An Interview with Christopher Lennertz by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.84, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
At only 30 years old, Christopher Lennertz has scored 17 features including the film festival favorite Art House, network television series BRIMSTONE, TOUGH ENOUGH, and THE STRIP, and contributed as an orchestrator or electronic sequencer to films such as THE JUNGLE BOOK, FREE WILLY II, and Disney’s live-action 101 DALMATIANS. He has also composed trailers for WHITE WOLVES II and provided additional music to UNFAITHFUL and CHALLENGE OF THE DRAGON. Lennertz mixes classical training with a contemporary upbringing. After studying composition, jazz arranging and theory in high school, Lennertz moved to California to study music at USC under film music luminaries Elmer Bernstein, Buddy Baker, Christopher Young and David Raksin. His latest score is for Clive Barker’s SAINT SINNER, which debuted on the Sci-Fi Cable channel last October 26th. Lennertz had the unusual opportunity in that score to supplant the usual electronic television scoring standard with an expansive and expressive orchestral score performed by a 72-piece orchestra, embellished by a 32-voice choir. Interviewed a month before the film debuted, Lennertz described in detail his approach to the score and his experiences on the film.
How did you get involved with SAINT SINNER?
That began with a wonderful call from the director, Josh Butler, who I worked with last year on a USA movie called BEER MONEY. I had met Josh through friends from USC, because I had gone to the USC music school, and he had gone there for film school. We did that first movie together, and we realized that we thought the same way about how music works with films, and so we clicked. I think he’s already got me on his next one!
At what point during the project did you get involved?
I actually was involved relatively early. Josh asked me to score it before he filmed the movie. He asked that I send a CD to Clive in order to make sure that Clive signed off on me, which he did.
How would you describe your initial approach to the film? You were familiar with Clive from previous films that he’s done?
Oh, I was aware of him, of course. I’d seen CANDYMAN and HELLRAISER and I had studied with Chris Young when I was at USC, so I knew all that music. I knew the theme from HELLRAISER and I knew that Clive loved big, sweeping, epic-scaled dark orchestral music, which is right up my alley.
When you think of Clive Barker, you think of a certain kind of horror, which is this very modernistic, very upfront, very visceral, high-energy style. What was your first impression when you came in and thought, “I’m doing a Clive Barker film?” “What do I need to do here?”
I think the first thing you need to do is accept the fact that you’re dealing with a hyper reality, and that was the one thing that Josh and I definitely clicked in on right away. We knew that a subdued wallpaper approach would not work; we needed to really play up the most important aspects of the film. One of the things I’ve always loved about the way Josh makes movies and the way Clive makes movies is that there’s this extreme sense of contrast. There are these tight, dark shots that are really small, and then there’s these huge, epic statements. In this film they travel through time and they go through this huge wheel that explodes into light, and that just begs for humongous horn sections, and that kind of stuff! So it was the idea of approaching it with the stark contrast of big and small, grandiose and minimal, that made it so appealing.
An essential concept of the story is duality – in the film, you have the Saint, you have the Sinner – you have the good, the evil. Are you following that along in your score as well?
Absolutely. The main character, Tomas, is a Sinner at the beginning of the movie, he’s a reckless, self-absorbed, young, naive monk, who then has to travel through time and chase down these demons to not only save the world but to save himself. The most appealing thing for me, when I read the script, was that this was not just a bloody gore fest. There’s a scene at the end of the movie where Josh just drops all the sound effects and it’s just a minute and a half of music as he floats dead through time after he’s become a martyr. At that point, we’re no longer in screech land, we’re now in a plaintive, hopeful string sound that has much more to do with redemption that it does with any sort of death or terror.
You had the opportunity to develop a score, rather than provide musical wallpaper. Your score goes through the same kind of journey that the character does.
Absolutely. To me, when you look at the kinds of films that both Josh and I love – and I think this is why we get along – I love Coppola’s style, I love THE GODFATHER, and I love movies where the characters have flaws. Throughout the course of this movie there’s an actual arc that lends itself, at least in my estimation, to a musical story, to some sort of an arc in the music. That makes it much more interesting to write.
How large of an orchestra did you use?
I had 72 instrumentalists and it was a 32-voice choir. So it was big. But it wasn’t always that many. We also did a day with just a string quartet, very much like a Kronos Quartet kind of sound that we recorded very close-miked to get a real abrasive sound. Some of the most vicious scenes of massacre and death in SAINT SINNER were not done with the full orchestra. We did this scene where the demons drop in on the car that Tomas is in and we scored that just with string quartet and it’s just great. You hear the strings and the bows just gnashing with each other. Some of the sweetest, most plaintive material was big orchestra and then some of the scariest was actually string quartet.
How long a time period did you have to write the score and record it?
It wasn’t that long. I had about a month, but, due to budgetary reasons, we recorded the score in Hungary, and because of that trip and the travel, I actually only got three weeks to write and then a week to record the mix while I was over there.
What led to the recording in Budapest?
USA Television made the film, and budgetarily, as far as the scope of what Clive and Josh wanted with the music, there was just no possible way to do it and stay in Los Angeles. And, let me say that if I could have, say that if I could have, I definitely would have. There are no better musicians in the world than in Los Angeles! I’m not just saying that ‘cause I have to, it’s true. Being a young composer who’s trying to forge a reputation for doing feature-style orchestral music, I just had to go with the development plan on this one, and go overseas.
How would you describe the score’s thematic development?
Josh loves themes and he wants all the main characters to have themes. We had a theme for Tomas that could be played by a solo instrument and sound very bittersweet or sad. But then if we played the same exact theme faster with horns or trumpets in the texture of an orchestra, it became extremely heroic, which served us well in the film. And then for the succubae, which is what they call the demons in this film, I used a little motif that could repeat upon itself and create textures, much in the way Bernard Herrmann used to create textures and motifs that built upon each other and modulated. It was nice because in the smaller, creepier sections we could go with pizzicato strings and things like that, but if we did it with trombones and tubas, it was just ugly as all get out!
How did the religious or monastic elements of the story affect your approach to the score?
I definitely used the tradition of what would be considered religious music. But one thing that was neat was that this was a time travel story, and Josh was very clear at the beginning that he didn’t want to get into anything that would be dated as far as using contemporary drum loops and things like that. He had this idea that the demons were from before recorded time; since the main character started out in the 1800s and then ends up in the modern day, he wanted to have a mixture of sounds. I had choir doing most of the religious stuff, and for a lot of those references I would use the Mass text, in Latin. That was associated with the main character, Tomas, but when we went for the demon characters, we actually translated everything into Sanskrit. Even in the same choral piece we would have the language change two or three times, and it would go from Sanskrit to Latin and back. The thing I loved to do harmonically in this film, and the thing I think will make it stand out a little bit from traditional religious-inspired music, was that I would do two bars where it would be almost like a medieval Gregorian motet sort of style, and immediately after that I would follow it with clashing minor 9ths and minor 2nds and things that were very much like Penderecki or what someone from the 20th Century would do.
Did you have to do any research on any of the musical forms?
I have a degree in composition and I’m a huge 20th Century music fan, so I didn’t necessarily have to research anything. But I was very happily able to utilize a musical language that I really hadn’t been allowed to use since I got out of college!
You don’t get a whole lot of call for that kind of music in a lot of scores these days!
The fact that I could write measure after measure, in the scary parts of a movie like this, of jus1 clashing harmonies and odd meters and things that were very, very dissonant to the ear was like somebody took the handcuffs off me and said “do anything you want!” My biggest pet peeve about a lot of the movies made today is that there is no contrast – everything’s loud and everything’s full blast all the time in both volume and in harmonic textures. But here, I could do something very simplistic and very melodic, almost innocent, and then two minutes later I could be just blasting and crashing away with horns just tearing into each other.
How do you think your score fits in to the tradition of horror music?
I’d like to think I utilized everything that was great about traditional horror music, not to be cliché, but because things that worked traditionally in the realm of horror very much worked in this film too. But there was a characterization and a story involved that I think was very non traditional. This was not nearly a FRIDAY THE 13th kind of thing. This was not a slasher movie. There were a lot more overtones that I could play with, and to have the contrast between melody and emotion and hope juxtaposed with the clashing, bombastic horror music was the most interesting for me. I was just lucky to get a chance to do it. Most horror movies don’t have that kind of breadth.
Did you have any input from Clive other than the original approval?
Yeah, absolutely. I got a lot of notes from Clive, through Josh, as far as what he was hoping for, and even beyond that. It’s a TV-movie and we were absolutely not supposed to have an orchestral score for this movie. But Clive made the call to the studio executives and basically begged for a higher budget than most TV-movies would ever be given, in order to achieve the kind of sound that he likes to have. This is his first foray into a TV-movie, and one of the reasons he hired me is because he loved my orchestral writing. So I owe the opportunity to work with such a big orchestra and choir all to him. Otherwise I think I’d probably be trying to augment synths on this thing.
How closely did you work with Josh?
Josh and I were very close. He heard every cue before we recorded. He wasn’t able to go overseas with us because of the visual effects and the other things he was finishing up, but he heard everything and approved it beforehand. Josh is even younger than I am, he’s in his late ‘20s, and although due to his age he is definitely working in the medium of television right now, he never approaches the projects as television, he approaches them like a movie he would love to see. So he basically untied my hands and said, “whatever you think in your wildest dreams that we can put on this movie, give it a try.” I wouldn’t say he approved every cue, but we were definitely on the same page.
What was your biggest challenge on this score?
First of all, there was a ton of music, 65 minutes worth, and I did all the choir translations myself. There was just a huge amount of music, and with the budget I had, I was cutting corners anywhere I could, but at the same time I refused to compromise on the way it was supposed to sound. I knew that it had to be big and I knew that it had to be lush, so I probably spent a lot of extra hours and extra sweat making sure that it might live up to the expectations that a bigger movie would have. Hopefully I accomplished that.
What do you have coming up next?
Right now I’m doing a movie called BACK BY MIDNIGHT, starring Randy Quaid. It’s an independent comedy, and I’ve taken a funky, sort of early Elmer Bernstein comedy kind of approach. The movie is about a jail break in Texas, and I’ve given it this wacky bluegrass score. The director I’ve worked with before on a movie called THE FOURTH TENOR, which is finally being released in November by Franchise Pictures, and that was pretty wacky as well.
Sounds like quite a contrast to SAINT SINNER!
Oh yes! In some ways I think it plays against me because I feel like I sort of can do everything. But going from SAINT SINNER to a wacky bluegrass comedy, it keeps my job interesting!
Hopefully it also keeps you from getting pigeon-holed, which can happen in Hollywood!
Oh, God, I hope so. No one seems to know what kind of movie I can write – depending on which movie they see they think I do one thing or the other, but I just love it all. There’s every bit as much of a relevance to crazy slide guitar as there is to a big Latin choir.