Can Chucky Be Stopped?

November 22, 2021

Joseph LoDuca Interview – Scoring the CHUCKY Legacy

Interview by Randall D. Larson

Joseph LoDuca

Two-time Emmy Award winning composer (12-time Emmy nominated) Joseph LoDuca is no stranger to large orchestral action, adventure, fantasy, and thriller music. LoDuca composed the music for director Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD trilogy, the Starz Entertainment series SPARTACUS, and Turner Network Television’s LEVERAGE (for Dean Devlin). Joseph’s extensive work for television is highlighted by XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS (Emmy winner), LEGEND OF THE SEEKER (Emmy winner), and HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS. Internationally, his films include BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (César nominee for Best Score) and SAINT ANGE. LoDuca also scored the film PATAGONIA (directed by Marc Evans), which was selected as the 2012 British entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. His varied career features operettas, musicals and theme songs, which have earned him five of his twelve Emmy nominations. He sums it all up: “I understand how to apply music to film. The sounds I discover when I work closely with a director inspire me and make my voice stronger.”

LoDuca’s most recent work has been the music for SyFy’s new CHUCKY TV series. Based on Don Mancini’s CHILD’S PLAY film franchise, the series serves as a sequel to CULT OF CHUCKY, the seventh film in the franchise. The show stars Brad Dourif, reprising his role as the voice of the titular character, alongside Fiona Dourif, Alex Vincent, Christine Elise McCarthy, and Jennifer Tilly returning for their roles from the previous films. The cast also includes Zackary Arthur, Teo Briones, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Björgvin Arnarson, Lexa Doig and Devon Sawa. Developed by Syfy and USA Network, the series follows Chucky as he commits a series of mysterious murders in a quiet city in the United States. Series creator Mancini and writer David Kirschner both serve as executive producers for the series, alongside Nick Antosca, Harley Peyton, and Alex Hedlund.

While still as murder-happy as ever since his sinister introduction in 1988’s CHILD’S PLAY, Chucky has changed a LOT over the years: he’s fallen in love, gave birth to a genderfluid child (who is also a doll somehow), and, now in the CHUCKY series, inserted himself in the life of a gay high school student to help him take revenge on his bullies. But, as composer Joseph LoDuca put it, “What used to be scary isn’t scary anymore. So you have to be innovative and come up with new ways to sound scary.” Jump scares aren’t getting the same reactions they used to anymore. “You have to get them with the dread,” he said. As technology has evolved alongside Chucky, LoDuca is able to process and mix his score in ways that would’ve taken forever in the past, and it’s opened new doors to sounds… and SCARES.

I spoke to Joseph LoDuca at length about scoring the CHUCKY movies and the new SyFy series, as well as taking a walk through his career from EVIL DEAD in 1981 through his most recent work. – rdl

Watch the trailer for SyFY’s CHUCKY series:

Q: I want to start by looking back a bit at your scores for 2013’s CURSE OF CHUCKY and 2017’s CULT OF CHUCKY both for director Don Mancini. Most of the prior CHUCKY scores were composed by different composers – how did you become involved in those films, and was there any need to refer to prior musical styles or themes?

Joseph LoDuca: Good question! Through the encouragement of my agent, he introduced Don Mancini and myself. We hit it off immediately. I guess we had a similar frame of reference. Don’s a big cinephile – he’s the biggest fanboy of film and the genre, and of film music, to begin with, besides being an incredible filmmaker himself. So it was great to start the ball rolling on CURSE OF CHUCKY with that. Much to his credit, he said “Don’t worry about the earlier films, just do what you do. Let’s work with the film that I’ve just made.” That was great, because, to be honest with you, I don’t spend a lot of time in the genre itself outside of when somebody calls for me to do a horror or a thriller score.

With these films, everyone is aware of Chucky. My initial involvement consisted of channel surfing and seeing a few minutes before a commercial came on, so I wasn’t really totally aware of it, and the only thing that became apparent was that there was no consistent theme for Chucky – which was great, because I was able to jump right in, with Don’s approval. I heard the toy piano immediately, and started the melody as a Saturday morning jingle haunting the good guy doll, but twisted – and we developed the score from there. CURSE OF CHUCKY took place in an isolated house where a paraplegic lived with her mother. That’s where Chucky wreaked havoc, so there was that sort of haunted house trope that we played off of, and it tended to have more orchestral elements, so it felt traditional.

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s Main Theme from CURSE OF CHUCKY:

Joseph LoDuca (continuing): CULT OF CHUCKY took place in an asylum. Chucky runs loose in an asylum! What a great premise, right? The setting was kind of like THE SHINING, it was in the middle of this tundra, and its sterile environment suggested more electronics, more blending of textures, so we went that way.

Q: What was your brief when asked to score the CHUCKY series for SyFy? What kind of music were they looking for in this particular iteration of the franchise?

Joseph LoDuca: The series presented its own challenges in that you’ve got Chucky placed in the world of middle school drama. He’s sort of a metaphor for bullying, initially. There are a lot of songs that we have to blend in and out of. It’s focused around these young people who become our heroes. So, even though it’s a horror genre, I’m using a lot of tools that music producers use, sort of mutating and mangling and strangling the sounds. So that was the interesting challenge, and a lot of fun to update the horror, if you will.

Image: NBCUNIVERSAL

Q: Did you work with Don on the series as well, or did you have different showrunners for that?

Joseph LoDuca: Don’s the showrunner and is the final arbiter of all of the music, so we worked very closely together. I’d send him a reel or a bunch of cues and we’d have a little back and forth, but generally, because TV goes so quickly, we’ve developed a very good shorthand of communication so we can work out a lot and blueprint the music in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish when we first sit down and spot the episode. So as long as I can deliver what I report in words, we’re good!

Q: Would you describe your instrumental palette for the series, and any unusual or unique musical attributes that you’ve given to the show?

Joseph LoDuca: There’s a lot of sounds that are in the series that you really can’t tell the origin of. In other words, did it start out as a piano, did it start out as a string, did it start as a sine wave? Often, you don’t really know. We’re doing a lot of genre hopping, generally speaking, because we learn a lot of the backstory of Charles Lee Ray and how he met Tiffany, so there are some 80’s references, and there’s all kinds of stuff going on with the score. We have Berlioz and we have Billie Eilish and we have Bernard Herrmann, we have The Go-Gos, and somehow it’s up to me to make it all work! 

Q: What can you tell me about the show’s main theme?

Joseph LoDuca: The 18-second main theme actually comes from CHILD’S PLAY 2 [1990]. I think that was the biggest commercial success in the Chucky franchise. The two films that I did with Don originally were direct-to-DVD. So the marketing team at Universal had decided that CHILD’S PLAY 2 had probably the best known music I.D. for a main title. So I updated that and I’ve used it because it’s a good theme for certain situations that we’d find Chucky in with certain characters. It plays very well, for example, with the innocent little girl, Lexy’s little sister, who’s kind of autistic, for example, and her relationship with Chucky. My theme, which probably gets used more often, supports more ominously.  

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s main theme to CHUCKY:

Q: Did you reference any of your themes from CURSE and CULT, or is this a wholly new score aside from the references to the second film?

Joseph LoDuca: There are a few cases where Don really is in love with a cue or two from the earlier films, and we’ll reference those, but it’s very infrequent. Otherwise this is all wholly new. Even though there are a lot of songs, there’s a lot of music. We’re wall-to-wall in every episode.

Q: It’s cool that you have that legacy to draw from as needed.

Joseph LoDuca: Yeah. It’s like when you hear the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme in a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. You want to hear it. And you don’t want to over use it, but you’re going to smile when it comes on.

Q: Aside from the main theme, how would you describe your thematic configuration and development of the series across its eight-episode format?

Joseph LoDuca: I think one of the through lines is we have a theme for Tiffany, played by Jennifer Tilly, because she is given a lot of screen time on how she came on board with Charles Lee Ray. So there’s a theme there for her. Certainly the ‘80s version of her was as kind of a punk rock kid, but the current Jennifer Tilly version is more complicated. She comes across, to me, as your classic Hollywood vamp, so the theme is very sexy and sultry in a Hollywood kind of way, and often is played off with orchestra, and initially played off on an E-bow, because it’s slinky and slide-y and sexy in that way.

CHUCKY’s human cast (l-to-r:) Fiona Dourif, Bjorgvin Arnarson, Jacob Breedon, Jennifer Tilly, and Zachary Arthur
(image from a twitter post by Jennifer Tilly)

Q: How did you treat the main character of Jake?

Joseph LoDuca: Jake’s tortured. The actor who plays Jake [Zackary Arthur] does a wonderful job of just being hammered, one trauma after another. There isn’t a theme for Jake per se, but there is a theme for the romantic relationship that develops with him and his friend Devon [Bjorgvin Arnarson] – that’s carried out thematically through the episodes in that in the first episode, we first see Devon playing the piano at the talent show. Initially they thought it would be nice if he played an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon, mainly because the actor plays piano. That did not end up in the episode, though, and instead you just hear the last few notes or something, and the use of that piano as a pure piano performance is what carries us through to their relationship from the first episode. It’s probably the only place that I use a pure piano sound. Every place else where there’s some sort of keyboard it’s never clean and clear. That piano is related to the style of what that theme is, and when Devon and Jake finally kiss in Episode 5, there is a licensed song by the young artist Lauv [“Modern Loneliness”]. It’s in a contemporary pop style, again a piano-based ballad, and so my theme for the two of them foreshadows that pop style. It’s very simple, like you would hear something from Billie Eilish, that kind of thing. So those are a couple of examples of through-thematic themes.

Zachary Arthur as Jake, with Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) – Syfy/USA Network

Q: You mentioned there were a lot of songs in the series. To what extent did you need to come in and out of songs, make sure you’re in the same keys, etc. where that was necessary?

Joseph LoDuca: Always, but also there are some things going on in the songs – when a song is used for a montage, for example. There’s one where the kids are having a silent disco, with headphones, and the house is burning behind them. So there’s a house track playing, and as house tracks go, it’s basically a bass line and a drum beat, maybe a little suggestion of something else. I’m enhancing it in the style of synth sounds you might hear over a house track, but I’m actually enhancing the images of this house burning now, all within the style of house but amping it up to play up the unwitting danger that they’re not yet aware of. That happens a lot. There’s one in Episode 7 where it’s sort of an alt-rock, Nine Inch Nails kind of track, which is a very downtempo kind of thing, but I scraped nails over the top of that one because, again, there’s some impending maliciousness about to take place. So it’s having fun with those songs, and there’s a lot of that, playing in and out of the songs.

Q: Something I find very interesting about the score is your technique of anticipating danger that the characters aren’t yet aware of, but the audience is recognizing it.

Joseph LoDuca: Yeah. That’s the primary function of a horror score, of course. You need to make sure that that impending sense of dread is always in the background. In some ways, the violence is more the release of, or a relief from, the dread that you’ve set up.

Q: And the songs kind of give a sense where things are maybe okay…

Joseph LoDuca: Even when the songs play against violence, and we did that a lot in ASH VS EVIL DEAD, it was really, if anything, to dispel the sheer gruesomeness of what was going on. It was like “Don’t take this seriously, kids!”

Image: Syfy

Q: What’s been most challenging or perhaps most interesting for you about scoring the CHUCK series?

Joseph LoDuca: I think it was the sheer volume of it, but also the fact that when you’re a composer and you have the traditional orchestral colors, that’s a 32-crayon box. This is as many crayons as you want – 256 and beyond! I don’t think there’s a single sound that I put into the score – although you might not detect it – that isn’t processed in some way, shape, or form. So the sound design aspect is a challenge. Another challenge is that, although Chucky comes with an inherent sense of camp, you’ve got to be careful that the music doesn’t wink along with that. That’s something that I learned from the first EVIL DEAD. Your score generally needs to be the straight man, unless there’s just a moment where you’ve got to put that wink in. One of the other challenges is – and I can’t really speak to the other CHUCKY films – but because what we have here is the emotional journey of these teenagers and their parents, and you don’t want to lapse into melodrama. The melodrama is saved for Tiffany and Charles Lee Ray, because they’re Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s track “Death By Misadventure (with sfx)” from CHUCKY:

Q: Looking back a ways, you started out in film scoring with Sam Raimi’s first EVIL DEAD movie, and the horror genre has been a frequent companion for you, although certainly not exclusively, throughout your career, up to and including this CHUCKY series. Do you feel you’ve had an affinity for scoring these kinds of films?

Joseph LoDuca: Frankly no. I would get sick at seeing those horror movies at the drive-in. When I saw THE EXORCIST I didn’t sleep for two nights. Horror wasn’t anything I sought after. But the directors who I’ve worked with in the genre, they’re all the nicest people, and not at all like what the darkness of their films might suggest. So it’s more about telling a story and getting a giggle when you’ve gotten a rise out of somebody, particularly with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell.

Q: Do you recall your thoughts on scoring that first EVIL DEAD movie [1981] and how you approached its unique musical needs?

1984 Varèse Sarabande vinyl soundtrack

Joseph LoDuca: I did not have a clue. I had enough confidence in my musical ability, but I didn’t have a clue how to write for film. And it was very primitive back in those days, so I had to figure out how to sync my ideas to the picture. It’s not like a press of a keystroke as it is nowadays. It was “do it with a calculator.” The whole idea of production in terms of melding the performances – some of the limitations of scoring that movie worked to my advantage, because to have just five strings, some early synthesizers and whatever else I could bang on, was perfect for this little ramshackle cabin in the woods.

Q: How did that develop when you came to score EVIL DEAD II and ARMY OF DARKNESS?

Joseph LoDuca: I got a bigger orchestra and then a bigger orchestra! So it was about writing for those things. The gags were bigger, the scenarios were bigger. Just the fact that I had a bigger sandbox to play in, and we had the choir and the whole medieval fantasy epic quality of ARMY OF DARKNESS.

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s “Prologue” music from ARMY OF DARKNESS:

Q: What was it like to revisit the character and situations more recently with the ASH VS EVIL DEAD TV series?

Joseph LoDuca: What was fun is that Sam directed the first episode, so we got to collaborate on that. He came up to the orchestra session and that was great to revisit our collaboration in that way. Again, because Sam and [EVIL DEAD franchise producer] Rob Tapert, in particular, are fans of real instruments, we had a fair amount of live orchestra for that series, all dedicated toward big scares, big action scenes, all of the above. The other part of that was the licensed music which plants Ash firmly in 1970’s Detroit rock roots, so some of the score would reflect that era, and we’d use that for transition scenes and shorter cues.

Q: Were the adventures series, HERCULES, XENA, THE LIBRARIAN and the like, an interesting departure for you from the horror genre? 

Joseph LoDuca: [laughs] It wasn’t until 2017, a few years ago, that I’d actually done my first sitcom, because I happened to be on the Warner lot! But, yeah, I never get those easy assignments. It’s always how many notes and how big can we go?! Which is fine. All those years of doing HERCULES and XENA were one of the few cable television series that were able to employ full orchestra and choir during those years. The precedent was set with ARMY OF DARKNESS and then Rob and Sam had developed the ideas for HERCULES and then its spin-off, XENA. We were in that genre and even though we did have the large, grand orchestral fantasy epic action we also had Three Stooges comedy and we had an operetta, a rock musical, we had goofy comedies. It was all spread out in close to 300 episodes. And then, of course, that prepared me very well for the SPARTACUS series. What was especially great about working on XENA was that Xena traveled to China and to India and to Japan and so there was this opportunity to get my ethnomusicology degree while I was scoring that show, and really to be guided into the musical cultures around the world. I acquired a vast number of instruments and worked with a lot of master musicians, so that, again, really helped when it came to score the SPARTACUS series.

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s “The Warrior Princess” theme from XENA:

With THE LIBRARIANS it was great meeting with Dean Devlin on the first LIBRARIAN film, which was revived as a series after three television films, and of course working with him on long-standing series LEVERAGE, which was a totally different thing because that was all about groove and heist music. So it’s very nice to be able to do all those things. Some composers are very comfortable and get called upon to do one type of thing, and that’s great. I’ve just considered myself a musician, first and foremost, and am pretty much a quick study on everything. I love all good music, so there isn’t anything that I would not find myself comfortable taking on as an assignment. There’s always the panic of the blank page, but my background is pretty diverse in music, per se.

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s Track “The Promise of Action” from THE LIBRARIANS (2014):

Q: Even though genre fans may key in on your work for horror films, because that’s what they might mainly follow, there’s so much more that you’ve done. You’ve operated in almost every genre of type of film there is.

Joseph LoDuca: I do hold it as a badge of honor to be able to continue to work in horror, because the rules that govern romantic comedies, etcetera, do not apply to horror. It’s as crazy as you want to be, as sonically adventurous as you want it to be, and probably the genre that has the most loyal fans. That and sci-fi, right?

Joseph LoDuca conducting

Q: Absolutely.

Rehearsing for EVIL DEAD LIVE at the Ace Hotel L.A.

Joseph LoDuca: The fact is, I did rewrite the score to EVIL DEAD a few years ago because I just thought that early ensemble, the small one, was an interesting ensemble to write for, and there is a print of that which goes around the country and we’ve done live-to-picture concerts, in L.A., in Austin and Melbourne, around Halloween time, and that’s a fun thing to bring it back. They’re always a good time, and it’s a great experience to have the film music survive this long and continue to be performed.

Q: A favorite score (and film) of mine is your music for the French film BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF [2001; Le pacte des loups]. What can you tell me about scoring this film and how you approached its historical flavors, characters, and the mysterious beast at the heart of the story?

Joseph LoDuca: I loved writing for that, and I love the French sensibility for music, at least from the directors that I’ve worked with there. As you know, the style of the movie is told in a more contemporary fashion, cinematography-wise, and there wasn’t this need to be slavish to the epic. I mean, there’s tablas and udu drums and ouds, and Brazilian Capoeira drumming – stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with that period. One of the fun things for me is there’s a character played by Mark Dacascos and he’s the sort of Indian guide of our hero, and so I purchased some Indian recorder flutes and came up with themes on those instruments that are consistent throughout the film. So it was a great experience. It was kind of a world music thing; obviously there were cues with choir and cues with a children’s choir, there’s a big, epic orchestral finish where all the themes come together. I do love working on those types of projects where you create an entire imaginary world from scratch in the music, and I get to do all the things I love to do, which is write for orchestra and play the stringed instruments, and use the unusual instruments, and to call upon some people who really excel at doing unique things, and weaving that into a whole world. Those are the type of films that have impressed me the most over the years, where filmmakers are daring enough to just go for it and you see a world you’ve never seen before.

Listen to Joseph LoDuca’s “Gévaudan – Track No. 1” from BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF:

Q: I’ve always felt SyFy’s CLEOPATRA 2525 was a fun and provocative show, in a number of ways. What do you recall about developing your music for the series’ two seasons?

Joseph LoDuca: There was a lot going on there. I think this was going on simultaneously with JACK OF ALL TRADES, and the last season or two of XENA. So it was a very, very busy time. CLEOPATRA 2525 was a strange sci-fi series that was, I suppose, kind of a futuristic CHARLIE’S ANGELS at the time. The show’s theme was a song from 1969, “In The Year 2525,” which they licensed for the series, which I adapted. The way I thought I would re-envision that song was, “Ok what if we did it as kind of a house beat with Shirley Bassey singing over the top?” So we did it that way, because it was more of a folky tune, like a West Coast folk rock ballad. And we did it up-tempo, not with the real Shirley Bassey but that was the approach. In retrospect the show was more of a flash in the pan. It did give Gina Torres her starring debut, and she went on to do some big roles after that [Gina was also the one credited with singing the series’ theme song.].

Watch the intro to CLEOPATRA 2525:

Q: What are some of your favorite non-genre projects that you’ve scored, that might not be on a lot of fans’ radar, but should be?

Joseph LoDuca: There are some indie films that I’ve done that don’t see wide release, and those are fun for their own reasons. They’re small projects but they’re personal projects and the music isn’t grand but very interesting. A few years ago I did a film called SAY MY NAME [2018], which is a romantic comedy, sort of an IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT about an unlikely couple who get thrown together, have misadventures, and get together in the end. The main male character is a piano tuner, and never leaves the island that he’s stranded on with his more adventurous companion, so in the music I basically went inside the piano and did a tango, and that ends up being the premise for the score. So you end up with some very interesting things there as well as some other textures that wouldn’t have come up otherwise. I did a Welsh film called PATAGONIA which was also a small score but I played a lot of South American Altiplano instruments on that. I’ve done some work collaborating with Angelo Badalamenti, who happens to be my cousin.

Q: I did not know that!

Joseph LoDuca: I didn’t know that! Not until we were introduced by my agent, who put us together on the project! We went into our family histories and found out in fact that we come from the same town in Sicily where people are related. We did some interesting films together, one of them was with Kiera Knightly [THE EDGE OF LOVE, 2008]; it’s a British film about Dylan Thomas during World War II. So those types of little side excursions can be very satisfying.

Varèse Sarabande soundtrack CD, 2020

Q: Certainly having the opportunity to score many different types of films, even though in some respects you’re best known for your horror work, or your SPARTACUS or your XENA work, depending on the audience, but when you really take a look at your filmography you’ve scored just about every kind of film, except maybe a Western.

Joseph LoDuca: There was a Western! Not many people saw it, but there was a Western! [THE BURROWERS, 2008; a horror Western].

Q: What’s coming up next that you can talk about? I see that you’re scheduled for the EVIL DEAD video game, shown to be in post-production.

Joseph LoDuca: What I’ve done there is I’ve written some of the overarching themes for the video game. The actual game play is by a music composer named Steve Molitz. But it was fun. It’s my first foray into the video game world. I tried to make music that was felt comfortable in the video game world but that also recognized what EVIL DEAD is all about. The video game field seems way more interesting than when it first began, because composers get involved very early on with game developers, which is not usually the case with film and television. And so, by and large, you get a more collaborative result, and again it’s all about worldbuilding.

Many thanks to Andrew Krop and Kyrie Hood of White Bear PR for facilitating this interview, and especially to Joseph LoDuca for such an engaging discussion of his work. -rdl
Music clips via YouTube.

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