Last year, director Travis Stevens' hallucinatory horror film A Wounded Fawn quickly became a critical success with its blend of Euro-inspired terror and exquisite, shot on 16mm look. While everyone involved in the film deserves applause for their talented contributions, there's no denying that a large part of A Wounded Fawn's impact comes from the unique score composed by VAAAL.
I recently had the distinct pleasure of chatting with the gifted composer about everything from how they became involved in the project to influences and instruments used to bring their music roaring to life.
KILLER HORROR CRITIC: How has the reception to your score been for you?
VAAAL: The reception has honestly been so amazing, and it's caught the attention of people I never thought I'd be able to reach. It's so cathartic to have been working on something for a very long time, basically on your own, and with very few ears hearing it, and then have it come out into the public with so much attention. I'm so happy that I went to some of the film festivals it played at so I could get to experience it with an audience. It's a very good feeling!
KHC: How early did you get involved in the project? How was working with Travis Stevens?
V: So Travis and I became friends on Instagram after I had reached out to him about his first film to give him my praise. I had a fun time watching that, and I knew right away that he would be a filmmaker that I'd love to work with. ‘Jacob's Wife’ came out shortly after that, which was even better than the first one, so I started sending him a lot of my own cinematic artist music. This ultimately led to him reaching out to me while they were filming ‘A Wounded Fawn’ (best day ever), and it was an absolute no-brainer to accept. I couldn't have asked for a more fitting project for me personally to score. It had every aspect and aspiration I could ever want. Same goes for working with Travis. He's very open to experimental techniques and trying unconventional ideas in general, even when they don't always work out, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that in a director. You always want to aspire to make something new and interesting, right? So yeah, an absolute pleasure for sure to work with him!
KHC: Do you have a favorite scene where your score matches the images on the screen?
V: Ooh, there's a couple for sure that stands out a bit extra to me, even though all of them have a special place in my heart by now. I worked for about 7-8 months in total on this project, so every millisecond of the film is deeply ingrained in my brain at this point [LAUGHS]. But to mention a few that come to mind right now: The opening auction scene is so wild with a type of atonal animalistic and rhythmic fast-paced cue in odd, confusing time signatures. Somehow it almost felt like scoring a scene with a bunch of lions circling their prey, and how it's all about the survival of the fittest. It was a pretty big swing to take, and I'm super grateful that Travis was so open to me trying something more unconventional. Another really good one is the theme for The Red Owl - there's just something magical with how the music and picture came together with that one, as well as the amazing sound design by Matt Davies. We really wanted the feeling of air getting sucked out of the room once everything turns red. The juxtaposed feelings of seduction, fear and uncontrollable urges made for a very interesting atmosphere. Loved watching those scenes in the theaters.
Two more great ones that come to mind right now is the scene where Bruce's head injury starts making him convulse. It turns into this nightmare montage, with some of the craziest noise music I've ever made, matching up with the intense editing on the screen. He also ends up pissing himself in that scene, and I feel like I even got some of the synth sounds to match up great with that. The other one is the big ending scene cue, which starts out very serene, almost heavenly, but then gradually morphs back into a waking nightmare.
KHC: I saw during the festival screenings you were involved in almost all of them, how was it to sit in packed theaters hearing your score play?
V: It was so amazing. I got to go to Tribeca, Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest, and watched it at least twice at each festival. It was a great opportunity to hear what could be made better, hit harder or less, both mixing and compositional-wise, so after the first screenings at the Tribeca premiere, we went back into the studio and fixed stuff in the music and general mix for about another month of work for the final version that's now available on Shudder.
KHC: I feel the film tackles a lot of issues that both Girl On The Third Floor and Jakob's Wife deal with on the subject of toxic masculinity, and A Wounded Fawn continues to explore that perhaps even deeper. How familiar were you with his previous films? Did the subject of the film influence your songwriting at all?
V:I was definitely influenced by his previous films in terms of the subject matter. It was important to me to not have any music building too much empathy for Bruce. He's a piece of shit and I hope the music helps establish that [LAUGHS]. But most importantly, it was about showing the power of female intuition, as well as their rage towards centuries of patriarchal oppression. I ended up recording a lot of women for the score, and I really tried to get them to channel their inner anger, and get it all out into the open. The film score itself is another weapon that is being wielded against Bruce, and it's meant to essentially melt his face off.
Special shout-out goes to Kate Bone, Dora, and Frogi for being the main female voices in the experimental choir I recorded for further processing and manipulation. They really crushed it!
KHC: I think these songs create impressive soundscapes that add to the film, but can stand alone as a score. Do you know if there is a physical release planned?
V: Thank you so much for saying that! Like I said, I really worked my ass off on this one and it was a really important project to me. I'm a horror fan through and through, and I hope to be working in genre for many years to come. The score is out on all the music streaming platforms, as well as Bandcamp, in a slightly more consumable version for it to have a proper album experience. The physical vinyl release of this will come out some time early this year!
KHC: What are your top five film scores of all time? Did any of them influence your writing on A Wounded Fawn?
V: Oh, good but tricky question, as my answer to this always changes. Some inspirations off of the top of my head, in no particular order:
Brian Reitzell's score for Hannibal - Season 2
Hildur Gudnadottir's score for Chernobyl
Johann Johannssons final score for Mandy before his tragic passing
Lucrecia Dalt's score for The Baby
Jim Williams' score for Possessor, Titane, and Raw was something I listened to a lot during the writing process.
Not an OST, but the whole discography of Hunter Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix's symphonic transcendental black metal-project has had a huge impact on me this year.
KHC: I think the score and 16mm film add to being inside Bruce's head, like the moments where music sort of spikes his manic nature and the way the film is clearly film due to being film shows flaws. I know a lot of the film marks aren't necessarily intentional but I noticed the score seemed to mirror some moments of the imperfection of 16mm. I'm curious if there was any intention behind this or if it was just sort of magic?
V: Yes the 16mm film aspect definitely inspired the music a lot! I'm a big fan of imperfection in general, and I always feel like that adds such a wonderful vibe to any music. A lot of the instruments used on the score were really old, like from the 70s, 80's, and even a 120 year old Zither. I also recorded a lot of it onto tape, which just adds so much magic to it. I also played tons of notes intentionally "wrong" to enhance it further, or having some instruments not perfectly tuned, etc.
KHC: What was your favorite instrument you got to use on the score?
V: I don't know, hard question to answer. Since I love all of them, I'll just list some of them:
Vintage Memorymoog, Tagelharpa, Conch-shell horn, my homebuilt instrument Evil Gurkha by VAAAL, Make Noise-trio, our backyard hammock as an upright bass, Korg MS20 from the 70s, bowed FX-cymbals (at least one of them was over a 100 years old), tape loops, and more.
I also wanted to shoutout some of the musicians that overdubbed a lot of my more questionable playing. I had two French horn players (Meredith Moore and Chandler Michael Beck), flugelhorn, flugabone and trumpets by Gerald Bailey, and Lars Rynning on Contra Alto Clarinet for my brass and winds section. Collin Barr and Dora Perelli helped me with some viola and cello overdubs. Cameron McBride helped me with additional guitars and AMAZING screams. Check out his metal project Methwitch for reference. Taylor Lawhon from the band Mating Ritual helped me with some additional tagelharpa- and conch shell recordings. Additional synth and weird sounds in general by Nicolas Danielson, Benjamin Johanson, Johannes Winkler and Jim Wylde. Special mentions goes out to singers I've worked with in the past, who sent me two notes each recorded on voice memo for a massive choir moment (the first time we fully see The Erinyes...): Elliphant, Nitro Nitra, BJOERN, Amanda Alexander, Adrianna Krikl, my mother and many more.
KHC: What is next for you? And where can people find this score, and your other music/projects?
V: I'm about to start another horror-feature that I'm excited about, but can't say much more at this time. I frequently work in the film trailer industry as a composer, so stuff from that comes out every now and then.: The majority of my music gets released under the VAAAL-name, which you can find on all streaming services (allmylinks.com/vaaal)
('A Wounded Fawn' is currently streaming on Shudder. Watch it there, and check out VAAAL's score for the film below!)
By Justin Drabek