The twist of Searchlight’s horror-comedy is perfectly (under)scored by its music.
That sound is courtesy of Colin Stetson, a composer with a background in woodwinds and a breathy appreciation for horror and tension. “There are certain things that I do with breath and with a semblance of breath to trigger the same sort of experiential reaction from an audience,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Air is everything and so the manipulation of air, be it through actual literal breath recorded and manipulated or as it’s being projected through an instrument, will do certain things.”
Breath and manipulation are rather fittingly thematically aligned with The Menu, his latest project from director Mark Mylod and co-writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s that is a part-hilarious, part-horrifying examination of hunger, elitism and the power of food. Set in a secluded, exclusive Michelin-starred dining experience gone awry, both the kitchen staff and the guests find themselves needing to catch their breath — and unpack their own relationship with power, class and more — within the movie’s smooth 105 minutes.
The Menu follows Stetson’s notable work on one of 2018’s most acclaimed horror entries, Hereditary, and according to the composer, was approached similarly with a narratively versus characteristically fashion. And like that film, the score is a layered endeavor, holding back its turns — horror or comedic — until the time is just right, while obscuring the film’s real truth within its many musical layers.
It’s a feat that can be achieved because Stetson utilizes polyrhythms, or the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms. Their dualities ultimately help highlight the film’s appreciation for the delectable joys of fine dining and the joylessness of the culture that can surround it.
Ahead of the film’s release, THR spoke to the composer about how he approached the score instrumentally by leaning into the kitchen; how he utilized the element of surprise with both horror and comedy to balance the film’s multiple tones; why he didn’t make compositions that were character-driven, despite the ensemble having many personalities; and the “math-y” influences that guide his score.
How did you think about imbuing tension and fear musically into this score, bearing in mind how horror is intertwined within the film’s initial narrative and where it unfolds pacing-wise?
Hereditary is probably the most well-known of any of the films that I’ve done. That one, from the get-go, was no veiling — no gradually parsing out and meting out the fear and the story. It was all established that what we were entering was this place of dread, unrest and ultimate doom. There’s no secrecy in the beginning. This one is very different in that regard. The score in a certain sense is similar to Hereditary in that it plays a part of the narrative of The Menu — the fact of that plan being set in motion right from the very start of the film. But it does so by almost goading the audience and the diners. So where I started to introduce fear throughout is moments where I’m using little subtle harmonic things and tongue-in-cheek gestures, where I’m affecting certain melodies in certain ways.
I find the film to be nudge-nudge, wink-wink throughout the beginning, but it is rationing fear in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways before there is a moment, as there are in most films, where all of that questioning, secrecy, mystery is very much massively magnified, and the cat gets let out of the bag. The way I saw the whole film is, as contained in the script itself, was really that the music there is not innocent, but it definitely is cleverly secreting itself throughout the first act. And then there was that moment where I really, as a composer, could go apeshit, as it were. (Laughs.) When I read it, I got the kind of excited that I get for really good scripts, because I realized I could hold back everything. I could have this whole other sound world that I would have on reserve and then when that moment hits, the floodgates open and I could let the torrent out.
All these characters have the potential to be villains in their own right, but it’s not initially clear if there’s a main “bad guy.” Was there a character or characters you wrote to whose moral truths and horrors would be unpacked by the story and your score?
There is one character that gets most — it’s not like the themes are theirs — but they do get most of the very personal interaction with the themes. There are certain things that really belong to certain characters. Then there are overarching themes that I see more as the “the menu,” more as the plan that was set in motion in the very first scene and goes to the very last scene. The majority of the themes are really that and then they interact with certain characters in different ways, given what that character is now privy to or going through at any given moment. And that’s the way that I’ve approached a lot of scores. Hereditary is entirely that. The score itself is really just the plan as coming to fruition. It’s really just mocking everyone throughout the course of the whole thing until it gets to be turned on its head and reveals that it’s been here the whole time. That said, there are certainly moments — certain elements, musically — that belong to certain people. But the bulk of it belongs to the menu.
Some horror composers lean into the settings of their films for inspiration on how to drum up fear and tension. Did you think about that with the kitchen at all?
I certainly thought about it and have done it to a certain extent. I didn’t want it to become a novelty or to become too much. But there are literally glasses — a whole array of pitched glasses — that we used in percussion, and then used sometimes in a more conventional way and other times in a less conventional way. One of my best friends and collaborators, Greg Fox, is a very incredible metal drummer. He is one of the fastest, tightest players and can create a maximalist ambiance by playing just incredibly rapid. So one of the things that we did was record him several times over and then use that as a cloud of sound. There are moments throughout where this kind of sparkle happens in particular tunes and it grows and grows and grows. Rather than synths or effects or anything like that, that’s just several Greg Foxes on an array of water glasses. I always try to come up with unconventional ways to utilize a sound source. And then if I’m trying to do something that’s a little bit more conventional, I try to figure out a backdoor to get at that trope, at the utility rather than just going straight for the very well-trod path.
So if it’s something like suspended strings — although I do use strings in ways that I think are conventional — I usually try to start with something that is a less obvious way to get at that sound and at the kind of function that I need for it in music. That’s one of the things I did. I looked at unconventional ways of using things like glasses and pans and pots. There’s quite a bit of that in the score, but it’s also not necessarily all in the places that you’d think. Most of the more rhythmic driving nature of the whole score is actually through strings. There’s a lot of very harshly plucked Pizzicato strings. There’s a lot of Pizzicato piano strings, and not just plucked but struck. Mostly that happens in that moment that I spoke of. The delightful pomp and excitement of the score going into that moment, it’s all plucked polyrhythmic viola and violin strings. The character of the sound massively changes at that moment and that’s when these pianos come in and it becomes much more metallic, much more aggressive and anxious.
The kitchen is a rhythmic place, but it can also be chaotic when you overlay everything that’s happening at the same time. I’d argue eating is also similar — the scraping, clanking, tinging, biting, breathing of it all. How did you think about your score in terms of crafting melodies compared to maybe less melodic, or more naturally cacophonous, sounds?
It’s more of a very polyrhythmic driving sound, and when so much of the DNA of it is that — when I let that hit a wall and there be moments of static, to me, those static moments really stick out and have a lot of weight to them. Their kitchen for me is: what do you hear if you really just sit and ambiently let that all come out? There’s repetitive rhythm, but it is not basic rhythm. This is not four-on-the-floor. This is massively chaotic, but there are patterns there. So if I was to then approximate — or to take the essence of that — and run it through a filter of musicking, what my mind did was to make this score very much the result of all these overlaid and disjunct and juxtaposed polyrhythms. It’s very math-y. But it will not feel that way because there is that drive to it. I’m gonna note the band Meshuggah. One of the things I do listen to a lot of is more math-y, very intricate metal. I’d probably be hard-pressed to find a person who listened to this score and went “Oh yeah! That’s Meshuggah!” (Laughs.) I definitely can say that my steeping in that world and in bands like that specifically, it’s very obviously there in the DNA of this score. It’s a confluence of having a very heartbeat-esque rooted-in-humanity driving pulse to the music, but at the same time, overlaying a rhythmic complexity to create anxiety, disjunctiveness and a sense of being a loft while still tumbling towards something.
Those are all in play and you’ll hear it, especially when you hear the music in the film, but then also the standalone score by itself on record. There’s always things that are quieter in film that are more laid bare on the record themselves. Also, this is the most conventional theme-forward score I’ve ever done. There’s a kind of pretentiousness to the entirety of the subject. It’s both [elitism of food] and its antithesis. It’s a celebration of a certain appreciation on an artistic and naturalistic level. There are moments where I went very, very hard into the perspective of this chef, where you’re really playing up the wonder and natural sort of majesty of food. The love of it. I think that it can be a mixture of all those things. There is massive pretentiousness to it all, but it also is true. All of the things that he says about food, and I’m thinking of one scene in particular. These things are truly wondrous and profound. The experience of it as living beings and the ability to discuss and to share and to refine — all of that, there’s a gorgeousness that you can begate, just because there’s this pomp aspect to it. Those things exist together in tandem throughout this score.
You were dealing with both a comedy and horror narrative, which genre-wise in terms of narrative delivery, both kind of delight in the turn or the surprise. How did you approach writing for both of those genres?
I think one of the things about going hard in a rhythmic direction is that you do have that light, bubbly sense of a lot of what propels the score throughout. The fact that these polyrhythms are laid over one another, they can all propel one another and they can also undo one another. These rhythmic motifs like that can almost operate like train tracks when you switch them over, and then all of a sudden the train veers to the left. Where you have a certain rhythm that’s there and the audience is being projected on that track and then just by a little stroke of math, we’re thrown to the left. When I’m reading the script, I start to see all of the music — what’s going to work, what it needs, where things are going to be introduced, where certain things are going to happen and where things are going to change. The rhythmic aspect of this allows for all the different things, including the tension that allows for a lot of the abrupt horror moments. But it also builds in this perfect mechanism for many of the jokes. So it’s then juxtaposing certain things that add a little bit more horror with elements that are lighter. The first act gives me all this delight and fun to play. Then later on, I can use the delight and the fun and it has a different weight to it because now it’s funny. You hear it in the context of knowing what we know now. That moment becomes more absurd.