July 4, 2021
Walter Mair on Scoring TILL DEATH
Interview by Randall D. Larson
Walter Mair is an Ivor Novello-nominated and Telly Award-winning composer known for his captivating scores ranging from epic orchestrations recorded with 80-piece choirs to intimate, small ensemble and hybrid electronic pieces that have graced a diverse mix of feature films, documentaries, television dramas, narrative-driven interactive entertainment and video games.
Walter scored the psychological horror film THE UNFAMILIAR, which won the 2021 Telly Award for Best Original Music and an Award for Best Music Score at the 2020 New Orleans Louisiana Horror Film Festival (NOLAHFF), and was described by the press as “the BABADOOK meets PET SEMATARY.” Other recent projects include the coming-of-age drama ICELAND IS BEST and the action-thriller KNUCKLEDUST, which won the 2021 Telly Award for Best Original Music.
In 2020, he also received two Telly awards for “Best Original Music” for his scores to the BAFTA “EE Mobile Game of the Year” CALL OF DUTY: MOBILE as well as his score to the Netflix docuseries FORMULA 1: DRIVE TO SURVIVE which won the Telly Award for Best Original Music. Other credits include Oliver Hirschbiegel’s International cold war mini-series for Netflix and ZDF, THE SAME SKY, which premiered at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, and Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut LOST RIVER starring Saorise Ronan, Matt Smith, Christina Hendricks, and Eva Mendes. In the video game space, he’s scored CRASH BANDICOOT 4: IT’S ABOUT TIME, of which Forbes said: “Mair’s score uses a ridiculous range of organic and electronic sounds, deriving its unique audio from ‘tons of vintage and analogue effects,’ ‘modular synths,’ and, er, seashells.” His music can also be heard in video games such as Rockstar’s GRAND THEFT AUTO video games, Sony’s sci-fi franchise KILLZONE, Tom Clancy’s SPLINTER CELL: CONVICTION and The Creative Assembly’s TOTAL WAR series.
In 2006, Walter moved from his native Austria to London to open his own state-of-the-art recording studio in Soho and is a member of both BAFTA and The Ivors Academy. Walter believes that the main principle of creativity is to come up with genuine sounds, and he enjoys experimenting and creating unique sonic worlds for each of his projects, using his extensive collection of analog digital synths and blending live orchestral arrangements with experimental post-recording techniques.
TILL DEATH, directed by S.K. Dale, has been released on July 2nd by Screen Media Films. It stars Megan Fox as a woman stuck in a stale marriage to Mark and is surprised when he whisks her away to their secluded lake house for a romantic evening on their 10th anniversary. But everything changes the next morning when she finds herself handcuffed to Mark’s dead body. Trapped and isolated in the dead of winter, Emma learns this is only the beginning of Mark’s twisted plan, and to survive, she must fight the hired killers coming to finish her off. S.K. Dale was drawn to Mair as a composer because he works with atmospheric soundscapes to create one-of-a-kind music for his scores – his TILL DEATH score being no exception… as we discuss below:
Q: How do you feel music for horror films has changed over the last couple of decades?
Walter Mair: I think, music wise, we had a time where we had really big themes, very emotive-based scores, then we went into musical sound design. Now I think we’re using the best of both worlds, where the music sometimes can be at the brink of sound design, and at the same time we’re allowed to use big, emotive themes. I really like the combination of both.
Q: How have those changes affected you in your experiences in film music since you began in the late 2000s?
Walter Mair: Quite a lot, because I came in at a time where big emotive themes were the thing, and for me I had a bit more of an electronic, experimental background doing not just composition at University but also a bit of sound design. So, at the time when I began scoring I was ahead in terms of the sound design influences, and now that times have changed we are in the brink of anything-is-possible, and the more creative you get the better it is for the score and for the film.
Q: How did you connect with Scott Dale and what did he ask you to bring to the table in terms of music for TILL DEATH?
Walter Mair: It was great working with him. He was really open to hear my ideas, while at the same time he had a rough idea of what the score should do emotionally, but he didn’t dictate the music style. That was totally open for me to find my own way in terms of instrumentation, what sounds I’m going to use, and how crazy I’m going to push things. After I’d seen the first few minutes of the film I came up with some ideas that would fit the winter landscape.
Q: What elements of TILL DEATH’s concept and storyline most appealed to you when you first began developing the music?
Walter Mair: I think it’s the remoteness – being in this cabin somewhere on an icy lake. With the winter landscape, everything is quite brutal and you’re not likely to survive out there, so it sets itself up in an environment where you know that if you’re not dressed properly, if you don’t have heat, you could actually die. That’s the impending threat that covers the entire film, and so our main character, Emma, played by Megan Fox, is facing the threat of either the bad guys or the cold temperature outside, so there’s a constant danger lurking everywhere. I really liked to take that into consideration for the music.
Q: Unsurprisingly, you’ve brought some new unique instruments into play in your score for this film. What can you tell me about these, how you’ve created them and used them to give the film its unique and ultra-frightening musical dimension?
Walter Mair: You know, when we had our last discussion [on THE UNFAMILIAR], I had the Octo Bass, which was a new thing at that time. This time I wanted to push it further again. The idea was that Emma, who is constantly either being chased or beset by bad, horrific situations, so I thought I wanted to give the impending threats a bit of an underbelly. We needed something for that. So I decided to reach out to this amazing musician/instrument builder, Thomas Mertlseder.
He’s based in Vienna and I’ve known him for a few years, and he builds very unique instruments. I came up with the concept of having something that is similar to a double bass, with really long and big strings, but at the same time I wanted to have something that was a bit more mechanical. What we then came up with was the Contra-Hurdy, which is a combination of a contrabass and a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval instrument. It’s big, because it takes the corpus and the strings from the double bass and the engine, the motors from the hurdy gurdy, so there’s a constant “bum-buda-bum, buda-bum” drone in the background, and then on top we have those wooden pegs we can play the instrument. This created some really dark and sinister soundscapes, and that really became the backbone of the score. I also played and recorded those dark, low drums that connect with the infinite world of the landscape and the winter landscape.
Q: What did it take to invent and create this instrument?
Walter Mair: After the concept, it was down to the instrument maker to manufacture the instrument. We had a couple of meetings and when Thomas was finished building it he sent me the instrument. It’s quite heavy – it’s massive! We had the first recording sessions, and the good thing is he designed it, he knew how it works, but I wanted to play it a different way, so I brought in my naivete and played it in whatever way I thought this could be played. That was three days of really interesting sounds that I created on the Contra-Hurdy. We recorded everything and then I took that and put it into the context of the film and found that it worked brilliantly.
I also used hydrophones to create water sounds that resembled the frozen world, which I also had custom-made. Those had been used before but I had them built in a different way for this film so they’re more atonal and more discordant, and that created this really nice bed surrounding Emma.
Q: You also had the movie’s foley team record snow and ice sounds, capturing to real life environmental sounds. How did you then integrate these sounds into your score?
Walter Mair: We’ve got this Scandinavian setting, quite wintery – it really could be America or anywhere that has lots of cold and frozen lakes. I had some early meetings with the lead sound designer, who told me that the foley artist was going to fly up to Finland to record some atmospheres and wintery sound effects. I was taking inspiration from the landscape, so I asked him if it would be possible to record some of those sounds for me. For instance, he threw a big stone onto a frozen lake, and you know when you throw it, it just doesn’t make a plop, it bounces, it makes “ta-dum-de-dum-de-dum” [fading out]. It’s almost like a laser gun sound from STAR WARS! So he recorded that and delivered it to me along with a gazillion other sounds, anything from ice cracks to wind noise to anything that he’d have recorded anyway for the foley session. He sent them to me and I would use that to form some of the core sounds that are being used in the film. For instance, there’s a sequence in there where the ice beneath Emma collapses and she’s being sucked down into the frozen lake, and for that I used the sounds that the foley artist recorded in Finland and just stretched it, pitched it down so it’s got this downward ZOOO-ooom movement in there, and it became a key sound for anything that goes wrong in the film. Scott really liked it and asked me to use that particular sound quite a few times in the score, and it was something that had originated by watching the film, seeing the winter setting, requesting some ice effects, and then playing with them here on my end in my modular synth rack and then feeding the sounds into Logic to create something that’s quite unique and targeted to the picture.
Q: Was there any kind of a temp track that you had to deal with when you cam on board this film?
Walter Mair: It was interesting because the editor, Sylvie Landra, who edited LEON THE PROFESSIONAL and THE FIFTH ELEMENT and films like that, had a few temp tracks that she passed on to me, as did Scott. We had quite a few interesting discussions between the three of us, and in the end we decided to say goodbye to the temp because everything in the temp has been heard before, and we really wanted to hone in on something new for this film.
Q: How would you describe your thematic or motivic structure of this score?
Walter Mair: We’ve got two elements. One is a literal theme, I call it the Emma Theme or Love Theme, it’s a theme for Emma whenever we are feeling quite positive and engaging, and on the other hand we have these very cold structures – the outside world – and that’s the winter landscape. There’s not so much a theme as it is a musical sound design, and when both worlds come together you really get a feel for Emma, who she is and whom she’s up against in terms of the bad guys, and the setting she’s being kept in.
Q: What did you find most challenging about scoring TILL DEATH?
Walter Mair: I think it was figuring out how I should score this particular film, what is unique about it? How is this one different from other horror or thrillers than I’ve done before? So I think the initial stage usually takes a couple of weeks or so, to really hone in on the sounds and the instruments I’m going to use. That’s the challenge, but I really like it because it means I have to really talk to the filmmakers – talk to the director, the producers, the entire team to understand what they’re trying to convey with this film and how to get there.
Q: And what’s been most satisfying about this project for you?
Walter Mair: It’s rewarding when you’ve done some things in music and you realize in the dub, they took down sound design, foley, and other atmospheres and really let the music breathe. There’s a few moments in this film where the music really takes on the story telling element, and it’s just like a pat on the shoulder or when someone gives you a thumbs-up for “Hey, the music really does the job so well,” so that it can stand on its own. It’s also great when the music is doing the opposite, like an undercurrent enhancing the scene, but sometimes it’s really good for the music to push forward and take on a storytelling element and let the picture sort of talk.
Q: It looks like you have a number of completed films waiting for release, such as A SONG TO KILL FOR, THE SPICE OF LIFE, and MR. MAYFAIR, all for director Philippe Martinez. Are you able to tell us anything about scoring these pictures and when they might see release?
Walter Mair: Those were actually really good fun. They started as one film but then gave it a second and third part. They shot all three films at the same time, and the latest information I’ve gotten is that they will be released as a series of six parts to one of the streaming services. It is very much in the style of a heist movie like OCEAN’S ELEVEN, and for music I had so much fun doing that, recording big bands and a lot of it is live, of course. All the percussion, the drums, the bass, a few brass instruments, and towards the end it gets a bit darker so I bring in the synthesizers and electronics. It was a lot of fun.
Special thanks to Andrew Krop and Kyrie Hood of White Bear PR for facilitating this interview.
Related story: see my interview with Walter Mair on scoring THE UNFAMILIAR in 2020 here.