Trevor Gureckis Talks Scoring Music For Thriller, Bloodline

After seeing the directors cut UK premiere at Arrow Frightfest last month, composer and producer Trevor Gureckis took time out to discuss scoring Bloodline, the upcoming Blumhouse Thriller, before it's release next week via Momentum Pictures.

I'm curious about your first musical epiphany. Is there one you recall either sound based, or purely musical, that pushed you to explore sound?

My background is classical music. I was mostly influenced or interested in classical music. My dad was a huge pop music fan and I was named after Trevor Horn. My brother is Todd, named after Todd Rundgren. Music has always been an important part of my family but classical music has always been something that for me, I've been interested in and passionate about. I studied classical piano performance for my undergraduate degree and then got into composing later.

So your passion for music is literally in your Bloodline

Yeah, exactly, ha, ha! My parents aren't musicians but my dad's a music fan for sure. Ever since we were kids we would have a music night. I was always a little bit different in that I was into classical music, which he always appreciated but it wasn't at the top of his list. That's how we enjoyed music and I definitely picked that up growing up.

Do you remember the first film score that you specifically connected with growing up?

As a kid there was a lot of stuff! There's a lot of composers these days, especially currently that are doing really cool stuff. I really enjoyed Colin Stetsons score for Hereditary. He's a great performer and obviously plays Sax and other instruments. 

I love the score for Hereditary. Not only does Stetson set a mood but he also lets it play it out. That final scene is such a payoff! 

Crazy. The Chimes and all this stuff. It's crazy! I think that film composing for me has been sort of a journey from my background in classical music and interest in concert hall and the subject of being on stage. Bloodline is nearly 100% electronic like the other film I did this year, The Goldfinch, which is full orchestral and synth. It's kind of classical music dialect, where it's dramatic and has Thriller elements and extended techniques. The instruments are being played in different ways, so in a weird way Bernard Herrmann, being a huge influence of mine was also influenced himself by classical composers, who wrote music exclusively for the concert hall. I like a lot of film composers and I think that a lot of film composers are also influenced by a lot of modern contemporary composers themselves. 

Let’s talk about the score for Bloodline. It's a score that supports the film with a compelling mix of electronic energy and nostalgia that at times recalls the electronic tone of the 1980's. You explore some really challenging ideas that hover between retro and modern.

I made Bloodline using all my keyboards in my studio. It was made using all the stuff I'm used to working with. Although I was able to explore some new sounds and expand on testing out some new ideas, which was really fun. I tried to keep a new aesthetic going on throughout the film. One of the references that Henry had was Stranger Things. I always thought it had to be more modern because it's ok to reference the retro kind of thing, which he does visually and I'm doing musically but we both made sure that there was a modern nod because it's a very stylistic film. It's got a lot of references to other films on purpose. It's kind of in that world and so I did the same by choosing certain instruments. I have a Prophet 08, which is my instrument of choice for a lot of things. Sometimes I process it with other plug-ins or distortions and all this stuff to add an extra edge. I also used an 808 to make it a little bit of a hip hop thing and to combine things in a different way. Concepts are in the back of your head but really you're thinking; "what's going to work out for the story and what's going to work out for the scene". That's always going to be a goal and if I over-do it or if I'm too loud or crazy I'll just back off. 

You mentioned using an 808 to incorporate hip hop. Can you talk specifically about the influence hip hop has had on the score?

I think a lot of trap music has an interesting electronic almost dystopian universe to it. When you take the lyrics out and remove some of the drums and the hi-hats and that crazy stuff, which I still sometimes kind of have in Bloodline but there's no real, outright, super heavy beats in this, there's this minor weirdness in a lot of Trap music and I've always found that interesting along with electronic stuff.

That's interesting

I've done a couple things with Kanye West. I was a producer on The Life of Pablo and I did a thing for a show he did at the Hollywood Bowl. I've always really loved hip hop music and that kind of style because I think it’s very open and current. Yeezus was an amazing record and that was always an album that stuck with me aesthetically as being an influence on my electronic sound. 

Working with Kanye has to be an interesting experience?

Well, as a producer, you're one of many. I met him twice and worked with him remotely because that's just how it went down in this particular situation. The first time was working with another composer named Caroline Shaw and we did remixes of some songs from 808's and Heartbreaks. We also worked together on some songs for The Life of Pablo. With The Life of Pablo, again, there are so many different producers, so it was really just sort of sending music and just seeing what hit and what didn't. Sometimes you don't even know until it actually plays at Maddison Square Garden. You're like "Oh, great, that one synth drop that I added". It wasn't like I was in a super collaborative position but I was amongst people who worked with him and I saw the process for sure. It was an interesting experience. 

Can you talk about the evolution of your creative partnership with Henry Jacobson and how hands on you were with Bloodline?

Henry and I have worked together so many times. The process is that the composer comes in at the very end. I read the script for Bloodline but then they had to go out and shoot it. When they were back they had a cut, which was probably 90% there. He and I then sat down and went through it, which is the case for every film. We kind of spot where he's thinking there's going to be music and we're trying out changes. We added more music because we felt that we needed to pick up some pace here or there. We were sharing references and he was sharing films that he liked and thought were good examples. 

What were some of the films that he had you watch as references in order to establish a shared language between the two of you for his vision?

There was one I was watching that I was trying to remember the name of the other day. It was the one with the model who eats the other model, ha, ha!

Neon Demon?

Neon Demon, yeah! Musically that was really cool. 

Was it always easy to translate what he wanted?

I think we were on the same page about what he needed to do and what I wanted to do with the sounds. It's then about executing and coming up with thematic ideas that would kind of become templates that could change over time, following the story. Once we start planning out these bigger ideas then it’s getting into what works. I do get into multiple versions of things and things get thrown out and then we start again, or things don't work. That definitely happens and you can go through many revisions. That's all part of the process and completely normal.

How important was it for you to create compositions that can be enjoyed as much as appreciated outside of the context of this film?

I always want the music to be interesting for my own self since I'm an audience member. I think that is something that I keep an ear out for. Although you don't want to step on anything because sometimes if there is too much quote unquote music, meaning like musical content, you can get in the way. If you're scoring a documentary that's definitely something that is often more of a background voice to a film. I learnt a lot when I worked with Philip Glass for a number of years. I learnt a lot about the role of foreground and background and the concept of the relationship between music and film. It’s interesting to see how this plays in Bloodline. For this album I selected the things that were most interesting but there are pieces that are not. There's going to be stuff that needs to work that are functional, that colour mood and the basic function of the scene, which might not be musically compelling enough to put on the album but need to be in the film.

You have an important role in that you're mirroring a place of mystery and suspense in your music that matches the pace of Bloodline to an audience

I think a lot of the scenes in Bloodline are driven by really specific actions. They're very goal orientated, which is a good way of film making and also a good way of scoring. It contextualises and makes that element a lot clearer. That way the score has one kind of job and the actors have another. The cinematographer and everybody else has a role in the picture. You don't want the score to be trying to do it all. 

I also just finished scoring this M. Night Shyamalan show for Apple called Servant. It's a much more in-depth drama that's very small and takes place in a house within a very intimate setting. The scenes change very carefully and slowly. The pacing of the show is very different and difficult in a different way. It's a particular style of directing and style of music. 

One of my favourite songs, which is also arguably the most important song in the film is Hush. It’s a reflective and melancholy driven composition. Do you think that melancholy is somewhat of a misunderstood emotion in that it's not pleasant and it's not a bad emotion either? Was it a complex piece to create for those reasons?

Other than Thriller, edginess and darkness, I really enjoy writing music with melancholy in it's soul. I think by nature it's a little unknowable, which I find really cool. It has a beauty but not quite saccharine or something. It's also a little sad but not morose. I think for the most part I picked up my interest in that emotional space from my interest in Philip Glass's music. I would also credit late Beethoven piano sonatas, ha, ha. Bloodline is not a one note thriller, so melancholy definitely has a place. 

What kind of space did you have to put yourself in to create the track Birth, which very vividly depicts a death cut as a birth is simultaneously happening?

Birth was a really tough one to make because it’s a pretty graphic scene. I didn't really get into it with Henry. I was like "Is this real? It looks so real!". I’d never seen a live birth but I was like "man, this is like totally legit looking". All the special effects are great that they do in the film, so I had to watch that like 80 times! This one in particular has a little bit of hip hop reference in it and it kind of has a Yeezus vibe to it. That high woodblock and the low 808 kick that pulses. It’s super bare and we knew that there was going to be a lot of sound as she was giving birth but I wanted to make it pretty crazy and terrifying for reasons I won't speak of out of risk of giving any spoilers. It’s an interesting kind of out of time universe, where things are just kind of insane and crazy and then it comes together after the baby is born. 

Is it ever hard to turn off the critical faculty in your brain and teach yourself to be in a space where things just flow? It must be tough to reach that space when you’re presumably in a critical mode of thinking and structuring a piece

I can try to write pretty quickly but for the reason of not getting caught up in anything because I don't like to get stuck. Getting stuck would delay everything and I’d get confused about what my goal was and what I was trying to do. Getting in a flow is for me, putting my head down and trying to figure things out. Often it’s like a puzzle, especially when film scoring can be anything from figuring out the right tempos and I hit everything that I need to hit, figuring out keys that I want to do. Maybe if there’s a key change or chord that I want to hit at this part or this part in a scene. A lot of it is mapping a couple of fundamentals, which can give me an idea about what I need to do and then it’s about hitting those goal posts. If I’m feeling that something isn't feeling right I have to call it and be able to feel comfortable at seeing where that point is, where like this isn’t a good piece I need to go to the next one and start over. 

This is a good way of developing flow. That's also not to say that I don't have that moment multiple times. You can feel that it’s a great idea and you're doing it and you’re like slowly "I don't know about this idea. Alright, this is crap, start over!, or "this is a great idea" and do it again. There’s definitely, getting the flow is partially just like a part of that abandoned feeling of just moving and writing quickly, which I picked up from Philip Glass in that he has that ‘just go’ mentality.  What is he 84 now, or something and he writes so much music and he just is who he is and that's the way it is. He doesn't look back. I have a lot more of a revisionist mentality and I’m ok with starting over. He is as well when he’s working on films but I know when the right time is to call it and when to start fresh when something isn't going in the right direction.

The score is in many ways a transitional body of work for you and expresses an added dimension that isn't apparent in the dialogue. What song do you think best defines Bloodline?

There are a lot of cues that I could bring to mind but one in particular was the track Not Easy. It's a good baseline for a number of different elements in the score. It has orchestral elements and some heavy synth parts. Throughout the album it has 3 different transformations, which was cool to write as each one takes a thrilling turn in the story. 

I also think Bloodline is pretty cool and fun. It’s not in the film itself and only in the credits but it’s just a super cool retro track and strong musical ending for the film. It's nice to pull out all the stops on the end credits as people are reading names. Maybe they'll stick around if they find the music somewhat interesting.

Would you be interested in doing more music for genre films in the future?

Yeah, I love this kind of film and this kind of scoring and I love the community of fans who love these films. We first premiered it at Fantastic Fest in Austin, which was a lot of fun. When you see a film at a genre fest, people are clapping and laughing at every murder. There are definitely plenty of funny scenes in the movie and there’s just so many great movies in the genre that are so surprising and different. Things that don't make it to Netflix and streaming services. It’s so unfortunate that you don't get to see some of these films. I got to see a couple of other films that were really cool and you know won’t be at Sundance and are likely to have a hard time to sell. There’s a community of people that really want to see this stuff and I think that's really exciting. 

Bloodline is out September 20th via Momentum Pictures. It will open in limited theaters and VOD platforms day and date. The original score and soundtrack will be released by Lakeshore Records day and date with pre-order available from Friday 13th.

Interview by Luke 'Menace' Bailey