So Funny It's Scary: Mikel Hurwitz on Scoring the Horror-Comedy Too Late
Take a second and try to recall the sound of a horror film. Maybe you're hearing the screeching strings first used in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho or perhaps the DUH-dah, DUH-dah slow build from Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Both scores have become iconic in the horror/suspense genres, but also, both have been parodied countless times for comedic purposes. It can be easy to forget just how much of a role a film score plays in signaling to its audience exactly what kind of movie they're watching.
But what happens when a film doesn't neatly fall into a single category? The challenge for the film composer in these instances looms large—skew too far in one direction, and the viewer misses the mark the director is trying to hit.
This was the task set before composer Mikel Hurwitz B.M. '11, who scored Too Late, a new horror-comedy film starring Fred Armisen and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Set in the world of stand-up comedy, Too Late follows the story of a crew of comedians under the charge of a boss who turns out to be, quite literally, a monster. Hurwitz, who has scored everything from romantic comedies to indie films, talked to us about how he created a sonic world as diverse as the film itself. The conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch, if you dare, the film's trailer to understand what Hurwitz was working with:
Your filmography shows that you’re no stranger to the lines between dark and humorous. What appealed to you about taking on a story like the one in Too Late? What was the project like to work on?
Mikel Hurwitz: When I signed on to Too Late, I’d just done a string of romantic comedies and was really craving getting a little darker, playing with my synths, mangling samples, and creating some weirder textures than the conventional orchestra. Too Late was the perfect backdrop to do that on, but was also a challenge to walk the line between two very different genres of scoring language—horror and comedy—each with their distinct approaches to musical timing, texture, building tension, and payoff.
The director did want a level of campiness throughout, so even when we were in a horror moment, the score intentionally only went 80 percent into "melt your face off" adrenaline.
The cut of the film I received to score didn’t have a temp score, which was a real treat but equally a challenge—so often a film’s rough musical identity is already 80 percent of the way there by the time I receive it to score because of the temporary music that the director, editor, or music editor places in the film during the editing process. This was a real blank canvas, though, and the only references I got were to listen to The Witches of Eastwick and Tales from the Crypt scores. Further than that, the director and I talked a lot about the characters’ back stories and dramatic tone, which gave me enough foundation to begin work on the main titles. By version two of the main titles, the director was in love with the sonic world that we’d created, and from there we began to parse things out and tell the story.
More than all of that though, I just loved the story (spoiler alert): a star-like oppressive monster boss eats younger creative talent to survive while their assistant knows much too much about what actually happens behind the curtain. Then when the assistant calls out the boss on their bullshit, boss eats assistant, but ultimately assistant escapes from boss’s stomach, killing the boss. It’s a metaphor that anyone in the entertainment industry will connect with almost immediately.
How did you go about writing music to fit something like this that clearly references well-known genres (specifically horror and comedy), but isn’t necessarily one thing or another?
Hurwitz: Too Late definitely doesn’t fit neatly into either comedy, horror, or parody, but there are certainly elements of each. In terms of sonic landscape/orchestration, I took the more conventional approach of leitmotif to signal if we were in a comedic or horror moment: I often used the accordion or harpsichord to signal comedy (our "monster" was believed to have originated in a nondescript location in Europe, sometime between the Baroque and Victorian era), and I often used synths [as well as] contemporary and extended orchestral techniques to signal that we were in a horror moment. The director did want a level of campiness throughout, so even when we were in a horror moment, the score intentionally only went 80 percent into "melt your face off" adrenaline, as opposed to some contemporary pure horror films that go full-blown skydiving adrenaline.
Were there any experiences at Berklee in particular that helped shape your approach to scoring?
Hurwitz: Berklee was foundational to developing my rudiments of scoring (technical and artistic). My first film-scoring recording session, I passed out graphical notation to the players instead of more traditional notes on the page, and though at a more conventional conservatory I might have been laughed out of the room, the players on the session took it seriously and created something entirely unique. That was the first moment that I really realized that experimentation is indispensable for a unique result.
More generally, the contemporary techniques and orchestral mockup classes I took were just enough content to teach me what I really needed to learn by myself to develop my own creative voice and interact with the immense amount of musical technology at a contemporary film composer’s fingertips.
Any new projects you're working on or will be in the coming months?
Hurwitz: I’m currently writing a 20-minute piece for orchestra and electronics that I hope to record in the fall/early winter—it’s not a film project but will likely land on an album. In terms of film scores, I’m booked for a couple feature rom-coms in the next months and am looking to transition into episodic television.