‘IT’ Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on the Score’s 80s Inspiration, Pennywise’s Theme, ‘Dunkirk’ and More
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.
WALLFISCH: I always try and wait until I’ve seen some footage before I write anything, but in this case, I had the script ahead of time, and our early conversations between myself, Andy and Barbara sparked a lot of ideas, and so I started sketching ahead of seeing the movie, but within a week or so, I went to a test screening and was completely blown away. What was lovely is there was so much room for experimentation. Andy is such an incredible creative partner that he was open to all kinds of crazy ideas and concepts, which is a wonderful sense of back and forth between us, and feeling all options were on the table when it came to decision making, but also the focus all the time was how did we go beyond just—this isn’t just a horror score, this isn’t just a horror movie. All of our musical decisions were led by these extraordinary performances of the Losers Club, the individual kids, that you really can feel that in the story so strongly. And the dynamic and chemistry between them as a group is so palpable, that that was what drove the heart of the score, was these individuals and the feeling of the group of the Losers’ Club.
I was curious when you first saw the cut of the film did it change how you wanted to approach the score, was there anything visually when you saw it that kind of struck a different idea or took you down a new path?
WALLFISCH: I think one of the things that really struck me was the chemistry between Bill and Bev that played on the screen, I wasn’t expecting for that to be so powerful before I saw it, the young love. The chemistry on the screen there was so powerful, so I think it occurred to me that we had to really somehow feed that burgeoning love story into the story. Even though it’s quite subtle and it really comes to its forte at the end, that was something I was not expecting. But also, just the sheer scope of the film. It’s on a huge scale, in terms of the broad strokes of the storytelling and the cinema of it and the scope of it. It’s a very ambitious and large-scale movie. When I first saw I was immediately overwhelmed by the potential of it musically. Sometimes you score a movie in a way and it’s too big, and you have to scale things back. And what I found with this film is that I couldn’t ever go big enough, there was always room to push it even further. That for me was such a joy to write.
You mentioned wanting it to be more than just a horror film. And you’re pretty well versed with the horror genre yourself, with Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, and A Cure for Wellness is kind of a gothic horror, but all of those scores seem different and kind of diverse, and I was just wondering what are your thoughts on the horror genre as a whole? Because sometimes it feels like the music in horror films can get kind of same-y, but it seems like you’re doing something new and interesting with that genre.
WALLFISCH: Thank you. For me it’s always about looking at what’s the story beyond the horror, why are these characters in that situation and what’s driving that decision making. I mean, that’s true for any movie when you’re scoring something that’s based on a drama. But with horror, the actual sort of horror moments are actually very technical, you have to be very precise in timing and tension and release, and scaling moments when you want to give the audience a huge adrenaline jolt, so that you’re not continuously hitting them at the same level, you want to sometimes grade things so that’s a particularly intense moment, and then not quite as intense. So you want to time things technically with your collaborators, particularly with the sound department because you have to really be in tandem with them, when it comes to that. But all of that is a given because if you’re working with moments like where the film is meant to scare you, part of your job as a composer is to make sure that those scares are able to kind of engage the listener as much as possible.
All of those stories, Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation, they all had fascinating and very moving backstories or more current stories. In the case of Lights Out, there’s a terrible mental illness in some other sense, and the movie really tends to how that affects her children and that the monster is the product of her mental illness. Annabelle: Creation deals with an unimaginable tragedy of the parents losing their child and the aftermath and what lengths they went to, to somehow bring her back to life. And then Cure for Wellness of course is just a beautiful, elaborate gothic horror, it’s a thriller really. It has everything in it. It’s like an incredible study of a descent into madness, or is it? For me, the Hannah character is particularly fascinating; here’s a girl who has never known childhood or anything outside of an institution, has never known a parent figure beyond her doctor, and these are fascinating human stories, and they all conjure up their own musical narratives and music decision making, so if anything horror is built on that foundation of a deeper human narrative. So, that kind of binds all of the decisions musically that we make throughout the process.
A Cure for Wellness is one of my favorite movies of the year, and I think your score for that is beautiful. What was your working relationship with Gore Verbinski like on that, because that movie is crazy. He got a big budget to make this massive gothic thriller, twisted, crazy story and it’s gorgeous and haunting.
WALLFISCH: Gore’s a genius and we had an incredibly, for me very exciting process of collaboration. I had probably eight months of writing time, which is probably the longest I’ve ever had on a film. And we were … he asked me to move my entire writing rig into his cutting room, for the whole duration. And I started right at the beginning, just as they started shooting, and in fact, I was writing prior to that. He asked for some music to be played on set during the waltz sequence. So the whole process lasted just over a year, and the most important thing at the beginning was the concept that there would be no temp music at all, and for a film where there was nearly two and a half hours of music that was a tall task, starting with a completely blank slate. Which is great from a filmmaker’s point of view, but what it meant is that my time at the beginning was to provide him with a suite of material away from picture, based on concepts and characters and little chunks of the story, which he then used almost from the very beginning, when he was cutting the film. And then I’d get back to cut with my version of what I’d sent to him, and then score those things to the reel. And for those, it was actually quite a lot of time, maybe 30, 40 percent of the time, those sketches were almost the finished cues. I just sort of gave Gore this ability to be very fluid in the process. It was the first time I’d worked like that, and what I loved is just, because I was there amongst all of the other departments—picture, editorial, sound, and even the VFX supervisor—we all worked in the same building and we’d all have lunch together every day, and there was just a kind of incredible exchange of concepts and ideas across every single department visually and sound had synergy and sort of shared impact creatively, and Gore just steering the ship in his incredible way.
What I loved about Gore, he’s a fantastic musician, but he doesn’t communicate in musical terms when I’m working with him. I felt like whenever we’d have a playback meeting, which could sometimes go on for hours, he would just come by trying things. I kind of felt like being directed like an actor, or any other person on a set, there was just sort of a clarity to the vision at all times, but there was an openness to ideas and it was very challenging. Definitely the most demanding job I’ve ever done, just because, for nine months every single day working with the director, that’s a very demanding position to be in. But for me it was just an extraordinary master class in filmmaking, being so close to a master filmmaker every day working with him and honing this score together. I just felt very privileged and ever since then Gore and I have become great friends. His filmmaking just has this directness, and sense of almost anarchy in the sense that nothing is off limits, but always beauty.
And actually I think Andy Muschietti, he’s another filmmaker who’s had that just sort of genius instinct for just what will work and what will feel cinematic and what will intrigue an audience and not letting them go until the last frame.
I know you also have a close working relationship with Hans Zimmer, and I was curious how did that start and how did you come to be working on films like Batman v Superman, and 12 Years a Slave, and even Dunkirk?
WALLFISCH: Well I’m very lucky to count Hans as a good friend, and as my mentor, certainly the most generous man I’ve ever met, both personally and musically. And obviously a complete genius, I’ve never known someone to create such potent musical analogs to a story, with such fluidly and also sense of adventure. The filmmakers that come in, I’ve seen so many playbacks now with filmmakers with Hans running the playback, and just the way he invites his collaborators into a band almost, and makes them feel like it’s a safe comfortable space, where any outlandish idea could be somehow interpreted musically. We met—he heard a score of mine, The Escapist, through a mutual friends, and we got together for lunch, and just hit it off straight away. At the time I was just thinking about moving to Los Angeles, and so it was very opportunistic, very exciting opportunity to meet Hans.
And then about two or three years later when I moved to L.A., I got a phone call asking if I had some time to take a look at a movie with him, and it was 12 Years a Slave. And he just invited me into that band, and I was thrown right in the deep end for a couple of months, working with him and Steve McQueen. It was just, musically, a completely new way of working and one that I just loved, and in particular Steve McQueen and (editor) Joe Walker, they’re filmmakers at the highest possible level, I was immediately taken by the way that we all just worked together as a band to create the score. Hans sets extremely high standards for the people who work with him, especially in that kind of mentorship, which he offers me right now. I always have to be better than my A-game. I think whenever you spend any time with Hans, there’s always a sense of being in the presence of someone who you really need to try and absorb from as much as possible. There’s no better musical storyteller I know than Hans. So yeah, I just felt very lucky to work with him and bond with him too. We’ve done a few films; Hidden Figures, fantastic partnership with Pharrell Williams, and then being invited into the family of Dunkirk, which was the most inspiring experience with Christopher Nolan, it was mind blowing.
I did want to ask about Dunkirk, what was the extent of your work on that? because that score is radical, I mean everything that Hans does with Christopher Nolan is radical, but that one in and of itself is kind of, it’s essential to the film, and it’s blurring the lines between score and sound design a bit.
WALLFISCH: It’s a totally visionary score. And every time I see the film, I’ve seen it four times now, twice in a test situation, and twice with the public audience, it has just a powerful effect on me every time. It just sort of studies intention, the whole film is just how far can we take the idea of a single final act in an entire movie and keep the audience from ever exhaling, and it’s a masterpiece in all respects—sound, music and obviously the narrative filmmaking is absolutely incredible. My very small role with the movie was, [Edward] Elgar we had mentioned for the end of the movie and the last of the sequence and this in the middle where the little boats arrive, and I have to honestly give all the credit to Edward Elgar and Christopher Nolan, I felt like I was just a facilitator. Edward Elgar created the harmonies, Christopher Nolan created the structure and I just sort of made it fit into the take of that process. It was fascinating, obviously, really revisiting the memoir and breaking it down to its essential parts; it’s obviously one of the most luscious, beautiful orchestrations when it’s performed live. But we decided it was all very much in collaboration with Hans producing it and fully involved in the whole process of the sound.
We decided to limit it to strings, with a few interjections from horns. But it’s primarily a string piece, as opposed to a full symphony orchestra. And that was the first step, and the second step was what can we take away, but it’s still—it’s like what is the naked truth? Because it’s such a moment of catharsis in the film, at the end, it’s the moment just when the ticking time bomb has stopped and then there’s the final sequence. And the audience is just invited to exhale slowly and feel that emotional catharsis, and we’re being carried entirely by Elgar there, and I just feel very fortunate and humbled I think to have been a part of the process of putting that on the screen.
To wrap up and kind of bring it back to IT, I know that Andy is working on Part II, and definitely knows what he wants to do there. Have you guys had conversations about you coming back or what you might do for the second part of the story?
WALLFISCH: We haven’t spoken yet, but of course I’d be totally honored and thrilled to come back on board the team. And knowing Andy, it will be a total masterpiece. He’s a true visionary filmmaker, and with the way he collaborates with his sister Barbara, it’s a force of nature in terms of filmmaking and I can only expect incredible things for the sequel.