Scoring A Sci-Fi Spy Thriller

January 31, 2022

Tori Letzler: Film Music IN FROM THE COLD

Musique Fantastique Interview by Randall D. Larson

Tori Letzler is a Los Angeles based composer, vocalist, and electronic producer using her diverse talents and eclectic experiences to create compelling music for multimedia. Growing up in New York City, she joined The Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Choir at age 9. Following that, she toured internationally as a vocalist for Cirque Du Soleil before attending Berklee College of Music.

As a sound designer, Tori has created custom sample packs & presets using synthesizers and her trademark cinematic vocals for the likes of Yamaha, Noise Engineering, and Splice. She is also credited as an additional synth programmer on Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL and an additional synth designer for CW’s BATWOMAN television series. As a vocalist, Tori has sung on over 40 scores from heavyweight composers such as Hans Zimmer, Brian Tyler, Lorne Balfe, Rupert Gregson-Williams, and more on major productions such as WONDER WOMAN, BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, THE TOMORROW WAR, and AMERICAN HORROR STORY.

As a composer, Tori has scored more than a  dozen projects since 2014. In 2018, she produced ‘The Future is Female’ concert in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by BMI & Live Nation, highlighting the musical work of twelve female composers including herself. Tori is continuously releasing electronic music under her alias TINYKVT.

Tori recently composed the music for Netflix’s Russian spy sci-fi thriller IN FROM THE COLD, crafting a synth-heavy score inspired by the 90’s industrial movement combined with soft and weirdly affected vocals.

About IN FROM THE COLD: During a European vacation with her daughter, an American single mom’s life is turned upside down when the CIA forces her to confront her long-buried past as a Russian spy who was also the product of a highly classified KGB experiment granting her special abilities. After a mysterious string of manic and murderous incidents suggests someone with her exact abilities is targeting innocent people, Jenny (Margarita Levieva) is forced out of hiding to stop this villain or risk losing the family and new life she has built. Adam Glass (SUPERNATURAL, CRIMINAL MINDS: BEYOND BORDERS, THE CHI) serves as Showrunner and Executive Producer.

Watch the trailer from IN FROM THE COLD:

Q: You’d initially began in films and television as a featured vocalist on dozens of projects starting in 2013. What can you tell me about getting involved in this and what kind of experiences you’ve had as a solo vocalist for film scores?

Tori Letzler: The first place I ever worked in Los Angeles was as an intern for Remote Control, which was Hans Zimmer’s studio, and I was very lucky and grateful to have ended up there after school. When I was interning and later becoming a general studio assistant, Lorne Balfe heard some of the vocals I had done in my past, singing for Cirque de Soleil and also as a child with the Metropolitan Opera, and asked me to come and sing on a documentary called GIRL RISING [2013] that he was scoring. When that soundtrack came out it led to a bunch of other opportunities with other composers under that roof, including Hans. And it just spiraled from there. I started becoming known as the girl who sings on the superhero movies and one thing led to another.

Q: When you were starting a project like that, such as a superhero film like WONDER WOMAN that needs vocals, how have you approached doing that, providing the kind of singing they need?

Tori Letzler: If I’m only working as a vocalist on a project, it really is up to the composer’s discretion and what the team on the project is looking for. WONDER WOMAN, the first one, was with the wonderful Rupert Gregson Williams, who I’ve done vocals for on two occasions now. That was a really great project because a lot of times when I’m asked to do vocals I just get sent the cue, I don’t get a direct contact. They send me the cue and a melody or I’m asked to improvise. With WONDER WOMAN, I was able to actually sing to picture, which now as a composer obviously I take my cues from picture and story. So on that score I was able to follow the emotion happening on screen, and even though a lot of what ended up in the movie was improvised, I really took my lead and my cues from the direction the composer was going as well as the story being told right in front of me.

Q: What prompted you to move into scoring films?

Tori Letzler: I’d been a performer my whole life, as a child, and eventually I just realized that I’d always been writing music. I played piano since the age of 4, always improvising, and always had a love of film scores. I saw John Williams live for the first time at Tanglewood when I was 10, so it was always something I had a love for. I was a trained classical vocalist and I never thought that I had the knowhow or music degree training to become a composer. But eventually when I was thinking of going to college and I was no longer on the road, I wanted to take less of a performing role and be more behind the scenes – originally that was songwriting, but when I got to Berklee I took an Intro to Film Scoring class and realized that that was where my real passion lies, and it just went from there.

Q: I’m especially interested in your work for sci-fi and fantasy/horror projects… Among the films you scored was a series called THE DEAD GIRLS DETECTIVE AGENCY (2019). What can you tell me about scoring this fantasy thriller show and how you treated its fantastic elements musically?

Tori Letzler: Somebody else scored Season One, and I did Season Two. That was a fun little show. At the time I wasn’t aware that it was through the app Snapchat, under the umbrella of Universal, which was great. At the time I was not familiar with the content that Snapchat was putting out. It was a really cool concept that they came up with – these little bite-sized episodes, five-to-ten minute things – that streamed exclusively on the app and were geared at a YA audience. That show was very almost Nancy-Drew-meets-The-Vampire-Diaries, and it was fun. I got to do a lot of experimenting on cool little things and have my music shown to an entirely different audience than I was used to, so it was great.

Q: INCISION (2020) is an intriguing outright horror thriller. How did you treat the subject matter on this project and accentuate the horrific moments of the movie?

Tori Letzler: Yeah, that movie is horrific, that’s a good word! It’s literally about a plastic surgeon who goes insane and decides to take out his fantasies on his patients and turn them into grotesque monsters. Not too dissimilar from some of the scenes in HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, which is one of my favorite movies! I knew that the movie had a very quick timeline and it was with a producer that I’d worked with previously and who’s also in the movie, Lee Kholafai; I’d also scored his film GLASS JAW (2018) a few years before that. We knew this movie was grotesque and he wanted the score to portray that. I’d been using synths for a long time but that was my first foray into an entirely-synth score. I wanted it to sound gritty and terrifying and be its own character.

Q: This brings us to your latest project, IN FROM THE COLD. How did you get involved in this series and what direction or discussion did you have with the showrunner about the kind of music they wanted?

1990’s Russia: Faina (Anastasia Martin) and Young Anya (Stasya Miloslavskaya)

Tori Letzler: I was brought in very early. Originally I was hired March of 2020, which we all know what happened then with the pandemic. The show was about to start production; they were a few days away from filming. When I got brought on I went into the Netflix office to meet the creatives, shake everybody’s hands, and a day later the Netflix office was closed, and they pulled everybody back three days ahead of shooting. That was a really interesting time. That being said, though, I started scoring a year after that, in February 2021. The positive side was that I had the script for a year, so I had a lot of time to think about that and test out new skills, test out new vocal effects which are prominently heard in the score. Then, when I was brought on to score, I was scoring to the script, to dailies we were receiving, and very early edits, working directly with editorial and our creator Adam Glass. That was such a luxury because normally, as a composer, when you come into a project, you’re the last person brought on. Also what often happens with episodic television is you’re chasing week-to-week. IN FROM THE COLD really functioned as a long film. I was one of the first people brought on; I worked directly with our showrunner and our amazing music supervisor Michelle Johnson. Even before they stepped on to set in Spain we were already figuring out themes, and we got to nail down the sound of the show early on. Amazingly, the editors were actually, instead of editing mostly with temp score, the temp score was the suite I had written in advance. So if anyone got attached a cue it was fine because it was a cue that was already written in the vein of the show.

Listen to the track “Lullaby”

Q: Once you began scoring the show, how did you establish and develop your musical palette?

Tori Letzler: Early on Adam and I had a conversation about our love for ‘90s electronic/industrial/alternative rock music, like Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, and How To Destroy Angels, and we wanted the score to function for both our time periods: 1990’s Russia and present day mostly Spain. There’s very little organic instruments in this score, except when it’s really necessary to heighten an emotional moment. Vocals also played a huge role, because a big theme in the show is duality – Jenny’s constantly battling with who she is and who she was, and also with the two time periods and the mother/daughter relationship. There’s a lot of duality going on. So it was figuring out, okay, we need to score this gritty side but we need to have something to bring the human side through as well, and I think the paring of vocals and synth is not necessarily an automatic match made in heaven, so it was finding a good balance of making those things really gel altogether.

Arriving in Spain: Becca (Lydia Fleming) and Jenny (Margarita Levieva)

Q: How would you describe the show’s thematic architecture, and how did that develop across the season?

Tori Letzler: I would say this, out of all the projects I’ve worked on, this one has the most themes and is the most thematic score that I’ve written. Adam is a big theme guy and I love that. We spoke a lot early on about crafting two major themes – one being Jenny & Anya, which you can hear on the soundtrack and variously throughout the score, and then our lullaby theme, which is not only a central theme for the show but it’s also a vehicle that’s sung both on screen and off. That was really important at the beginning because, without giving too much away, it serves as sort of a vehicle for the show’s villain. We knew that had to have an otherworldly characteristic but also be gritty and grounded in reality. There are two vocals in that theme which really stand out; and we have these intervocals in that cue that also act as transitions throughout the show between those two time periods; and then we have our lead Lullaby melody, which sounds like it’s being sung through an old Russian spy radio, and finding that sound was a really interesting and a fun process. Adam loved it right off the bat. Then finding our Jenny & Anya themes, Adam kept saying “What’s your Bond theme?” and I’m going, “Okay, well, James Bond musically is very different from where we’re headed with the show.” And I’m just thinking “what would an industrial James Bond song sound like?” And that was my benchmark for what became our Jenny & Anya themes. Then we have a lot of other characters in the show who are great – we have Chauncey and Chris and they all have their own little moments. There’s a mother/daughter theme for Jenny and Becca that comes in and out of the show because it’s such a crucial part of the series. And then we have a love theme that lives fully in ‘90s Russia, which is very retro, late ‘80s/early ‘90s synthwave.

Listen to the track “Searching for Becca”

Q: How did you come up with the music for those flashbacks into Jenny’s past, inspired by 90’s grunge and industrial music?

Tori Letzler: I worked very closely with our music supervisor, Michelle Johnson, who picked the song choices for the club scenes. We wanted to make it so that you can’t necessarily tell the difference between score and songs. Sometimes when you have songs pop in and out it can take you out of the story, so it was important that the music in this show, especially because there’s so much of it, felt seamless. Another great example of that, in Episode One in our first major fight sequence, there’s a cover of “Break Stuff” by Limp Bizkit that was produced by my husband, Steve Davis, who also worked on the score with me, and was sung by the amazing Nadya from Pussy Riot. That was crafted entirely for the show.

Listen to the track “Jenny & Anya”

Q: Tell me how you created the screechy vocals used to accompany Jenny’s shape-shifting transformations?

Tori Letzler: Oh, man! That was a process. We spoke earlier about that theme of duality, about this really gnarly theme – but how do we bring that human element into it? Immediately, obviously, vocals were the first thing that came to mind. I played with a lot of granular processing and delays – there’s this great plug-in called “Portal” by Output, and I used on the main theme vocal to create those weird stutters and things you hear going back and forth. It was just a lot of layering, a lot of distortion, playing with the timings and pitch.

Q: How did you treat the action/fight scenes musically?

Tori Letzler: The action scenes in the show are remarkable. I think it’s rare that we get female action scenes that are really gruesome and gritty. Often times, action scenes with women are sexy and cool and fun. But here, they really get down and dirty in some of these fights.

Q: That first one in Episode One totally blew me away!

Tori Letzler: Right off the bat, you see that first scene and you’re like, “Oh! This is where we are!” Margarita Levieva had a stunt double, although she did a lot of her own stunts, I’m being told, which is amazing. She’s just such a powerful character. Early on I tried scoring some of the action scenes in, not necessarily traditionally, but having more organic percussion than you would hear normally in action scenes, and Adam, I remember this so vividly, sent me an email and he wrote, “This is great. It’s a great piece of music; but we both love ‘90s electronic. Why are we fighting it?” Well, I threw out the cue and from that point on all of our action scenes are solely electronic, four-on-the-floor, in-your face! And it really I think is a standup thing for the show in that the action scenes have a lot of elements of almost industrial techno, which I just think was such fun once we nailed that down.

Listen to the track “Train Fight”

Q: What kind of electronic/digital/analog equipment were used to create the score’s unique and affecting musical/sonic flavors?

Tori Letzler: That’s a list that can go on and on! The main thing is that, way early on, I did a lot of sampling recordings of my Eurorack. Between myself and my husband we have a massive collection over the last few years… during the pandemic, having a little more free time, that collection became even bigger! We did these giant recording sessions, essentially making our own in-house libraries. The major company that we used for that was Noise Engineering, which is a company that I work closely with; they’re a boutique module synth company, and all of their stuff sounds so insanely gritty and raw and cool. They were just the perfect sounds for the show.

Margarita Levieva (Jenny), Cillian O’Sullivan (Chauncey), Charles Brice (Chris) in IN FROM THE COLD

Q: What has been most challenging about scoring IN FROM THE COLD – and most rewarding or satisfying for you?

Tori Letzler: I’d say the only thing that was really challenging about this show was just the amount of music. I worked with such a great team and we became such a family and everyone just let me do my thing, that we really functioned as one giant team. So I didn’t get a ton of pushback, which is incredible, but there is so much music in the show. We have forty-five to fifty-long minute episodes, and they’re essentially wall-to-wall music. I think by the time everything was said and done, there were like six to seven hours of score done for the show. The soundtrack alone has quite a lot of that. So that was the challenge for me, this being my first solo series endeavor of this scale, but it was a great challenge and I’m so thankful for it. And, honestly, that might be one of the things that was most rewarding as well; it was such a learning process and I feel so much stronger coming out the other end. The other thing was the amount of vocals that are in this score really served just like a master class for myself in learning new techniques and experimenting. Our end product is something I am so proud of, and I’m so thankful to Adam and Netflix and the rest of the team for letting me be able to explore. We don’t always get that luxury as composers.

Listen to the track “Svetlana”

Q: Anything else to add that we haven’t already covered?

Tori Letzler: I just want to say I’m really excited about this. I think the show is great and I hope people enjoy it. I think it can hit a wide audience; if you’re into spy thriller and you’re into sci-fi this really combines the best of both worlds.

Thanks to Tori Letzler for taking the time out to talk with me about these scores; and special thanks to Andrew Krop and Kyrie Hood of White Bear PR for facilitating the interview. For more information see Letzler’s web site at https://www.toriletzler.com/

The 27-track digital soundtrack album for IN FROM THE COLD has been released by Maisie Music Publishing, LLC, and is available on all major digital music services.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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