The Borderlands of Fear

April 8, 2022

Composer Nathan Barr: On Scoring Horror

Interview by Randall D. Larson

Nathan Barr

Emmy-winning and highly versatile composer Nathan Barr is known for incorporating eclectic instruments from musical cultures across the world. He has scored a diverse roster of some of television’s biggest shows, including all six seasons of FX’s THE AMERICANS (which earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music), all seven seasons of HBO’s Emmy-winning and fan-favorite series, TRUE BLOOD and Netflix’s HEMLOCK GROVE, for which Nathan earned his second Emmy nomination for the main title theme. Alongside his extensive career in television, Nathan has a long record of scoring successful films. A frequent collaborator with gore-horror master Eli Roth, Nathan scored his early cult-classics CABIN FEVER and HOSTEL as well as more recent projects such as THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS and the forthcoming BORDERLANDS; some of Nathan’s other feature scores include Jason Blum’s hit thriller THE BOY NEXT DOOR, Columbia Pictures’ sci-fi remake FLATLINERS, and the action film KATE; he is currently scoring, along with singer/composer Lisbeth Scott, the forthcoming feature film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1975 SALEM’S LOT, which is scheduled to be theatrically released in the United States on September 9, 2022, by Warner Bros. Pictures.

I spoke with Nathan about some of his notable horror genre scores last September. – rdl

Q: You’ve worked numerous times with Eli Roth. What can you tell me about working with him and scoring those particular films?

Nathan Barr: We worked together first on CABIN FEVER, then I did HOSTEL and HOSTEL II, then he went and had a Chilean phase of his career where he used someone else, and then we did THE HOUSE WITH THE CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, and now we’re about to start BORDERLANDS together. It’s just a happy collaboration; we both love horror films. We sort of approach the whole process as fans of that genre, and so it’s always fun to work with him. We definitely have a shorthand at this point, as far as what he’s looking for. It’s often times impossible to go too big; he always wants the music to be as big as what you’re seeing on the screen, which is cool. I remember him saying, with HOSTEL with the sound effects and the music, he wanted people to have that experience and for the sound and music to be as horrifying as the images, even if they close their eyes.

Q: CABIN FEVER is more of a biological horror thing than HOSTEL. How would you describe your musical approach to those particular elements of horror that are the basis of those films?

Nathan Barr: CABIN FEVER was his first feature, and it was a very early feature of mine, and so I think we were coming out of this genre as fan boys, and it was such a cool world he created. He made this film for next to nothing, it did really well and established him as someone to look out for in the genre, which was exciting. HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS was such a wonderful opportunity, sort of a callback to GOONIES and some other favorite films, so that was the approach to the score, to lean into the fact that this was tipping its hat to those films. I said when we first started, I don’t want this to sound anything like HOSTEL, and I think I achieved that. It’s a really different score from HOSTEL. It’s very thematic but really was an opportunity to try and imitate, and yet make my own, some of my favorite film scores from Dave Grusin, Alan Silvestri, and people like that who were scoring those films back in the ‘80s.

BORDERLANDS, which is coming up, is going to be totally different from anything I’ve done, and from anything he’s done, so I’ve just followed his lead in terms of the way he’s telling the story. This upcoming film also has Cate Blanchett and Jack Black and Kevin Hart, so it’s going to really be an exciting diversion for both of us from what we’ve done in the past. [BORDERLANDS, based on the popular video game, is set on the abandoned fictional planet of Pandora where people search for a mysterious relic].

Q: You also brought the genre into some interesting musical textures with your TV scores to TRUE BLOOD and HEMLOCK  GROVE…

Nathan Barr: TRUE BLOOD was a real game changer in my career as far as TV goes. Once TRUE BLOOD hit, I’ve never lacked for work since. It’s like everyone wants more of those shows and it turns into a giant phenomenon like that show did. That was a place where thematic material was very important to Alan Ball, the creator of TRUE BLOOD, and then again when Eli was producing HEMLOCK GROVE – themes were very important. TRUE BLOOD was sort of Southern gothic, so there was definitely some Southern flavor to part of the score even though a lot of the Southern influence was handled by the songs. HEMLOCK GROVE was much more of a traditionally gothic, spooky kind of score. But I love when composers are actually asked to write themes. There’s a fear of leaning into themes; sometimes there are filmmakers who just don’t want to hear anything that they can whistle or remember and it’s more about atmosphere.

Q: What was it like getting into the 2017 FLATLINERS remake and how you treated that?

Nathan Barr: Niels Arden Oplev was the director, and Niels is a great guy. I came in late on that – there had been another composer on board who didn’t work out. I came in and I think I had three weeks to do the whole film from start to finish, with an hour of music and some of it was orchestral, so it was fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. Same as on Craig Zobel’s THE HUNT [2020], actually. I had three weeks to do that score and was the second composer on that one too. But FLATLINERS – I didn’t re-watch the original; I had seen it when it first came out in 1990 – so it was like “What do you want, Niels?” I got some scenes and just ran with it and got it done, just in the nick of time.

Scene from THE DEVIL’S LIGHT (scheduled for October 2022 in US & UK)

Q: Your most recent score, as of this moment, is THE DEVIL’S LIGHT, about a nun who prepares to perform an exorcism and comes face to face with a demonic force with mysterious ties to her past. What can you tell me about scoring that film?

Nathan Barr: It’s a director I’ve worked with before, Daniel Stamm. He did a really wonderful little film called THE LAST EXORCISM, and I was really impressed and blown away with that film. It was made for nothing, and I thought it was particularly creepy and wonderful. So Daniel and I looked for another opportunity to work together. Our schedules hadn’t quite worked out but he had this story and this movie. I read the script and thought it was interesting and so Daniel and I hooked up. It was a tricky one because of the pandemic. The score is largely based around a lullaby; that was a thing I wrote very early before they even started shooting, and so there’s a very, hopefully memorable melody that had a central role not only in the score but also some on camera stuff and sort of floats throughout the film. So it was a fun challenge to take on.

Special thanks to Nathan Barr for taking time out to discuss his music with me, and to his assistant Shaun Chen for facilitating our chat. For more information on Nathan Barr see his website: https://nathanbarr.com/

See my interview with Barr about scoring KATE in my October 2021 Soundtrax column

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