Come for a night. Stay forever.
January 11, 2023
Something In The Basement: Anna Drubich Scoring BARBARIAN
Interview by Randall D. Larson
About Anna Drubich: Anna Drubich is an award-winning film composer based in Los Angeles, originally from Russia, whose diverse body of work can be heard on television, at the cinema and in the theatre, and includes big international projects, animated features, documentaries and plays. Anna’s work as composer has led her to being a several times winner of the Russian Film Academy Award as well as receiving international composition prizes and awards. In addition to Anna’s music for the visual arts, Anna has been intensively involved in writing music for the concert hall and collaborating with world famous musicians and ensembles. She earned her Bachelor and Master’s degrees at the Munich School for the Performing Arts (2002-2008) under the tutelage of Professor Franz Massinger. In 2012, Drubich graduated from the University of Southern California where she finished prestigious Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program. During this program she had a chance to meet acclaimed film composer Marco Beltrami, who she started to work with after graduation. Her recent works are NAVALNY (Nominated for Critics Choice Awards for the best score), SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, FEAR STREET TRILOGY, WEREWOLVES WITHIN and BARBARIAN.
About BARBARIAN: Tess (Georgina Campbell) travels to Detroit for a job interview and books a rental home for her stay there. When she arrives late at night, she discovers that the house is double booked, and a young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Since all the hotels are fully booked due to a convention, Tess, against her better judgement, decides to spend the evening. The next morning, when it’s daylight, she realizes that the house is the only occupied one in a very dilapidated and abandoned neighborhood. She soon realizes that there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest when she discovers a series of secret rooms in the home’s basement. Some time later, actor A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long) learns he has been fired from his television series due to rape allegations made by a co-star. Pressured to sell his assets to pay for legal costs, he travels to a rental property he owns in Detroit, the same house that Tess and Keith rented. A.J. inspects the house and eventually discovers a hidden tunnel…
This is a quite potent horror film which has an intriguing dramatic structure, shifting gears several times to introduce new characters and situations, but eventually connecting all the elements into a powerful denouement.
“The inspiration for the heart of the music — and the score’s fear — lay in its monstrous victim and leading lady “The Mother.” From the film’s opening cue to a lullaby featured on a TV screen in Mother’s den, her presence was very much imbued in the movie’s music, down to her own lullaby.” – The Hollywood Reporter
Note: this interview includes some spoilers about the film BARBARIAN. Consider watching the film first if you haven’t seen it yet.
In the United States, BARBARIAN was released on digital download and to stream on HBO Max beginning on October 25. It was also released on Star+ in Latin America and on Disney+ as part of the Star content hub in other international territories on October 26, 2022. The film was released on Disney+ as part of the Star content hub in the United Kingdom on December 14, 2022.
Watch the BARBARIAN trailer:
Q: I found BARBARIAN to be a very interesting and frightening film. How did you become involved with this film – I don’t believe you’ve worked with the director, Zach Cregger, before?
Anna Drubich: No, we haven’t worked before – I believe it was his first feature film. I got a call from my agent and he said there was this movie, they’re interested in you, but it’s only three weeks until the dub! I was a little bit shocked, because that’s not very long. That’s not a lot of time to do the whole score. As I understand it I wasn’t a replacement composer, so by the time I met with Zach, he knew everything about where he wanted the music to be and how it should be. He wrote the script, he raised money to do it, he found a studio to produce it – and he was very much a hands-on director. When we talked first, he was like, “I want to hear woodblock sounds and so on.” That’s how we started working. For me, it was a first time to experience such a hands-on director, really digging into every little detail in music, but I actually found it very useful, and we became friends during this process because we were working together a lot.
Q: When you started to realize the score, how did you begin to find the type of music the film needed and how you would be following its story arc?
Anna Drubich: For me, this movie has three stories, even in different time periods because we have a jump into the ‘70s. The first story is straight-forward suspense/horror story about Tess and Keith. The second one is kind of a genre change because it goes into a comedy with A.J. and its not that scary any more, I would say. Then, towards the end, it becomes, for me, a dark comedy – it’s not straight horror for me, as I see it. So the goal was to have the music go through these genres, but still be connected in a single story. When I talked with Zach, he wanted it to be a synth score but he really liked all kinds of wood block instruments. He said, don’t worry – I want as many woodblock instruments as possible! So I recorded a lot of wood-block-ish instruments, but then I processed them, created a lot of very low suspense loops, and used different kinds of instruments that you might not say are actually wood block, but in the base it has that kind of sound. That was my concept of the soundscape for the score. In addition, Zach wanted me to write the lullaby that will play when A.J. finds the hidden room in the basement. He said, “this is kind of like TV commercial music. You’re going to write this melody – nobody will notice it because it’s just a kind of TV music, but then we’ll bring it back towards the end when the Mother says ‘Goodbye’ to Tess and kisses her. We’ll bring this motive back and this will become our Mother theme.” So we had these little conceptual ideas which, altogether, create an arc for the story.
Q: How did you gather these elements together and create with them a musical journey that generated the story’s fear factor?
Anna Drubich: When you have only three weeks to score the whole film, on one hand it’s difficult because that’s not very much time, but on the other hand it makes you not double guess. You just jump into the project and totally follow your instincts and the director’s instincts. You don’t discuss a lot how it should be – “let’s try this or let’s try that” – because you don’t have any time for that. Zach spent so much time over it with this movie, and his temp score, when we started working together, was precisely already picked; all the sounds and all the spotting was exactly right. For some moments I had to listen to the temp to figure out the sound palette he prefers, but on the other hand, obviously we tried to make it effective storytelling and make the jump scares work better, and make it bigger and more effective. It’s hard to explain… when you have just three weeks it all comes together very fast, and somehow you don’t even notice how the whole concept is created!
Q: How did you make the transition from the Air B&B rental and the awkwardness of Tess’ being double-booked, with Keith being there when our heroine arrives, moving into the discovery of the basement tunnel and what occurs when our heroine steps into it?
Anna Drubich: There is this jump between the stories – the first story, the Tess story, and then with A.J., where we totally shift the vibe, and the music. We go into more of a comedy direction. For example when A.J. takes the measuring tape down into the basement tunnel system so he can list it as part of the property and therefore increase the value, that scene is totally comedy. Zach wanted the audience to totally get this as a comedy moment, but actually, when you listen to the soundtrack you hear the same motives and the same melodies, just differently arranged. So I think that, subconsciously, it all glues together.
Listen to the track “Down The Tunnel,” via YouTube:
Q: Your cue, “Down The Tunnel,” really sets a creepy atmosphere for Tess’ first exploration of what’s beneath the basement door. Do you recall how you set up those moments when we realize that something strange is occurring down here?
Anna Drubich: Most of the sounds that I created for this track were original, they’re not sample library sounds. I just followed the whole thing with her heartbeat, her going downstairs. Zach was very precise. Initially I wanted much more active music in this scene, but he was so sure that it should be very subtle – a more subconscious fear in this scene. In the moment when she finds Keith [injured] in the tunnel is a really effective jump scare, and also towards the end of the scene where Mother kills Keith – it goes so crazy with all these loops I created from wood instruments and reverse sounds. It creates the whole horror and scares of the scene. But again, I think the most important thing was to create a unique soundscape, and make sure that all these sounds combine well with each other.
Q: How did you treat the Mother character, once she is revealed? She’s monstrous but is also treated somewhat sympathetically…
Anna Drubich: This is the story of the lullaby. We represent it, first, when A.J. is in the basement and we see this TV commercial video playing in one of the rooms. Then we return to it when Mother jumps into the pit to feed [trapped] A.J., and then when she hugs Tess towards the third part of the movie. We also bring in this motive during the horror music in the tunnels; this soft lullaby motive comes back. We don’t know just what’s going on but Mother is actually a victim of Frank (Richard Brake) [the man who abducted women in the house in the 1970s and held them captive in the tunnel]. We start to realize that, while she is a monster, she has this maternal instinct and is obsessed with this idea of nurturing a child. At the very end of the movie where she’s almost dead, having jumped from the silo to save Tess because she really cares about her, we see that she’s not just an evil monster, she’s trying to get some love or care. When she says “Goodbye” to Tess we bring back the lullaby motif. This was, for me, a very touching moment, and I’ve noticed in the theater when I was watching it with an audience, everyone responded to that, and kind of feel sad and sorry for her. So this whole arc was well made because the audience really responded to Mother as a monster but also a victim of the whole story.
Q: How did you treat the character of A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long) when he arrives and adds a new twist to the storyline?
Anna Drubich: He appears with this funny song, “Riki-Tiki-Tavi” [a song written by Donovan Leitch in c.1970, referencing the name of the mongoose in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book who protects a family against a giant cobra]. A.J. sings the song in his car, but then as the whole story of sexual harassment starts to develop, I have this comedy drum set piece which is played together with A.J.’s motive; it’s played on the cello with a lot of percussion instruments. We bring back that cello motive when he’s measuring the basement. There’s a whole sequence with his motive but without drum set, and that’s his theme. With this play between musical motives we have his own story within the movie.
Q: In addition to the samples you’ve been referring to, are there any live instruments as well, such as the cello and drum set that’s being played there live?
Anna Drubich: Yes. There were only three live elements in the score – percussion played by my friend Hal Rosenfeld, the cellist is my husband Evgeny Tonkha, and then the first cue when Tess arrives at the house, Zach had this idea of having a weird voice piece, but since we didn’t have the time to record a whole choir, I recreated a choir with some sounds of Zach singing a capella with me and my friend Uyanga Bold, and we just built it with many recordings and it made this creepy sound that represents the victims of Frank who were tortured in the basement. The audience doesn’t know about it yet, but it’s an introduction of them and the whole story twist that they’ll understand when they get to the end.
Listen to the score’s final track, “Goodbye,” via YouTube:
Q: What did you find was most challenging – and most rewarding – about scoring BARBARIAN?
Anna Drubich: When I watched the movie for the first time, I thought it was super scary and actually I couldn’t even watch it through to the end, because it was, for me, extremely too much! When I talked with Zach the first time I was pretending that I knew the whole story, but I didn’t know it all because I just couldn’t force myself to finish watching it [laughs]. It always happens with me scoring any horror movies – in the beginning it’s like super intense scary for me, but then when you know the movie scene by scene and frame by frame you’re just so used to it, so you just don’t notice where it’s actually scarier! The most interesting moment for me was after we dubbed the picture and there was a couple months’ break were I wasn’t working on the movie any more, and there was this first screening with an audience; I went to see it and I was amazed how the audience was freaking out and reacting to it and really enjoying the whole ride. I think it became a really successful movie, and it’s always rewarding when you work on something and you don’t know how it will be accepted but then it turned out so great. I got so many emails asking, especially, about a soundtrack, so that was very nice.
Q: What’s coming up next for you, that you’re able to talk about?
Anna Drubich: I’m actually doing some other movies and genres right now. I want to have a break from horror [chuckles]! I’m working on a studio action movie and three very exciting documentaries. They all will be out towards the summer of this year, so hopefully you will hear more work of mine!
Q: Great. I’ll definitely look forward to hearing and watching those when they come around! Thank you so much for your time in discussing your score with me!
Anna Drubich: Thank you for the interview. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Special thanks to Kyrie Hood and Yefan Zhang of White Bear PR for facilitating this interview.
A digital soundtrack album for the film featuring score by Anna Drubich was released by Hollywood Records on December 9, 2022
This interview has been lightly edited for clarification.
Always beware of rental homes with unusual basements.