If a score in the last few years had Brian Tyler‘s name on it, then Matthew Llewellyn definitely played a part in it. He has been involved with several of Brian‘s video game and film projects, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Thor 2: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, among many others. Matthew has also been forging a path of his own, collaborating with director Colin Theys on several of his films, the most recent of which is The Murder Pact.
Hello Matthew, and thank you for chatting with us. To begin, tell us a little about yourself and where your musical journey began. When and how did your interest in film/TV/video game music lead you to this career?
It’s great to be here. It has been a bit of a serendipitous journey; I like to say that film scoring found me. Growing up, I always loved both music and film, but the realization that I could combine two of my favorite loves came much later. I started playing piano around age six when my family moved from California to Minnesota. My focus was mainly classical music at the time, and when I reached high school I started playing the guitar as well. I was a bit of a late bloomer as far as writing goes; I didn’t start writing music until college. First, starting with class assignments, which then grew to working on short films.
When I started attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, I had it set in my mind that I would study Music Business/Management and Music Production/Engineering. I always thought that I would end up working in either a recording studio or a record company. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I saw how much fun one of my roommates was having writing music for picture. That was when everything clicked in my head. I always had an appreciation for film music, even though I didn’t necessarily know what it was or how it was done.
I attribute much of my passion to the films that I grew up watching over and over, such as Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Temple of Doom, Batman (1989), Beetlejuice, Home Alone, E.T., Jaws, and Back to the Future, just to name a few. All of these films have iconic scores, and I may not have known it at the time, but they really planted a deep passion in my soul that would take years to come to fruition. Once it clicked, my hopes and dreams for my future appeared much clearer; I knew what I wanted to do and had to do.
You’ve been an integral part of Brian Tyler’s team for a few years now, doing all manner of things from assisting to music editing to arranging to score supervision, as well as composing additional music, on a number of his film and video game projects. How did that all come about?
My good friend Bob Lydecker, with whom I attended USC’s Scoring for Motion Picture and Television, started assisting Brian shortly after we graduated. Brian’s studio was getting slammed with work (as it always is), and Bob reached out to me to see if I could come help out at the studio. I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing or how long I would be there for, but it turned out to be one of the best things that’s happened to me in my career. I came on during Final Destination 5 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, so I was thrown into the lion’s den almost immediately. It was an extremely demanding position, but he’s got the best people in the world working for him, and I do kind of miss being in the trenches with all of them. I’m not working at his studio anymore, but I’m thankful that we continue to work together.
The Murder Pact is your third film collaboration with director Colin Theys, following last year’s Deep in the Darkness and Wishin’ and Hopin’. How did you begin working together, and how has your creative relationship evolved?
We first met (virtually) back in 2007 through a mutual friend, Jackie Chasen. I was in my final year at Berklee, and I believe that Colin was in his final year at Wesleyan. At the time, Colin was working on his final thesis short film and was looking for someone to score it. We exchanged a handful of emails back and forth about what he was looking for musically, and once we nailed down the direction of the score, I went to town. Surprisingly, in the eight or so years that we have been working together, we’ve only met in person once! It’s definitely a non-traditional way of working but at the moment, he’s based in Connecticut and I’m in California. The advancement of communication (Skype, iChat, Google Docs, email etc.) has made it much easier to work remotely, and honestly, most of the time we don’t even notice the fact that we are on opposite sides of the country. I’m a big advocate of Google Docs, they are our bible when working on a film. All of the necessary information such as cue starts and stops, length, type of cue, themes, and notes from both Colin and I can be found there. The type of score that I write completely relies on the type of film that Colin wants to make. Colin has made a very wide range of films, which has allowed me to write very different scores, which I’m quite thankful for. This enables us to keep our work fresh while continuing to evolve.
The Murder Pact uniquely features a pure analog synth score. How did you and Colin arrive at this choice? Did he have a particular vision for the music, or was it more of a mixed pot of ideas?
We knew that we wanted to do something completely different than our last few scores that were completely orchestral. The question then was … what should it be? This is a question that the composer always needs to ask him/herself at the beginning of every project. Luckily, the idea of doing a synth score arrived pretty early in our discussions. We thought to ourselves, ‘what would these characters listen to?’ That was the starting point with this score.
The score needed to be contemporary and give the film an edge and extra layer of drive. Analog synths have made a resurgence in the last five or so years, not only in film music, but in popular music as well. I was a big gamer growing up in the 90s, so I have a deep-rooted love for video game music from the 80s and 90s. This, and the fact that I’ve always loved what John Carpenter does for his films solidified the fact that I needed to write an analog synth score as well.
What was your process in creating the score for The Murder Pact? How did the story and the film speak to your approach?
After Colin and I spotted the film, I spent at least a couple of weeks finding and creating the sound palette that I would use for the score. With traditional orchestral scores, most of the time your overall palette is already laid out, so it’s just a matter of determining which instruments and how many instruments you will need. With The Murder Pact, on the other hand, I needed to create the entire “sound” of the score from scratch. Production chops are essential when writing this kind of music; I don’t think I’ve done so much controller automation in my life!
I find that with entirely electronic music, it’s almost like throwing a bucket of paint at the wall and seeing what sticks. The key is to have patience and confidence that you’ll find the sound you’re looking for eventually. I read a review that said it was a very “weird” sounding score, and I took that as a compliment – because there’s no point in doing something that’s already been done a million times. I think a big part of our job as composers is to not be afraid of taking risks.
Given the contrast between your full orchestral scores for your first two films with Colin and the pure electronic score for this one, what was the most interesting challenge you found this time around?
I would say the sound creation/development stage proved to be the most interesting challenge. I did a little bit of sound design work on Deep in the Darkness for Isolates’ motif (the evil creature). You can hear examples of that in the title track Deep in the Darkness as well as the track Infiltrating the House. My goal with that score was to use electronic based instruments/sounds to give a little extra dash of flavor and color while maintaining an overall traditional orchestral sound. Since The Murder Pact is entirely electronic, that took much more time and effort to find the right sounds and build a palette that I could draw from. The dialogue-heavy scenes were the most challenging to score in this film, because it was very tricky to find the right balance of tension, drive, and emotion. One of my main goals is to write music that not only works great in the film but as a standalone listening experience. I may not always succeed, but it’s something I always strive for.
The synth approach extends to the theme song you co-wrote with SPELLES for the film, Deadly Romance. What set this experience apart from crafting the rest of the score?
This was the first time I’ve gotten to write an original song for one of my projects. It was an interesting experience because I’m so used to shutting myself off from the rest of the world when working on a score. Writing Deadly Romance was a truly collaborative process. Kathryn (SPELLES) worked on the vocals as well as the lyrics while I worked on the music. We sent ideas back and forth to one another, and after a few weeks we had a song. Deadly Romance appears three times in the film, the first of which is during the opening titles, when Alex Vega’s character Camille performs it on screen. The second time is during the climax of the film, where the song plays as it was recorded/written during the choreographed masquerade dance. Lastly, it appears in the end credits.
Writing an original song for film has become kind of a lost art form. It was pretty commonplace in the 60’s, most notably Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was nice to see an original song at the end of Furious 7 set to that touching remembrance piece for Paul Walker. I watched that segment a million times while working on the film, and it never lost its power and emotion.
Given your years of working with the orchestra throughout your career in different capacities, how different was it commanding one for yourself as composer for Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Deep in the Darkness?
Richard Gibbs once asked me while I was interning at his studio what my goal was in this industry as well as a composer/musician. I remember responding, “I want to write for the orchestra.” At Berklee, we never had the chance to write for a full orchestra, because our recording sessions were focused on smaller ensembles. You could still write orchestral music, but the studio that we used at the time could only fit fifteen or so people. It was a great opportunity to get my feet wet, because I didn’t start writing music prior to attending Berklee. It wasn’t until I attended USC’s Scoring for Motion Picture and Television program (2008-2009) that I actually got the chance to not only write for a full orchestra, but conduct it as well. Even though I’ve released a few orchestral scores, I still feel like I’m relatively new to orchestral composition. It’s one of those professions where you learn something new and/or different every day, so you’re constantly growing and evolving as a writer. I’m not out here trying to be a millionaire, (although that would be a bonus!) I just want to work with people that have the same passion for music as I do and hopefully write good music that will stand the test of time.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a comedy/drama, while Deep in the Darkness is a horror/thriller. These two projects from the same director could not be more different! Do you look for diversity, or does diversity find you? Is there a genre or type of film you would like to do more of?
I just like to write music, so I welcome the diversity. Each new project brings its own unique challenges, and if you’re not pushing yourself to do something new and different, then you’ll never grow as a writer. With the advancement of technology, there is no shortage of composers in the world, so the real challenge is trying to figure how to stand out amongst the crowd. That’s something that I’m still trying to perfect. I’m a huge sci-fi and psychological thriller fan, so I would love the opportunity to write a score for films in those genres. There was a film that came out in 2015 called Ex Machina, which I think is easily one of the best of the year. It would’ve been a dream to score that film. I would also love to do more epic sweeping dramas. Here’s something I wrote for string orchestra while attending USC (2008) for a scene from the film Atonement:
As you’ll hear there are a lot of non-traditional harmonic changes/shifts but this is the kind of music that is my bread and butter.
Here’s another example, the final cue from my Dead Souls score.
What are your favourite toys and tools in your own studio and/or creative space?
Good question! Lately, I’ve been using my Dave Smith Instruments Pro-2 quite extensively. It’s got a massive sound and works great with pretty much everything. That keyboard was heavily used in my score for The Murder Pact as well as Elektron’s Analog Rytm. I also love my LX1 Little Martin guitar, and if I’m not at my keyboard, there’s a good chance I’m playing that. I like it because it’s not an easy guitar to play well (it requires quite a bit of finger strength), but it makes playing other guitars so much easier. It’s a similar mindset to how on-deck batters in baseball swing bats with weights on them, so when they step up to the plate, they’ve got extra strength. I’ve used every single digital audio workstation (DAW) available, and my favourite is Cubase. It has a bit of a learning curve if you’re used to the other DAWs, but my efficiency easily tripled when I mastered it. If you’re in the market for a MIDI controller with faders, I would suggest the Behringer BCF2000 – easily the best $200 I’ve spent. I use it mostly to quickly control level of dialogue, sound effects, my music, and temp music of whatever project I’m working on.
What does your life look like outside of work and music? How do you keep it balanced?
That’s always the toughest challenge as a composer. Unlike most 9-5 jobs, your work as a composer never really stops. You can always be doing something to further yourself as a composer or musician such as listening to music, analyzing scores, writing music, playing music, and going to concerts. All of these things bring a different kind of flavor to your musical edification. In my “free time”, I love going to concerts; I’ve seen easily over 100 different bands this year. It’s important to experience different styles of music, because it gives you another perspective at solving musical problems. Writing film music is like putting together one giant storytelling puzzle, and with exposure to many different musical styles, that puzzle starts to look a little less complicated. There are only 12 notes to work with, but the possibilities are endless. Outside of the music world, I spend my time snowboarding, traveling, and spending time with friends and family. There’s nothing quite like the rush of standing on top of a beautiful mountain with a snowboard attached to your feet, ready to shred.
Thank you again!
Thanks for having me, I look forward to speaking again soon!
Many thanks to Greg O’Connor Read of Top Dollar PR for his role in making this interview happen.