The Music of AN ENGLISH HAUNTING: Interview with composer Graham Plowman
Back in January 2018 whilst shooting my film Winterskin I came across a composer online who's beautifully haunting H.P. Lovecraft-inspired music immediately caught my attention. Graham Plowman's music sounded to me like it'd been lifted from a classic horror movie, capturing the eerie essence of Lovecraft's cosmic horror...
I knew I had to work with the guy!
By the end of the year, my film An English Haunting was in production, and I knew exactly who could create the film's sweeping orchestral haunted-house score. I was incredibly lucky to have Graham's music to accompany and elevate the film, his work exceeded all my expectations, and in this interview, we got to discuss how it was all created.
Charlie Steeds: Graham, let's begin with how you got into writing music?
Graham Plowman: I got into it early on when I was studying the works of classical composers back in school as a kid. I didn't really expand on this until technology got to a point where it was accessible, and possible to create a more realistic sounding orchestral sound from a home studio without recording live players.
CS: Much like yourself, I'm a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan and his fiction is a great influence on your work, right?
GP: I mainly write creepy orchestral music inspired by the works of early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and other writers that have contributed to what is collectively known as the 'Cthulhu Mythos'.
CS: Your tracks are a perfect accompaniment to each of the Lovecraft stories, and what struck me was your attention to detail; you really know these stories and know how to present certain elements and themes in your music. Its quite wonderful, that's part of why I thought you'd be a great choice for the score of An English Haunting. Where does your love of Lovecraft come from?
GP: My introduction to Lovecraft's stories actually started with my role-playing game hobby. I started playing 'The Call of Cthulhu' pen and paper role-playing game from Chaosium and loved it. It immediately made me want to read the stories it drew its world from and I never looked back.
CS: What is it about his stories that continue to inspire your music?
GP: I especially love the pre-history aspect of the stories, how they are woven in with real Earth history to create a kind of alternate timeline of our world. Writing music inspired by these stories wasn't my original or immediate goal. I wanted to write music, learn orchestration, and I also wanted to find a muse, something to inspire me, and this became it. I tried it out, and slowly my 'style' developed with each piece I wrote into what I write today.
CS: Do you have any favourite Lovecraft film adaptations?
GP: I certainly do. Despite some cheesiness thrown in, I really love Stuart Gordon's films, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon. The first two are early favourites and simply bolstered my interest in Lovecraft's stories at the time, and showed how they can be adapted in a fun way, but still maintain that other worldly cosmic horror feel.
CS: From Beyond is one of my absolute favourites too! Obviously its very 80s and a little cheesy, I think Lovecraft films deserve a much darker tone, but Stuart Gordon nails the weird science aspects and the gooey indescribable monsters. As a child, the trailer used to really terrify me.
GP: The latest Color Out of Space film was also very well made and adapted.
CS: I thought the cosmic horror elements were great, but the characters let the film down for
me. The score was pretty incredible too, and it was very electronic, working with strange electronic noises to create its outer-space cosmic vibes. In comparison, your music has a very cinematic orchestral sound, what draws you toward this style? Both seem a perfect fit for Lovecraft yet are quite different.
GP: I agree. I loved the what the score did to elevate that feeling of unease and dread, adding to the utterly alien events happening to the characters. Sound design and use of electronic music is something I've started adding more and more to my writing and many latest pieces have undercurrents of synths and drones, and this is something I'll be doing more of soon.
CS: That's exciting to hear! What were your inspirations then when it came to creating the score for An English Haunting?
GP: You had an idea of the type of sound you wanted for the film which was to draw some inspiration from some classic scores such as 1980's The Changeling. Naturally there's a more modern scoring style in places and some electronic elements, but a large portion of it is acoustic, and the electronic elements are probably not easy to spot. Of course, everything you hear is virtual, no live players, as I specialise in bringing an acoustic sound using only the computer as live players aren't feasible with the budget.
CS: How do you go about creating the score, what's the process?
GP: The process is to map out character themes and ideas, and sometimes these are just a 'sound' if not always a melody, and incorporate these into the score as events unfold with those characters. Thematic material can be molded depending on the dramatic events unfolding on screen, sad, happy, tense, terrifying, and manipulating the original ideas into these emotions on screen is probably the toughest part of the job. Followed a close second by the technical aspects of making it sound as 'live' as possible.
CS: Were any tracks particularly difficult?
GP: Where to start! The challenge as mentioned is a score that is supposed to sound acoustic, or live, and yet is fully virtual. This means certain ideas had to be molded to suit the tools and not expose the soundtrack as sounding like a synth is playing, and certain ideas in tracks needed constant revision to keep this in check. When I listen back I find myself happy with how certain ideas worked musically, even away from the film. The 'investigation' motif that is used as events unfold was tricky to pin down, but I was very happy with how it came out and is used during moments of realisation or discovery by the characters. You can hear this motif start to develop in the latter half of the score, and in track 12 'Occult Studies', and again in track 15 'Discoveries' which is a long track where many of the film motifs come together, and then again the latter half of this track is the final culmination of this investigation theme.
CS: You did an incredible job! Which track are you most proud of?
GP: Its one I actually wrote to the script before I had a final edit to view, and it's the entire finale of the film. After the edit, the track ended up being 10 minutes long. Of course many of the timing and changes had to be written to the film afterwards, but nearly all the main theme seeds and ideas had been written shorthand, imagining the scenes from the film as I read the script, and I was thrilled to be able to place this over the final edit and have a very solid starting point to finish what is easily the most intense 10 minute track I've written to date. I hope the track has helped drive the finale of the film as everything becomes more tense and dangerous for the characters, and the music needed to reflect the changing situations moment to moment. This was a real challenge, but a welcome one, and I think it turned out better than I had hoped.
CS: Well constantly in reviews and at screenings, people are praising your music for this film as a highlight! Are you pleased with the final result?
GP: That's nice to hear, as I find the music is often not discussed in reviews overall, and is usually a very composer only experience, whereby composers are watching films, and discussing the soundtrack, but it wouldn't be too often mentioned by standard film critics or the general public. As I listen back I'm very pleased with the result as the film allowed me to explore a way of writing music that I wasn't spending too much time on before then, that is long cues with numerous sync points, and attempting to tell a consistent narrative in horror/mystery over the course of an hour of music.
CS: What's next for you?
GP: When I can find the time I keep on building my repertoire of Lovecraft inspired music, and so right now I'm writing and releasing piece by piece, a soundtrack to a mock-film 'At the Mountains Of Madness'. This is me saying that if I was given a script for this film, what would my soundtrack be.
CS: Which I've been listening to and its magnificent! Would that be your dream movie to score?
GP: Pretty much! However, if I was given a magic wand, my top choice might actually be to score The Lord of the Rings series that Amazon is creating, because a) I love The Lord of the Rings and b) my favourite score of all time is Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings.
CS: That whole score is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever created!
GP: I think some people may even notice the influence of that score on my Lovecraft tracks 'The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath', which now that I think of it, if that was ever made into a film I'd love to do that one as well.
Graham's full soundtrack to AN ENGLISH HAUNTING is now available to download here:
It is already available to stream on VOD here (Amazon Prime/Itunes)