Hitting the big screen in New York City and VOD platforms on July 1st before making its Los Angeles theatrical debut on July 8th from IFC Midnight, Mickey Keating’s Carnage Park marks his fourth feature film collaboration with acclaimed composer Giona Ostinelli. For our latest Q&A feature, we caught up with Ostinelli to discuss working with Keating, using a wide range of instruments and items (including a nail gun) to create unease in Carnage Park, and much more.
Giona, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Your score for Carnage Park marks your fourth collaboration with director Mickey Keating. What first attracted you to Keating’s work?
Giona Ostinelli: Thanks so much for having me! Yes indeed, Mickey Keating and I have collaborated on four films. Our first film together, Ritual, was acquired by Lionsgate; our second film, Pod, was released theatrically with the soundtrack shortlisted for the Academy Awards for Best Original Score; our third film, Darling, came out in theaters in April and was named “the best horror movie of 2016," with my original score being described as “one of the most interesting and innovative soundscapes” by the International Film Music Critics. The soundtrack for Darling was released by Lakeshore Records and is coming out on vinyl from Mondo Records. And lastly, Carnage Park had a powerful premiere at Sundance and then enjoyed rave reviews at SXSW. It’s coming out theatrically in July, and I’m excited to be partnering with Lakeshore Records again, who will be releasing the soundtrack shortly after.
Eric Fleischman, the producer for both Carnage Park and Ritual, first introduced Mickey and I. Mickey possesses an incredible amount of enthusiasm, passion, and energy, as well as an impressive encyclopedic knowledge of films. The thrilling aspect of working with Mickey is that he’s always looking for something incredibly particular, completely the opposite from his previous film, something that no one else has ever heard before. Therefore it’s always exciting to have this opportunity of creating something unique and fresh with a lot of character.
Keating takes a different approach to the horror genre with each of his films. Has that allowed you to play with different musical styles on his projects?
Giona Ostinelli: Absolutely. The great thing about working with Mickey is that he loves challenging himself and his team. Mickey is always looking for something new, fresh, and unique, and therefore that presents a great opportunity for me to experiment by exploring new sonorities, new territories, and thinking completely outside the box. For instance, the score for Pod had a ’70s sci-fi vibe to it, which, by the way, wasn’t the initial intent. After a bit of experimentation, I wrote a cue with this ’70s sci-fi feeling and Mickey simply loved it. Then we realized the film needed that vibe.
Darling was completely different from Pod. Being almost a silent film, the music had to play a major role by basically becoming another character that’s always present. It’s a rare opportunity in today’s film industry, as well as a major challenge since the score had to be incredibly distinctive and focused, guiding the audience through the film with confidence. The scoring process involved a lot of experimentation. The main idea was to create the sound of Darling by using acoustic instruments and then transforming and modifying their sound as much as possible.
For example, Mickey had a brilliant idea of incorporating a waterphone into the score. After I purchased one, I started playing around with it, trying to come up with curious ways of producing the sound out of this unusual instrument and recording various eerie textures. Afterwards, I took all the recorded material and started experimenting with distortion, delay, various amplifiers, etc. Waterphone ended up being one of the main instruments in the score.
Another example is the House theme. The House is an important character in Darling, as important as Darling herself. The score had to reflect that presence by giving the House a singular and memorable voice. I was able to achieve a particular sound by creating a hallucinatory soundscape featuring a heavily distorted ondes Martenot combined with various layers of piano going through a reversed piano effect. Ondes Martenot, a rare vintage instrument, was recorded for me in France, and I later on amplified it with Marshall amps, just like you would with a guitar, as well as enhanced it with delay and heavy distortion. In fact, the howling sound that you hear at the very beginning of the film is that transformed ondes Martenot.
Another fun example, for the score of Darling I recorded the sound of electricity, and I literally mean electricity. One of the film's signature elements is disturbing flashing images onscreen combined with heavy sound design. My team and I went near a transmission tower and recorded the sound of electricity there. Then I took the recording back to my studio, enhanced and distorted it, and transformed it into a disturbing sound, which shocks the audience every time those flashes appear onscreen.
If you’d like to read more regarding the scoring process for Darling and all the interesting sound transformations I was able to achieve, you can visit my blog where I talk extensively about it:
After the incredible sound experience of Darling, I wanted to challenge myself even more with Carnage Park, and of course Mickey was all in. Carnage Park is a neo-Western action thriller and it presented a very curious puzzle to solve. I wanted to write a Western-type of score without sounding anything like the great Ennio Morricone’s scores. I wanted to include the traditional genre instruments like guitars and whistles, however, at the same time reinvent the genre in a way. Not an easy task for sure.
To achieve that, there was a lot of experimentation involved: I recorded the acoustic piano and then fed the signal through a Marshall amplifier. I even blew onto the piano strings and recorded the resonance of the vibrating strings. I recorded the breath and then completely processed it and utilized it as a rhythmical element. I also recorded a string quartet and then transformed and modified its sound into something completely disturbing and terrifying. I wanted to demonstrate how frightening and sinister a string quartet could be as a sound.
So yes, I’m always thrilled to work with Mickey because he always has an intriguing musical puzzle for me to solve and I’m always up for a challenge!
Keating’s latest film, Carnage Park, takes place in the late ’70s and looks like it has a gritty grindhouse atmosphere. What musical elements did you incorporate into the score based on the film’s throwback setting?
Giona Ostinelli: With Carnage Park being a neo-Western set in the ’70s, I wanted to incorporate as many elements as I could from the appropriate settings. The first element, as well as the first sound we hear in the film, is an acoustic guitar. Mickey and I discussed at length utilizing an acoustic guitar that would sound far away, being a part of the vast scenery. Another element is a flute that represents our main character, Vivian Fontaine, played by Ashley Bell. Her theme is a very ’70s-type atonal melody, and I specifically recorded the flute in a way to make it sound exactly like those ’70s films. The flute also adds a great contrast to the overall score, as its color is completely the opposite from the rest of the sonorities—the flute’s pure sound contrasts with the eerie, harsh, and violent soundscape.
We also recorded various flute effects, including blowing through the flute without producing a single note to recreate the sound of the wind, the feeling of the emptiness of the desert. Another important element is whistling. I intentionally didn’t want to imitate the famous Morricone type of whistling; I wanted to bring up a darker side of it. And so I recorded a whistler who was able to add discordant sub-harmonics to the usual whistle, which made it just perfect for Carnage Park.
The other crucial element to the score is how it was recorded. At the very beginning, one thing that Mickey and I discussed at length was for the score to sound like it was done in the ’70s and to retain the fuzziness that those scores had. Nowadays, the recording technology has advanced so much that we’re always getting a crystal clear sound. To be able to reproduce the fuzziness of the ’70s era without having to pull out the old tape machine and record on tape, I had to find other ways to do so. For example, one of the reasons why I had a piano going through an amplifier was because the amp added a bit of distortion to the clean piano sound and eliminated a substantial amount of depth, making the sound closer to what Mickey envisioned.
Did any movies or bands influence or inspire you while working on the score for Carnage Park?
Giona Ostinelli: When I start working on a project, I try not to seek inspiration from other movies or composers, simply because then I don’t feel like I’m creating anything new, but rather trying to imitate my influences. For Carnage Park, the inspiration came first of all from reading the script, then having long conversations with Mickey discussing ideas and themes, and lastly, from the picture itself. In my experience, I always find it extremely beneficial building the thematic material of the film before having the actual cut to work with. In a way, working from the cut only gives you certain limitations.
Creating music ideas early on in the process allows you to build a strong and unique voice from the very beginning, as well as avoids the entrapment of those limits set by the images. Therefore, I’m free to go way beyond those limits and explore sonorities and sounds that at first glance don’t even belong. Of course, during this process I would exchange my music thoughts with the director and we would discuss at length. These ideas are also helpful because directors can play them on set to help the actors get into the mood of a certain scene. I then give these ideas to the editor, who would use them for editing and even temping the film. And then you can immediately see what works and what doesn’t, and evolve from there.
Once I have the actual cut, I start refining these ideas and working to picture. During this process, Mickey comes over to my studio quite often and I show him new material. I really enjoy this part of the process because scoring a film is like solving a puzzle, and there are times when you get stuck not knowing how to solve this puzzle. When a director comes over and sees the film with the music for the first time, he then starts getting ideas, why don’t we try this or this, and then I get inspired from his ideas and so on. This is what I absolutely love about scoring films: the collaboration with artists.
Looking back, what was the most challenging scene and the most fun scene, respectively, to score in Carnage Park?
Giona Ostinelli: That’s a great question! There was one particular scene in Carnage Park that was extremely challenging. In this scene, Vivian Fontaine is walking around exploring the desert. The scene is roughly eight minutes long and is continuously cut between Vivian’s character and Alan Ruck’s Sheriff Moss. Mickey envisioned this long scene as basically a “ballet” between the two characters, which are both in two different locations, but are somehow connected. The challenging aspect of this scene was to find the right rhythm for their ballet, especially because it had to carry on not just for one or two minutes, but for the entire duration of the scene.
Moreover, the score had to perfectly match the editing pace between the characters. It was definitely challenging to find that balance between two themes, how present or subtle they should sound, how upfront the rhythm should be, etc. On top of that, every single detail throughout the eight-minute scene had to be captured in the score in a subtle way. I ended up writing something like 15 or 16 versions, which is basically 90 minutes of music for this scene alone. For this particular scene, I felt like I was Dante in a way and Mickey was Virgil—he guided me masterfully through this impossible task and we came out with an amazing result.
Regarding the most fun scene, well, every single scene was a blast to work on, however, around the end of the film there’s a scene where Vivian is inside the shack and getting attacked by Wyatt Moss [Pat Healy]. For this frantic and violent scene, I needed to utilize a percussive instrument that would reflect Wyatt’s vicious intrusion and hit the audience with the same effect. Somehow, none of the acoustic percussion really worked for me. For some reason, I had an absolutely random thought of recording a nail gun... And guess what, the nail gun revealed itself to be the best percussion instrument ever for this specific scene with its powerful punching sound. It was so much fun playing around with it, producing and recording various hits. As you can imagine, it’s quite a difficult instrument that requires years of training to master the technique!
What types of instruments and sounds did you utilize to create unease in Carnage Park?
Giona Ostinelli: Carnage Park had plenty of very specific instrumental choices. First, I intentionally wanted to either stay away as much as possible from the traditional instruments you hear in a score, or fully transform those sounds into something new. I recorded piano, string quartet, guitars, whistling, breaths, etc. However, then I heavily processed the sound and applied various effects like distortion, delays, and amplifiers to achieve a different quality of the sound. I recorded an electric cello that was then used to create an eerie soundscape, and it also took the lead in one of the climaxing scenes with its piercing, disturbing sound.
I “prepared” the piano and recorded unusual effects and hits on it. I threw batteries onto the piano strings, plucked them, blew onto the strings to record the resonance. Breathing is an important element of the score as well; I used it as a rhythmic device and a percussive element. As I mentioned above, I also recorded flutes, as well as effects like blowing through the flute without producing any notes to recreate the sound of the wind. I also used a lot of percussion instruments. Being a drummer and percussionist myself, I’m naturally very picky when it comes to percussion. For Carnage Park, I detuned a surdo and a big taiko drum.
And, of course, the famous nail gun. A nail gun produces such a violent and powerful sound that it was just perfect for the film. To give a constant but subtle rhythm to a couple of scenes, I utilized the noise produced by the pedal of the piano. Its percussive sound is so interesting, it naturally has a lot of decay—it’s subtle but ominous at the same time.
Usually when you score a film, you first write the music and then go to the studio to record it. However, with Carnage Park it was the opposite. I soon realized that in order to create something really particular, I needed to go to the studio first, and that’s what I did. Then I took the recorded material back to my studio and started using the string quartet phrases as the main composing tool, slowly adding other recorded effects and sounds on top. The final result of these experiments was a powerful and disturbing sound. And the best part is that you don’t really recognize what instruments are producing this sound. Once the score was written and approved, I went back to the studio and recorded more straightforward types of instruments like flutes and percussion.
Were you a big fan of horror movies growing up? Were there any film scores that you heard in your formative years that have stuck with you and still influence or inspire you?
Giona Ostinelli: Honestly, I have a terrible confession to make. I’m actually a person who gets scared really easily and therefore I’ve always been terrified of watching horror films. I remember as a kid reading Stephen King’s The Mist, and the monsters scared me immensely. However—I know this will sound like a paradox—I love scoring horror films. I simply love creating a score that will keep the audience on their toes and on the edges of their seats throughout. I enjoy thinking and planning how to score a scene in an unpredictable way to get the audience scared. Moreover, horror films provide a fantastic opportunity to experiment with various sounds and soundscapes, creating something less traditional and more particular. I love working on horror films because I’m in control regarding where, when, and how to scare the audience, and therefore I’m less enthusiastic watching horror films because in that situation I’m not in control anymore.
When I was a kid, there were a few films that most definitely inspired me to pursue a career of a film composer: The Goonies, the Back to the Future trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Jurassic Park. In fact, I used to watch Jurassic Park so often that I knew every single line of every actor by memory. The scores for all these films are incredibly inspiring, and I never get tired of listening to them over and over again. What I admire about these films is how memorable the scores are, which is a result of amazing thematic writing. I bet that if you heard ten seconds of Jurassic Park, Robin Hood, or Indiana Jones on the radio, you would immediately recognize them! Not that I want to write in the style of John Williams or Alan Silvestri, however, I like using these scores as an inspiration in always striving to create something as memorable as those classic scores.
With Carnage Park coming out in theaters and on VOD this July from IFC Midnight, what projects do you have on deck that you can tease for our readers? Also, where can our readers find you online?
Giona Ostinelli: I’m currently co-producing an album with Sonya Belousova, the composer, pianist, and star of the Player Piano music series that has gained over 11 million views in a record time, initially executive produced by Stan Lee. My soundtrack for Carnage Park is being released later this month by Lakeshore Records, with whom I previously worked on Darling, which is now available on digital platforms like iTunes and Amazon, as well as on CD. Very soon, Mondo Records is releasing my soundtrack for Darling on vinyl, which I’m incredibly excited about.
My wonderful agent Becca Nelson of Air Edel is currently finishing the negotiation process regarding two films. My score for Nickelodeon’s The Massively Mixed-Up Middle School Mystery has been nominated for the Jerry Goldsmith Awards, so I’m planning a quick trip to Spain for the awards ceremony and concert in July. Moreover, The Boat Builder, starring Christopher Lloyd and Jane Kaczmarek, as well as Carter High with Charles Dutton and Vivica Fox, are both scheduled for release later this year.
All the news about my projects, as well as my selected soundtracks, is available on my official website:
Here’s a direct link to my blog, where I break down some of my scores by elements and extensively discuss the scoring process:
To give Daily Dead readers a tease of what their ears will experience, here are select samples from Giona Ostinelli's Carnage Park score: