Scoring The Attic Door part 1

The latest feature film I scored is called “The Attic Door”.  It’s a beautifully shot psychological thriller drama about two siblings left alone in their house in the Utah desert while their parents are away. Every day they struggle to survive on their own while they wait for their parents’ return. As the story unfolds, they discover they are not  alone and they must face their fear of something hiding behind the attic door. Although this is a psychological thriller, the movie is also a touching story about love and loss.

I was brought on as a composer a couple of months before they started shooting the film. I got to read the script and as they started cutting the movie, I was able to watch the  evolving versions of the film. I remember sitting in a cold loft while I was in Norway visiting, trying to get underneath the skin of the story. If time allows it, I prefer to spend a lot of time with the script or the cut of the movie not thinking about music at all. In order to be able to write the appropriate score, it helps to try to absorb the film and let it live in my subconsciousness. Getting to know the subtext of the film gives me a guideline for what the score should convey. So I watched the cuts, made notes and spent a lot of time analyzing and thinking about what this film was truly about. Through conversations with director Danny Daneau we realized we were very much on the same page, which of course was very helpful throughout our collaboration.
I spent about a week analyzing the movie’s dramatic and emotional content before I started playing around with musical ideas. Few of the ideas made at that time ended up being used. Sometimes you need to go through a lot of crappy ideas to get to the right ones. That is another advantage with the luxury of time, that you can allow yourself to really work deeply into your material to find out what works and what doesn’t. During this period I also listened a lot to composers such as Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Stephen Scott and John Cage for inspiration. Stephen Scott is a contemporary American composer who has created the so-called Bowed Piano Ensemble. I saw them in concert and was blown away by the sounds that came out of the instrument that I thought I knew well after playing it for more than 20 years. The way they use the piano became a big inspiration for my own use of the piano in this score.

Early on we decided that we wanted to limit the amount of instruments in the score. Financially it made sense as we were working on a relatively tight budget, but that wasn’t the main reason. The characters in the story are forced to utilize the available resources to their maximum in order to survive. Having very few instruments that were used in all possible ways would reflect this. I also think I work more creatively when I have limitations. Especially since this film didn’t have much temp music at all, I had to come up with everything from scratch, which sometimes is a pretty daunting task.
Danny pictured strings pretty early in the process and so did I, so eventually I decided on viola, cello, contrabass and piano. I chose the lower strings because I felt their timbre resonated well with the feel of the movie. These instruments are very versatile which was a requirement when you only have 4 players. It was also interesting to me not to have violins as I tend to use that a lot.

Inspired by Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble I used rosined fish line on the strings inside the piano to get haunting and less traditional sounds from the piano. Some melodies were played on the piano, but mostly I used the piano for sound effects by hitting and rubbing the strings inside the piano with various objects. Here’s an example of the bowed piano (at 0:58):

Bowing the piano

Bowing the piano

I added very few effects in the mixing process to keep it as organic sounding as possible. The movie is set in the 19th century so I wanted to create sounds that only sounded like something that you could create with real instruments. With the strings, I pushed the players (luckily they were all really good sports) to play way out of their range and using various techniques. Sometimes the poor bass player was playing harmonics up to an a above the staff. Of course it helped having amazing players. (These are players that are on the roster of John Willams’ contractor, to give you an idea of their level.) It was one of the most fun sessions I’ve done in my career so far actually.

Here’s another audio sneak peak from the score where I rub the strings inside the piano with a metal stick, hit the strings with my hands, and have the string players play in a very high range: