'It Follows': Disasterpeace on his eerie score for this year's horror film sensation
Disasterpeace is Rich Vreeland, a composer most widely recognized and hailed for his eight-bit ambient soundtrack to the video game FEZ. He's ventured into unknown territory recently with an equally hailed score to the horror film It Follows.
After a quick acceptance into Cannes — forcing a much faster track on the music than initially proposed — It Follows has steadily gained buzz and is looking to be one of the breakout indie hits of the spring. The film, about a group of teenagers who are menaced by an inexorable evil, is opening today in wide release.
I spoke with Vreeland about working on the film and how different it was from his past experiences.
What got you into music?
I grew up in a musical household in Staten Island, New York. My stepfather was the music director of our church. He would hold band practice in our basement, and I would go down there to play the drums. My mom sings and plays the piano, and my sister has been singing since she could speak. I fooled around for a while but took up guitar by the time I was in high school.
As a budding guitar player, I was big into bands like Tool and Rage Against the Machine. I loved playing pentatonic, odd-metered power chord riffs. There was something spellbinding about distorted guitar. I also had a glorious amp, a Fender Vibrolux Reverb from the 60s. I was dumb enough to sell it about five years ago.
I spent a few years making guitar recordings before getting more into computer music. Those experiences were the foundation of my music education. I went to Berklee College of Music later and learned a lot there as well.
I've always tried to work on things I find meaningful. I struggled a bit to find work until the release of the game FEZ. Since that, it has been easier to find new opportunities.
What about the film, besides director David Robert Mitchell, got you attached to the project?
I read a script early on and was on the fence at first. A script can sometimes feel directionless. The acting, timing, and cinematography all have to manifest in your brain. It can feel a bit flat. I was skeptical of my judgment, too, because I had not seen a screenplay come to life before.
I wanted to dive in with David after I saw his last film, The Myth of the American Sleepover. I knew he was masterful at bringing out a sense of humanity in his characters. The first cut I saw was silent, but even so I knew right away that this was going to be something great. I found David's deliberate style opened up a lot of space to explore as a composer. He later presented me with a version that featured a temp score. This tool gave me help with direction and compensated for a short turnaround schedule. The film got into the Cannes Film Festival, and we had weeks instead of months to finish.
In an interview with Fresh Fiction you said, 'David used a lot of Penderecki, John Cage and John Carpenter in the temp score for It Follows, so I gravitated to those as a source of inspiration. I also channeled Goblin a bit. As far as more recent films go I'm a big fan of Jon Brion and Alexandre Desplat."
The score suggests easy comparison to John Carpenter, but there is also something very classical in your compositions that is atypical of film — more like movements — so Penderecki and Cage make sense. Were you consciously drawing from composers other than those highlighted in that quote? Did you think about the music as film music and compose to picture — or at least with the picture in mind — or was it more like tracks laid down then made to fit?
For a lot of the cues I just tried to use my synth chops to make weird, dark, obnoxious pieces of music. I find that through-composing to picture feels natural. I like having the freedom to make subtle adjustments to the expression of a piece of music, from moment to moment.
The elephant in the room for me was the FEZ soundtrack, which is a direct influence on many of the melodic pieces. I tried to honor those and make David happy while also doing something fresh. It was tough! I think I managed, for the most part.
With the aesthetic directions, was there any concern the music would overpower the film?
The film has a beautiful way of feeling understated. As a result, I think having a bombastic score was complementary. I think we did a good job picking spots.
How did you usually start composing? Was there a specific instrument or sound? Or, was it really different for each piece? If so, was any composition easier to develop than others? Why?
I often created new instruments for each cue, but there are also reccurring sounds. I designed most of the sounds in the score with Native Instruments Massive. Massive is a versatile synthesizer that I have used a lot over the years. It was a natural choice for creating a synth score on a short timeline. Logic is my DAW of choice.
The temp score made it easy to start pieces, but some required lots of polishing. David and I had a lot of back and forth, fine-tuning things like timing and energy levels.
Was the majority of the sound developed with post-production manipulation or did you capture a lot in the recording process? Is this all digital or is there live instrumentation as well?
There was no recording process. Everything was generated on the spot with software. Cues often came together in a couple of hours. I only had three weeks, and we wrote nearly an hour of music in that time.
Did the shortened schedule prove to be beneficial?
It was stressful, but yes, I think so. I can spend too much time trying to create perfect compositions when I don't have a tight deadline.
Was the process fairly collaborative between you and the director? Did you engage with any of the other team such as sound designers to help find the voice of the film?
The score was an absolute collaboration between David and myself. I think he heard something in my approach that he thought could be unique in a horror film. For me, I found his naturalistic style gave me room to play. I think the music does most of the heavy lifting, so sound design was relegated to naturalistic sounds for the most part.
How was working on this, your first film, different from video game compositions and the other work you have released?
Scoring film is in some ways a nice reprieve from working on games. I'm working on music for a game right now that allows you to be a subway designer. I'm coding, playtesting, and doing lots of logistical problem-solving. I'm trying to make each interaction between the game and the sound symbiotic. It is intense, and often a rewarding process. Scoring linear media for me tends to be more zen than problem-solving.
I'm also working on an episode of Adventure Time right now. My creative process for that is a lot like flinging paint on a canvas. The structure of a film is more of a known quantity, and I can just get on with it. The linearity of scoring film makes it easier for me to perceive the outer limits.
In October you gave up physical media, but consented to It Follows being released on CD and vinyl. Does this change your relationship with the work at all?
Not at all. I won't agree to something unless I can feel good about it. The film is David's child, and I have the utmost respect for him and his work. He asked me to agree to physicals as a personal favor. I felt like it would be selfish to not give permission. Releasing the soundtrack on CD and vinyl will do a lot to help promote the film. The added bonus is that fans of the film will be the beneficiaries.
Do you want people to hear the music outside the film? On your blog you write, "If it was up to me I would abstain anyway."
I want as many people to hear the music as possible. But it's important to me that I follow my principles in reaching that goal.