Interview with Benjamin Wallfisch
Madness and the curse of centuries-old grotesqueries have rarely been as elegantly conveyed as “A Cure for Wellness,” an auspicious entry into the time-honored genre of the sane man trapped in an insane asylum – or in this case a Swiss Alps spa seemingly dedicated to the spiritual, and physical health of its decrepit well-healed clientele. Much like a funeral director with obsessive detail to make an unholy mess spic and span, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Ring” director Gore Verbinski has ensured that his institute resounds with old world, aristocratic class, all the better to hide the demonic suffering its delightfully twisted fairy tale is constructed upon. Leave it to British composer Benjamin Wallfisch to construct “Wellness’” castle-like foundations upon sturdily beautiful thematic melody. Given a chilling, waif-like voice to spin hypnotic suspense from, Wallfisch’s dazzlingly creepy score is the waltzing, singsong and ragingly mad stuff that classic nightmares are built upon, grandly abetting Verbinski’s cheeky homage to all things Mario Bava, Hammer Horror and passive-aggressive snobbery.
Much as its antihero stumbles upon one astounding wonder after the next while ferreting out a most reluctant executive, as well as a mysteriously sheltered waif, “A Cure For Wellness” continues Wallfisch’s pilgrim’s progress through no end of creative opportunities. Having started as an orchestrator and conductor for Dario Marianelli on the likes of “The Brothers Grimm,” and “V for Vendetta,” Wallfisch made his scoring debut with the gun-obsessed American teens of the Lars Von Trier-produced “Dear Wendy.” Using eccentric rhythms to help “The Escapist,” tunnel out of prison, Wallfisch next heard historical adventure both epic and psychedelic with “Conquest 1492” and “Hammer of the Gods.” He’d excelled with the tunefully evocative human drama of “Hours” and “Pressure,” where the settings of “Bhopal” and “Desert Dancer” let him explore a striking rhythmic mixture of East and West, Recently, his blending of soul and science proved the brilliant equation for a teaming with Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer on the Golden Globe nominated score to “Hidden Figures.”
But as of late, Wallfisch is swiftly becoming a go-to ghost whisperer, a voyage begun with “The Thirteenth Tale” and “The Enfield Haunting” (an allegedly true story that served as grist for “The Conjuring 2”). With his seat-jumping talents unleashed in Hollywood with the brightness-averse she-demon of “Lights Out,” Blumhouse berserkness will continue when Wallfisch takes on the killer doll of “Annabelle 2.” Yet for fans of classic, blazingly gothic scores, Wallfisch’s “A Cure for Wellness” will fix what ails them when It seems that unabashed, horror score melody is increasingly being straight jacketed. For refined subtlety and electroshock thrills have rarely danced with such devilish delight as they do in this grand ballroom of fiendishly refinished delights.
You’ve dealt with characters being trapped in claustrophobic situations in scores like “Hours” and “Pressure,” as well as going through catastrophic odysseys in “Hammer of the Gods” and “Bhopal.” How do you think scores like that set you up for “A Cure For Wellness?”
“A Cure For Wellness” is without doubt the most extraordinary, visceral, uncompromising and beautiful movies I’ve worked on to date, and is completely unique both in terms of its storytelling and central message. So whilst every score does in some ways set you up for the next one in terms of constantly refining your writing, I don’t think anything could have truly prepared for the incredible and inspiring journey I went on with Gore for this movie.
Could you talk about collaboration with Gore on “Wellness?” What was your own plunge into operatic darkness like, and how far did it push you as a composer?
It was an extraordinary and fulfilling yearlong process, starting with a waltz to be played on set for the actors to dance to. Soon after that I moved into Gore’s cutting rooms. We spent the next 6-7 months or so crafting the score together. It was a true collaboration, and wonderful to be so close to all the other filmmakers. The editors, sound designers, VFX supervisors, producers, Gore and myself were all under the same roof, working closely together and sharing ideas. I felt like I was being guided by Gore’s genius to discover musical concepts and sounds that I never knew even existed. He would give me vivid and compelling concepts, such as the ones he includes in the album’s liner notes: “There is a sickness inside all of us. A sense of the inevitable. A dark spot on the X-ray of our conscience…The disease is an unseen force, pulling the camera down a long corridor and the protagonist towards his epiphany. It promises absolution but leaves a bitter taste in the back of our throats. It casts its spell. A lullaby. We are the Lotus Eaters. Blindfolded guests of The Great Con: It diagnoses us and then, offers a cure”. It was without doubt the one of the most exciting and inspiring collaborations I’ve ever had.
Given the Swiss Alps setting of “Cure,” do you think that lent a classically “old world” melodic feeling to the score, especially with its use of the violin and grand waltzes?
Absolutely, yes. There was an incredible magnificence to the location, especially the way it was shot, that informed our choices in terms of the scale of orchestration.
For a score that’s mostly orchestral in nature, how did you want to use electronics?
It gave us another color, which was important especially as the truth of the story develops. In fact much of what appears to be electronic sonorities in the score started as warped acoustic recordings: violins, vocals, orchestral textures that were manipulated, stretched and transformed. Sometimes they were used for extremely uncomfortable sonic textures. Other times they were intended to evoke this disconcerting sense of perfection and sterility.
Could you talk about developing Hannah’s “ballerina” theme? And was it a natural that an eerie female voice would fit into this?
Hannah’s theme came very early on in the process, and it’s intended to feel like a lullaby with a dark secret. Something deceptive in its innocence. It was important for it to feel vulnerable, slightly restrained, with a symmetry and simplicity that is both child-like, and with a hidden potential. There’s a good reason why it’s sung by a female voice, but I don’t want to give out any spoilers!
What’s the story behind Mirel Wagner’s unplugged rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated?”
Gore came across Mirel Wagner’s music and was keen on having her voice featured in the first trailer, performing a down tempo version of the classic Ramones song. Whilst we were recording her vocals, Mirel performed a version of the full song with guitar that just blew us away. We decided to turn it into a track for the soundtrack album.
Take a “Cure for Wellness” when its eely treatments begin in theaters on February 17th, with Benjamin Wallfisch’s score available on Milan Records HERE
Join Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrel Williams and Hans Zimmer as they count the “Hidden Figures” HERE
Visit Benjamin Wallfisch’s website HERE