Behind the Music: Composer Matthew James Breaks Down His Score to The Djinn
If you have never had a voice before, what would the price tag be of getting one? That’s the question proposed in IFC Midnight’s new horror tale, The Djinn. The official description reads: A mute twelve-year-old, Dylan Jacobs, discovers a mysterious book of spells inside his new apartment. Grieving the loss of his mother, and feeling isolated from everyone except for his father, Dylan performs a ritual that promises to deliver his heart’s desire: to have a voice. But he soon discovers that every gift has a toll when a sinister djinn arrives to collect his soul. Now trapped in his new home with nowhere to hide, Dylan must find a way to survive until the stroke of midnight or pay the ultimate price. Adding to the intensity of the film is Matthew James’ score, for which he describes as “A hybrid of catchy analog synth pop elements mixed with dark and sinister orchestral instruments.” Because Dylan is mute and alone for most of the movie, Matthew’s synth heavy score really shines throughout the film, posing as another main character guiding the audience. We wanted to learn more about Matthew’s creative process, so we conducted the below exclusive Q & A with him.
-What sets your score for The Djinn apart from other horror film scores out there?
First of all, thanks for having me, I appreciate your time. The Djinn as a film and the score play into a certain deeper emotion more than just hallmark blood curdling jump scares and screechy sounds. Now of course, we have those moments too, but the real challenge was to accent the emotionality and delicate innocence to our main character Dylan. I believe this approach sets us apart in a distinct manner.
-Did the directors of the film have a very specific way they wanted the score to sound? Or were you able to experiment and try different things?
David and Justin are directors with a very clear vision which was somewhat intimidating initially. We knew it was going to “tip the hat” to the era (1980s) in which it took place, but there was an experiment in finding the tonal balance once I formally signed on to the project. As we developed the musical language and got to know each other during playback sessions in studio, I was able to anticipate what we needed for the film. I definitely look forward to working with them going forward.
-It sounds like you used a lot of synths in the score. Is that correct?
Indeed! We really wanted to make it authentic without being derivative. Samples from Yamaha CS, Arturia, 808, Moog, Omnisphere etc were all used in the creation of the synth element of the score.
-Because Dylan doesn’t speak in the film, did you feel like it was more your job to give him a voice through your score?
Good catch – yes, his main theme is an innocent, simple, curious ostinato figure that we hear throughout. The interesting juxtaposition is the Djinn’s main theme which is vocals – which is even more of knife twist towards Dylan.
-Did you score the film in chronological order? Or did you score the most intense scenes last, after you were warmed up and fully encompassed in the story?
With this particular score, “Trapped” and “Artifacts Required” were scored first. Those were a tone test for the directors that ultimately landed me the job. From there I found the main themes – Dylan, the Djinn and his many forms, mother etc. I would say I don’t have a certain “process” regarding chronology – it’s different on every project, whatever inspires and captures the tone I think works best for the film. I also don’t operate off massive templates. I start from scratch on every project, potentially dangerous, I know – but that edge keeps me sharp and ultimately honest.
-When Dylan is standing in front of the mirror making his wish, it sounds like there is vocals accompanying the score. Was that you?
Yes indeed, it was! The sample libraries weren’t quite getting us there, and the directors were very adamant about having that color in the film. It was equally parts great and terrifying to have them come to the playback and experience their reaction, because it was a surprise. I am a singer/songwriter by nature for most my life, I just went for it one night out of frustration with bad samples and it became an integral part of the film. God, I think how horribly embarrassing it would’ve been had they hated it, I would’ve crawled out of the room, but thankfully they loved it!
-Horror films tend to rely on the film’s score a lot more than other genres. The score tells the audience when something bad is about to happen, when we should be scared etc. Because of this, did you feel any extra pressure when you were working on The Djinn?
The “SCREECH, BANG, BOOM, OH MY GOD!” aspects of horror writing come easily to me. Creeping up on people and tricking them in an intellectual or psychological way, that’s more of a challenge. The difficult part of this film was the languid, slow-paced sinewy revelation that grew throughout. David and Justin are very particular about the emotions they’re trying to convey, the minimalist/emotional parts took more time to refine and polish. As I mentioned previously, once we had a feel for taste, we moved along quite nicely.
-Are you personally a horror fan? If so, are there specific films that made an impact on you throughout the years?
I am! I grew up watching Halloween, NOES (oddly Wes Craven’s New Nightmare kept me up for weeks as a kid, dear god), Friday the 13th and even old Frankenstein (Boris Karloff), Dracula (Bella Lugosi) with my father (to my mother’s chagrin). The theme to Halloween was one of the first contemporary things I learned to play by ear on piano.
These days I’m more into “smart” horror- The Haunting of Hill House, Stranger Things were great recently, but I really like psychological thriller/horror like Se7en, The Mothman Prophecies (Hello John Klein) – random things I know. I like that The Djinn has a real heartfelt story and isn’t just straight slasher with teenagers drinking a hundred beers in a cabin and someone or something comes to murder them. Ok fine, that’s cool sometimes as well.
You can preorder Matthew’s The Djinn score here: https://www.amazon.com/Djinn-Original-Motion-Picture-Soundtrack/dp/B0937LSYC4.
You can learn more about The Djinn here: https://www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-djinn.