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Trevor (Christian Bale) hasn't slept in a year, leading to a shocking deterioration of his physical and mental health. His only solace comes from his call-girl girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But Trevor's world becomes a living nightmare when cryptic notes start to turn up in his apartment and he has visions of a co-worker only he can see. Is he mad or has fatigue robbed him of reason? Determined to find answers, he embarks on a journey of self-awareness; yet the more he learns, the less he wants to know. Directed by Brad Anderson (Session 9).

 The Machinist

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 Emperor.

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.