By JASON COMERFORD
James Wan’s Insidious is the perfect example of how poverty can breed invention. Modestly budgeted ($1.5 million) but well-cast and confidently directed, Insidious eschews graphic bloodshed in favor of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night. Leigh Whannell’s script is a jolly gumbo of haunted houses, demonic possession and astral projection that plays it just straight enough to work, thankfully without wall-to-wall violence, and audiences seemed to agree – to date, Insidious has grossed nearly $100 million, its costs-to-gross ratio making it 2011’s biggest financial success.
Wrapping all together is an extraordinarily effective musical score by Joseph Bishara. A dense, bristling effort jam-packed with invention and energy, Bishara’s Insidious is one of the most striking horror scores to come along in many a year, bringing modern atonal classical techniques back to the forefront with a vengeance. Easy listening it is most certainly not – at its most frenzied, it’s every bit as assaultive as Carl Zittrer’s scores for Deathdream and Black Christmas, as well as the nerve-rattling concert works of Kryzstof Penderecki and George Crumb – but it has a freaky style all its own, and an admirable unwillingness to resort to the usual bag of musical tricks.
The multitalented Bishara has a wide range of credits under his belt, from sound design for John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars to music production and supervision for Repo! The Genetic Opera, as well as scores for a number of genre titles including The Gravedancers, Unearthed and Night of the Demons; he even appeared on-camera in Insidious, as the malevolent “lipstick demon” that figures prominently in the film’s finale. I spoke to Bishara in October 2011, hoping to get more insight into the unique sonic world he created for the film.
Howlin' Wolf Records EXCLUSIVE
Jason Comerford Interview with Joseph Bishara
Jason Comerford: What was your starting point?
Joseph Bishara: We kinda talked about styles – you know, atonal modern classical kind of stuff – I was sending him Xenakis, all kinds of stuff to listen to. And that wasn’t really talking directly to the score – that was more just establishing a tone, just sending music back and forth. For me, the starting point was really when I first read the script – from there, I just did some sketches out of ideas in the script, just on paper. Some musical ideas, some verbal notes – just the first thoughts that came out of reading the script.
JC: As far as how the sounds were actually put together, when it came time to actually perform the music, what kind of techniques did you use?
JB: A friend of mine who has this studio I work with, he found this rusted piano shell out in the alley behind his studio. So he’d had this thing for some time, and I’d been meaning to use it when the time was right. And I hadn’t seem Deathdream before recording on that piano, actually – we actually started talking about it just after. But yeah, it was really just one night of recording on that thing, with everything from hammers, a whole set of differently-shaped files – it was a hardware store raid, pretty much.
JC: When you actually performed, how many musicians did you use?
JB: The bulk of it was a quartet – 2 violins, viola, cello – and piano. That was the crux of the live instrumentation, and then around that was the rust piano setup, and then the rest was various stuff that I built and put together here on various instruments.
JC: Did you have any moments where you improvised anything?
JB: Quite a bit, yes. Within a structure. The way some of these things were written out, the structured figure is on the paper, but within those figures on paper, while recording we’d explore with the musicians, like, let’s try switching these notes, and you move down to that one, or you take that one, do that one four times, slow down and fade away – whatever it was, there was a whole lot of exploring the musical systems on paper without having it printed, ready to go, start to finish, note one to note ends, go! There were some like that. But the first session with the quartet was before shooting even happened.
JC: When you were spotting the movie, did you ever have the discussion about when to use silence as opposed to when to use music?
JB: It did come up. It wasn’t something we had a discussion about – it seemed that we were very much on the same page about having a lot of quiet moments. And it wasn’t really put together in the straight-ahead spotting-and-scoring way that seems to happen. I guess the first spotting would be James editing, because I was sending him score while he was cutting, so he was structuring where he wanted it. He had original score pieces that I had sent him, so he’d started placing original score while he was cutting the film.
JC: Makes for a much more fluid process that way.
JB: I think so. It feels much more free.
JC: Most of it does sound acoustic, but did you use any electronics or manipulation after it was recorded?
JB: Yes, I do a lot of manipulation, from plugins to running through odd instruments – lots of experimental instruments also thrown in there as well, and then manipulated and twisted up.
JC: One of the thoughts I had when I was watching the movie again was that, the score starts out big and strong, with those percussive hits on the piano – did you worry about going too far too fast, and running out of effects to use, or did you find yourself trying to structure it so you didn’t repeat yourself over and over in the same cues?
JB: That never really came to be a thing. I was kind of building it as I went – if I needed more material, it didn’t seem like a problem to go and record more if I needed it. And I did – I did come back and record at certain times, as need be. But I wasn’t really thinking about doing too much, too soon.
JC: From what I can tell from the film, the sections that involved the first house tended to involve more of the percussive hits on the piano strings, whereas the second house tended to bring in the strings a little bit more.
JB: That actually does sound about right, now that I think about it. That is the way it ended up being written but it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice to separate those two houses that way. Unless it came from James. Because he did place a lot of those piano stings. He has a good ear for that stuff, he really does – he’s really good about being confident about musical choices.
End of Interview
Bishara’s score starts out with a blast of Schoenberg-esque string clusters then subsides to an eerie whisper, finding numerous ways to vary its assault as the film unfolds. “Voices in the Static” is an early highlight of the score, beginning with eerily twirling string figures which seem to chill the air; as protagonist Rose Byrne is startled by a demonic face in the window of her child’s room, Bishara unloads the first of his percussive piano assaults, a booming tangle of scraping, plucked sounds.
A key moment in the score and film comes later, as medium Lin Shaye describes an unseen demon to an assistant with a sketchpad (screenwriter Whannell). “Hooves for Feet” begins with hollow, sawing figures for cello; as Whannell’s eerie sketch takes shape, the cue segues into lines for violin which curl eerily upward and rise to a nervous crescendo, accompanying a hair-raising push-in on a dark corner of the room’s ceiling. In these and other moments throughout the film, Bishara walks the fine line between uneasy suggestiveness to outright terror, and always manages to keep the tension at fever pitch.
The soundtrack for Insidious is currently available exclusively from Void Recordings in multiple download and physical options; a deluxe vinyl edition is forthcoming as well.