By Randall D. Larson © 2011
MONSTERS, former special effectsman Gareth Edwards’ exploration of a North America after the arrival and containment of an alien invasion, seemed to be equal parts DISTRICT 9, CLOVERFIELD, and lots of thespian improvisation. The film was a journey that favored character interaction over plot development, arguably to its detriment. But Edwards’ special effects and his squidlike alien beasts were compelling, and all of it was served very well by an ambient, electronic-based musical score by British composer Jon Hopkins that emphasized the film’s growing mood of unease.
From the start, Hopkins’ music lays down a progressive ambiance that added to the film’s initial sense of creepiness as strangers Andrew and Samantha are brought together to escape a Mexico quarantined to contain the remnants of the alien invasion. Nightmarishly shrieking tonal howls that accompanied the creature attacks, while reverberated revving motors of synth chords imitate the growls of the monster as the characters are attacked by a creature in a dark lagoon.
Hopkins’ first solo film score gave MONSTERS much of its emotional gravitas. Like the best movie music, though, this score focuses not so much on spectacle as on character. The score conveys an eloquent melancholy to the character interactions as Andrew and Samantha grow to an understanding of one another through their journey. Their emotional predicament is subtly emphasized by soft piano motif that recurs during respites between their journey through the Infected Zone.
Born and raised in London, Hopkins took to the piano at the age of five and began studying piano at London’s royal College of Music when he was twelve. Hopkins’ background was as a solo electronic music composer/performer who had released three albums of electronics and dance music since 2001. He has also worked with recording artists such as Imogen Heap, Brian Eno, David Holmes, Four Tet and Coldplay while producing remixes for Wild Beasts, Nosaj Thing, James Yorkston, and most recently David Lynch.
He got involved in films when he co-wrote the score for Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES with electronic/ambient music pioneer Brian Eno. It was on the strength of that work that Gareth Edwards asked him to score MONSTERS. “Gareth liked the style I naturally write in, which made things simpler,” Hopkins said. “He was keen for me to write exactly what I felt should be there. This is the way I prefer to write so I was lucky with this project.”
By the time Hopkins came in to compose his score, the film was structurally complete, but lacking in most of the effects shots, which were still underway. “This wasn’t a problem as with this particular film, apart from the end scene, you don’t need to actually see the creatures to score the action,” Hopkins said. “Gareth’s unusual approach to film making didn’t affect my writing as it was essentially all done before I started.”
Hopkins describes himself as reactive composer who came up with musical moods suggested by what he saw while watching the film in post-production. Lack of finished CGI effects also allowed him to concentrate on enhancing Andrew and Samantha’s journey and the character growth that develops between them as the story played out. “I wrote it mostly by playing back the film whilst improvising on the piano or keyboard, then working detail into the results,” he said. “I tend not to think about things like that consciously – I just write on instinct, and keep working on something until it feels right. The one thing I was keen to do all along though was invest a lot of heart into the music, to try and add to the beauty of the photography and to the melancholy of the story.” Hopkins was able to musically enhance the film’s moments of visual splendor, such as the rising waves of tone patterns heard when Andrew and Samantha emerge from the forest into the vast relic of a Mayan temple or the wonder they share as they observe two of the squidlike aliens communicating passionately above their refuge.
Hopkins did not intend to compose recurring specific themes and motifs for the film but rather sought to give the score a developing tonal sensibility that would add to its creepiness and enhance its character interactions. “I knew I had a few strong melodies that I wanted to recur throughout, and when approaching a new cue, I would try and see which ones I could work into that particular moment. Ambience and atmosphere just seemed to kind of grow around the melodies.”
The music was performed and recorded in Hopkins’ studio using a variety of electronic systems, but he avoided the use of sampled orchestral instruments which are so popular in film scores, seeking a truer mix of electronics flavored with a few acoustic sounds. “I don’t use any samples,” he said. “I recorded the whole thing into a very old version of Cubase VST [a music software product] which I loved (at the time), using a lot of layered string parts, upright piano, and Korg Trinity, and then treated the results in SoundForge. I mixed it in Cubase VST. This turned out to be the last project I did on that system – it couldn’t really handle video playback at the same time as audio, which at four in the morning when you’ve been working for 18 hours can be pretty frustrating. I have since moved onto a different system.”
After completing his improvisations, Hopkins had his friend, arranger Davide Rossi, come in and record string parts on top of his electronics, giving the music an added musical dimension.
Hopkins’s didn’t approach the film as a science fiction or horror film, but rather considered it more as “a road movie with incidental sci-fi moments,” he said. “For me a huge element was the beauty of the cinematography – the music just grew out of staring at these incredible images. The music (as I hear it) is more there to emphasize the emotional experiences of the humans than to represent the monsters.”
As his first solo feature film score, Hopkins felt his biggest challenge was in adapting his working style to the frantic deadline of a movie score. “Technical difficulties aside, just the length of time I gave myself to do it was a challenge,” he said. “I wrote and recorded the whole thing in three and half weeks. I have never worked such long days, but the adrenalin got me through, and I’m happy with the results.”
With MONSTERS unleashed, Hopkins is focusing on his new solo music, and recently released a remix album of a single by director/composer David Lynch. “I haven’t really thought about future film work,” Hopkins said. “If another film offer comes up and it’s the right project, I’d consider it. I’d love to work with Gareth again, and hopefully this is something that will happen.”
For more information on Jon Hopkins, see his web site at: http://www.jonhopkins.co.uk/
Hopkins’ soundtrack music to MONSTERS was released by Domino Records as a digital download on iTunes and other digital music shops.