This Day in Horror

14 March 2011

INTERVIEW - Composer Corey A. Jackson


In my opinion, composers for film and television or even video games are severely underrated and never given the credit they deserve. I recently had the pleasure of having a little chat with I Spit on Your Grave composer Corey A. Jackson. Our hour long conversation at times came off more like a bullshit session but it was a lot of fun!!

TC: This will be a hard interview for me because I don’t know the first thing about composing music.
CJ: Neither do I but don’t tell anyone.

TC: How does it all work? Do you watch the film first and then put the music to it or does the director already have something in mind?
CJ: Normally I don’t even see the film until the edit is locked. Well locked edits don’t really exist anymore but supposedly locked. Then I’ll watch it and usually the director and probably the producer and composer will all usually sit around and it’ll probably already be temped with something. I remember It Waits, the first picture I did with Steven a large amount of the temp was from the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre score. So they kinda stick that in there to preview scenes and see if it’s working for them. The good thing is they know if it’s working for them bad thing for me because I have to try to come up with something and not rip it off. But that score actually sounded nothing like it so we got to kinda do what we wanted to on that one.

TC: I’m sure it’s the same if you’re writing or directing. There may be a shot that sticks in your head that you use and then it’s “oh, you ripped off so and so”.
CJ: Well you only have twenty four letters and there are only twelve notes on the piano so things are gonna get repeated. Now I have heard some blatant things but… you never know what’s going on behind the scenes of any production so I try not to even judge anymore. When I started out, I was real cocky and I was like “Ah, I could do that better.” But once you get into it you realize, maybe you can’t do better, you’re not in complete control of anything. You can only do the best you can with what you have and that’s all you can do. It’s like that with any job. I get questions now like “how do you become a film composer” and it’s like… you’re not gonna be out here doing this unless you have to because there are few things in life more difficult in terms of location. When you’ve got two thousand people going for the same job… and it’s the same with acting. I know so many great actors that are waiting tables. It’s just so competitive. You do it because you have to, there’s no other reason.

TC: How long does that process usually take, from the time you get it to the time you’re done with it?
CJ: It should take a month [laughs] but I think It Waits was two and half weeks. I Spit on Your Grave was three weeks so it’s not a whole lot of time.

TC: How long did it take you on Complacent because I just watched that and the score is really… it kinda lends new life to the whole film because it’s a really powerful score.
CJ: Well thank you. That’s probably the only score that Steven and I, and he would probably tell you, it’s the only one we’ve ever disagreed on and in the end he was right. Since I was a producer on the film I wasn’t thinking creatively for the whole shoot and then when we got to it he said “I need something temp to score with so just write me something real quick.” So I wrote… um… actually I was listening to a lot of U2 at the time and I said, I’m gonna do something like Joshua Tree, or influenced by Joshua Tree, because I just love that band. And so I wrote two queues just so he’d have something to put in there and he put them everywhere and he didn’t wanna change them. Then I was like “No dude, I didn’t really score it, that was just for you.” And he said “No, it works perfectly. Trust me.” Then I finally sat down and watched a cut and I was like “Okay, you’re right.” That was the problem with producing because I was coming from a completely different mindset than when you just compose and it completely threw me for a loop.

TC: Complacent was your first producer credit right?
CJ: Yeah.

TC: I talked to Steven about it a little bit. Wasn’t Complacent something he had on the back burner for a while?
CJ: Yeah, well you know it all came about so strangely. We were at a Christmas party at his house and we started talking and stuff and were kind of like “Ok, well maybe we can put this thing together.” It took a lot of favors and a lot of sweat and I can’t believe Complacent actually came out because it was so… well I was always confident in Steven but we just didn’t have a lot of preproduction time and the budget was so minimal and everyone just came in, I mean like Adrienne Barbeau, Cerina Vincent and Kerry Green and all those guys just came in and were just amazing. Amazing people to work with, it was really cool.

TC: All of those are pretty familiar faces to y’all.
CJ: Yeah, I was really nervous when I met Adrienne, you know, because I’m such a John Carpenter fan. The Fog and Escape From New York and all that, I met her and I didn’t even tell her who I was. She said “And you are who?” [laughs] She had this little grin on her face because she knew I was nervous. I was just being a dork.

TC: How many projects have y’all actually done together?
CJ: Hmm, let’s see… It Waits, Left in Darkness, Sasquatch Mountain, Dual, Complacent, Spit… I’m forgetting something. And Michael, I don’t know if you’ve seen Michael’s film, God’s Ears yet.

TC: I have not, (I have since watched it… FABULOUS!) but I want to so bad.
CJ: It’s really good.

TC: Michael sent me a link a while back to hulu.com where you can watch it and it had all the… you have to set up an account and all that and I just haven’t had a second to spare to do that. But I plan on doing that very soon.
CJ: Yeah, it’s a nice story. They did a really good job on it.

TC: Are you working on that ‘Love in a Texas Sky’ with him or is that just Michael Worth?
CJ: That’s one we’ve been trying to… that was gonna be our second production and now we’re talking about doing maybe, kind of a supernatural thriller instead. It’s just easier to market than dramas. We all love dramas but they’re not big sellers. It’s kinda one of those things that if we can get [stupid recording crapped out] Both of them are so great though, just great scripts. We wanna do Texas down in Austin.

TC: You’ve done a lot of work on video games too.
CJ: Yeah, I have.

TC: Is there a big difference between doing the score for a movie as opposed to a video game?
CJ: Yeah quite a bit in a sense that, whereas in a movie it’s kind of the storyline that dictates everything. Like if there’s a lot of dialogue you really try to… I usually, I hate even being in on dialogue unless it’s suppose to be something really impactful to the viewer then you kinda sneak something in. Video games are so stage and level driven that… like on The Punisher we got to really like just write it just balls to the wall. [stupid recording crapped out AGAIN] There’s a lot of action so you didn’t really have to pay attention to that type of thing. So, dramatically it’s really different but they’re both equally as much fun to do.

TC: I have to say before I started reviewing films, I never even paid attention to the music in a film because it was always more of a visual thing for me. Then you go and read other reviews and people are talking about the music and I started paying more attention. I told Steven the same thing, with Left in Darkness, I didn’t really care for the story itself but with the music that you did and the direction that he gave it with the lighting and all just brought it to a whole new level and saved it for me.
CJ: Oh cool.

TC: I’d love to go back and watch all of these now so I can pay more attention to the music. Sasquatch Mountain is one of my favorites that you guys did and for the life of me I can’t get the music in my head, if that makes sense.
CJ: You know, that’s actually a compliment because you don’t… as a composer I don’t want the music getting in the way of the story. Then I haven’t done my job. I’m supposed to support it or kind of give it an emotion. You know, Steven will say “make this more melancholy or something right here.” So you kinda don’t want people noticing it and that’s part of the difficulty of film scoring. It’s probably the most difficult thing to do is to get in and out without people noticing.

TC: You also do a lot of work with Bill Plympton as well right? How did you get in with him?
CJ: You know I got in with Bill and Steven the exact same way and it’s the way everyone says you can’t, I sent them a demo and they listened to it. I was very lucky in that respect because everyone told me you can’t just blindly send demos to people and I said “well I gotta do something.” And I still do it to this day. But the first thing I did with Bill was Hair High and he called me and said… well I was actually at home in Oklahoma with my brother who is a big fan of Bill’s… but he called and I said “Bill Plympton?” and my brother looked at me and said “Are you shitting me!?” [laughs]. He just needed a cut off my demo to license to fill in spot that he needed music for to finish the film, and I said “Great”. Then he called again and asked if he could use some more of this music for this and I said, “No. I will score it for you but no, you’re not licensing anymore.” I wasn’t quite that direct with Bill but that’s kind of the short version. Since then, I’ve worked on pretty much everything he’s done. The last two projects we did he was on the short list for the Oscar and it was so disappointing we didn’t get it.

TC: Is there a big difference between scoring for a regular movie as opposed to an animated movie?
CJ: There is a difference. I mean generally you kind of think about the same things. You can kind of flex your composer muscle a little bit more because you can, I know that sounds stupid, but you can kind of write maybe some more difficult stuff because with animation you can hit a lot more things. Watch the old Warner Bros. cartoons. Watch it and then rewind it and listen to the music. That music is insanely difficult to play. Since there’s so many hits to make it work it’s a little more difficult. And with Bill it was more of a mixture of modern scoring and old scoring so we kinda did a little bit of both. So it is a little different. You kind of take a different approach but dramatically you still watch out for the same things. If that makes any sense at all.

TC: When you compose music, please forgive me if I sound stupid, is all computerized or do you have an orchestra that you work with?
CJ: God, I wish I had an orchestra. [laughs] You do everything on the computer beforehand. You write it and you mock it up, if there’s no budget for an orchestra, you’re mocking up something that is probably gonna sound like one. If you’re doing an orchestra, it’s a general representation of what it’s gonna sound like once it’s recorded. If it’s gonna stay on the computer, sometimes you have to write it differently because if you write how you would for a real orchestra in a computer, it sounds really bad. The technology is getting better but it’s never gonna be as good as the real thing. On the bigger budgets where I’m helping people out, yeah you usually get the orchestra. The last orchestra thing I helped out with was Vampires Suck and Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.

TC: Have you been keeping up with any of the negative press on ‘I Spit’?
CJ: I do a little bit because I’m really curious to see the pros and then the cons. You’ve got the die hards that say it never should’ve been remade because the original was so great. I personally didn’t think the original was great, I thought it was novel. It was different, it was so 70’s. Some of the best films every made are from the 70’s. I find the dialogue interesting. If someone can champion it with all of their heart or if someone can just say… Oh my God, somebody wrote a review and said that Sarah was too boyish. Can you believe that crap? So, somehow he’s condoning pedophilia now? It’s really interesting how people react and I knew, even when we made Complacent, that it was gonna be a love it or hate it film and Steven’s stuff seems to be that way. He seems to strike a cord with people but with the history of this film I knew it was gonna be a love it or hate it but also as a remake, I think he nailed it. It’s so good.

TC: Horror is good if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a movie. I’ve read reviews where they attack Steven’s character because of it and it just angers me.
CJ: Yeah, you know Steven didn’t write it for one thing and then you hear, “Steven Monroe’s script”, and it’s like man, you don’t know how movies are made. The director does get all the kudos so he also takes a lot of shit. He looks at it like that’s his baby and he’ll take it but a lot of people give directors shit that don’t have anything to do with the decision making.

TC: I know as far as ‘I Spit’, the decision to make it was already made before Steven was even brought in so it wasn’t even his idea to remake it.
CJ: You know he didn’t tell me for the longest time that he was doing it then he told me he got it and I was like, “are you kidding me?” He fought like hell to get me and Neil Lisk in on that. You know we lost Neil a couple of months ago? He was such a sweetheart. It was very sad. He was such a hard working guy. He had such a good eye. He and Steven were really great friends and they could trust each other and they had the dialogue and you know…

TC: That’s another thing I love about you guys. Y’all have done so much work together and I think that to do good work, you have to have people around you that you trust.
CJ: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been really lucky that Steven took me on and kept me on and has fought for me when he could. He introduced me to Michael because he and Michael were friends before. I think I’ve done two films with Michael, War Wolves and God’s Ears and he wrote Dual. But it is so hard to make it to the next level out here and Steven is on the cusp right now with I Spit where he’s got nice offers coming in and stuff but as soon as he gets to that next level he’s got all these people on top of him saying, “you need to use these people and these people and these people”. And that really happens to a lot of people that helped someone… and that’s not any fault of the people… if someone told Steven, “I’m making a 15 million dollar movie and you’re my director but I’m picking your crew,” what do you say to that? You either don’t work or you work and if he said he was doing this film but they want a different composer, I’d say take the damn film. You’ve got a family to take care of, do it. There’s not question about it, I’d support him 100%. Would I love to do the film? Heck yeah but it’s not always reality.

TC: And that says a lot about your character as well because not everyone would say that.
CJ: There’s a backstory to that… I am a five year cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with stage 4 Non Hodgkin Lymphoma about five years ago. I’m perfectly fine now and I don’t keep it secret but I don’t advertise it as well. Sometimes it hurts your career. Some people don’t wanna work with that and it’s usually someone who’s lost somebody with it and that’s a lot of people. But I remember when I was first diagnosed I did Left in Darkness, I think I was diagnosed two weeks before I started scoring it. Steven said, “I want you to do this.” I said “Okay, I’ll do it.” My wife didn’t understand how I could watch that with all that I was going through but it was keeping me busy. Following that, a few months later we did Dual and it was a little further into the treatment and the further you go into treatment the more debilitating it becomes. It’s just more exhausting. Steven said, “Look, we need a score for this to try to get it into Sundance. If you can’t do it we’ll throw someone else in there and we’ll wait for you. “ That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about. Ever since he said that to me I’m like… I knew we could get along, we understood each other’s dialogue, when he’d point at the screen and say “I need this”. We had that kind of rapport almost instantly… but when he said that thing I knew I was dealing with someone pretty damn special. First of all, he could’ve just found somebody else, instantly, and who would’ve blamed him? That was the reason I talked to him when we started doing the Complacent project. If I was gonna do it, I wanted it to be me and him. I didn’t wanna do it with just anybody. He would probably brush off all that and blah, blah, blah but that’s the kind of person we’re dealing with. He and his wife are pretty special people.

TC: I’m gonna forgo my horror roots for one review and put out something on Complacent.
CJ: Oh cool, you know that’s been one that people have either loved it or hated it. It’s not a happy story, there’s some hope at the end but it’s not a happy story. It’s like a 40-something story. You know we were thinking of people our age and stuff that they go through. To watch Steven work with those guys, I would be off… like the dinner scenes… I’d be just around the corner watching. It was really organic and it was just really cool to be there.

TC: Is that the first time you were on set while a film was being shot?
CJ: I was on set for Left in Darkness for a little bit.

TC: That was one of the Stephen J. Cannell films you guys worked on?
CJ: Yeah, that was the last one we did with him. He was really nice. I went up to him and told him I was a big fan and that I grew up with his stuff and he was cordial. The thing I remember about him most was that if there was candy in the room… and he was just the fittest guy, he worked out all the time, just svelt… and I remember we were at the dub for Left in Darkness and he would just horde all the jelly beans or whatever candy was out. It was just one of those things that if he was talking to you, he had a handful of candy.

TC: You've done quite a bit of work in the horror genre. Is that a genre you've been into for a while?
CJ: I’ve been a horror fan since I was probably five or six, I can’t remember. Whatever year Prophecy came out. The kind of nature gone wild movie. They were on an Indian reservation and some company was dumping stuff in the water supply and it started basically deforming some of the people. Then some creature developed out of it. I remember I went to see that when I was really young and I couldn’t sleep for three days after that. I have no idea how it stands up today but ever since then I’ve always liked horror.

I want to extend every thanks to Corey for taking the time to call in and for putting up with my ramblings (not seen here). When I hung up the phone, I had a whole new respect for music in film and the effort that goes into something that is purposely tucked away in the background. One thing is certain, if life really had background music, I'd want Corey A. Jackson to compose mine.

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