This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.
You've definitely heard Marco Beltrami's musical scores in such horror movies as A Quiet Place, World War Z, and all four Scream films — but you won't find the composer catching a horror flick anytime soon.
"I just never enjoyed the sensation of jumping and stuff in the theater," Beltrami tells SYFY WIRE. "My first experience seeing a horror movie was with Wes Craven when he asked me to come look at Scream. Up until that point and still now, I don't like horror movies."
But Beltrami, 51, loves scoring them, as evidenced by his extensive body of work, which also includes superhero flicks The Wolverine (2013), Logan (2017), and Fantastic Four (2015) as well as dramas like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and The Hurt Locker (2008), both of which earned him Academy Award nominations.
No matter the genre, Beltrami says he enjoys the entire creative process of scoring a film.
"I like the investigative process of having a very general idea and tracking down what that means in terms of a musical identity. Almost like how a tree blossoms from an acorn — it's figuring out how you can produce the film through a very simple idea and have everything branch out from that," he says. "I find it very intriguing."
For 2013's World War Z, for example, Beltrami says he was inspired by the sound of the emergency broadcast beacon that sounds at the beginning of the film. He used the tonality of the beacon's two pitches as the harmonic basis for the score. And, when he learned that the zombies in the movie communicate through biting, he decided to use the teeth of a javelina — a mammal similar to a wild boar that signals aggression by chattering its teeth — as a percussive sound in the score.
Beltrami, who lives and works in the Los Angeles area, is known for this use of interesting sound production techniques. For 2014's The Homesman, which centers on a group of female settlers who were driven mad by the never-ending wind, among other things, he wanted to harness the wind and make it a musical element. Thus, on the 20-acre Malibu property where his Pianella Studios is located, he constructed a "giant alien harp" by extending the strings from a piano 175 feet up a hill.
"It's about finding things that are unique to each film," he says.
This year's A Quiet Place was certainly a unique project for Beltrami considering that the central premise of the story is that the characters must limit sound as much as possible.
"It was interesting because every little sound in the score became more crucial than in other movies," he says. "There's an awareness in the audience of everything."
When he first met with actor and director John Krasinski to discuss the film, Krasinski wanted to make one point clear from the outset.
"He said this was more than a horror, sci-fi movie — it was a family movie," Beltrami says. "It was a movie about what lengths would a father go to protect his family. The most important thing to him when we started was coming up with a theme for the family."
Indeed, a central part of a composer's work is focusing on the characters in a movie or TV show and building themes around them. For example, although Beltrami had scored 2013's The Wolverine, he knew that its 2017 sequel, Logan — in which Wolverine dies — would have a different feel.
"Thematically, it's much darker than many other superhero movies, especially the ones that I've done," he says. "Also, parts of it were more meditative."
While working on the Scream series, Beltrami drew particular inspiration from the protagonist Sidney Prescott.
"The thing that I latched onto was her strength and plight," he says. "So the puzzle was cracking her and coming up with a theme for her. And that became the main element that I developed in the Scream movies. So it was more of an emotional, dramatic standpoint. By giving empathy to the characters, it increases the involvement of the audience, and that gives the potential to make it more scary."
Craven, whom Beltrami considers a mentor, "taught me the psychological role that music plays in manipulating an audience," he posted on Facebook in 2015 after the director's death.
"He really showed me how you let the picture lead and how you integrate silence into the score to magnify the tension the audience is feeling," he says.
Beltrami cites composers Bernard Herman, Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota as his biggest influences and says that he'd love to do a film with Quentin Tarantino one day — even though the director doesn't often use a composer.
"I think I could do something amazing for Tarantino," he says. "His films, even though they're all masterpieces, would be enhanced by having an emotional continuity, a narrative continuity through the music."
Beltrami recently wrapped work on Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary that centers on Alex Honnold, the first person to free-climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-high wall in Yosemite. He says it should premiere in August or September.
Currently, he's working on Underwater with Will Eubank.
"He's a really talented director and maybe the youngest director I've worked with," Beltrami says. "He's amazing."
According to IMDb, the film will star Kristen Stewart and T.J. Miller and should debut this year.