In Conversation with Composer, Jonathan Snipes
We talk with LA-based composer, sound designer, songwriter, and producer about Starry Eyes.
Published on July 3, 2015 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film
Starry Eyes

Starry Eyes is the Faustian tale of an ambitious young actress whose encounter with a sinister production company propels her on a harrowing downward spiral of despair, madness and diabolism, as she attempts to make her dreams of fame a reality. At any cost…

A powerful, deeply unsettling rumination on the cost of fame and fortune, and the monstrous things people will do to obtain stardom, Starry Eyes garnered much acclaim upon its release last year. Incorporating elements of classic occult cinema and Cronenbergian body-horror, not to mention a barbed commentary on the vacuous nature of Hollywood and today’s celebrity infatuated culture, it’s a modern take on a timeless theme: selling one’s soul for selfish gain. Featuring an astounding central performance from Alexandra Essoe, Starry Eyes is unrelenting, and frequently downright brutal in its depiction of the corruption of innocence.

Enhancing the ominous atmosphere is a throbbing electronic score courtesy of Jonathan Snipes. Perhaps best known for his work on Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, Snipes is an LA-based composer, sound designer, songwriter, producer, and engineer with extensive experience in theatre, film and television. His atmospheric score for Starry Eyes unfurls as an electro love letter to the likes of John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, and Goblin. Pulsing, droning and twinkling creepily throughout, Snipes’ music is the perfect accompaniment to the protagonist’s hellish transformation and, according to one critic, “its importance to the film’s ability to disturb cannot be understated.”

With the recent release of the score on vinyl, courtesy of Waxwork Records, we thought it was high time we caught up with Jonathan, who very kindly agreed to an interview about his work on Starry Eyes.

Jonathan Snipes

How did you come to be involved with Starry Eyes, and what were your initial thoughts on how to approach scoring it? What sort of specifics, if any, did Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer provide?

They reached out to me because they’d heard my work on Rodney Ascher’s Room 237. I believe poster artist Jay Shaw recommended they use some of those cues as temp tracks on Starry Eyes, and they liked the way they worked. We had a mutual friend, whose short film I had scored, and he put us in touch. They sent me the movie, I liked it, and we met at a coffee shop. We got along, so I dove right in. They didn’t give me too much direction, other than they wanted a melody, that was very clearly Sarah’s theme, that we could hear devolve over the course of the movie. They had something in the temporary score with a kind of synthesizer bell sound, and we tossed around references like Rosemary’s Baby, Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, and Poltergeist. We wanted something childlike and innocent that could get slowly corrupted. I had just done a play for which I’d written music for music boxes, so I already had all these cool music boxes and I could prepare custom melody cards for them. So it seemed obvious to go with the music box.

Starry Eyes tells something of a timeless tale – the young ingénue corrupted and spat out by Hollywood. What informed the decision to score the film with electronic music as opposed to more ‘traditional’ orchestral fare?

Well, I mostly work with electronics anyway. I usually use a few acoustic elements, but electronics are at the core of my work. Also, given the budget and schedule, it didn’t seem like much else would be possible. I originally wanted to make the Starry Eyes score for electronics and solo viola, with my friend Ezra Buchla playing – I’d always wanted to do a movie with him – but he was out of town when I needed to write and record. So, rather than find someone else to play viola, I just decided to go all electronic. The music was working without any acoustics, and I had to work very quickly. I ended up getting to work with Ezra on the score for Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, which is out now.

What’s your method of composition and where do your ideas come from?

That’s a big question. All of my formal training is actually in sound design, so my composition is mostly self-taught. Working in film, I can take a lot of cues from the picture. Usually I try to write the themes for a movie without looking at the picture, so first and foremost I can make sure they work well musically. Then, when I start arranging and performing them to picture, at least I have a solid core – a melody, chord progression, some rhythmic ideas, that I know can stand on their own. Scoring scenes is funny, actually – I usually just start by mapping out tempos. I’ll set a whole scene to a metronome, changing tempos and time signatures until I feel like I’ve got something that’s driving the scene. Almost like a ticking clock. Then I lay out the downbeats and big changes, and follow it up with a harmonic structure, then lay melodies over the top.

Howarth + Carpenter

There are echoes of Goblin, John Carpenter, and Fabio Frizzi throughout Starry Eyes. Musically speaking, who are your main influences?

I love everyone you just mentioned of course, and certainly they’re big influences for Starry Eyes. I would also add to that list Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, Walter Rizzati, Bruno Nicolai, Marcello Giombini, Gianni Marchetti, basically anyone who scored a movie in Italy in the 70s. In a broader sense, my earliest and biggest musical influences – and people I hear in my own work all the time – are probably Steve Reich, Aphex Twin, Jerry Goldsmith, Aube, Pauline Oliveros, Wendy Carlos, early Nine Inch Nails, Tangerine Dream, Mannie Fresh, Chip Davis. I don’t know – too many to name.

You’ve worked on short films, documentaries, theatre, TV and feature films in various genres. While working on Starry Eyes did you encounter ways of working that perhaps moved you out of your comfort zone?

Not really. It had been about a minute since I had done a film, and it took a second to re-adjust. I’ve noticed I work a lot differently depending on how many notes I’m getting, and how many revisions I think I’ll have to do. When I’m left to my own devices and not getting a lot of feedback, I feel like I make bigger and bolder choices, and end up writing better music. If I’m getting a ton of notes, it’s almost like I’m scared to make big choices, so the music ends up being a little less specific and I start getting notes about that – it’s like a snake eating its own tail. Starry Eyes is one of the first projects where I really tried to find a balance and make bold choices, as if I could get away with anything I wanted, and I think it helped. I can remember being terrified of the first round of cues I submitted. There were a couple of places where I really thought I had gone too far; that I was operating too much inside my own taste, and that Dennis and Kevin would think I was making fun of their movie or something, but I hit send anyway. If anything, their notes pushed me further into the direction I was scared to go. Ha!

As a composer, what goes through your mind when you read a script for the first time?

Usually I’m not involved from the script stage. For some utterly unfathomable reason, music is usually the last thing producers think about, and by the time anyone even considers finding a composer the movie is basically done except for music. It’s a really frustrating way of working, but that’s the way it is. I definitely never saw a script for Starry Eyes. I recently finished a movie, Excess Flesh, which premiered at SXSW this year, which was a rare exception. The director, Patrick Kennelly, is an old theatre friend of mine, and we’ve done a lot of work together over the years, but never a film. So I was reading drafts of the script, providing feedback, and talking about how the music and sound should work from day one. I also did the sound design and final mix of that film alongside Jason Tuttle, so I helped build everything from the ground up. I designed the production sound recording system, chose the production sound mixer, Michael Cooper, and boom operator, Christopher Fleeger, who also did most of the foley and sound design. I had my fingers in everything. It was great.

Starry Eyes

According to one review the music’s “importance to the film’s ability to disturb cannot be understated.” How difficult was it figuring out when to keep things subtle and when to let rip with the intensity?

The opening third of the film was the hardest, when Sarah is still innocent and before she’s falling deeper into the cult. It was a hard balance to make something that was simple and pretty enough to establish Sarah as a sympathetic character, but could still hint at the darkness to come without giving anything away. Most of the revisions and re-writes occurred in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Beyond that, it was a pretty easy film to plot out. Dennis and Kevin made it pretty clear just from their editing. I don’t think I was ever confused or really hit the wrong moment.

How does music tell a story?

Music only exists in time, so it’s inherently a medium that explores change, or the absence of change. So, like in storytelling, you always have to ask yourself what’s different and what’s the same at the end of a piece of music. I think I subconsciously treat elements like characters – melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre – and sort of sketch out emotional journeys for them that mirror or play against what’s happening on screen. Music is also abstract by nature, so even if I’m very formal and specific about my decisions, I have a lot of freedom inside my structures.

How do you know when to use silence to enhance a particular moment?

Well, it’s maybe unfortunate, but that’s often dictated by the director and the temporary score. Actually there are two places in Starry Eyes where I was asked to write music, and I refused, which I know is not the best decision, politically! There’s a moment with a hard cut to Sarah crying outside of Big Taters after a particularly brutal conversation with Pat Healy’s character. Dennis really wanted music there and I had to fight tooth and nail to keep it silent. Sometimes music can make something sadder, or happier, or more emotional, but if you want to communicate despair and bleakness, I think silence and a good sound design can do more. The more the moment sounds like reality, the harsher it is in my opinion. [Spoiler alert!] The other scene was the rampage through the house near the end when Sarah kills her friends. They had asked me to come up with some music there, and I argued and argued that it should be sound design only until they relented. I think that scene works beautifully, and the dumbbell segment is made all the more brutal by stripping out the music.

How much do you think about the audience of a film when you’re composing?

Well, I’m the audience when I’m composing, I guess. A film wouldn’t exist without an audience, so ultimately they’re the only people I need to make happy. But I think what an audience wants, or at least what I want out of a film, is to see and hear things I wouldn’t have thought of myself. So I’m always trying to avoid clichés and do something somewhat unexpected that still supports the film.

Are you a fan of horror films? What do you think makes an effective horror film score?

I love horror films, and I love horror scores that play against the horror a little. My favourite recent horror score, off the top of my head, is probably Inside by François Eudes-Chanfrault. There’s almost no “horror” in the score at all, and I often put the album on at dinner parties. It’s beautiful, simple music played by a small ensemble and supported by tasteful electronics. I think all my favourite horror movie scores play against the movies a little bit. It makes the horror that much harder to deal with I think, when it’s set against music that isn’t scary at all. That’s also the reason the Goblin and John Carpenter scores are so great – they’re funky and driving, but they aren’t super scary. There are some great movies with legitimately scary music too, of course. Ennio Morricone’s The Thing comes to mind. I’ve also really been enjoying Brian Reitzell’s music for Hannibal right now. It’s fantastic, and often terrifying.

Excess Flesh

What’s next for you?

Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare is out now, and Patrick Kennelly’s Excess Flesh is making the festival rounds and should be available to see in some form very soon. I’ve got a couple of other features and shorts I’ve done since then that I don’t think have been announced yet. Right now I’m answering these questions from a theatre where I’m finishing up sound design and composition for a play. That’s Bad Jews at the Geffen playhouse, directed by Matt Shakman.

Finally, who is your faithful feline co-producer?

His name is “Loudness” – he’s a very nice boy. He yells constantly, and has opinions about everything. He was abandoned by our awful neighbors a few houses down, so he came to live with me and my wife. He’s very happy to be indoors and demands constant attention. He’s a great studio assistant, even if he occasionally chews on the wiring.

To keep up to date with Jonathan’s work, check out his website, and to pick up a copy of his score for Starry Eyes, visit Waxwork Records.

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • Mozenator

    surprised there was no mention at all of Giorgio Moroder…