Mention his name and watch the cringe of revulsion from everyone who knows him as one of the most infamous serial killers in history. For many years, Jeffrey Dahmer appeared to have had a fairly normal upbringing. As a loner, very little insight was shed upon his past and what could potentially have sparked an evil so great. Then his childhood classmate Derf Backderf created the award-winning comic My Friend Dahmer – based upon his experiences with Dahmer as a youth. The critically acclaimed graphic novel has now been adapted into a much-anticipated film.
Andrew Hollander takes us behind the scenes as he composed the score, creating unique sounds to take us into Dahmer’s grim world and twisted mind. Hollander has worked on Waitress, Sleepwalk with Me, and Serious Moonlight, all light projects in comparison.
Hollander talks about the artistic process of creating this soundtrack. “I assumed it was a horror film,” he says of first hearing about the story. But it turns out the film is a dark coming of age story of the teenage pariah. Hollander chose to go with a musical soundscape that was more subdued. Have a read of our chat below:
Let’s go back to when music composing began for you.
I started playing music when I was 12. I was really into sports up until that point. I went home and started playing the piano and was hooked from that point on. As soon as I learned how to play a song, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
I played in rock bands in high school and I’ve always loved movies, then it dawned on me that I could write music for film. It seemed the better way to set my path and that was it. I knew right off the bat that there was something about it that was so intriguing.
I went to college and studied with Yusef Lateef who really taught me to stress my own ideas and creativity and instincts. I studied with him and some traditional orchestration. What appealed to me about film music was that you could be doing something different on every job.
I moved to NYC after college and I got a scoring job soon after and was hooked.
I knew it was a film about Jeffrey Dahmer and didn’t know any specifics and I assumed it was a horror film, but then I met with the editor and director and realized it wasn’t at all a horror film. It’s about capturing two years of this person’s life as a teenager. It became apparent that as I was watching it, and Marc Meyers was very clear about it, that it was a coming of age story, except that the person was Jeffrey Dahmer. I wanted right off the bat to make sure the score was very subtle and we agreed that the music needed to be economical. I didn’t want to get in the way of anything.
The score was a layer that would add to it. It’s like you said at the beginning that we all know the story or most of us do. There’s a certain demographic where people under the age of 24 don’t know how this story ends. So, it was interesting to work on a film where some people knew how it ended and some didn’t. Our collective approach is not about giving too much away and we only wanted to be where Jeffrey was in that moment.
How would you describe the soundscape of the film?
Every film is different and I try to be open-minded with each film I do. I look at each one as their own world each time around. With this, I’d describe the score as a subtle ambiance unsettling mood.
I decided early on that I didn’t want any instruments that were recognizable.I didn’t want it to be a distraction at all. We had a simple piano melody but I created the sounds electronically with a weird old keyboard and recorded some acoustic instruments so you couldn’t tell the original source.
I thought it would be distracting if you could tell the instrument. So much of the film is under the surface because he’s repressing all these feelings, so keeping the music like that would give everything that darker side. The music was about experimenting with sounds and colors to create that sonic palette.
The music gets darker with his character and there’s virtually no score at the end.
Working backward, there’s no score on the last reel which is probably the last 20 minutes of the film. We let those moments be completely bare. There’s nothing happening in that environment and it turned out to be so effective. The tension was left to the performance.
The evolution is static, there is a midway point where things turn darker, I started taking the low register lower and sparingly used the higher registers to give it weight.
When was that decision made to strip it out? Sometimes it goes in the editing.
I don’t think they ever had it in those scenes. I think they knew early on they didn’t need it, but we had all agreed it was working and it was already scary without the music.
Was there a scene that you enjoyed scoring?
I will watch the film and I’ll write and record a bunch of music when I’m not looking at the picture. I composed some themes and Marc had some ideas about playing with where the music would go. The opening was so interesting because it had to bring you into the world, but stay neutral. I had to dial things up and dial things back and that had an impact on how the rest of the film played out. So, that was a lot of fun.
There’s also that scene later when he’s imagining the murder where dark music played. The music in that was all about shifting these layers of dark sounds to create that music and experiment with it. What you hear is this rumbling and it was fun to play with these sounds to help move things along.
Is this the darkest project you’ve worked on?
Yes. I had actually joked about wanting to work on something like this and as soon as I joked, I got the call for this. It really was one of those great things about putting it out into the universe. It’s so psychological and it’s super intense as you say. Musically, it’s rich with a lot to dig into.