The last time we caught up with composer Giona Ostinelli, he discussed his intriguing collaborations with Mickey Keating, and after the release of Carnage Park last summer, Ostinelli has kept busy creating unnerving music for Spike's The Mist TV series. Daily Dead had the pleasure of touching base with Giona once again for our latest Q&A to discuss conjuring creepy chords for the Stephen King adaptation.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us again, Giona. How did you get involved as the composer for Spike’s new The Mist TV series?
Giona Ostinelli: Thank you for having me, it’s always a pleasure! Well, I was hiking and suddenly the sun disappeared under a thick layer of fog. I tried making a phone call but, of course, there was no phone reception whatsoever and so I decided to wait it out until the sun comes back again. All of a sudden I heard voices whispering to me: “The Misssssst…. The Misssssst……”
Jokes aside, I met with Christian Torpe, the showrunner, very early on in the process. I’ve seen Christian’s previous work and knew he was a fantastic writer, so when I learned he was going to lead The Mist adaptation, I was curious to find out more. When we first met, I immediately felt a real kinship with his creative sensibilities. It is always hard to adapt a book as iconic as The Mist, especially considering that it is only 200 pages long and basically takes place in one location, however, Christian had a unique take on the novella, and I was immediately hooked.
In our previous Q&A, you mentioned that the monsters in Stephen King’s The Mist gave you quite a scare when you were growing up. Were you a big fan of King and The Mist in particular in your formative years?
Giona Ostinelli: Ah! Really good memory!! Yes, I first read The Mist when I was a kid, I loved it and hated it at the same time because it got me so scared, especially since I was growing up in a small mountain village in Switzerland where it is quite misty during both fall and winter. I enjoyed very much reading King’s books while growing up. It is definitely a special feeling to be able to score The Mist, especially since it was the book that first introduced me to the fascinating universe of Stephen King.
What type of emotional tone did you set out to achieve with your music for The Mist?
Giona Ostinelli: Christian first described his vision behind the score to me as “hauntingly beautiful and terrifying, with touches of insanity.” And that is where it all started. One of my main goals while composing for the series was to create an effective differentiation between the mist environment and the characters, who have to fear as much what’s within themselves as they fear the unknown in the mist. With the characters, I was aiming to portray the complexity of their emotions. The Mist is a very thematic score. Just as the story and the characters develop throughout the season, their music themes develop as well. There is a nature theme, which often goes together with Natalie’s bending, detuned piano motive. Alex has her own theme, and so does her relationship with Jay. Kevin and Eve have their family theme, Kevin and Mike have a theme portraying their relationship—this theme is being developed in episode five. Mia has her theme and so does her relationship with Jonah/Bryan, and Adrian has his peculiar minor-major theme, just to name a few.
Besides that, there are other textures and sonorities related to specific situations. There is a pulsating ostinato bass line appearing every time our characters are moving somewhere, there is a low staccato piano motive, which appears often when someone is about to do something not so nice, there is another interesting reoccurring sound, water pipes, which was kindly provided by my old and broken water boiler, still useful for something! That’s a problem with being a composer—everything makes noise, and you can transform this noise into a great sound or a rhythmic device. Hence, sooner or later you run out of space to put all this stuff. #doesanyonehavesomestoragespace? Anyways, unlike with the characters, I didn’t want to give the mist a specific theme, but rather a complex, terrifying texture—more of a presence. Our characters don’t know what is out there in the mist and I wanted to reflect that uncertainty musically.
What types of instruments and sounds did you utilize for The Mist score?
Giona Ostinelli: My frequent collaborator and score producer for The Mist, Sonya Belousova, and I started by recording various regular (pianos, solo strings, dulcimers) and less ordinary instruments and sounds (tibetan bowls, wood benches, breaths, screams, and vocal rhythmic patterns, clocks), sampling them and applying some magic to achieve the mist texture. With the characters, on the other hand, I went for an intimate and fragile sound of chamber strings and detuned pianos. There are a lot of pianos in this score, however they aren’t always recognizable in a way you would expect a piano to sound.
First, there are detuned pianos. Our characters are imperfect. Their flawed nature is being brought out by the mist, their dark secrets revealed. A perfectly tuned piano just wasn’t right, it had to be something imperfect. We detuned several pianos to portray the brokenness of our characters.
Second, I wanted to use a piano in an unusual way. I wanted to use it more like a tension-building, rhythmic element, to explore how to create suspenseful textures without actually hitting the black and white keys. To achieve that, we recorded phrases by hitting the piano strings with various mallets, creating rhythmic patterns by bowing the strings with the little dulcimer bows, first softly and gently and other times harshly and aggressively—that sounded like when you saw a log. And yes, that particular sound is present in almost every action cue throughout the season.
We plucked the strings with coins and all the various tools you could possibly imagine, everything I had laying around the studio at that time, in order to create pulsating phrases that I could use to build tension. We also used the piano bench as a percussion to create rhythms. Lots of these elements became a part of the complex textures I used for the mist character. On top of that, I wanted to explore how to utilize the voice in a manner other than singing, more like a rhythmic percussive instrument. So what we did was record lots of rhythmic breaths, phrases, accents, and different patters utilizing strong syllables (like tike-tike-tike or tike-tike-tike-ta) and other elements.
This was the initial step of the process. We spent probably a week in the studio recording and sampling the pianos alone, and then another week recording all the other weird things and instruments you could possibly think of, then importing them into the computer and creating interesting sounds. I did all of this while they were shooting the first episode and there wasn’t any actual footage yet to start working on. And lastly, there are strings. We recorded a small strings section. I deliberately didn’t want to use big, lush strings, but rather a small section with its beautiful fragile sound. The intimacy of this sound reflects perfectly the feelings of our characters.
How much creative freedom did you have in creating the score for The Mist?
Giona Ostinelli: That’s a great question! Creative freedom is an interesting definition when it comes to scoring for films and television. What I mean by that is there is always a film itself that guides you towards a particular direction, there is a director or showrunner, producers, studio or network—everyone has a specific vision in mind and everyone’s notes will need to be addressed. All of the above sets a certain framework. However, within this framework it is up to you to get as creative as you want. As I mentioned, with The Mist, I started building the sound palette for the series before I even had any footage to work with. I always try to get on board very early to write a temp score and start building the thematic material while the editors are working on the early cuts. And yes, this means I am on a project for waaaaay longer, however it is much more rewarding to find that unique singular voice from the very early stages. This way I can get everyone from the showrunner and the producers to the editors much more excited. Creatively, it makes a difference jumping into the unknown from the very beginning without a guide track. This way you can build your own music universe.
Is there a favorite scene in particular that you enjoyed scoring for the series?
Giona Ostinelli: In a good show it is always hard to pick a favorite scene since there are so many of them that are truly great. Without spoiling the series for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I’ll pick a specific theme instead. I really like how the nature theme slowly develops from episode one, progressing and taking more shape throughout the season, evolving from literally nothing, from one simple pad, reaching its climax at the end in episode ten. On the soundtrack, "Nature Can Be So Cruel" is the full version of this theme, which quickly became one of my favorite themes for the show. It is always performed by a string quartet and has a beautiful haunting quality, definitely “with touches of insanity” as it becomes one with Natalie’s bending detuned piano motive. This track concludes with five haunting strings chords resolving into an unexpected major at the end. Without any spoilers, I truly love how this works with the scene, beautiful and cathartic, grand instead of sad.
What are the differences in scoring for a TV series compared to scoring for films?
Giona Ostinelli: Honestly, scoring for films vs. scoring for television is not that different anymore. I wish I had a more complex explanation outlining all the differences. Truthfully, nowadays more and more TV shows become like an extended film and therefore the approach transforms into a more cinematic one as well. The only real difference musically is in TV you get an opportunity to explore and develop the thematic material more extensively. There are still a lot of shows with a weekly delivery schedule where from the moment you start composing until the dub mix there is approximately a week. In our case, we started working on the episodes sequentially, however, The Mist was treated with a very cinematic approach. At some point I ended up working on all ten episodes at the same time, which was great because I was able to really see how the score develops, any cool ideas that I would get in later episodes I was then able to introduce in earlier episodes and create really nice arches. I definitely love this way of working because I am able to really develop the material and play around with it.
If the show receives a second season, have you thought of how you might approach the music for the series moving forward?
Giona Ostinelli: This will all depend on what Christian will have in store for us. Certainly, the tone and a lot of themes will stay, however the music will keep developing alongside the characters as the storyline progresses. Though, I would love to incorporate Swiss Alphorns and yodeling at some point because they truly deserve more prime time in contemporary scores. I would love to demonstrate how terrifying yodeling could be. ;-)
With The Mist wrapping up its first season on Spike and your score for the first season now available, what other projects do you have on deck that you can tease, and where can our readers find you online?
Giona Ostinelli: I have two awesome films coming out this fall: the female-driven drama thriller M.F.A. starring Francesca Eastwood and Clifton Collins Jr., co-composed with Sonya Belousova, and the neo-noir drama Like Me with Addison Timlin. Both are musically quite different, and also are very contrasting from The Mist. The score for Like Me could be described as “organized chaos” reflecting the eclectic storyline of the film. It’s a mix of everything from ’80s jazz to experimental electronics to traditional orchestral. The score for M.F.A. is fully electronic, featuring Eastwood’s beautiful low voice. The soundtrack will be available on Lakeshore Records later this fall. That is actually what I’m putting together right now. Lastly, The Mist score has just been released on BMG Records and is available via your favorite digital retailers: iTunes, Amazon, Spotify. Check it out!
To learn more about Ostinelli and his work, visit his official website.
Photo credit: Above photo by Tim Navies via Giona Ostinelli's official website.