images, exactly what film scoring should always strive for, but rarely achieves.
I feel like the previous two paragraphs have made Ebert’s work sound dangerously academic or impenetrable, and the truth couldn’t be further from that. Like many composers on this list, Ebert has a day job: he’s the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and although he’s shorn himself of every trick in the pop musician’s arsenal, his entertainer’s instincts haven’t left. This is just full-on beautiful music. Try and listen to the main theme, “Excelsior,” or the closer, “Amen,” without a lump in your throat.
CLIFF MARTINEZ AND SKRILLEX – SPRING BREAKERS
Cliff Martinez is back.
It was a hard call for the final space between this soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s superlative score for Rush, but Martinez won it because he had the harder job. Harmony Korine’s whacked-out masterpiece runs the gamut from beach party kitsch to soft-core exploitation to beach-noir to European neon-lit dread, and back again. And the soundtrack runs the same schizo sprint from Skrillex to Birdy Nam Nam to Gucci Mane to Britney Spears, and holding it all together is Cliff Martinez’s patented and endlessly adaptive ambience.
In several interviews, Korine said he wanted the film to evoke the feel of a “pop song” more than a film. I think he succeeded. And a huge part of every great pop song is a chorus with a hook that brings everything back to the center to recharge before exploding again, and this is exactly what Martinez’s score allows co-composer’s Skrillex’s contribution to do.
Skrillex is all glitches and beeps and distortion. Martinez is all synth wash. They allow each other to be their best. Martinez brings the shimmering neon. Skrillex brings the shotgun blasts against the sky. It’s one of the best soundtracks of the year to one of the best films of the year.
To celebrate the publication of S., created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, Mulholland Books hosted a very special contest: if someone was able to decrypt the hidden message within the following poem, he or she could win lunch with Abrams and Dorst in New York City. Here were the instructions and the message:
Follow these lines, from first to last, and play fair—the bearded sailor sees all:
Midnight in the Old Quarter of a city where river meets sea. Hypnotic
fog caresses stone, glides over water, pulses in the dark beyond the harbor.
Never cry out when you’re shoved from the dock; never fear the sharks, the storms, the depths. This is the closest thing to freedom.
Swim like you still have power. Swim like they fear you’re able. Swim with
xebec swiftness through chop and wind, through blistering sun and frigid gloom.
Cherish each stroke, each breath, each gulp of ocean–the music of a mortally beautiful waltz, ever to ring through seas and skies.
Our winner, Kristopher Zgorski, not only decrypted the poem’s hidden meaning—STRAKA LIVES—but also presented his explanation as an acrostic spelling out the name of his book review blog, BOLO BOOKS:
Begin with the directions.
Obviously they provide cipher clues.
Luckily playfair was the encryption method and
Of course sailor Maelstrom was the keyword.
But digraphs came from the poem itself.
Oddly important, each lines first and last letters.
Kindly read vertically to
See who wishes to dine.
In the weeks since its October publication, the hits have just kept coming for S., created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. J.J was on PBS in an amazing, extensive interview with Tavis Smiley that you can watch right here, in which J.J. finally lays out some of the groundwork of the many layers of S., and in which a live unboxing of S. takes memorable shape.
If you live near New York City, this Saturday, November 23rd, at Symphony Space, is your chance to hear J.J. and Doug discuss S. and be introduced by Sarah Vowell of This American Life. More general info and ticket information can be found here. For more, see Time Out New York‘s Critic’s Pick coverage of upcoming event. (This week’s issue has a fantastic column on the book’s design as well.)