Interview with Nathan Barr

By • September 27, 2017

When Nathan Barr scores the grim reaper’s representatives on earth, one can be assured that he will be granting no pleasure trip for their one-way ticket to the great beyond. From the flesh eating disease of “Cabin Fever” to the thrill kill torturers inhabiting the “Hostel” and the immortal vampires of “True Blood,” Barr’s sanguine, multi instrumental talents have viewed death in terrifying ways – which is now what makes his latest voyage to the other side particularly unique for “Flatliners.

With a fresh young cast of afterlife thrill seekers, Director Niels Arden Oplev (“Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) gives a new jolt to Joel Schumacher’s 1990 thriller, for which composer James Newton Howard originally provided a mixture of heavenly chorus and pulse-pounding thrills for medical student out-daring themselves to momentarily die for a glimpse of the other side. And as with that cult film, this reboot once again proves that there is some things that man was not meant to know, as forces from death’s domain hitch a ride back to the earthly plane to pull them back to the final destination.

Though Howard’s work, and much of the memory of “Flatliners’ precursor might be wiped from Barr’s memory, his soundtrack proves a worthy spiritual successor to score that first impressed with its mixture of hipness, wonder and fear. Using electro-rhythm like an EKG, Barr energizes his score with the thrill of stopping and starting hearts in the nick of time, while cool alt. rock rhythms impress with the groove of exhilaration, then fear. Creating an eerily transfixing atmosphere of unearthly sounds for visions of the afterlife, Barr elongates the score’s suspense, nervously waiting to shock the system before it’s too late. And when showing that the ultimate answer is left itself, Barr creates some of his most beautifully emotional orchestral work in his prolific career. It’s a new take on “Flatliners” that doesn’t sever its melodic chord to the past, all while showing how next-gen composers like Nathan Barr are pushing the boundaries of scoring with death-defying attitude to spare.


Though you’d begun your career with scores like “Beyond the Mat,” “Going Greek” and “Double Down,” were you surprised that genre scoring for films like “Cabin Fever,” “2001 Maniacs” and “Hostel” provided your most popular way into Hollywood?

     

A lot of composers first cut their teeth by scoring horror films, and I have been no exception. I happen to be a huge fan of the genre and so I was happy that many of my early scoring experiences lived within the world of horror films. I think my abilities as a composer span across many genres and my career has really begun to expand in many other directions as of late. I think if anything, my musical beginnings speak to an ability to walk between multiple genres and styles, and I am grateful I have a career that allows for that.

How did the first “Flatliners” impress you?

I have not seen the original film since it came out 27 years ago, so I remember very little about it other than that it freaked me out and left an impression.

“Flatliners” fits into the “mad doctor” genre. Do you have any favorite scores in that domain?

“Young Frankenstein” immediately comes to mind. Also, and it may be a bit of a stretch as far being a part of the “mad doctor” genre, but Coppola’s “Dracula” film with Tom Waits as the mad doctor has that beautiful score by Wojciech Kilar, which is one of my favorites.

How did this new take on “Flatliners” come your way?

I put together a reel for Spring Aspers who is the head of music at Sony. She distributed that to the director Niels and the producers and based on the strength of the 16 tracks on that reel I was brought on board to replace the first composer. I had 31/2 weeks to compose over an hour of score so the fact that I can write very quickly when required also put me at the top of the list.

What was your collaboration like with director Niels Arden Oplev, and what kind of fresh take do you think he brought the story?

I came onto the project so late in the process that we never had a spotting session. I was hired on a Monday and hit the ground running on Tuesday. And so three weeks later I had 45 minutes of score written and an orchestra session just days away. It was a wild ride!

Niels asked the picture editor Tom Elkins to give me direction at the very beginning because Niels was tied down with a mountain of visual effects and reshoots. And so I didn’t have my first conversation with Niels until I’d written about 20 minutes of music, or about 10 days into the process. Fortunately, Niels and Tom were generally in sync with what they wanted the music to accomplish, and Niels responded very favorably to that first batch of cues. From then on we were in regular touch.

If I had to sum up Niels’ direction for the score it was to always make sure that there was breath in the score so that each scene had the opportunity to develop organically. He wanted to avoid being too manipulative with the score. A couple times he humorously gave me the same note the King gives Mozart in Amadeus, “too many notes.” But I knew right away how to adjust, and so it was a good piece of direction. I really enjoyed my collaboration with Niels and the sense of humor he brought to discussions about serious things.

I avoided re-watching the original, as I know Niels wanted to approach the story through a contemporary lens, and I believe he achieved that. There’s a youthful energy to these characters that is a bit different from that of the original, if I remember correctly.


Could you talk about your approach to “Flatliners,” especially when it comes to the difference that music takes for young, hip doctors then and now, especially when it comes to the alt. rock elements in the score?

Having a strong electronic component in the score was important to Niels as he felt it was a good way to acknowledge the target audience of film that is rated PG-13. And so the orchestral elements were really about bringing some cinematic grandeur and emotional depth to the story, while the electronic elements were about the fun, intensity and ambition of the characters in this story.

What are your own thoughts about what happens when you die? And how were they reflected in the score?

My belief in what happens when we die varies from day to day so it would be hard for me to pin down a philosophy. Having said that I can say my own feelings about death was not a part of the composition process. It’s all up there on the screen for me to enjoy and interact with!

How did you want to approach the “flatlining” sequences?

Some of the more complicated sequences in the film to score from a technical standpoint involved navigating the back-and-forth between the afterlife and the hospital room while sounding cohesive. Oftentimes what a character is experiencing in the afterlife has quite a different emotional space than the panic of the hospital room where their bodies await their souls’ returns. And so finding a musical thread that could exist underneath both was a challenge.

How did you want the score to reflect the high-tech equipment the Flatliners are using to kill and resurrect themselves?

I think the electronic and synth elements that drive the score in many scenes all help reflect the high tech equipment and feel a part of that world.

Could you talk about the “heartbeat” of your score?

The heartbeat in the score is an electronic pulse that propels the score forward in a way that can feel contemporary even if there are orchestral elements over the top of it. It’s perhaps a bit on-the-nose at times to have a heart-beat element in a score about flatlining, but it’s also a way to have some fun with the overall conceit of the film.

Flatliners Scoring Session

How did you want to combine the electronic and orchestral elements of the score? And what do you think your approach has to say with the more human, emotional element of the story as opposed to the technology and excess the characters indulge in?

When Niels and I spoke about the score, he wanted to be sure the score was breathing with the characters and not forcing a feeling on the audience that wasn’t earned. Oftentimes he would give me a note that he wanted half as many chords in the cue. What I came to understand he was asking for was more space between chords so the scene had a chance to unfold without interference from the score. This note was largely limited to the orchestral elements in the score. I was constantly pairing the orchestral parts back as Niels felt they were too adult and traditional for these young characters. In another case he literally had me cut the tempo of a cue in half and that gave him the emotional impact he was looking for in that particular sequence.

Could you talk about your sampling here, from the eerier moments to the rhythmic element of the score?

As a general philosophy I shy away from using samples created by sample libraries. But when there is so little time to write a score I inevitably lean into samples more than I usually do. I definitely managed to get some of my homegrown sounds into this film, but in other cases I was grateful to have ready-made samples to aid in a jump scare or quick set of cuts that needed accenting.

What were some of the more unique instruments you used here?

I used an instrument called an Array Nail Organ which was built for me by Bill Wesley and Patrick Hadley who created another instrument I own called the Array Mbira which is essentially an electric kalimba. I love the way these guys think about creating and making musical instruments and had seen them demonstrate their Nail Organ online. It’s a series of nails of different lengths mounted to a resonant wooden box with pickups. Once you apply powdered resin to the fingertips and rub the top of the nail head it produces a pitch determined by the length of the nail. The highest pitches, or shortest nails, produce a whistle sound you will hear clearly in the main title track of Flatliners, as well as throughout the film.

I have a harpsichord and have all sorts of fun recording that and manipulating the sound afterwards. That can be heard in a couple of the film’s more tense moments as a 16th note pattern that floats over the top of various propulsive elements. Another favorite of mine that started all the way back with “Cabin Fever” is a bowed Indian instrument called a Dilruba. All of the above instruments are part of my process in bringing a unique sound to my scores.

How did you want to use voice in “Flatliners?”

Even though it’s a bit cliché at this point to musically associate voices and the afterlife, there is nothing more ethereal than a group of human voices, and so I, like many composers before me, leaned into that trope a bit in several of the afterlife sequences.

What about the score’s more horrific elements that go back to your more visceral genre work?

I’ve gotten pretty good with several of my bowed instruments at creating the sound of sheer terror and so I leaned into those a bit, as with the Dilruba I mentioned above.

How did you want the score to cross over from the wonder of near-death to the terror that comes back from the other side?

Niels wanted the scary moments to be scary regardless of whether they happened in the afterlife or post-flatline. And so there wasn’t much to do with the crossover between the two, so long as the emotional impact was achieved.

When you’ve got a film where characters might, or might not being imagining things coming to get them, what kind of freedom do you think those “hallucinations” give to the score?

The perspective of the score depends on what the director wants to accomplish in a given sequence. In the case of this film we wanted to play up the horror of certain moments regardless of whether it was in the character’s imagination or not.

I do think however that as a general rule hallucinations in films do free a composer up to really explore tone and texture and instrumentation just at the director might experiment with camera angle and color and editing. A sequence in “True Blood” and one from the first season of “The Son” both come to mind as musical moments that I had fun with because they occurred over hallucinations.

You’ve also been exceptionally busy on television with “Sneaky Pete,” “The Son” and “The Americans.” What kind of doors do you think the boom in the medium is opening up for you, and is there a particular kind of show you look for?”

I look for a show with characters I can imagine spending many hours with. In the case of the three shows you have mentioned, each one has very intriguing and complex characters that are a joy to write for. Interestingly, each of these shows centers around a protagonist who is the epitome of an anti-hero. And so it’s gratifying to take the con man from “Sneaky Pete,” two Soviet spies from “The Americans” and the murderous patriarch from “The Son”” and humanize them with the music so they become more relatable to audiences. I think on some level everyone likes the irony of rooting for the dark side of a human being who may be trying to achieve something good through dubious means.

I think we can all agree that some of the most entertaining, intriguing and smartest storytelling in the world right now is happening on television. It’s exciting to see so many companies committed to creating top-notch stories driven by complex characters.

You’ll also be dealing with death in your forthcoming score for “The Parting Glass.” What can you tell us about it?

“The Parting Glass” is a film directed by Stephen Moyer, written by Denis O’Hare, and starring Anna Paquin, three members of my “True Blood” “family”. It’s a deeply moving autobiographical story from Denis O’Hare’s life that deals with suicide and a family’s struggle to process and recover from it. Steve shot it in a very naturalistic style and so there is not a lot of score in the film, but when there is score, it’s very important. It was so great to be back in creative mode with these three talented artists.

From L to R_The Parting Glass composer Nathan Barr, director Stephen Moyer and singer Sam Lee

In your spare time, you’ve been assembling an organ? What’s your attraction to that instrument, and what do you hope to do with the end result?

Three to four months from now the studio I have spent the last decade-plus envisioning will be complete. I didn’t want to build just another recording studio, but instead wanted to create a unique space that really spoke to my diverse interests as a composer and musician and also showcased my large collection of musical instruments, some of which are quite large. I also wanted to build a space that would be a meeting place for musicians from all over the world to come together and record and make music and be inspired.

My imagination was first captured by a pipe organ when I was around 10 years old and my mother explained to me that when I pressed the keys on the organ’s manual at church there were pipes in rooms up in the walls that when filled with wind made a sound. This was a musical “aha” moment for me and filled me with wonder and mystery. Years later I heard a Wurlitzer Theater organ accompanying a silent film and it went straight into my heart and imagination and cemented my fascination with pipe organs.

Nathan and his unrestored Wurlitzer organ

I started to get to know people in the pipe organ community about 8 years ago, and when I mentioned I was keen on installing one in my studio, a gentleman who owned the former Twentieth Century Fox Studios Wurlitzer offered to restore and sell me that instrument. I jumped at the chance to include it in my studio. It “lived” on the scoring stage at Fox from 1928 to 1997 and was used by everyone from Bernard Herrmann in Journey To The Center Of The Earth to Alex North in The Agony And The Ecstasy to James Horner in “Cocoon,” and many more. It’s an instrument that physically occupies 6 rooms and so the possibilities for experimentation are endless given all the exciting pipes and other instruments that make up the entire beast of this organ.

Seeing the instrument restored and given a proper place to live has been an obsession of mine over the past couple years. I have literally built the building around the organ, and it speaks onto a scoring stage that will accommodate up to 60 players. I look forward to reintroducing this important piece of film music history to the world in new scores and music. The first film it will find it’s way into is my next collaboration with Eli Roth, “The House With A Clock In It’s Walls,” which stars Cate Blanchett and Jack Black and hits theaters next year.

In the end, do you think there’s a spiritual connection to your work and James Newton Howard’s original score?

I always strive to keep my voice as a composer as unique as possible and so I deliberately avoided listening to JNH’s score because I wanted this score to be as much my own as possible. At times being completely unique was a struggle on this one given the schedule gave me no time to experiment and a temp score existed that some were very committed to. But now that I am done, I intend to watch the movie again and give it a listen out of sheer curiosity. And if there are indeed similar elements, that would be pretty amazing, and then yes I would say there would be a spiritual connection between the two.

What do you think makes “Flatliners” different from the genre films you often score? And what does it show about where you can continue to venture in the worlds of horror, and now science fiction?

“Flatliners” is more sci-fi and psychological thriller than straight horror. And this was a conscious choice on the part of Niels. There are certainly some very scary moments in the film, but at its heart it wants to be more. And so there are a couple of story moments that allow for beautiful scoring that one might not expect in a straight-ahead horror film. In that way, I’d say “Flatliners” has more sci-fi elements than I have worked with before.

Do you think the ultimate mystery of death is both the creepiest and most wondrous thing you can score?

I don’t honestly know – certainly one of them!

If someone offered you the opportunity to flatline, with the surety of coming back, would you do it?

I don’t think I would because I would never look at life on planet earth the same way. I think there’s something very important in knowing that our time here is limited and that one day we will be gone from the planet with no idea of what’s next. Embracing the fear and excitement that comes with that brings a richness and mystery to life that would probably go away pretty quickly if we knew what existed on the other side.

“Flatliners” opens on September 29th, with Nathan Barr’s score available on Sony Classical Music

Visit Nathan Barr’s website HERE

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