September 10 saw the US release of Smart (2021), a controversial horror film by one of the genre’s most successful modern masters, James Wan. With it, the filmmaker has ignited social media with both shameless praise and harsh criticism focused on confusion. However, despite the film’s polarizing response, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it has a great musical score.
Scored to Death: Conversations with some of Horror’s greatest composers the author, J. Blake Fichera, recently spoke with Smart composer [and longtime Wan collaborator] Joseph Bishara to discuss his latest score for FANGORIA.
Composers are often brought into a movie quite late in the game, but since you and James [Wan] are friends and work together so often that you generally agree from the start. Was this the case with Smart?
If I wasn’t the first, I was certainly one of the first to read the script as soon as he had drafted it. In fact, he kept telling me he was going to send it, “I’ll send it today.” Then it was, “I’ll send it tomorrow at the end of the day.” Then, “tomorrow night”. And then finally, it happened around eight in the evening. He said, “You must let me know as soon as you finish reading it.” I read it right away and said something like “Holy shit!” He called me immediately and we talked about it for a few hours.
The response has been a bit polarizing, which I think you would expect from a movie like this.
Completely! It was a big part of that very first conversation after I finished reading the script. It won’t be a movie for everyone. But if you’re in it, you’re all in it. [laughs]
I know from our past conversations that you often start to hear sounds in your head and get ideas for music quite quickly. Did it happen on this film?
Yeah, actually. There were a lot of ideas creeping into it. Just songs that I heard, but it all sort of solidified into a voice. It was this setup of a doubled alto and saxophone on the same line, with a doubled violin and trumpet on the same line, with drums holding them together – almost like some sort of weird jazz ensemble. We were talking about giallo movies and all that sort of thing, and it’s the very specific voice that sprang up for me. So, it was really cool to see that through to the end, and it’s really in there. This is what motivates the voice of the score a lot.
Did James have any idea what he wanted and in which direction he wanted to go? Or at this point, does he just believe your instincts are right and let you run with them?
It’s a bit of both. He asks me what I’m thinking and we talk about things, but he certainly has very specific ideas. Sometimes it can be difficult to decipher what he is hearing, and sometimes he will find things with his music supervisor that are completely parallel to the score. And there are areas where he will work other pieces of music, where he just has a specific way of wanting to work on something.
Was the opening title sequence an example? Because, if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t write this play.
Correct. It was an electronic artist he had found with his music supervisor, Celldweller. [The track is titled “When Your Walls Fall (Faction 15).”]
But as far as the original score goes, there’s a whole period where the score is being developed, where he just says “Send me stuff”. And he’ll say something like, “Oh, that’s pretty interesting. Let’s follow this route. And he’ll just keep letting it manifest, and then leading it from there, but then once we get in there, he can certainly get very specific. In fact, he’ll unwrap a piece of music more than any other director I’ve worked with. It’s not unusual to start a play and go to a certain piece of music, and he thinks to himself, “Oh, let’s open this session”. And then we’ll be in there to separate that, for what sometimes is awhile. “Let’s try this sound, starting with this shot, and move it here.” So he likes to get under the hood with a few tricks.
The score is a combination of orchestral and electronic sounds. Did you use a real orchestra or was it all synthetic?
No, there were three main orchestral recording sessions. The first was the “character session,” which is the group I described earlier: drums, viola, saxophone, violin, and trumpet. Later there was a session with a group I called the “string wall” because they were two rows of nine string players facing each other. So it was eighteen strings, arranged in long rows of nine, playing figures where one row would run in one direction along the line on one side, and the other row would run in the opposite direction on the line on the other side.
A lot of times I tend to hear things in the setup of the players in the room, and the way I setup some of the string writing for that was a response to the material. Then later there was another more traditional string group, mixed with a clarinet, French horn and piano.
During the action scenes of the film, the score changes to a much more electronic and rhythmic sound.
I think that was James’ suggestion – to look into electronics in certain areas. I think he meant part of it as kind of a throwback to the latest giallo movies. He was hearing more about the electronic influence of those movies, and I think I was maybe reacting a bit to some of the earlier more jazz influences. I guess somewhere in the middle is where we found it all here.
There are also female voices on some of the lines. Why did you choose to include them in the score?
The female voice is linked to the main character of the film. Not only from a character perspective, in terms of how difficult the character is going through, but also what haunts him – basically in a way. So, to give that a musical voice, the choice was made to go with a soprano singer. I have worked with her several times. Her name is Kirsten Ashley Wiest. She is incredible. She can carry a very high rating in a way that few people can. And James really liked this little identifiable moment that we found, and we ended up using it for a lot of Gabriel’s moments. Sometimes James will. He’ll find one thing in a room he really loves and then you’ll come back and suddenly it’s five or six other places in the movie as well. And it’s like, “Okay, cool. Let’s go with that.
There is a nice vinyl version of the sheet music coming out. As a horror fan and collector, is it exciting to create music for horror movies at a time when it seems to be more appreciated than ever?
For sure! It’s really cool to see edits like this done. I love what they do at Waxwork Records. Thus, when they have expressed their interest in Smart, I did all I could to put them together with Warner Brothers and make it happen. I’m so grateful that they were interested enough to pursue it, and I think the addition sounds just phenomenal. I love works of art.
The soundtrack to the film Malignant is available for digital download now, along with a pre-order of two vinyl records at Waxwork Records. You can read more about Joseph Bishara’s career and craft in his in-depth interview in the book Scored to Death: Conversations with some of Horror’s greatest composers, available now from Silman-James Press.
Smart is now in theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max, click below to watch now.