Interview with Heather McIntosh

By • August 25, 2015

With female driven, YA dystopian fiction being all the rage at the multiplex, one of the genre’s first, unintended entries was a 1973 post-nuke diary written by a sixteen year-old survivor named Ann Burden. As penned by “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” author Robert C. O’Brien, (and posthumously completed by his wife and daughter), the award winning book “Z for Zachariah” details the the life of Ann and her beloved dog Faro in a radiation-free Shangri La. located somewhere in rural America, She’s settled into a comfortable, if yearning existence since her family vanished years ago seeking civilization. When the lone scientist Loomis shows up, Ann is at first happy to discover she isn’t the last person on earth. But her initial joy becomes the far stronger emotion of fear when her new visitor displays an increasingly dangerous sense of a survivor’s guilt.

While intended as an adult novel before ending up a staple of school bookmobiles for decades, “Z for Zachariah” now returns, but with a far more muted and up-aged approach in the hands of director Craig Zobel (“Great World of Sound”), whose film adaptation adds Chris Pine’s hunky Caleb to the now-romantic mix between the attractively aged-up Ann (Margot Robbie) and Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But don’t expect the dramatics of mutants on the prowl or CGI atomic skies, as “Z for Zachariah” takes an intimate, realistic approach to the unthinkable and the possibility of new hope, as given a movingly subtle elegiac (and non-radioactive) atmosphere by composer Heather McIntosh. Her hauntingly poignant, rural score for strings, piano and organ coalesces with slowly-drawn attraction as Ann must make her pick between the men who will literally bring more life to her lonely self-contained existence.

With this second director-composer collaboration between Zobel and McIntosh, “Z for Zachariah” has significantly opened up their visual-musical landscape from the suffocating fast food locker room that mostly served as the location of “Compliance,” McIntosh’s creepily innovative string-and-percussion score showed the depths of human behavior as an innocent worker is tortured by a prank-calling psychopath, who finds the perfectly gullible accomplices to enact his humiliating desires. Though certainly not without its feeling of foreboding psychology, “Z for Zachariah” is a breath of fresh, non-toxic air in particular for McIntosh, who brings an impressively subtle orchestral voice to her work here, one that still remains indie-irradiated in a cool way.

A busy player with such artists as Animal Collective, Bright Eyes and Elephant 6, McIntosh’s composing debut with Zobel’s “Compliance” caught ears with the movie’s attendant controversy, leading to a fellowship at the Sundance Institute and stylistically engaging work on such films as “The Rambler’s” disturbing road trip, the sinister “Honeymoon” and the sweet cross-cultural romance of “Amira & Sam.” While still within that independent scoring framework for “Z for Zachariah,” McIntosh’s mesmerizing, empathetic work looks to bring a new range of journeys to her distinctive, and empathetic voice in a young woman who hopes to discover an outside world now impossibly forbidden to her.


Could you talk about your path into film composing?

Photo by Mary Lattimore

I studied composition, electronic music and cello in college in Athens, Georgia. I spent the rest of my time playing cello in bands and working at a video store. My band “The Instruments” (not a smart name when it comes to Google-ability) provided some music for a documentary directed by Astra Taylor called “Examined Life.” That showed me the possibility of really being a film composer. I actually mixed cues from the road with Gnarls Barkley over in Europe. I just started playing bass with them at the time.

“Compliance” was my first narrative feature. I started writing from the script and developed themes long before the picture was shot. I was so surprised when I visited the set and folks working on the production end were telling me they liked the music. It was rad to know the music was showing up as a character so early on.

As “Z for Zachariah” has been a favorite “YA” novel since the 70s, had you read the book ever before getting the film?

I knew about it and I knew people who had to get permission from their parents before reading it in class. Mary Lattimore, who played harp on the score was one of those kids and traumatized by the book as a young reader!

After literally being stuck in a locker room for your last film with Craig Zobel, was it good to get out in the open for “Z for Zachariah?” And did that change the nature of your collaboration for this film?

We knew the score had to have a bigger, more open pastoral feel. We’re in such a beautiful outside space, but the drama is also quite intimate at times. It gave us a really dynamic range to play with. Once again I started work very early on from an early draft of the script.

The pipe organ in the small church that Ann’s father built is where she essentially plays her theme. Did you work her melody out before shooting began?

Yes, that was the first cue I scored. I sent Craig a few different themes, some of which were a little too protestant hymn-y. We knew it needed to nod to her faith and work on the pedal organ, but also be a theme that could be developed in a more thematic way for Ann. Once we got to a good place with the theme, Margot was given the chart and practiced before shooting. I actually went to set and recorded that organ in the film (along with a bunch of other instruments state-side) to find the proper tone.

Ann is a God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth type that could easily be in a faith-based movie. How did you want to represent her religiosity with the score?

It’s interesting. Originally the score had a more brooding tone. Way more old testament, angry God stuff. I think making the shift to follow her journey with sincerity, to really be with her gave her character depth.

The love triangle of “Z for Zachariah” is created for the movie. Do you think that opened up new romantic areas for your music to explore?

Definitely. I loved being able to write for a larger string ensemble. Pulling the mics back and really hearing the instruments in the room added so much to the romantic tone in of itself. There is still tension in the music like my other scores, but there is warmth and yearning there too.

Do you think it emotionally helps being a female composer when you’ve got a movie driven by a woman?

I’m sure it doesn’t hurt! It’s interesting, I initially approached the music as an observer, the tone was more ominous, percussive and darker right out of the gate. Upon further reflection this approach needed to be softened. The audience needed to be with Ann in her world. I’m not sure if a male composer would have a harder time doing that, but I know it was important to see the story through Ann’s eyes. To really be in the valley with her.

How did you want the score to differentiate between Loomis and Caleb? And were you ever trying to play “favorites” as it were?

We definitely developed themes for both, but we also didn’t want to push the themes in a “Here’s the good guy, here’s the bad guy” kind of way.

Did you have any experience with genre films before getting “Z for Zachariah,” and are they something you appreciate?

I love genre films. I composed the music to Leigh Janiak’s “Honeymoon” starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway that give a fresh look to the traditional science fiction horror film.

On the other hand, were there any apocalyptic scores that inspired you for “Z for Zachariah?”

Not so much film scores, but I did study 20th century organ works in preparation for the film. I originally thought extended techniques on the pipe organ would play a much bigger role in the film, so I studied a bunch of scores, especially Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Volumina” and William Albright’s “Organbook III.” At the end of the day, the three antique pump organs I recorded ended up playing a much more important role in the score. Self imposed parameters can often help get the ball rolling, but it is equally important to release yourself from them and really do what best serves the picture and the drama itself.


Z for Zacariah is essentially driven by very restrained character emotion, as opposed to the violence we usually see in post apocalyptic films. How did Craig’s very subdued approach influence your score?

There’s a lot of space in this film. We knew from the beginning that the score would be an important part of the story telling. Navigating human interaction as the last folks on earth really ups the stakes, and I think the score accentuates the push and pull of that dynamic throughout the picture.

Do you think your own indie band work played into “Z for Zachariah?”

Many of my friends from Athens, Georgia started from a multi track approach to writing songs. A deep love of artists like the Beatles and the beach boys along with equal love of electronic music composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henry inform our approach to sound, but in a home studio kind of way. I still multi track extensively and have a core group of players that I love to play with, so I will travel to get them in the mix. My dear friend Mary Lattimore (a lovely harpist from Philadelphia) and Jeremy Thal (French horn) are featured.

My good buddy and super talented engineer Derek Almstead really helped me refine the mix. The first phases, of which we did on the road, in dressing rooms while opening for our friends who play in a band called Neutral Milk Hotel (with our band called Circulatory System). We then went on to mix at Derek’s studio in Athens, Georgia before the film’s final mix in New York.

There’s an almost overwhelming, longing quality to your score that reminded me of such melodically “sad” minimalists as Arvo Part. Did those composers influence your own overall musical approach?

I really hoped to capture the solitude and longing of a young woman living in the bucolic south, who hasn’t had a chance to experience love and is left to experience her adult life on her own. I’ve listened to the Arvo Part quite a bit when I first discovered the minimalists in high school, but when it comes to my own listening these days, I’m really more a George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman kinda girl.

Though intimate, “Z for Zachariah” is still the largest sounding score you’ve done for a widely distributed film. What was is like getting that opportunity, and working with the orchestra?

I used to believe my approach to scoring by multi tracking in my studio or with my remote rig was all I ever needed. My first exposure to having my music performed by a large ensemble was At the Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker in 2013. My mind was eternally changed! There is something so magical to hearing a group playing live in a room. The energy is palpable. I knew this would be necessary for the sound of “Z for Zachariah.” I’ll never completely abandon my multi tracking roots, but I love the extended range and color of a bunch of musicians playing together in a room.

As well as its assured string passages, did you want the score to also have a sort of “handmade” quality to it to show how Ann is surviving?

I hadn’t necessarily thought about it this way, but it’s an interesting idea!


Could you talk about the score’s eerier effects, especially in the cue “A Visitor” and “The Hunt?”

The more dangerous experimental and atmospheric cues are some of my favorites. They had clanking metal and a massive concert bass drum drive the cue, and other concrete tape manipulation of pump organ tones create the tension underneath. I had a blast pitch shifting the analog sounds with quarter inch tape and running tape loops down long hallways. Starting a project from the script really gave me the opportunity to truly experiment with the pallet.

Could you tell me about the other main instruments were used in “Z for Zachariah?”

It’s a predominantly chamber string palette, with some of my favorite soloists in the mix. John Lindaman, an amazing guitarist and specialist in the way of delayed atmospheric electric guitar loops and tones, helped with the underlying tension of the cues like “The Hunt” and “Electricity.” Gideon Crevoshay and his ensemble the Starry Mountain Trio, elevated the choral wonder of finding a valley unaffected by the apocalypse.

In the end titles, Ann’s organ melody is taken over by a full orchestra, which is the biggest sound the film achieves. Was that lush approach something you deliberately wanted to hold off until the very end, and how do you think it represents the future for her?

I think there is a subtle lushness to the whole score, but yes, the final cue opens up in a different way.

Would you want “Z for Zachariah” to take you from “art” movies to the more musically “conventional” mainstream? Or do you think indie movies are the best place to nurture your musical voice?

I want to do everything. I think that’s the most exciting thing about being a composer now. Composers don’t have to be defined by one specific genre. I’m ready for action heroes, sci fi, romance and the art house!

How you describe the state of “indie” scoring right now?

I’m not sure that film music composers used to hang out as much as they do now (or at least within my crew of friends out here). Festivals like Sundance and SXSW and composer organizations like the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and Academy of Scoring Arts, and the Alliance for Women Film Composers bring together folks who traditionally work in a very solitary way.

There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong way to score for films these days. When I first moved to Los Angeles four and a half years ago, I thought that since I didn’t have a formal Film Music composition degree I was behind. I had to figure out the “industry standard” on my own. I attended every panel and event, and read every book on the subject I could possibly soak in. I have always been a deeply nerdy researcher. This is just another way I was able to immerse myself in this newfound craft. Somewhere along the line, I realized I have been developing my voice as a composer throughout the years as a weirdo indie session and touring musician (Elephant 6 bands, touring with bands like Gnarls Barkley and Lil Wayne) and it’s pretty dang strong. I think we’re all excited about hearing new voices, unheard voices, and there’s room for more of this in film. I think we as viewers and listeners are hungry for it.

“Can you tell us about your upcoming projects, particularly “Manson Family Vacation?”

“Manson Family Vacation” is directed by J. Davis and stars Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips. It’s a dark comedy that premiered at South By Southwest, and will be distributed by Orchard and Netflix. Yes, Charles Manson is present in the story line, but the story is pretty sweet too. I know that sounds a little hard to imagine! J. Davis, the director, is a super musical guy. He made this great mix tape of musical ideas and influences to consider as I started developing the character of the music. He also was present for many of the recording sessions that lead to some fun explorations with our super talented performers. The score is more a small ensemble piece: percussion, cello, bass, keys, guitar, clarinet and harmonica. I’m so excited about the harmonica in the opening number. Ross Garren is a virtuoso on that harp!

I am also excited for a documentary on Hal Ashby directed by Amy Scott and produced by Christine Beebe that was just selected for the 2015 IFP Project Forum. I have a few other exciting things coming down the pike, but I can’t talk about them yet!

If you were the last woman on earth and these two guys showed up, whom would you pick?

I just got hitched, so I’d like to think my new husband and I would be resourceful enough to make it on the other side of the apocalypse! Hope hope!


“Z for Zachariah” opens on August 28th, with Heather McIntosh’s score available on Varese Sarabande Records September 4th HERE. In the meanwhile, listen to Heather’s score for “Compliance” HERE

Visit Heather McIntosh’s website HERE

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