The composer talks about creating the music for the hellish landscape of this year’s prolific horror film.
Throughout Ari Aster’s incredible horror opus Midsommar, we hear the gentle lull of music. As the core of characters find themselves in more ominous situations, the music intensifies and enhances our dread and terror before diving us into a fanatical hell in the unforgettable finale. Composer Bobby Krlic worked closely with Aster to deliver a score unlike any other heard this year, and it’s definitely not your typical horror film soundtrack.
Midsommar starts with a heavy introduction for Florence Pugh’s Dani. After the sudden and violent loss of her family, she travels with her boyfriend and his friends to Sweden to witness the festivities of a secluded commune. There’s beautiful, traditional sound to Krlic’s music when we first arrive, but there is level of dread just out of earshot. It’s like we can almost hear danger coming, but Krlic’s score soothes us and hushes any fears.
People sometimes turn their nose up at horror films and think that the music only serves to startle its viewers. Midsommar is entirely different, however, and it builds to a roaring finale so exquisitely shocking that you can’t help but smile along with Dani.
Awards Daily: What was your first reaction to this crazy material?
Bobby Krlic: The first version that came to me was, I believe, the first version that Ari had written. It’s hard to give my first impression of the film without talking about Ari since it’s all colored by him. When we first met each other, he came to my house. It was before Hereditary, so no one really knew who he was, and he had done these fantastic short films at that point. I remember watching those and thinking he was a genius. He had a sensibility that reminded me a lot of Todd Solondz, who is a filmmaker that I really love.
AD: Oh, I love him!
BK: Yeah, Happiness was a film that I thought was really unique. I remember feeling that same feeling when I was getting to know Ari. I have always been obsessive about film, so we really hit it off together. When I read the script, I already had in mind Ari’s sensibility when it came to the characters. I remember thinking that it was going to be a film that we really haven’t seen before, especially in the realm of storytelling.
AD: I loved the visuals of Midsommar. I thought that they were even stronger than they were when he did Hereditary.
BK: When I started getting dailies, it was exciting but also intimidating. I had to do something to this to do it justice. I had to elevate it in some way, because when you get something that methodically composed and put together, you just don’t want to mess it up.
AD: Unlike a lot of other horror scores, Midsommar doesn’t feel ironic. It doesn’t feel like we are winking at these characters. The music feels genuine and organic in terms of the characters and their motivations, especially when we get to the dreamy location.
AD: If I can ask about some specific pieces of music?
AD: At the beginning we see what Dani is dealing with and the story already punches us in the face…
BK: Yes. (Laughs)
AD: The track ‘Gassed’ integrates sounds that don’t typically sound like they’d be in a traditional score. On the soundtrack, it begins with Dani’s wailing and then blends with the striking of strings, which also sound like car horns blaring.
AD: And then it leads into these great drums as the credits roll and the title card comes up. Can you talk about integrating regular sounds with the music?
BK: I try to do that with a lot of things I do anyway. That was a big thing that Ari and I talked about. It has to feel like it is mixed in. It can’t feel like it’s placed on top of it and it serves the story. I was lucky to meet Ari so early, so he shared a lot of the production design and the sound design. I felt like when it got to doing the actual meat of the scoring, I’d lived inside the world of Midsommar for a very long time. I really met him in January of 2017, so we’ve been talking about this film for at least a year.
BK: Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting world to have in your head.
AD: I couldn’t do that. (Laughs)
BK: With that scene in particular there were several things going on. There were strings, mostly violas, sounding like the sirens of the fire engines. We did want the cuts to emphasize strings, and obviously with Dani’s strife, the strings get more out of control. The other intention of that also—and not just in the music but in the scene that builds—you lull the audience into thinking the film is going to be something. Especially if you are coming out of Hereditary. We were setting up the audience for something that they have no idea that they are going to get. We wanted to do that with the score. We didn’t want to have any traditional horror tropes.
AD: Sometimes when we think of music in a horror film, we think of jumpy cues or large smashes of music, but the string melody in ‘The House That Hårga Built’ is actually quite beautiful. That surprised me, how much it felt very authentic to the characters and lent itself to the atmosphere.
BK: I’m such a huge fan of a composer named Nelson Riddle who was this in-house composer for Capitol in the ’50s and ’60s, so he’d do all the Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra arrangements. That was the type of music that Ari and I talked about a lot. We did want it to have this dreamy. . .Disney-esque, fantastical element. We wanted to really introduce that, not just because of the landscape but Dani has this huge trauma laying over her for such a long time. When they walk into that building and there’s that huge tapestry, everything is coming together in her mind and we see her a little more weightless. There’s so much heaviness and it’s all suddenly lifted, and the intention was for the score to really lift her up on this journey.
AD: That’s like the most depressing version of Alice in Wonderland I’ve ever heard.
BK: I know!
AD: She’s been through so much crap and she thinks everything is going to be great. . .
AD: I was going to ask if you scored to picture and if that was difficult because of the content, but I guess you were kind of used to it since you were so in tune with Ari the whole time. It’s so heightened and unlike any horror movie I’ve ever seen, so I was curious if living in that horror space was heavy.
BK: This is probably going to make me sound fucked up, but there’s a real elegance and beauty to how Ari handled everything. I think it’s a very female positive film, and Jack Reynor’s character is a total fucking dick. It’s a revenge fantasy, at the end of the day. It’s kind of comedic—it made us laugh a lot while we made it. You know, the way he made the film, Ari doesn’t cast the Hårgans as evil people.
AD: No, he doesn’t.
BK: It’s kind of the same line as finding an ancient tribe in another country. It’s just how these people live. When the test happens, it is explained that it’s a real honor, and that’s how I approached doing the music for them as well. Not to say that it’s not disturbing. I don’t think it’s made in a judgmental way. Dani ends up winning and feels very empowered, even though there are easier ways of doing that. (Laughs)
AD: I read some instruments were created for the film?
BK: Well, I didn’t personally make them, but alongside the score itself is the music of the Hårgans, and I was responsible for making that music also. For that music, there was a lot of research into old Scandinavian instruments and a specific choral language that we had to use. We did have instrument makers on board that made these handcrafted cellos and that kind of stuff that made the music of Hårgans. We went out to Hungary to record these crazy instruments.
AD: So you had to create music for that weird breathing-singing sex ritual at the end, too?
AD: That’s not something a composer would typically have to create.
BK: I want to give credit to Jessika Kenney who helped me out. She’s a fantastic collaborator and musician who helped me with [it]. I believe she has a doctorate degree in the interpretation of sacred texts into song.
AD: That’s really cool.
BK: Yeah, she was amazing to work with.
AD: I wanted to ask about the music in the finale, because the music there really terrified me.
AD: As we are watching the final ritual, it feels like we are being lulled into it. Sort of how you described it before. And then it takes this sharp turn and it descends into hell. Can you tell me about creating that 9-minute piece of music for the ending?
BK: Well, thank you for saying that. Since first reading the script, Ari and I talked about the final act being one piece of continuous music, so that was always in the back of my mind. It ended up being one of the first pieces of music, because it would inform the rest of the film by bringing theses themes together. The intention of it really was Christian in this homemade wheelchair and Dani has to make this decision. Is she going to exact her vengeance on him or not? When they look at each other, they have this emotional, schmaltzy buildup until it leaves you with a cliffhanger. Then they are wheeling the wheelbarrows. We wanted it to have pastoral elements to it, and then as it builds momentum and we see Christian in the bear suit, we take a swerve and go darker.
AD: Yeah. . .
BK: As it’s burning and everyone is screaming, we wanted to dive-bomb into that madness. Basically everything on screen has to be multiplied by the music. Take every emotional turn, exactly as it happens, and then it twists into craziness. When it settles on Dani, it coalesces and realigns itself on this triumphant melody for her—this ascension or crescendo with her smiling. Kind of like ‘the job’s done.’ It was important that it’s horrific when it’s supposed to be. It’s only horrific to us when it’s horrific to them. We have to be true to the characters. We wanted it to feel like a win for Dani.
AD: I showed the movie to my husband, and he was stunned. He’s a big horror fan, but he admitted to me that he wasn’t ready for what Midsommar gave him. And I think he was giving me a little side-eye after it ended, too.
BK: (Laughs) And I think that’s why it’s so powerful. You are not left with the whole thing tied up. Ari gives you a lot to think about when the credits roll.
AD: I think that’s what good horror does. You mentioned laughing a lot while making it, and I’ve laughed throughout the movie every time I’ve watched it. It’s so ridiculous and over-the-top.
BK: It’s absurd. Ari loved Peter Greenaway and we talked about how he’s worked a lot with Michael Nyman. When you have this bombastic imagery with bombastic, pretty music, it ends up being kind of funny. We would try to describe the film a lot, and he would describe it as The Wizard of Oz for perverts. I thought that was great.
AD: I love that! That’s a twisted and surprisingly apt description.