What would a score sound like if it were a collaboration between late-70’s John Williams, late-80’s Danny Elfman, and late-90’s Björk? This question ran through my mind as I composed a moody, thematic score for “I Still See You,” a new supernatural thriller starring Bella Thorne that is available now on VOD and in a limited theatrical run. While my work inevitably falls very short of the greatness of my heroes, I like to think that soundtrack fans can pick up on my influences.
I was intrigued by the film’s premise. A decade after a devastating event, the world is haunted by ghosts living out endless loops of their former lives. These spirit remnants (“rems”) have no effect on the material world, can not communicate with the living, and are eventually accepted as a common part of everyday life. This strange reality is shattered for a high school girl named Ronnie when a new rem appears and seems to communicate a dire warning to her. She embarks on a journey to learn the truth about the event, her family, and the world around her. I knew this clever story could support dynamic, emotional, genre-bending music.
Director Scott Speer and I knew each other through several mutual acquaintances from our overlapping tenures at USC. I started our working relationship already a fan after I was blown away with even the opening minutes of his feature debut Step Up Revolution (the follow-up to the franchise entry I scored!). Scott sent me the script several years ago, when it was still called “Break My Heart 1,000 Times,” after the Daniel Waters novel upon which it is based.
While Scott was on location in the biting winter cold of Winnipeg, I sketched out and sent to him tonal experiments that could be the launch point for creative discussions. These ideas were based on vocal audio samples that had been slowed down by a magnitude of a thousand times or more, generating huge haunting textures. I wanted to create musical “rems,” as if instruments and singers had been frozen in a supernatural audio purgatory. The influence of this early experimental phase is still evident, especially in tracks like “Watch Her Die” on the soundtrack album.
As the film entered post-production, Scott and I refined our musical approach. We knew that modern electronic colors would certainly fit the film’s contemporary aesthetic, however we wanted to also infuse the film with classic thematic development, presented in an orchestral context. I began by writing primary themes that could help guide the audience through Ronnie’s journey.
The most important theme in the score is Ronnie’s Theme, or The Main Theme:
This melody is supported in a wide variety of arrangements and colors, depending on the narrative needs of the scene. I found this simple melody to be very malleable, and so I used it to represent multiple ideas. Functioning as a theme for the film’s fictional universe, the theme first represents Ronnie’s relationship to the rems, serving as a vehicle to immerse the audience in the strange world the movie presents. This supernatural variant of her theme was most often stated by an angelic female choir.
A female choir is one of the most spell-binding colors a composer can bring to a film, and my goal was to use the sound to announce in the first ten seconds the type of movie you’re about to watch. I open the film boldly and simply, with female choir stating the Main Theme over opening logos, immediately locking the film into a supernatural, fantasy, fairytale horror genre. There’s no turning back once this magical sound is heard!
The choir at the film’s beginning is featured with no backing orchestra or electronics. In fact, during my first music playback session with Scott and executive producer / writer Jason Fuchs, I momentarily got nervous I was opening the film too strongly, and considered warning them they were about to get hit in the face with a strong musical identity. However, drawing from my experience, I remembered that the more explanation a piece of music requires, the more wrong it must be for the film. So, trusting my instincts, I offered no disclaimers, turned down the lights in my studio, and let the film play. Their response was overwhelmingly positive, and I knew from there I had free reign to push this score as far creatively as I felt it could go.
In addition to supporting the grandiose supernatural elements in the story, this simple theme also represents the film’s most central, intimate relationship, that between Ronnie and her deceased father, who appears as a rem. For the most pure and intimate variations of Ronnie’s Theme, I used a solo oboe to state her theme. (Trust me, it isn’t often that filmmakers say they want more solo oboe in a modern film score!) The oboe is frequently supported by lush, orchestral strings and gentle piano. Musically, I ignored the supernatural elements in this relationship, and played the emotion as genuinely as possible, featuring familiar orchestral colors. I wanted the audience to view Ronnie’s dad as she did, not as a rem, but as a cherished memory.
Any strong protagonist theme needs an equally effective antagonist theme to play against. For the bulk of the story, Ronnie feels pursued by an unidentified assailant, a supernatural presence that seems to be simultaneously chasing and leading her. The identity of this assailant is one of the film’s central mysteries. The challenge here was that the music needed to play the presence of a character we almost never see or identify. My approach was to create a theme that was ridiculously short and simple, and yet surprisingly effective in identifying danger.
This Antagonist Theme is almost nothing more than a percussion sound. It was achieved by recording an upright bass, with the bow digging violently into the strings to create a signature growling effect. That gesture was then digitally manipulated and repeated, resulting in a pair of notes that always represented danger.
My goal was to create a Pavlovian reaction for the audience, conditioning the viewer to feel unease every time the sound occurs. The first time we hear it is at the moment a rem communicates with Ronnie. By introducing these two low snarling bass hits, the score unapologetically states that this is bad news for Ronnie. This theme recurs at Ronnie’s every revelation, becoming the ominous musical footsteps of an unseen beast approaching in the shadows. (For a great example, check out “RUN” on the soundtrack album.)
The Antagonist Theme is as blunt, monolithic, and simple as the Main Theme is elegant, and malleable. However, both were equally effective, and necessary to highlight Ronnie’s dramatic arc and the supernatural setting of the film’s world. The vast majority of the score to I Still See You is built from only these two themes. However, a handful of sequences needed something distinct, a special theme to set them apart. Often, these sequences were depicting moments of strange beauty in the supernatural world, such as early in the film, when Ronnie discovers an underground tunnel filled with the glittering rems of a school of fish. Another such sequence is a powerful revelation at the center of the film, where Ronnie witnesses a rem’s ghastly murder as a slow-motion virtual ballet. For these moments, I brought in vocalist Aeone to record solo vocal layers, all in various permutations of a third theme, I call the Ghost Theme (for lack of a better term).
To find the voice for this Ghost Theme, I listened to about a dozen singers in anticipation of this project. I was immediately struck by Aeone’s airy, evocative texture. Beyond that, I found her enthusiasm for the material infectious. She immediately understood my desire to counterpoint sequences of violence with layers of beauty. After we tackled the film’s big mid-point set piece, I brought her back for the climactic finale. (To hear her gorgeous performances, check out “Ghost Fish,” “Watch Her Die,” and “Dance Beneath the Ice” on the soundtrack album.)
I put in a great deal of effort to ensure that I Still See You had, on its musical surface, a solidly old-school orchestral and choral score. The orchestral writing is in that bold, classic Hollywood style, packed with urgent string ostinatos, bombastic horn fanfares, stopped brass snarls, harp glisses, and woodwind flourishes. I drew influence from late-70’s Williams and late-80’s Elfman, evoking the urgency of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the oddity of “Beetlejuice.” Of course, one could argue they were both getting those techniques from Bernard Herrmann, who in turn got them from Stravinsky and Prokofiev, so perhaps the trail of musical influence just keeps going backward in time! Regardless, these orchestral colors leant the film a sense of timelessness, tying it to a grand Hollywood tradition.
The score’s electronics, on the other hand, pulled the score in the opposite direction, dragging it kicking and screaming into 2018. I wanted the music’s production to be a defining characteristic. I have always produced what are called ‘hybrid scores’ in the industry. The term basically means a combination of electronic layers with orchestral layers. However, the way that term is applied can vary wildly. God of War and Battlestar Galactica are technically hybrid scores, even though the vast majority of the sounds are acoustic, and the electronics are just there to lend a modern muscularity to the production. Inspired by the film’s high school protagonists, I set out to make I Still See You a true hybrid electronic/orchestral score, with loud and proud electronic elements distinctly tied to the film’s identity.
When I think about inspiring and mind-blowing electronic music, I basically start and stop with Björk, especially her work in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. I love how her samples feel chopped up, distorted, and backwards. A sorceress of time, she seemingly possesses a mastery over sound and how it plays backwards and forwards. I wanted to channel some of those ideas into a library of custom electronic samples made specifically for I Still See You. I collaborated closely with my brother, Brendan McKian, who crafted a series of killer beats that we chopped into samples I used to create a framework for the score. I particularly loved his stuttering, chattering high hat effects, whooshing metallic clangs, and the iconic backwards kick drum that provided a subwoofer-destroying WHOOMP sound that became a heartbeat for the entire score.
I was mindful to look for moments to feature the electronics as the score’s primary driving force (“Blacklight” and “Darkness Falls” are great examples). I feel that the electronics infused the score with an edgy, youthful energy that popped out from the sounds of the traditional orchestra and choir. Ultimately, this film is about teenagers going on a wild adventure, and it was important to both Scott and I that the score reflect that, even as it dealt with heavy emotional and narrative sequences. The musical electronics provided the fun, while the orchestra and choir provided the high stakes.
A score like this would not have been possible with the creative support of director Scott Speer, writer Jason Fuchs, all the folks at Gold Circle and Lionsgate, and everyone else involved in the film. I also want to thank all the talented musicians and engineers who contributed their time and energy to bringing this score to life. Special shout outs go to Laura Engel, Richard Kraft and everyone at Kraft-Engel Management, and my tireless team at Sparks and Shadows, especially Joe Augustine at the record label, and Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, and Sam Ewing, who contributed additional music, Alec Siegel, who edited our killer video doc, and the City of Prague Philharmonic Choir for their haunting vocal performances.
1. Theme from I Still See You
2. Ten Years Later
3. Ice Skating?
4. Ghost Fish (feat. Aeone)
7. Darkness Falls
8. The City of Ghosts
9. Watch Her Die (feat. Aeone)
10. Revelation and Transference
11. Break My Heart
12. A Thousand Times
13. Dance Beneath the Ice (feat. Aeone)
Looking back on I Still See You I can definitely say the film cast a spell over me as I wrote it, one that I hope is audible in the final product. I remember starting it after Halloween, and then I blinked and it was the weekend after Thanksgiving! Days blended into weeks, as fall drifted into winter, all while I was lost in a delightful haze of tinkling celeste, ethereal female vocals, swirling strings, and hypnotic electronics. I’m thrilled that the film and score are out there now, and grateful to Scott and his entire team for giving me this chance to combine some of my favorite musical influences into an eclectic, moving, weird haunting musical world. I don’t know if we’ll ever know what a John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Björk team-up would sound like, so until that supergroup forms, I can at least listen to this score and imagine!