With The Conjuring universe and remakes like It and Pet Sematary dominating the box office, it’s no surprise that studios are trying to ride the horror wave, preempting a resurgence for the genre. The most recent example being Deon Taylor’s horror/thriller The Intruder starring Dennis Quaid as Charlie, a crazed lunatic who can’t let go of his newly sold home. The film, which has been in theaters for several weeks now has raked in $28 million dollars on a production budget of $8 million. One of the most important components of a successful horror film is a chilling score. And The Intruder is no exception, thanks to composer Geoff Zanelli. In the below interview Zanelli discusses his creative process for The Intruder, setting the tone for the film, and much more.
Wicked Horror: What’s interesting about your score for The Intruder is that at the beginning of the film the musical tone is one of hope, showing a couple beginning a new chapter. As things progress throughout the film, so does the score. Did you map out this progression from day one?
Geoff Zanelli: That progression is certainly something I had in mind from day one, and I focused on it as the score was being written. I use the word ‘architecture’ to refer to that type of overarching design in the score. And I realize it’s pretentious to use that word! But there’s some merit in it, it really is the grand design and every composer is responsible for that in the movies they write for. It’s one of the things that drew me to film music to begin with, though. It used to be that a band recording an album would keep an eye on the big picture like that, back when the album was king. Nowadays, in the songwriting world, singles are king but in film music, we’re still looking at the big picture because we simply have to. I’m happy you were able to feel the changes in the score as the story evolves, that means it resonated.
Wicked Horror: There is a scene when Charlie is looking at a painting where the tapestry used to be and the audience sees a glimmer of his craziness. When this happens the volume of the score goes way up. Was this your choice or the editors?
Geoff Zanelli: I think once Deon Taylor, the director of The Intruder, heard the score I wrote for the scene he decided to play with the idea of all the sound effects and dialogue dropping out to leave just score there, and then it gave him the opportunity to kind of shock the audience back to reality by putting the dialogue and other sounds back in suddenly. That’s one of the ways the film is able to generate some tension even in a scene like that, where it’s just two guys looking at a tapestry. The effect is nice though. You get a glimpse of Charlie Peck’s craziness. Charlie, of course, is Dennis Quaid’s character. Going to just score there really takes you inside his head. That and the camera pushing in on his face makes it personal to him.
Wicked Horror: In the film, the house is located in a remote wooded area. As the film progresses the woods almost act as another character with their own, almost threatening theme. How thought out was that?
Geoff Zanelli: That’s interesting, I think you do get a sense of the woods as a character, or at least that geography is what enables Charlie to be a voyeur out there and watch Scott and Annie. It’s a smokescreen for him, in other words. I don’t think I consciously worked to make it it’s own character, but since a few important scenes take place out there and those each have bespoke score, it probably helps to create a unique environment.
Wicked Horror: Were there any scenes that got cut from the film that you would have liked to see in the final?
Geoff Zanelli: Actually, no. Really all of the editing moved the film toward being the best version of the film it could be.
Wicked Horror: What instrument did you find made the most menacing sound in the film?
Geoff Zanelli: That’s an interesting question, and difficult to answer! I went out and got a cello, and even though I can’t play it, that didn’t stop me from scratching on it and making the most awful wailing sounds. But I also spent a day at Home Depot, buying up construction material like air ducts and metal sheets, and then bashing them with hammers to become my percussion section. I was thinking since the house is such a character, maybe there was some way of taking little bits of actual houses, doorstops and pipes and metal stuff, and making that part of the score. I was also breathing into a microphone sometimes, or chanting, and then I was taking doorbell sounds and mangling them in my computer to all become part of the score. So it’s hard to pick just one! But hopefully it all adds up to something organic and specific to the film. Even when you hear something you don’t quite recognize, I believe that if it’s related to the film it helps tell the story somehow. So those metal pipes I got from the store, those end up sounding like giant doorbells and the effect is subtle, but those are sounds you only hear in The Intruder. I don’t use them in my other scores.
Wicked Horror: There is a scene in the film between two characters who are fighting and struggling over a knife. The score during this scene was very reminiscent of the original Halloween score. Did you get any inspiration from Halloween for this scene?
Geoff Zanelli: I can’t say as that was a conscious decision. I’m flattered, though, since Halloween is such a classic of the genre!
Wicked Horror: Charlie had a lot of different unique sounds associated with his character. Such as when he is looking at his teeth in the mirror, it sounded like there was multiple voices in his head. What did you do to make those noises? Also, there are a few times when it almost sounded like an animal was breathing over him. Did you do this to show his beastlike nature?
Geoff Zanelli: Yes, all those vocals were me, actually. Sometimes you have to do it yourself! You’re right, those are sounds to represent the voices in his head, and his very primal nature. I do what a lot of musicians do and I sing into my phone when I have an idea. Usually the idea is to replace those sounds with other instruments but I kept being led back to this idea of chanting, or vocals, or breathing, or screaming really, because the human voice is really the most potent musical instrument there is. You can do almost anything with it! And I’ll admit that I even tried in some instances to replace those sounds with something else. Like a real music instrument or something… But it never worked, not even a little bit. It kept leading back to the vocal, that primal instinct that just makes everything human, so those sounds stayed in the film.
Wicked Horror: A lot of people have been commenting on your score, saying it was almost like another character. Was that the direction you intended from the beginning?
Geoff Zanelli: Oh that’s good to hear! I don’t know if that’s deliberate either, but I always look to make the score specific to whatever story the film is telling, and I think that makes my scores feel unique and, for lack of a better word, attached to the film they are in. You can’t take this score and put it into another thriller and expect it to work, it’s for The Intruder alone. I hope the same can be said of my other scores. That specificity is something I really value in the work I do, and I admire it when I hear it from other composers. Can you imagine the score for Isle of Dogs in another film? Or Images, or Altered States? They’re so specific, and I love when a film and a score are so intimately connected!