Nothing about Christian Bale’s “weight issue” here....No,
instead a word about the music in The Machinist.
In each of my films music has been the central inspiration—from
the initial writing all the way through to the editing phase. With Next
Stop Wonderland it was the seductive rhythms of Brazilian bossa
nova. For Happy Accidents it was the poignant
sound of the marimba. With my horror film Session
9 it was the dark, brooding music of the group Godspeed You Black
The Machinist is the first film I’ve
directed that I didn’t write, so my feelings about music and score
evolved much later in the process. One of the things I liked best about
Scott Kosar’s script was the way he described the sunny California
setting as if we were lurching through the back alleys of turn-of-the-century
Prague at midnight. In the rain. It was like Kafka wrote The Trial
but set it in Burbank. It made me laugh. The story and visuals had this
relentlessly gloomy but funny quality to them. I knew it was important
to capture this absurdity in the score.
When we were cutting the film I was dropping in a lot of temp music
from recent horror films—the usual low drones, sustained crescendos
and distorted ambiences that immediately set an audience on edge. In
fact, this music worked really well against the picture. It made every
scene buzz with a creepy sense of foreboding. Thinking I was on the
right track, I had my composer Roque Baños emulate the temp music.
He began creating an original score of unsettling ambient tones, fiddling
with his synthesizer and lots of sampled weirdness….
As the movie and score began to come together I realized I wasn’t
satisfied. I thought that the score might be undermining the very thing
that had drawn me to the story in the first place—its sense of
the absurd. Another thing bugged me about my music choice. We had shot
the movie in a more or less traditional “old school” way.
Simple but effective camera set-ups. Hitchcock was our template in many
respects. The production design, as well as the acting, were all intended
to create a sense of timelessness. As the movie evolved in the editing
room, it began to feel to me more and more like a movie that was shot
in the late ’40s. The problem was the score felt contemporary.
Too self-aware…there was a disconnect between the tone of the
movie and the tone of the score.
As we got closer to locking the picture I resigned myself to a score
which moved, but wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Then one night
I was dozing off in front of my TV and on came the midnight movie. It
was Robert Wise’s 1951 classic The Day the
Earth Stood Still. The music in that film hit like an aural lightening
bolt. Somehow I knew this was the sound I had been looking for. I bought
the soundtrack the next day, went into the editing suite and laid Bernard
Herrmann’s great score against my picture. It worked! It was the
Theremin that did it. The Theremin—that extremely bizarre instrument
that you play by running your hand through a magnetic field—was
created by the Russian inventor Leon Theremin in 1918. Its eerie sound—imagine
a beautiful woman moaning in a dark cave—eventually became background
music for dozens of horror and sci-fi films throughout the 1950s.
I immediately met with Roque and gave him the good and the bad news.
Good—I had found the music for the movie. Bad—he had to
start over. I played him Herrmann’s score and, thankfully, he
got it. The retro sound of the Theremin, combined with the orchestra,
brought out nuances in the film that were missing before. It gave the
overall story a surreal timelessness. A Hitchcockian feel. And something
about the sound of that Theremin, the way it slides from haunting to
humorous without a break, perfectly matched the kind of story I was
trying to tell—absurd, chilling, but at times, darkly comic.
Roque went back to the drawing board and I set off to Google up a Thereminist.
I remembered a Theremin being used in the score for Tim Burton’s
Ed Wood. Soon I was on the phone with Lydia
Kavina in Moscow. She’s the niece of Leon Theremin himself, and
by far the best player in the world. A few weeks later I was engrossed
in the mysterious gesticulations of Lydia’s hands as they whirled
and twirled through the invisible ether around her state of the art
Theremin. The sounds she produced were like something out of my most
mordant nightmare—sick and lovely. I knew we had found the music
for the film.