Composer Christopher Drake heads to Sundance 2016 for Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers (2016), a horror comedy starring Smith, Johnny Depp and their respective daughters, Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Melody Depp. Drake first attracted Smith’s attention through his work scoring superhero sagas like Batman: The Dark Night Returns (2012), Wonder Woman (2009) and the video game Batman: Arkham Origins (2013). Together Drake and Smith – who both identify as “comic book geeks” – made horror film Tusk (2014) before reuniting for the spin-off Yoga Hosers. The film is the second in Smith’s “True North” trilogy, set in Manitoba, and the first true comedy Drake has scored.
Drake talked to ScreenPrism about working with Kevin Smith, how to write music for superheroes, and finding leitmotifs for Johnny Depp.
ScreenPrism: Yoga Hosers is billed as a horror comedy – what does “horror comedy” sound like?
Christopher Drake: There are no rules in art, and especially in film and in film scores. Really I come at it asking, what are the needs of the story? Every story has its own needs. In auteur theory, the director is the author of the film. So the difference between me and a composer, or a recording artist like Taylor Swift, is they’re writing music for themselves. I’m serving the picture and really getting the director’s concept.
So, what makes this a horror comedy, and how do you score that? In this case, it’s a really eclectic score. Stylistically, it was kind of fun because it wasn’t the traditional horror film – the previous film Kevin and I did together was Tusk, which was this really bizarre movie, and that had a unified tone to the music. In Yoga Hosers, Kevin was homaging comedy films from the past or the 80’s John Carpenter kind of sound. So the music fits the needs of whatever the comedy or the horror is in the movie. It jumps around a lot. As a composer, I’m more of a chameleon or a character actor in this movie than in some of my previous work, where it’s more of a unified tone.
SP: Can you tell us about your composing process? Do you start with the script or after you see footage of the film?
CD: Kevin always sends me his scripts. That’s great because you have an informed idea of what the story is about, and you can start thinking about things. But the real truth is that, for me personally, aside from getting a basic understanding of what the plot of the story is, I don’t really spend much time on the script, other than doing a cursory overview so that I’m on the same page with the director moving forward. My process is generally to put the script aside and forget about it because any kind of preconceived notion I have, reading a piece of paper, a script, can radically change by the time I see the film. It is a visual medium, and I’m inspired creatively through visuals. So many things can dictate through the visuals what the marriage of the music to the picture is: for example, an actor’s performance, the way they just have a look in their eyes toward another character, the way a scene is lit, the costume design. All these visual elements I can’t get from reading a script. Also, I like to watch it fresh. So I try not to have too many preconceived notions of what the music is, because it could be wrong or different once I actually see the film.
After I get the script, the next step obviously is for the film to be shot. Composers, in the timeline of a film, we’re generally the second-to-the-last thing that’s finished before the film is done – the music and then the sound mix, and then there may be some special effects. But we’re at the very end of the process.
So the film is shot, and then, for example with Yoga Hosers, I’ll sit down and watch it with Kevin. That’s called a spotting session. We talk about where music should be and what it’s doing for the scene, what point of view the music is coming from – is it coming from a character’s point of view? — and also, as importantly, where music should not be. Because sometimes the lack of music is important in making an emphasis in a scene, or in this case, in a comedy, a joke.
We figure that out, and then I go do my thing. Usually I get about 4 weeks to score if I’m lucky. I go to my studio — it’s all done in a computer. It’s an orchestral score, but we didn’t actually use an orchestra for this; it was all virtual instruments. The irony is that, doing an orchestral score with synthesizers, it’s possible to do this as a one-man band, but it takes so much more work to make these computers sound like human beings, with all the beautiful intricacies of the violin player, for example – computers are perfect, and you want to get those human [qualities]. It takes a while to program this stuff so it sounds real.
Then I do that, and Kevin comes in and looks at the movie. If there are any notes, I make tweaks, and then we deliver to the mixer stage where it gets mixed with dialogue and sound effects. And then I get a paycheck, and then I go home and sleep for two days.
SP: How do you get the ball rolling in the composition itself? Do you start from the emotion you want to produce, or an idea, or are you intuitive, hearing something in your head?
CD: Generally it starts with: it’s not my movie, I’m just part of the puzzle, and I’m trying to serve the director’s concept. So the first most important thing is, what is the director’s concept for what the music should be stylistically? Should it be an electronic score, should it be an orchestral score, a modern score, a classical score? Once we’ve established what the language of the music will be stylistically, then it’s about watching scene by scene with the director and getting his notes. This is my second movie with Kevin. The previous film, Tusk, was kind of experimental – it had humor in it, but it was really a weird experimental horror film, and he was trying things that were different. So I worked with a different side of Kevin on that film, other than what you would think of as a traditional Kevin Smith film.
Yoga Hosers is more back to the traditional Kevin Smith style model of comedy. And this is also my first really comedic piece that I’ve worked on. What was interesting, in writing music for the scenes, was relying on Kevin as a guy who’s a master of comedic dialogue. He would say many times, “Okay, score this line as they’re talking, but I want the music to drop out to make an emphasis on the joke.” So that was something new which was really interesting: getting direction on how to make a scene funny through music, because if you always score something you can blow the joke. Same thing with horror: sometimes the lack of music in a horror scene can make something more realistic. Or if you have too much music building up for the guy who’s going to jump out of the closet, you’ve ruined the scare, because the audience knows the guy’s going to jump out of the closet. So it’s a collaboration with the director about where the music is in the scene.
Once that’s all set, once I’ve got the director’s concept, I go in and figure it out on my own. It’s kind of an emotional reaction to what I’m seeing in the scene, or the image, the setting. I try to find the right symbiotic balance between [the scene and] what the tone of the music needs to do. You find rhythms also in actors. As composers we watch scenes [many times]. It could be a one minute scene, but I’ve seen it, like, 2,000 times because I watch that one minute over and over and over again. As I’m working on the film I can recite all the dialogue – I know it by heart. And when you do that, you start to see rhythms, you find rhythms in the actors’ performances. Johnny Depp has a character named Guy Lapointe, and he has a very specific style – he’s a French-Canadian homicide detective, and there are real rhythms in the way he talks. A lot of times I’d find places to score to complement the rhythm of his dialogue and the pauses when he makes emphasis.
SP: Do you consciously try to develop motifs for each character?
CD: Right – that’s a classic movie music thing that got popularized by John Williams. That’s called a leitmotif, where you have a thematic piece of music [associated with a character] – for example, everybody knows Darth Vader’s music. You don’t have to be looking at the screen, you can be in another room and hear it and go, “I guess some bad guy showed up on Star Wars.”
With Yoga Hosers, yes, I did have quite a few cues that turned into themes for the characters. The two girls [Smith and Depp] have a Clerks theme that reprises itself quite a bit. Johnny’s character, Guy Lapointe, has a scene – like I was saying before – listening to his rhythmic dialogue drove my inspiration for that scene.
Kevin, when he made his first cut of the film, he made (as directors often do) what’s called a “temp track,” which is an aid to help him edit the movie together. It’s either previous music that I’ve written or music from other soundtracks that he drops into the movie to find rhythms in his editing. And a couple of things he had in there that were really funny were old 1980s John Carpenter analogue horror scores.
The score of this film is very eclectic – there are a lot of different styles. There were a lot of times when he said, “Oh, I just dropped it in, I thought it was funny,” and I said, “It made me laugh, too. Maybe we should try to keep that tone.” So there are a lot of homages in the film to other music. But at the end of the day, there’s quite a bit of thematic writing for the characters in this film.
SP: You say the girls had a Clerks theme – was this based on music from Smith’s earlier film Clerks (1994)?
CD: It’s kind of funny that Kevin’s like, “Oh, I’m going back to Sundance and we’re trying something different. [But then he’s] like, it’s Girl Clerks, we’re doing Girl Clerks.”
I should clarify: there’s a theme [for the girls], and we just called it “Clerks,” but I’m not quoting his original movie or any other Clerks theme. They just have their own specific theme that reprises itself a couple times as they show up in the movie. But, no, the theme didn’t have any continuity with previous Clerks [musical] themes.
You've scored Batman, Wonder Woman, and many other superhero films and video games. What goes into scoring for superheroes? What emotions do you want us to feel as we listen to the music?
For superhero movies and action scores, again it all comes down to supporting the story, but for scoring something like Batman – first of all, there’s kind of a political, business end to it. Batman is a huge temple for Warner Brothers and DC Comics, and it’s a brand. So I have rules about what Batman should sound like, and that’s usually generated by what the current [blockbuster] film is. When I was doing Batman, Hans Zimmer was scoring the Christian Bale movie [The Dark Knight Rises (2012)], so a lot of times that dictates what the tone of the movie is. I can’t get too punk rock or bring some crazy ideas outside of those rules to those scores, but at same time you try to do something original and insert your own artistry or creativity into it.
In general, outside of working for Warner Brothers and doing a Batman movie, superhero movies have to have energy, they have to be exciting. And I always find with the superhero score, there’s always a moment where the superhero does something super heroic and bad-ass, and you want to music to – if I’m doing my job right – it should send a tinkle down your spine, and get your friend (boy- or girl-) mojo hyped up. Music really manipulates emotions. With the superhero stuff, you want to super-charge everything up and get everybody excited.
SP: Do you mostly work with computers or with live musicians, or a mix, in creating your scores?
CD: The honest, truthful answer is it depends on what the movie’s budget is. I was really fortunate – I had a huge, live orchestral score for a Batman video game I did – Arkham Origins. I think we had an 88- or 90-piece orchestra. I would always prefer to write for live players, real human beings. There’s just a magic that you can’t capture with computers.
Also, when working with computers, it limits the style I write. It would be like, if you’re making a painting and you’re like, I only have red and blue as colors. I see this picture in a lot more tones and colors and yellows, but I don’t have that, so I have to make do with what I have and do the best I can with blue and red. And you can probably come up with something interesting within those rules – you find artistic, creative solutions to things.
But it depends on time and budget. I feel pretty confident that I can get a very realistic orchestral sound with the technology I have. The downside is it limits me a bit creatively, I have my hands tied a little bit, and it does take quite a bit more time — that’s the great irony — to get these perfect machines to sound like imperfect human beings. There is a trade-off to the technology. I think in a lot of places, these tools are replacing human beings, but sometimes the quality is not as profound as what it would be if you had a real person [playing an instrument].
The computer is just a tool, and it depends on what you do with them artistically. In many cases, you can do something creative and maybe something original that you couldn’t do [the other way]. The film industry is in an interesting place right now. Rates are getting lower—that’s a whole other conversation — but, in a nutshell, moving toward streaming outwards and the way that media and film and television are now on the Internet, it’s really changed the business model of how Hollywood works. People are re-assessing how things are done.
Generally, in films, unless it’s a major motion picture from a major studio like Star Wars or a big superhero movie – in those, you have a live orchestra — but for a lot of smaller films, a lot of Sundance films, you either have smaller scores (which are appropriate for maybe the stories they’re telling), or if there are any live players, they’re smaller groups. And it really comes down to the business model and what the budget is. That’s just the way it is. You can either adapt or go extinct. I’ve always tried to evolve with the technology, as opposed to using it to totally replace something else – if I can find the perfect hybrid between the two mediums, that’s the best solution for me.
SP: Do video games tend to give you a bigger budget to work with than films? What’s your general experience scoring video games versus films?
CD: What’s interesting right now with video games is that the video game platforms are becoming more powerful, as far as the technology — what they can do in the actual games and what kind of world they can create. Video game designers and companies, they’re striving to be taken seriously as storytellers and as artists, [as opposed to being] just a product, like, "Oh, we’re making a game where you run around and shoot people." I think that you’re getting more storytelling. It’s almost very much like filmmaking. For example, the Batman game I worked with had a great script. It had a real story to it; it was story-based. The team that made that game, Warner Brothers Games Montreal, they really understood the character of Batman. It wasn’t just a marketing tie-in, they wanted to tell an original story. Our creator director, Eric Holmes, was very fluent in the Batman mythology and was really trying to honor the character, and again, making a film-level representation.
As to the question of video games and orchestras, it’s a little, like, “Oh, you have an 88-piece orchestra, we have an 100-piece orchestra!" Like, "We’re a legit art form.” It’s a place where they really respect the power of having a full orchestra and what that can add to the game as another element to create the emotional investment into the scenario.
As far as what’s different in working in video games and films, when I’m scoring a movie, it’s pretty much a linear process. The story has a beginning, middle and an end. When I compose music for a scene, that scene is what it is, it might be a scene about two people talking about something, and I score it, and I move on to the next thing. With a video game, it’s really complex because it’s a non-linear experience that comes down to the player and how good, how proficient they are at the game. They could be 7 year-old, 12 year-old kids who can whip through a level in five minutes, or they could be like me, an old guy, and it’s going to take me an hour just to figure out where in the room the door is that I have to walk through. So you have to write music that is not based in time, if that makes sense. Playing a video game, you could be in that room for five minutes or five hours, so I have to write a piece of music [that works for both those lengths of time].
There are multiple ways in video game music, as well. For example, if Batman walks into a room, there’s one kind of music that’s an ambient mood music. And then there’s an interactive element to it, so if you walk into the room and go through Door Number One, there’s Bad Guy. So the game engine integrates another layer of music that I wrote, that has an action flavor to it, with that ambient music. Or if you go through Door Number Two, you fall off a cliff and you die, and there has to be a piece of music. So there are all these multi-dimensional things you have to worry about. And everything needs to be organic and seamless, so the player never even hears the track change. It’s fun. It’s a different skillset, and I have to think about my music in multiple levels – it’s like playing three-dimensional chess. It’s quite a brain exercise to work on a video game, more so than on a film.
SP: Is there also a difference in terms of the time investment?
CD: That’s the other big difference. In the life cycle of a film, the composer is the second-to-the-last thing that gets finished. As a video game composer, you have to be integrated with the team from the beginning – they’re building levels, everybody’s problem-solving, so it’s a much bigger collaboration on a technical level. The Arkham game, I worked on that for two years, as opposed to, as I said, about four weeks on a movie if I’m lucky. Also, the amount of music: [for Arkham] it was maybe two hours worth of music. Every piece of music I write, there need to be four or five variations of it. Every piece of music I write five different ways. Fortunately, you’ve got a lot of time to work on it — that’s the cool thing about working on video games. And it is great to be part of the team early on.
When I first started working on the Batman game, I’m very much driven by the visuals creatively, and they inspire what I’m going to do musically. What was funny about the Batman game was, they’re in a very early stage, it’s all computer stuff, all CGI — I would get scenes that were just black-and-white triangles, that kind of looked like Barbie dolls with Batman heads. They were just ridiculous-looking stuff, and they would give me a note, like, “Well this scene needs to be a little bit sadder.” And I was like, “Why?” And they’d be like, “Well, see that triangle in the corner, that’s actually, Batman’s just found a burning body of some victim in a room.” And I was like, “Oh, I thought that was just a triangle. Okay.” So, that’s a really different kind of process early on in the game. Once you get toward the end of the game, everything is all super-polished and the CG looks beautiful. But at the beginning, it’s ridiculous some of the stuff you’re looking at.
SP: Is there anything in the score of Yoga Hosers that audiences might not notice at first?
CD: I think if you’re a fan of old horror movies, you might hear some homages to other things in the film. It’s a really fun, eclectic score. There are all kinds of easter eggs strewn out visually and sonically through the whole film.
There’s kind of a funny meta thing, specifically about me and the movie. I have a non-speaking kind of background cameo where I’m a disgruntled customer in the move. The girls work in a Canadian 7/11-type place. And I’m, like, Angry Customer Number Two. And I’m in the background, I think in the same scene, an actor named Kevin Conroy has a cameo. Now Kevin Conroy was the original voice of Batman in the Batman animated series of the ‘90s. And also my first professional job working with Batman, Kevin [Conroy] was the voice of my Batman. So in the film, there’s a little homage to his work in Batman.
What’s fun and meta about that is I’m somewhere in the background visually, and Kevin [Conroy]’s doing his Batman thing. And then Kevin Smith is like, “Okay, Drake, you gotta do a Batman. Riff on your Batman music.” So I physically have a cameo, and I also sonically have a cameo to my previous Batman music in that same scene. It’s funny to me – I’m probably the only person that spots it when I watch that scene. I don’t know if anybody else would get it.
It’s one of those things in the theater, you’ll have a group of people laughing at that, and you’ll be like what’s the deal, who’s that guy? It’s a total comic book geek inside joke. But of course that great Batman voice of his, you know it as soon as you hear it.
Do you and Kevin Smith both identify as “comic book geeks”?
Oh, yeah. The reason that Kevin found me was he is a huge Batman fan. Kevin’s actually written comic books. He wrote a Daredevil comic book in the 90s, and I think he just finished a Batman for DC Comics recently. Kevin actually has a podcast called "Fatman on Batman." That’s how Kevin heard my work was through a movie I did called The Dark Knight Returns. He really liked my work on that, and that’s what started out our relationship together.
But I’m a huge genre comic fan. There are a lot of composers that fall into this work, and maybe they’re not fans. Famously, Elmer Bernstein was typecast as this Western guy, and I think he said, I don’t really care about Westerns. And Jerry Goldsmith, who was a fantastic composer and one of my heroes, Jerry Goldsmith I think famously said, I don’t really understand what these Star Trek movies are. It’s not my cup of tea, but I tap in and write the music from an emotional place. So a lot of these composers fall into this work, and they’re not even necessarily fans of the genre they get typecast in. But if I just did superhero movies and monster movies, I’d be totally happy with that because those are the things that I love.
Kevin and I were just at Comic-Con. It’s pretty crazy — it gets more crazy every year and more crowded. Kevin had a panel—they debuted some stuff from Yoga Hosers. Comic-Con’s the big geek Mecca. Everyone comes from around the world. It’s a lot of fun. All of my friends are either working in the industry, or they’re genre friends, so that one time of you, I get to see all my friends there. We get to party for a couple of days before going back to our various caves, and going back to work.