Don Davis on House on Haunted Hil

An Interview with Don Davis by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.18/No.72/1999/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven

Don DavisIf there’s one constant about the motion picture industry, is that trends will beget trends. One of this Winter’s movie season trends is the return of the haunted house, with lavish, big-budget remakes of one of the most respected haunted house films of yesteryear, Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING, and of one of the most beloved yet gimmick-filled haunted house films, William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. The latter project, directed by William Malone, featured a lavish orchestral and choral score by Don Davis, who recently spoke with associate editor Ford Thaxton about the project.

What initially attracted you to this project?
I have always been attracted to the haunted house genre; it’s something we haven’t seen in some time in films. It’s very gratifying that there were not one, but two haunted house films, starting with THE HAUNTING, of course, scored by my esteemed colleague Jerry Goldsmith!

Did you see Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING before you scored this?
I did not. I was locked in my studio! They don’t let me out…

When did you start on the project?
We spotted it the end of June. Then they did a great deal of re-cutting at the beginning of August, which continued through the end of the dub, actually. So it was a little bit discombobulated because the cuts were always changing.

The vocabulary of the film is, obviously, big, large orchestral, choir, large organ. When you came into the project, did they have an idea of this approach or was this something that you chose? How did that whole process work?
They had some ideas going. The director in particular, Bill Malone, was enamored with the big pipe organ sound, not just because of the genre but because he found the sound itself chilling. It was also his idea to have a choir sound associated with the beast within the house.

What is the choir actually chanting, within the context of the score?
When the choir is singing text, it’s in the Latin Requiem, usually Dies Irae, but also a few other things. When the choir refers to the beast, they’re just doing “oo’s” and “aa’s.”

To my way of thinking, your music for HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was kind of a predecessor to this score. It had a lot of ideas that certainly you would elaborate on and develop more fully in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL…
Yeah, I’d agree with that. For one thing, they both have choir and the text is the Latin Requiem. Being a lapsed catholic, I find anything Latin makes my skin crawl!

The association, then, has come to be very beneficial, I see!
I’d say so, yes!

Why did they record the score in Seattle as opposed to here in Los Angeles?
Money! It was not a big budget production and in post-production they were watching their pennies wherever they could, so it was clear going in that we couldn’t record it here, much to my chagrin. There were actually talking about taking it to Prague, which I felt was impractical, logistically. To schlep everybody out to Prague would take up so much time that I knew they wouldn’t have at that point, but it seemed, when you consider all the transportation costs, it’s about the same as going to Seattle. My feeling is, that if you can’t do something union, you might at least keep the money in the country.

What was your experience with the Seattle musicians?
They’re excellent. They’re a very strong group. That Symphony, as an orchestra, has been growing by leaps and bounds, in terms of their prodigiousness, certainly since Gerard Schwarz got there. They are twice the orchestra that they used to be, 20-25 years ago. And I think they are among the best orchestras in the country.

Is this the first time you have recorded in Seattle yourself?
No. I did a TV movie-of-the-week there.

How much music did you ultimately end of writing for the film?
About 75 minutes.

You produced the soundtrack CD yourself. Would you say that it’s a good cross section of what’s in the film?
Yeah. There aren’t a whole lot of cues that were left out. I don’t think there is anything that was left out that has significant thematic impact.

The pipe organ piece, which opens the show, did you record that at the session or was that an overdub of an organ recorded elsewhere?
Interesting that you would say that – it’s actually a Roland sample! We recorded it at my home studio, which is also where we mastered the album. The director really did want to record a church pipe organ, but I was caught between his desires and what I knew the production could handle, financially. So I had to steer away from that one, also to my chagrin, because I think it would have been exciting, even though samples get the idea across pretty well.

I would imagine that this was a film that, despite the fact that I’m sure there were many deadlines you had to meet, was a lot of fun, because it did give you a lot more room to move than, say, a typical drama, This is the kind of film you can go crazy with…
It was kind of a crazy film. A linear structured drama would require a score that did a certain specific thing, which is essentially just propelling; whereas something that is all over the place like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL requires an all-over-the-place kind of score.

Was it your idea to use Marilyn Manson doing ‘Sweet Dreams’?
No.

You don’t want to take responsibility for that!
That was already in the film as temp when I first saw it, but I didn’t think they were going to get that song, because it’s very expensive. At the last minute they found the money for it. But I had covered that sequence with some other music.

So what is next up for you? Everyone is assuming you’ll be doing the sequel to THE MATRIX.
I’m assuming that too, and I hope there are no surprises for me in the future!

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