In 2008, independent screenwriter and former Tromateer Trent Haaga, alongside director-producer duo Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, released their first genre feature, one that would turn heads and experience huge success within its inaugural run of the indie film festival circuit. Deadgirl was—and continues to be—a fresh addition to new-age horror, however, veering far from the conventions of the genre. A diamond in the rough of genre stereotypes, cardboard characters and stale plot devices, Deadgirl is part coming-of-age tale and part love story, saturated in a deeply depraved tone of titillating terror.
While offering viewers profound insight regarding friendship, alienation and the hormonal pressures of being a teenager, Deadgirl has also redefined the term, “Living Dead Girl”. But much of the beauty and success of Deadgirl lies within its exquisitely composed score. Immense credit goes to film composer Joseph Bauer for truly bringing this picture to life and giving it an identity. Bauer did an outstanding job of reflecting the vast array of emotions that are presented onscreen in the music, making pictures and sound flow together flawlessly.
Lacey Paige: How did you get on board as the composure for Trent Haaga’s genre-defying Deadgirl?
Joseph Bauer: I got on board through the editor and sound designer, Phillip Blackford. He told me there was this weird little movie about a chained up zombie girl, but that it was going to be a lot more interesting than your standard horror film. So I was of course excited to jump in.
Lacey: Did you get to read the script before composing the music?
Bauer: I didn’t read the script, but that was on purpose because I didn’t want to be influenced by what I thought the movie might be, rather than what it ended up being. I wanted to react to what was only on the screen.
Lacey: What sorts of things were going through your head while composing for Deadgirl?
Bauer: Coming up with the music for Deadgirl was a fairly long process. I had it in my head that it should be scored incredibly melodically at one point, more like a strange fable, so there was a whole version of the score that sounded like that. Our main goal was always to stay away from anything too traditional as far as usual horror scoring and really support the heart of the film, which was mainly Rickie’s love of Joann, his odd relationship to the Deadgirl and his friendship with JT. But then to address the more horrific elements in an unusual way; with odd sounds, dark textures… anything that didn’t sound too normal.
Lacey: It’s quite the movie in terms of the subject matter that Haaga throws at you, were you at all put off by the content and did you find it hard to stomach?
Bauer: No, I wasn’t put off by anything, but that’s not a surprise considering how many crazy films I’d seen by that point in my life. When you’re watching Jordorowsky at 15, you tend to have a pretty high tolerance!
Lacey: Some of the music bits in Deadgirl bear a close resemblance to Michael Andrews’ work in Donnie Darko. Both are coming-of-age tales in a really twisted way, exploring the darker sides of being a teenager in particularly obscure situations. Were you at all influenced by Andrews’ music for DD?
Bauer: Michael Andrews’ score to Donnie Darko is really great and a lot of the people working on the film thought it matched certain parts of the film’s tone perfectly. So my challenge was to use that tone and take it further into a more specific direction that would fit this film only. I wanted the score to be even weirder and more emotional. I gave a fairly traditional theme for the friendship between Rickie and JT, a melodic theme for Joann… even a twisted waltz. At one point we were considering going with a small string section for the whole score! But I think in the end it was best to go with something otherworldly in the tunnels. I thought of the score to Alien a lot in those scenes. All those weird windy drones make you feel like you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be.
Lacey: The music in Deadgirl does a bang-on job of reflecting the movie itself in a sense that it has horrific elements, comedic elements, romantic elements, etc… Did the array of emotions that are portrayed in the movie make it more difficult to compose for than any genre movie that stays true to its conventions?
Bauer: It was definitely more challenging than your usual genre picture, but that’s what makes it fun. We spent a lot of time trying to find the exact tone of this thing. It could have been scored ten different ways, each shaping the film into something very different. At one point I thought the music should be completely counter to what we were seeing… almost weirdly pleasant music, just to make it that much stranger, but we went away from that. The cue as they’re walking up to they asylum for the first time and the waltz when the Deadgirl attacks the dog still has that tone.
One of the main elements that helped make the entire score cohesive was this weird sampled piano thing we recorded at composer Robert Rich’s house. He had an old baby grand piano and we sampled a bunch of plucked strings from within the body. I used that instrument for every emotion Rickie felt. It was great because it sounded like a real piano, but not so clean and pristine like most pianos sound. This sounded like something was just off and not quite right. Perfect for this movie.
Lacey: Was it a lengthy process? Can you describe how you tackled it?
Bauer: Well, I had a month to play around with some ideas while working on a few other things, but when it came time to proper scoring, we were rushed to get the film done before the Toronto Film Festival where it made it’s premiere. We were composing, editing, sound editing, sound designing all in the same house at the same time! Phillip Blackford (Editor and Sound Designer) and I worked together to come up with an interesting mix of music and sound design in most of the asylum scenes. I think we were both influenced by the type of lo-fi, simple synths Andrews used in the Darko score, but rather than use traditional synths like he had, we were more into sample manipulation and got a lot of interesting stuff that way. We also spent two days with composer Robert Rich getting a bunch of weird, ethereal sounds together to flesh out the palette. We decided the music in the tunnels should not be musical at all—completely lacking of life, except for the few moments where Rickie feels sympathy for the Deadgirl, whereas the music for Rickie’s “above ground” life would be more melodic and emotional.
Lacey: You’ve scored several films that fall under different genres, what did you find particularly striking about composing for a horror movie, one that sort of defies the boundaries of a conventional horror picture and explores other genre realms and such dark subject matter?
Bauer: Horror films are fun because they tend to not have any boundaries musically. I find that most of the other genres have very specific types of music you’re forced to write. With horror, you can get away with a lullaby or a crazy atonal wall of sound—all in the same cue! Your palette is just that much wider. Every composer wants a project where they can really put a mark on the film, as far as shifting that tone to just the right place. It’s easy to write scary music, but it’s hard to write intense music. I think those are two very different things.
Lacey: How do you feel about Deadgirl overall?
Bauer: Deadgirl was an insane experience for a lot of reasons. Going from staying up night after night to finish up, working on music, sound editing, mixing the film the day before it needed to be on the plane for Toronto, rushing around with no sleep like crazy people—then suddenly at the premiere in front of hundreds of people who have no idea this film wasn’t even done a few days before. It was a wild ride.
Lacey: Did you attend any of the festival screenings upon its initial release in 2008? How did the audience react?
Bauer: Yeah, the audience went pretty crazy for it, which I have to admit, I wasn’t sure was going to happen. They were cheering and laughing in all the right spots. We had been working on this weird little movie in this house for so long it was hard to imagine it suddenly getting such a reaction.
Lacey: Would you say that the film has led you along in your career as a composer?
Bauer: I think Deadgirl forced me to get out of my comfort zone. It really pushed me into writing ambient music and I now have a better grasp on how to affect sounds into something interesting, intense, weird, or whatever the scene might call for.
Joseph Bauer’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE including sample from Deadgirl
Read our review of Deadgirl HERE