If you’ve seen a hit horror movie in the past few years, odds are you’ve heard a score by composer Benjamin Wallfisch. The English composer has been doing solid work for some time now, but he broke out in a big way with 2016’s smash hit horror film Lights Out and this year’s sorely underrated Gore Verbinski Gothic masterpiece A Cure for Wellness before going on to compose the score for another huge horror hit, the recent Conjuring-verse pic Annabelle: Creation. Wallfisch, who cut his teeth as an apprentice to Hans Zimmer and collaborated with the composer on films like Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, has shown a knack for unsettling themes and strong melodies, and he faces his biggest film yet with the highly anticipated Stephen King adaptation IT.
Excitement for IT has grown stronger and stronger over the past few months, and as a big fan of Wallfisch’s work—especially on A Cure for Wellness—I jumped at the chance to hop on the phone with the composer for an extended interview about his work on IT. Over the course of the conversation we discussed how his work on Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation led to getting IT, his working relationship with director Andy Muschietti, how classic orchestra-driven 80s scores like Back to the Future and The Goonies inspired his take on IT, and his unsettling theme for Pennywise the Clown. As a veteran of the horror genre we also spoke about his approach to horror films and how it stands out as refreshing in a sea of cliché.
Wallfisch also indulged my love for A Cure for Wellness and talked about his unique and lengthy experience with Gore Verbinski on that film, and also discussed his relationship with Hans Zimmer and how he came to be working on the experimental score for Dunkirk. If you’re a fan of film music, horror, or are just excited for IT in general, I think you’ll find what Wallfisch has to say fascinating.
Check out the interview below. IT opens in theaters on September 8th.
How did you first get involved in IT?
BENJAMIN WALLFISCH: Well, I’ve been very lucky to advance a great relationship with New Line and Warner Brothers, and this will be our fourth film together. I had just finished Annabelle: Creation, and the head of New Line, Erin Scully, asked if I’d be interested in being considered for IT, and I, of course, jumped at the chance. I’m a pretty huge Stephen King fan, since I was a kid. And so, Erin sent a bit of a showreel on my behalf to Andy [Muschietti] and Barbara [Muschietti], the director and producer, and they invited me to meet and talk about the film, and they sent me the script right off the bat. We had a really interesting conversation that went on for a couple of hours, just talking about our shared love of the classic ’80s adventure movies, but also how this movie isn’t just a horror film. There’s something much deeper and a much more powerful subtext, and the narrative talks about what happens when you come together as a group as opposed to trying to act as an individual, when it comes to confronting something terrible. We just had a very long conversation and it’d gone great, and a couple of weeks later they called me and asked me to do the movie.
I imagine it’s kind of a daunting prospect. You talked about the bigger ideas of the film, did you hit on any specific influences in those early conversations?
WALLFISCH: Sure. We absolutely started talking about people like Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, and movies like Back to the Future and The Goonies, and even E.T. at times just in terms of orchestral adventure, big thematic style of scoring, which I grew up on as a kid, during the ’80s, I was so passionate about that and those themes, so we definitely hit on that as a starting point. But there was another … I think during the process of sketching the early teams and finding out that Pennywise is kind of doing two things. We started to just really go beyond the idea that it would be a purely orchestral, adventure score, obviously the bill of horror, but we also wanted to create a sense of Pennywise musically; it’s quite disconcerting by its choices, just by the choices in and of themselves, if that makes sense. The concept really was to both pay homage to that very bold, symphonic, thematic, orchestral scoring of the classic ’80s adventure scores, but also reinvent it. Because the movie is really a visionary sort of re-imagining of what everyone’s concepts of putting the story on screen is. It takes the book as its absolutely number one vantage point, as opposed to the miniseries. We’re not updating the miniseries, it’s all about just being true to the book.
I was curious about the 1980s setting, because there’s this weird thing now, where IT, the book by Stephen King, came first, but Stranger Things has become such a phenomenon that some people are looking at IT, and saying, “Oh well, it’s kind of like Stranger Things. “ I was wondering if in terms of the ’80s influence, Stranger Things is obviously very synth-heavy, and kind of on the nose with the ’80s stuff. Did you consider ever doing a synth, or a really throwback score, or were you guys pretty clear that you wanted to infuse the big orchestral sounds with something new?
WALLFISCH: No, we had no intention to create a synth score. I’m a huge fan of Stranger Things, I love it. But for me, one of the things I was hoping for more with the score, if it was going to be a true ’80s homage, is it would have been an orchestral score. Because all of the ’80s shows were, apart from John Carpenter’s horrors, and with a few exceptions, some Jerry Goldsmith had some heavy scores, the orchestra was the number one go-to at the time, and still is … I mean in terms of like a symphonic attitude, Stranger Things is so clearly influenced by Spielberg, and those classic Amblin movies, which I just love and watch as much as I can, even now. For me, and us, we were not at all going down the synth route. And I think it’s important not to restrict the idea of an orchestral narrative score to the ’80s, it’s something which we do now. It probably had its heyday back then, with all those classic Williams, Spielberg movies, and that also happens to be some of my favorite films of all time, so it was an opportunity to channel my love and huge admiration. For me they are these towering figures that I can only hope to pay respect to people like Williams and Silvestri and Goldsmith when it comes to that way of writing. So I hope I’m contributing something onto that homage.
I’m also curious, just at the base level, what is it like getting to come up with for a theme for Pennywise the Clown? I mean it’s such an iconic figure and it’s so terrifying.
WALLFISCH: Well, it has to start with how Bill interprets that character. And there’s almost a strangely toned-back quality to his performance, you can see in the trailer, and various parts in the movie. But he’s not very good at playing the part, Pennywise. When he’s trying to be childlike, there’s something not quite right about it, obviously, and all of the other terrifying forms he takes. There’s just something that’s off about it, which makes it even more terrifying if that makes sense. The first place was to come up with a melody that had a slightly childlike quality to it, but with all kinds of strange chromatic shifts and unexpected turns, where it’s almost like he’s in one mindset and then suddenly decides to go down a whole other path, or glitches slightly, and the melody just has those— it’s an unpredictable thing. It’s something which is, you think you’re going in one direction, but abruptly it takes you somewhere else. And that’s for Pennywise, it’s kind of a character thing, but we also came up with another melody just to sort of symbolize him cogitating, or about to attack or actually carrying out an attack. We have another melody for that, which is actually based on a very old melody from the 1600s, and when that comes to light I’ll be able to talk more about that.
You’ve already got me a little creeped out, so I’m eagerly anticipating. So when you write this score, were you writing it before you saw footage? Or did you wait and see a cut and then start working on the music.