How to make (the music for) a zombie film

Given that Darkest Day had a screening at the Duke Of York cinema last Sunday, I thought I should cobble together some bits and pieces from the making of the film. We should have some proper behind-the-scenes/making-of stuff on the DVD (assuming we get some form of distribution) but I have executive permission to share some stuff on my blog.

So…

 

Once, there was a Dan.

And that Dan had a dream…

Actually, that Dan had a spare weekend and a camera. And he filmed some zombie-related buffoonery around Brighton, then did nothing with it for a while, and then a year or so later assembled some friends to do a bit more filming, with the aim of assembling the footage together into a short film.

I’ll leave the details of when/what and how the film became a feature (or, to quote one of our hero zombies, “an actual film”) to the people who actually know. Suffice to say we soon found ourselves making a 30-minute film. And eventually that 30-minute film mutated into a feature film, which was brutally cut down from a Kubrickian three-hour initial edit, into the svelte, lean, 90-minute sexy beast we ended up with.

Since I’d written music for a couple of Dan’s film school projects, I volunteered to write the music for Darkest Day (back when it was planned to be very short). Dan happily agreed, and giddy with enthusiasm also decided to give me a part in the film. Doing acting.

Thankfully there’s not much in the final cut from my first day of shooting. I remember saying “Ben’s Dead” about thirty times, and trying to look sad.

My only real contribution to the character at that point was a desire to wear glasses. Sadly the glasses I used were prescription lenses, which meant my eyes didn’t feel too perky by the end of a day of shooting. And there were many days of shooting…

But I bravely soldiered on, energised not only by Dan’s meticulous and passionate directing style, but also by the dedication and professionalism of the cast and crew.

We didn’t spend all our time hitting stuff, running into things and gurning though. Everyone contributed enormous amounts of time, creativity and effort to help out.

simon

Producer Simon Drake managed to juggle his three hats throughout the film – actor, producer and AD/Shoutyman.

I sadly don’t have the footage of him legging it down stanmer park, chased by thirty zombies, screaming “EAT ME..! EAT ME..! RAGE…!!!” through a megaphone. We’ll stick that in the official making-of, for sure, but it really helped having someone to make sure the zombies were looking bloodthirsty and threatening enough on such a lovely sunny day.

With such a small crew, everybody ended up chipping in, whether it was shouting cues off-camera, holding a tripod still, or choreographing a zombie attack whilst trying to avoid bashing the poor chap with a real baseball bat.

While we’re on the subject of multiple roles, I thought I’d help Dan out with some graphic design. He hasn’t got back to me yet on the poster designs I sent, but I presume he’s just deciding on the best one to use.

Prospective Posters for Darkest Day
Prospective Posters for Darkest Day

 

Eventually, I ended up working on the thing I was originally asked to do… the music.

After some discussions about style, I knocked together a demo reel/suite full of ideas. Although there’s some guitar stuff in the score, we didn’t want to go too far towards the sound of 28 Days Later, and we wanted to keep it on the fun side of scary, rather than doing a completely bleak ‘horror’ score.

 (You can hear the seagulls outside my room at around 8 seconds in.)

Dan, Simon and Sam all had a listen and picked the stuff they thought suited the film, and I went off to start the opening music. We decided to start with that to set the tone for the overall score in terms of scale/sound/instrumentation etc. I wrote a very simple theme for Dan, which comes back in various forms throughout the film, and follows him around, changing as his journey evolves.

Dan's melody

Sometimes it’s just quoted once, as these five notes, and other times it appears in a harmonic context – like the start of the film – using Cm, Eb, Ab, F#m chords.

As well as Dan’s theme, I had some textural themes in mind for other elements – there’s some ‘ticking’ bass and percussion elements that Dan was keen to include, as well as low brass clusters and snare drums for the military. Guitars and distorted synths tend to represent the zombies, Dan and the gang are often accompanied by zither, piano and strings. As well as hopefully giving some sense of connection between visuals and sound, this reduces the amount of directions I can go in when writing the music from ‘infinite’ to ‘lots’ – which massively speeds up the writing process.

If I know roughly what instruments I’m writing for, and especially if I have some melodic or harmonic idea which has been previously used for a similar scene, then I have a starting point. I find this makes a massive difference when I need to get something written quickly.

 

The very first bit of music written for a specific bit of the film was this part of the opening scene. It started off with some sparse piano touches, with apologies to Thomas Newman.

Then it got a bit more string-based, but went too far away from the mysterious/relaxed vibe.

Some of the synth stuff returned for the third version.

The opening music went through seven (I think) revisions before we found the version that stuck.

As one of the more musically-literate directors I’ve worked with, Dan would often play me excerpts on the piano – ideas he’d had relating to certain characters or situations – here’s a few examples of that, followed by a bit of footage of him reacting to the sixth or seventh draft of the opening music (thankfully he liked it).

Here’s some unused guitar-based stuff. Early demos for Reel 4, which includes one of the characters kitting up to go on a killing spree, and then fighting off hordes of zombies on the beach.

For the final versions of both of these, we went much more crazy/noisy, with sound design playing more of a part for the first section,  and less measured/musical.

Here’s a comparison of an early idea for a scene where one of the key characters makes a difficult decision. The first demo idea was too in-your-face emotional. It was the right sort of mood, but too overt. We smoothed out the music to be more of a constant, flowing ‘bed’ of sound, but kept the same sadness running through it.

You’ll hear the demo first, followed by a section of the finished cue.

Some of the cues had one or two major revisions, others went through many more, but I’m happy with the end result, and I think the director was also. I’ll see if I can grab him for a video interview soon to grill him on his thoughts about the music now the film’s finished.

 

Hopefully that gives you some sort of semi-serious insight into what went on behind-the-scenes.

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