After a few years of providing additional music to major blockbusters such as X-Men: Days of Future Past and Non-Stop, as well as working on TV series such as Sleeper Cell and Fear Factor, Edwin Wendler is continually forging his own path of music exploits. This past Ocotober saw the simultaneous release of three Halloween projects he scored: Unnatural, Tales of Halloween, and I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine. We had a chat with him about scoring horror, his approach to his music, and cultivating relationships in this business, plus a few more things.
Hello Edwin, a pleasure to speak with you! You had three horror projects you worked on come out almost simultaneously this past October – Unnatural, Tales of Halloween, and I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine. Is this the most horror you’ve had to work on within a single year? When did you first experiment with horror writing?
Thank you, Meena! The pleasure is mine. My first encounter with horror scoring happened during my student days when I was scoring short films for UCLA, USC, and AFI. A few years later, on Fear Factor, some of the stunts required some scary music. I got “additional arrangements” credits on the horror movies Turistas and The Resident, but yes: those three recent movies you mentioned are definitely the most horror scoring I’ve done within a year.
For I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine, you created a completely new sound without having to reference the preceding films in the series. What was your process like in crafting the film’s electronically realised score, and collaborating with the beautiful Aeralie Brighton for the vocal aspects?
At the beginning of Part III, the main character, Jennifer Hills, is in a very different place – physically and emotionally, so the music needed to reflect that change. I wanted to musically capture the urban environment by using elements of industrial rock. Jennifer has become Angela, a hardened, cold version of her former self. It was very important to producer Lisa Hansen, however, that the audience feel sympathetic toward Jennifer, her predicament, and her intentions, even though her actions become pretty insane during the course of the movie. This is why I brought Aeralie Brighton on board, to provide vocals that sound beautiful but creepy at the same time. I wanted her melody to be lyrical and mournful, but I asked Aeralie to perform as though she were pissed off. She did a brilliant job.
In contrast, for the segment you scored in Tales of Halloween, titled Friday the 31st, your music pays homage in some respects to Harry Manfredini’s score to Friday the 13th. Obviously, there are unique challenges to either creating something entirely unique or crafting something with an acute sense of what came before. Do you consider one more challenging than the other, with respect to what you have accomplished in Tales of Halloween?
In his segment, director Mike Mendez paid tribute to the horror and sci-fi movies that he grew up with. It’s done with such love for those genres, I had to address that somehow in the music. I picked certain orchestral and electronic colors that we associate with those genres and did my best to craft them into an original composition that fit this new story. I love and admire Harry Manfredini’s music for Friday the 13th, and I hope I was able to effectively pay tribute to it without simply copying or spoofing it.
How did you musically realise the “cold” atmosphere that director Hank Braxtan envisioned for Unnatural?
While Unnatural contains several action scenes and moments of violence, in which the music needed to be wild and aggressive, there are several sequences in which the music’s main job was to make the listener feel as uncomfortable and cold as the main characters felt. I picked sounds which felt brittle and unstable to me, including some icy-cold synth patches and an instrument called Frendo by Soundiron.
You’ve had a lot of experience writing additional music, arranging, and synth programming on several Hollywood blockbusters, including Non-Stop and X-Men: Days of Future Past. How does that experience compare with being the lead (or even sole) composer on a project for you? Is the pressure any different one way or another?
I am very thankful for the work I was asked to do on those blockbuster movies you mentioned. It is very exciting to be a part of a “high-profile” project that many people get to see. The work itself is very similar on all projects: It’s all about creating the best music for the project and finding ways to address notes so the client is happy with the results. The pressure can be pretty high even on smaller-scale movies because of deadlines or changing demands during the course of a project.
Speaking of X-Men: Days of Future Past, John Ottman uniquely occupied a dual role as composer and film editor. Being part of the music team on that film, did having a composer as the editor somehow make your job easier?
Being so close to all aspects of the production and knowing so well what director Bryan Singer wanted from the music, John was able to communicate very clearly to everybody on the music team. Also, John was the one who had assembled the temp music track, and his excellent taste in music and sense of pacing made the work easier for everybody else.
In your own past, you had written, directed, and scored your own independent films, and had studied screenwriting alongside film scoring. How have these skills helped your work writing music for the movies? Have you had the opportunity to work on any of your films in a capacity other than composer?
You’ve done some impressive research, Meena! Yes, some of my earliest scores were composed for short films that I had also written and directed. When I was trying to find work in Austria, I would frequently receive feedback stating that my music sounded “too Hollywood,” so I felt like I had to make my own projects in order to write the kind of music I needed to write. Nowadays, my somewhat-limited (but still valid) experience as a screenwriter and director gives me an added understanding of where my clients might come from, what kinds of issues they may have to deal with, aside from music. Also, having studied screenwriting, I learned a lot about story structure, which influences my composing process.
From what I’ve read and listened to, you seem to have mastered the art of cultivating relationships in conducting your career. Part of this you attribute to having learnt these skills while studying as well as from watching your collaborators, such as John Ottman and Paul Haslinger. Do you feel that composers generally don’t learn enough about the business and relationship side of composing for film before being thrust into the industry?
I feel like I’m still learning. In general, I think it is difficult, but not entirely impossible, to recreate real-life film scoring scenarios in a classroom setting. The best teachers challenge their students the way they would be challenged by a moody director or a group of indecisive producers, for instance. The best composers always think at least one step ahead. In case a director hates a piece of music, they can immediately switch gears and provide better solutions, fully formed. Being proactive is one of the most important things in this business, and that is difficult to teach, I think. It comes with experience, and it requires a lot of understanding of, and empathy for, your client. I am very thankful that I got a chance to observe and learn from some of the best composers working today.
So what’s in your studio? What are your favourite tools, toys, instruments, plugins, and non-musical affectations?
For the most part, I am using what everybody else is using, in terms of software: Cubase, Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, EastWest, ProjectSAM, 8Dio, Soundiron, etc. I have created and acquired some custom samples over the years. Nothing can replace a great performance from a real human being, so I always fight for the chance to get that. I do my cue charts and cue sheets on Google Drive. I still write notes with a pencil on paper, for musical ideas and to write down client notes and feedback. In terms of non-musical items, I enjoy having something near me that has sentimental value, like a plush toy or something my fiancé gave me. It gives me the illusion that I’m not alone when in reality, it’s actually just me all by myself.
How do you handle your work-life balance as a busy composer?
As best as I can. Recently, the amount of all-nighters has been increasing, for various reasons. All composers can tell you that they sometimes “disappear” to the rest of the world, for extended periods of time. It is so important, though, to spend as much time with loved ones as possible. It really re-energizes you. Even spending a few minutes with a dog or a cat can make you feel much better. Going for short walks is also helpful to me. When I’ve taken time off over the holidays, I hope to find myself back in a more normal sleeping pattern. Recently, soundtrack labels such as Intrada, La-La Land, Quartet, Music Box, and Varèse Sarabande have released so much great film music. I haven’t had the time to listen to any of it, but I am determined to catch up!
Thank you Edwin!
My pleasure! Thank you for your time and the truly great questions!
Many thanks to Ashley Moore from The Krakower Group for helping make this interview possible.