Blood, Bats, & Morbius
April 1, 2022
Jon Ekstrand Scores Marvel’s Living Vampire MORBIUS
Interview by Randall D. Larson
Jon Ekstrand is a Stockholm-based Swedish film composer and artist. Ekstrand began his career under the mentorship of acclaimed sound designer Owe Svensson, where he sharpened his skills at understanding the power of sound and its dramaturgic importance in helping a story realize its potential. In 1998, while attending Stockholm Film School, Ekstrand met Director Daniel Espinosa, in which the two formed a tight creative relationship which continues to this day.
Ekstrand and Espinosa have collaborated on seven films, including the hit EASY MONEY Trilogy as well as Hollywood Studio Films CHILD 44, LIFE and now the Marvel film MORBIUS. Currently Jon is scoring the biopic feature HILMA by acclaimed director Lasse Hallström, about the life of revered abstract artist and spiritual pioneer Hilma af Klint.
Jon has had a rich career within films, having worked the entire spectrum of the sound team – from boom operator and sound recordist, to sound designer and today as acclaimed composer. Ekstrand is a self-confessed synthesizer addict, and generally starts building his scores around electro acoustic elements. His scores range in genre from more minimal arthouse ambient to epic thriller dramas, and he has recorded with full orchestras at Air Studios in London, Colombia Studios and Sony Studios in Los Angeles. To date, Ekstrand has scored over 30 films and TV series, has been nominated for three Swedish Gullbaggage Awards, and in January 2020 was awarded The Danish Film Institute’s Robert Award for his 2019 score to the film QUEEN OF HEARTS.
With MORBIUS, one of the most compelling and conflicted characters in Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters comes to the big screen. Dangerously ill with a rare blood disorder and determined to save others suffering his same fate, Dr. Morbius attempts a desperate gamble. While at first it seems to be a radical success, a darkness inside him is unleashed. Will good override evil – or will Morbius succumb to his mysterious new urges? MORBIUS was released to theaters today, April 1st, 2022.
Q: You’ve worked with director Daniel Espinosa since your early days as a film composer – what were your earlier discussions about what the MORBIUS score needed, and how did that develop into the music we’ll be hearing in the movie?
Jon Ekstrand: During the first discussions we had, there were two components we really wanted. We wanted it to be a synthetic score but we still wanted it to be a horror kind of score, and not the traditional superhero score. Those were the two initial things that we grabbed onto, and I think we held onto them throughout the process, and in the result you hear in the cinema.
Q: Morbius is an interesting character, having been portrayed in the comics as both a monster and a flawed antihero whose vampiric abilities are the unfortunate result of a failed biochemical experiment. How did you musically create the theme for the character and, without giving away any spoilers, how have you developed his motif across the film’s storyline to create a dangerous and yet sympathetic character?
Jon Ekstrand: We actually wanted to portray him as a monster from the get-go. It’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing. We had to score it quickly because we don’t have so much time with him being just the poor doctor and so on. Because he’s experimenting with bats and bats’ blood to cure himself from this blood disease, already there is a horrific kind of scenario, and what he’s doing is probably not the most and ethically right thing to do. So I would say I really went for the horror portraying him as the monster, musically, as soon as he evolved in being the vampire.
Q: I understand your score mixes heavy synths and orchestral elements – how did you use this instrumental palette to enhance the character in this film?
Jon Ekstrand: One of my biggest inspirations has always been John Carpenter and how he portrayed his main characters in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. I like to use the synths in that manner, and not shying away; presenting him as: here’s Morbius, here he is as a monster, and to underline that with the music that could be very dark in its instrumentation. I really focused on the dark side of the character instead of lighter characteristics.
Q: How did you integrate the synthetic and the orchestral elements as far as putting the palette together?
Jon Ekstrand: Basically it was just trying textures out in the studio from the start, and finding different things that we thought sounded cool with the orchestra, that could be doubled with synths. I always ask my orchestrator, Nicholas Dodd, if he hears something in the synths that we can replicate or double with orchestra. So there’s also a collaboration between him and I to put those things together. We also tried to find orchestra sounds to emulate vast wing slaps and bat screams; that was like re-recording the orchestra but with a processed pitch sound that became almost like the sound of echo-location, like a sonar thing that bats have. We also based some melody lines along John Carpenter’s kind of styles. There was a lot of experimenting about what sounds cool, what can we take from that world and put it into the synths and orchestra.
Q: How large or an orchestra were you using?
Jon Ekstrand: Oh wow – we recorded it one and a half years ago! (laughs.) I think it was 60 strings and 20 brass. We recorded on the Barbara Streisand Scoring Stage in Los Angeles.
Q: What kind of synths were you using in the score?
Jon Ekstrand: I am a synth nerd and always have been! So I’m a strong believer in using external synths and I really like analog synths. For this score, I love creating instrumental sounds and there’s a repetitive kind of alarm sound that comes back in different pitches and different lengths, and that’s mainly created with my EMS Synthi-A, which is like an old briefcase synth that was hand-built in England. I found a sound on that which we used heavily in the score. But then it was Minimoog, I have a Moog One that we used, a Prophet-5 that I used. There’s some distorted Roland 909 drum kicks, a Roland HP 1500 I used heavily for bass pads and so on. And there were a couple of string synths also – one of these almost sounds like a Polysynth but it’s a Teisco SX400, which is like a really cheesy 1970s synth, and it’s kind of looked upon like a really, really bad synth but I loved it! It’s really thin but it always fits in the mix.
Q: What other themes or motifs can be heard in the MORBIUS film?
Jon Ekstrand: We have a friendship theme for the characters Milo and Morbius, who have known each other since childhood, so that’s something we presented quite quickly, and that comes back in different occasions in the movie. It’s mainly piano doubled by a Fender-Rhodes Mark I that is in a really bad condition, so it gives it a nice texture but doesn’t sound like just a piano. That is one of the more frequently returning themes.
Q: How has your working partnership with Daniel Espinosa developed over the years, and what was it like working with him on this particular film?
Jon Ekstrand: Throughout the years we’ve gotten to know each other that much better, and we respect each other and listen to each other better also. We’ve been working so long and we’ve been developing together throughout the years, it’s so fun to come back for every project, because we learn something in between and bring something new to the table. I would say, of all the scores I’ve done for him, he’s always wanted to challenge me, in a way, and wanted me to do something new, like, “Ok, I know you hate guitars, so let’s have a guitar for this score!” But I really like those challenges, and I think it makes the job much more fun. For each new project we usually sit down and just talk about what we like, what scores we like, what movies we like, and what would help the movie. For instance, on this score, we started talking about the bats, really early. We tried to figure out what we can do with those. We’ve done seven movies now together, and I get to be pretty free with him, which is pretty cool, because I can present him with some weird stuff that he hasn’t thought about, and he’s usually very open to new ideas.
Q: What can you tell me about creating the musical designs for the necessary tension, shock, and horrific moments in the film?
Jon Ekstrand: For me, I’ve always been a huge movie nerd, and I like cliches. This is cursing, for some people, but I like to use the classic cliches or pay homage to classic scares, jump scares and so on. I like to be traditional but at the same time bringing in some other elements into it. I almost always use a small sequence of a screaming choir that I recorded a couple years ago that I distort in different ways. It’s just a scream that I use on top of a lot of things, because it cuts through so well. A lot of this scary music is me banging on metal and those kind of things, banging on the dust bin and so on, and integrating it into the sound design.
Q: What do you feel has been most interesting or powerful about this score?
Jon Ekstrand: I think the most interesting thing was, really, to make a dark score, with a lot of electronic noise and alarm sounds and so on.
Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple other recent scores which sound quite intriguing from a musical standpoint. You did a historical drama last year called MARGRETE: QUEEN OF THE NORTH. Would you describe your music for this film?
Jon Ekstrand: That was something completely different. That is part of working as a film composer, you get so many new challenges. I’d never done anything medieval at all, before. I’ve seen medieval films and so on, but scoring this one was a really big challenge – and a bit scary, also! So I jumped into the medieval sounds and textures, not so much the melodies that they used then, but the instruments. I started recording myself playing them, so I found out that I really like the Swedish folk instrument nyckelharpa, which is a key harp, it’s a Swedish and Scandinavian folk instrument from medieval times. I used that a lot, and it’s just me sitting there squeaking on this instrument – it’s a really squeaky string instrument! – but the medieval touch allowed me to create some interesting textures. We recorded it solo and it’s such a naked instrument. It’s very fragile in a way, so with that music it’s like being inside this powerful queen’s head and making her vulnerable, but for her subjects and everybody who was watching, she did what she wanted and didn’t question herself. So it made an interesting tone.
Q: Then earlier this year you did a contemporary thriller called ALL THE OLD KNIVES…
Jon Ekstrand: I wrote that with Rebekka Karijord, who I worked with on I AM GRETA. That was a score that needed to be done quickly. They called us and I think we had five weeks to score something like ninety minutes of music. But that was also something completely different – that was more like a spy vs spy movie with a lot of tension, taut underscoring, musical elements that are working, like motors, in the background all the time, and so on. But that score was also pushing the dramatics in it, because it’s also a love affair in this spy vs spy story. So there’s a lot of emotive thematic material in the score also.
Special thanks to Andrew Krop and Kyrie Hood of White Bear PR for facilitating this interview.
For more information on the composer, see his website at http://jonekstrand.com/
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.