Soundtracking the Domestic Horror of “Hereditary” with Colin Stetson

With A24’s latest triumph now in theaters, Stetson walks us through his collaboration with writer/director Ari Aster and the film scores that have shaped his work.

Colin Stetson’s score for 2018’s breakout summer thriller, Hereditary, is, by his own admission, “evil.” Less scary than unrelentingly piercing, Stetson’s work on Ari Aster’s debut feature, which follows an artist (Toni Collette) who begins to experience troubling developments in her family following the death of her mother, is perfectly complementary to the thrilling terror of the film. Buzzing and moaning with a pressure that never relinquishes its grip, Stetson’s score carries the characters on its own, but never outweighs the movement of the film. It’s at some moments melancholic and nostalgic for an unlocatable feeling, at others slyly bombastic in its pulse-pounding fervor.

For the project, Stetson—who has served as a multi-instrumentalist on records by the likes of Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem, in addition to his extensive solo discography—practiced his trademark style of looped instrumentation, only this time lifting the restrictions he normally imposes on himself. The result is music filled with rich overdubs highlighting the menacing base layer Stetson so effortlessly applies throughout the film. We spoke with him over the phone to ask about his work on Hereditary, as well as some of his favorite film scores.

How long ago were you approached about composing the score for Hereditary?

Ari contacted me years ago. He first got in touch saying that he’d been writing a script for his first feature and he was listening to my music whilst writing it. We had some conversations about what he was doing and what he was after in terms of score and he sent me the script. I immediately realized that if he pulled it off, it was going to be a really unique picture.

We kept in touch every six months over the course of a couple years, and finally things wrapped up very quickly in the end when funding got picked up. It was about as positive an experience as you can have in this industry because we had so much time.

I kind of despise working off temp music for scoring because of all the hurdles and unnecessary distractions to the continuity of a film score in terms of directors and editors getting too attached to certain cues. Ari and I decided pretty early on that I’d do a lot of the writing for the score before I had picture to track to. I started doing things based on stills, the script, and conversations that we had early on. When he started temping out the film, a lot of my initial demos were used. It was great being able to work on it through all the phases, which is pretty rare.

What is the difference in your approach toward solo music versus score work?

“I really wanted to draw everything out and to not micromanage jump scares. I wanted to have individual scenes play out with a very methodical, almost grueling patience.”

Because Ari had been so inspired by the solo music, we did want to preserve some aspect of that in my approach. There were certain scenes in which I used the foundation of the score in those moments, which is exactly as I’d record a solo record. There’s one where it’s all mic’d and recorded in one take, like I’d do on a contrabass clarinet. The percussion is all stemming from the horns, too. The only real difference was that in the scoring I didn’t have any self-imposed rules in terms of overdubbing. There’s greater arrangement and instrumentation built around those things. I’ll still use a lot of the same approaches to get sounds and the uniqueness of sound source that comes from these instruments, but I don’t have the same restrictions.

What’s your favorite film score?

I love the score from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that [Hans] Zimmer did. I think it’s the best thing he ever did—and I don’t mean that in any way to cast shade on any of his other work, but I think that that film is perfection, and the score is a huge part of it. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Prisoners is a perfect piece of film music. Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, too.

Is there a song from your solo discography that you think would fit particularly well in the Hereditary score?

If I was scoring that film out trying to do it all from licenses from my body of work, I think “Judges” would work in there, as would “Brute.” Actually, “In the Clinches” off the last one would work well. He actually used “The Lure of the Mine” from my latest record as temp music.

What quality of your musicianship is best represented in the score?

“A large part of the score—and most people may not hear it this way because it might sound like synths or strings—is vocals.”

Patience. I really wanted to draw everything out and to not micromanage jump scares. I wanted to have individual scenes play out with a very methodical, almost grueling patience—to be able to step back from it and look at it as one solid arc unfolding the way that the narrative of the film unfolds, that was meant to be truly patient and only developing as fast as it needed to. Jóhann’s score for Prisoners is an example of brilliant economy in film writing. There’s no fat on that at all. It’s bleak and perfect and only does exactly what it needs to do. I was trying to draw inspiration from that.

Do you have a favorite song on the Hereditary score?

Hmm. Oh, man. I love the track “Steve.” If I came back to one that would be my favorite. Ari and I talked about this early in the process, but we decidedly wanted zero sentimentality. We weren’t trying to fake out an audience by playing up some sort of sadness, nostalgia, or sentimentality. But the one place where I did give us a little touch of that is within the personal experience of the character Steve [played by Gabriel Byrne], and there are little bits that sneak through the overwhelming evil within the majority of the score. I just love that bit of tenderness.

What instruments did you use?

There are a lot of instruments on the score. I played alto, tenor, soprano, and bass saxophones. There’s a lot of trombone. There’s french horn, a little bit of trumpet. There’s an enormous amount of contrabass clarinets and B-flat bass clarinets, so I think the majority of the score is—if I were to boil it down to a few elements—the contrabass clarinet on the low end, the B-flat clarinet on the high end, and the vocals, both recorded outside of my mouth and through my throat. A large part of the score—and most people may not hear it this way because it might sound like synths or strings—is vocals. That was something early on that I decided would be good. I wanted to do it in a way that was unconventional and not obviously coming from that source, though.

What’s one film that you wish you had the chance to score?

Whewwwwwww. It’s tough because what’s a film that I love that I’d be willing to replace the score for? [Laughs.] I did a film score, an alternate score, for La Jetée [by Chris Marker] a long time ago that I really enjoyed doing. That was an enormous amount of fun and very satisfying. It would be really fun to have scored something like Lynch’s Dune. In concept I’d love to do things that people don’t expect of me. Epic fantasy is probably one of them. FL

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