10 Cloverfield Lane

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On June 2nd, 2014, I sat alone wearing scrubs and a hospital mask, in a corridor outside a labor and delivery room. The hall was eerily quiet, despite the crescendo of flurrying activity on the other side of the heavy doors. Fighting off claustrophobia induced by my breath against the mask and anxiety ringing in my ears, I struggled to type an email on my phone to two producers at Bad Robot with whom I was scheduled to meet that very afternoon, about the possibility of scoring an exciting new thriller for them. When the meeting was set, I knew there was only one event that could prevent me from attending, and that event was about to happen. An hour later, I became a father. The meeting at Bad Robot would have to wait. Fortunately, everything worked out for the best.

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bad-robot-logoThis weekend marks the theatrical release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the critically-acclaimed new thriller from producer J.J. Abrams, and director Dan Trachtenberg. The film tells the story of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who wakes up after a terrible accident to find she’s locked in a cellar with a doomsday prepper named Howard (John Goodman), who insists that he saved her life and that the world outside is uninhabitable following an apocalyptic catastrophe. Produced by Bad Robot and Paramount, this film burst on to the scene last month with a new trailer and Super Bowl commercial, and has since electrified fan speculation.

Scoring 10 Cloverfield Lane was both a creative and personal revelation, and I’m thrilled to finally share my experiences collaborating with some of the most artistically energizing individuals in the entertainment industry.

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My journey on this film began nearly two years ago. The script was bound in enigmatic red cover pages with the iconic robot on the front, hand-delivered in a sealed envelope. I was riveted by the taut storytelling, and kept guessing at every turn. I immediately saw the potential for a fantastic film, and was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

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When I met director Dan Trachtenberg, I felt like I had known him for years. Though 10 Cloverfield Lane would be his first feature, I was already a huge fan of his work, having loved Portal: No Escape, his memorable and impressive short based on the beloved videogame franchise. We nerded out about our favorite film scores and composers. Any filmmaker who drops Ennio Morricone’s Two Mules for Sister Sara into the first five minutes of conversation is going to win me over, fast.

I was hired early, before the film was even cast, giving me over a year and a half to develop ideas. During this extended preproduction phase, I had long talks with Dan about our goals for the score. We knew the music could help the audience follow the main character Michelle on her journey of discovery, and provide an emotional core to the story. The music could also support the tension coming from threats both inside and outside the bunker. Furthermore, the score could provide an epic sense of scale.

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I had already begun sketching when I first met producer J.J. Abrams. I have been a huge fan of his work and narrative style for years, and was thrilled for the opportunity to collaborate so closely with him on 10 Cloverfield Lane. The day we met, I suspected we would get along. J.J. immediately brought up some of my favorite composers, citing the synth work of Jerry Goldsmith and the exotic orchestral colors of Bernard Herrmann. He described his love of melodic low string lines and screaming brass stabs, speaking with a specificity and knowledge of orchestral music that gave me confidence I could deliver the kind of score he had in mind. He allowed me freedom to push the score in a more orchestral direction. Walking out of our first meeting, I had the sensation that J.J. had just given me permission to write the score I’d always wanted to write.

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As the film went into production, I flew to New Orleans and spent a few days on set. Physically walking around Howard’s bunker triggered an instant claustrophobic impulse. I peered into dark air vents, stuffy concrete cells, and cramped corridors. These locations materialized in my imagination as musical sounds: deep synth textures, airy pads, oscillating low frequencies, and murky orchestral clusters. The space itself was singing to me.

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I returned to Los Angeles energized about the film’s sonic prospects. I wanted to represent the subterranean bunker with unique musical sounds, built from and inspired by the materials visible in the production design. I described my vision to my musical sound design team (spearheaded by Sam Ewing and Jonathan Chau, with special contributions by my frequent collaborator and sonic mad scientist Jonathan Snipes) and set them loose. They rented out a huge warehouse and sampled everything they could get their hands on: vents, barrels, shelving, powertools, canisters, buckets, saws, gongs, bricks, glass, aerosol spray cans, and clunky machinery. Painstakingly editing thousands of recordings, the team constructed an arsenal of virtual percussion instruments unique to this film, ranging from piercing percussive stabs to gentle ambient swells. In fact, one of the score’s most distinct colors resulted from this effort. The subtly distorted, echoing bells that permeate the film were actually built from samples of bowls recorded in that gigantic warehouse.

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While I was inspired by these percussive sounds, I knew they would be emotionally and melodically restricted. The score would need another color, something immediately distinct. Then it hit me: Blaster Beam!

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I first heard the Blaster Beam when I was a kid, as it is featured musically in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, one of my favorite Jerry Goldsmith scores. I was always fascinated by the otherworldly textures of the V’Ger Theme, and only discovered when I was older that the tones were produced by an instrument called a Blaster Beam. The experimental instrument was a refined model of an older design, built and performed by Craig Huxley, an accomplished musical prodigy who has collaborated with many of the world’s greatest musicians over the past few decades. I had always wanted to track Huxley down and work with him, to compose my own music for the iconic Blaster Beam. Suddenly, I had the perfect project.

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Craig was generous with his time and enthusiasm, and invited my team, the director and me to his home studio for a Blaster Beam crash course. When I saw the instrument, I was giddy and could barely believe my eyes. It can best be described as a 15-foot-long pedal steel guitar, resembling an alien spaceship that lumbered off the pages of Heavy Metal magazine in the 1970s. As soon as Craig played it, my imagination went into overdrive.

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The range of bass tones on this instrument is truly remarkable. The Blaster Beam can easily play far below the bottom A of a grand piano, the lowest string of an upright bass, or the deepest growls of a contrabassoon. This thing has bass in spades. Tones are produced by striking the strings with a bow, a mallet, or a large metal tube that acts like an oversized guitar slide. The strings resonate a pick-up, similar to an electric guitar. The sound is terrifying, familiar and yet alien. It is a sound that reminds me of the classic science fiction scoring of the 70s and 80s, and for good reason: Craig told me decades have passed since the last time the Blaster Beam was featured prominently in a film score! This knowledge only inspired me more to feature the instrument in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Blaster Beam can be heard in every single cue in the film. For the best example of the sound in isolation, check out the soundtrack album tracks “Hazmat Suit” (the entire first minute is built exclusively from layers of Blaster Beam) and the middle section of “Up Above.”

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I used the Blaster Beam to represent the bunker, but I still lacked a unique sound for the main character, Michelle. Dan Trachtenberg encouraged me to explore stranger and increasingly bold ideas.

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I decided to bring in an exotic Turkish stringed instrument called a yayli tanbur, played by my friend and frequent collaborator Malachai Bandy. Malachai has played the instrument for me before, notably throughout the third season of Da Vinci’s Demons. Here, I wanted the instrument featured in a completely different context, devoid of any world music associations. I wrote for the upper edge of the instrument’s practical range, resulting in a thin, metallic sound wholly different from the rich baritone timbre of its lower register. This approach yielded long, lyrical lines, evoking vocal expression, but with a subtly sinister metallic edge. For a perfect example of the tanbur in action, listen to “Michelle,” the first track of the soundtrack album.

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Malachai’s solo tanbur is the first (and final) sound of 10 Cloverfield Lane. The film’s opening was inspired by my mentor Elmer Bernstein. Elmer always said that a score’s opening seconds are the most important because you briefly have the audience’s full attention before they get involved in the visuals and the story. He recommended beginning a score with a single, distinct instrument that would represent the film. Elmer put this philosophy into practice on countless occasions: the childlike piano notes beginning To Kill a Mockingbird, the triangle solo counting off Walk on the Wild Side, the haunting Ondes Martenot introducing Ghostbusters, and so on. I wanted to try this technique on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and so I started the score with the ethereal tones of the tanbur. The first time J.J. Abrams heard my demo of that opening logo music, he turned to me after two seconds of tanbur and whispered, “That’s great! What is that?” J.J. was instantly intrigued and excited. I smiled to myself, taking a second to thank Elmer for the good advice.

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The tanbur is the instrumental representation of the Michelle Theme:

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I wrote the Michelle Theme with the tanbur’s distinct color and limited scalar motion in mind. The melody begins in E minor, but quickly moves from G natural up to G#, giving it the flavor of E major. In actuality, the theme sits above a harmonic foundation oscillating between E minor and C# minor, so the theme never incorporates a major chord at all until the end (C major). This unusual harmonic progression makes us struggle to identify whether the theme is major or minor, creating an emotional ambiguity that allows the audience to formulate their own opinion about Michelle.

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The Michelle Theme was directly inspired by the film’s daring opening montage: images of Michelle and her backstory without dialogue or sound effects. I wanted the audience to connect with the character, but still retain a sense of mystery about her situation. Getting the opening sequence to work musically was the key to making the entire score work. I was so inspired by the visual storytelling that the Michelle Theme came to me relatively quickly, almost immediately.

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While most cues go through a healthy series of revisions to dial in the details, this one surprisingly went through virtually none. Everyone, from Dan, to J.J. and the other producers, to the executives, responded immediately and positively to the musical approach of this opening sequence. What you hear in the final film is essentially my first draft. This happens rarely in the scoring business, and is clearly a sign I was energized by the material.

Michelle’s E minor and C# minor chord progression is also represented in another musical theme, a hypnotic backdrop of flowing strings Dan Trachtenberg affectionately referred to as the “Mystery Strings,” but I call the Mystery Ostinato:

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This figure weaves throughout the film, providing a mounting sense of mystery, wonder and suspense. As the film progresses, the orchestration of this idea gets increasingly powerful. This figure is introduced subtly over the Paramount Logo in the first 30 seconds of the film, and is featured prominently in the film’s closing scene, mirroring the narrative arc of the film.

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Of equal importance to the Michelle Theme is the Howard Theme:

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Played to terrifying perfection by John Goodman, Howard commands attention with a physical presence that dwarfs Michelle. Contrary to the character’s huge personality and physicality, the Howard Theme is musically quite small, representing his threat as psychological rather than physical. It is creepy and dissonant, most frequently played by the upper strings in glassy harmonics. Goodman delivers one of the most varied and powerful performances in his prolific career, and my musical task was simply to sit back, stay out of his way, and support him.

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The longer his theme is played in any given statement, the more the harmonic tension is increased. The first phrase is always a single line, feeling slightly strange. The second phrase introduces a more dissonant counterline, increasing the tension. For those rare occasions when I quote the third and fourth phrases, be prepared for parallel minor ninths, clashing harmonies that sound like nails on a chalkboard! Musically, I hope this has the effect of helping us question Howard’s motives. The longer his scenes are, the more the music raises questions.

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I was drawn to the idea of musical contrasts for both characters’ primary themes. Michelle seems to be a typical young American woman, and yet her theme is a harmonically ambiguous melody performed on an exotic instrument from the Middle East. Howard is a hulking, powerful doomsday prepper who craves control, and yet his theme is played by light, paper-thin string harmonics. Their themes seemingly play against their characters, but somehow the approach for both works effectively, heightening the mystery and tension.

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The human voice became one of the score’s more subtle, but still important, colors. I needed an ethereal vocal texture to add warmth and magic. For this, I turned to my frequent collaborator, Outlander Main Theme vocalist (and my wife) Raya Yarbrough. Raya stacked dozens of vocal tracks into a massive wall of sound, producing the richness of a choir, with the utterly unique sonic color that is her voice blending with itself. Check out the magical middle section of “Howard” for a great example of her choral texture.

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Despite the sheer volume of musical colors at my disposal, I always knew that 10 Cloverfield Lane needed to be a fully orchestral score that integrated exotic musical elements organically. I didn’t just bring in an orchestra, however; I brought in four. The four ensembles were recorded in three different studios to maximize the desired sound of each. While I strove to give each orchestra moments to shine, I also layered them on each other throughout the film, to provide the film a consistent sound.

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The first and smallest orchestra I wrote for is the Calder Quartet. I met these four gentlemen in our freshman music theory class at USC, and we have worked together on many scores over the years. Why use a quartet when I have a full orchestra at my disposal? Because the sound can be much more intense and intimate. When all four members of a string quartet play the same part in unison, they stop being a quartet; they become an orchestral section. Here, I treated the Calder Quartet as a unified orchestral section for the entire film, all four players playing the same notes together.

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The quartet most frequently provides blistering, intense tremolo lines, quick phrases that spark throughout the orchestral texture. Some of their passages easily rank among the most difficult music I have ever composed. (Behold “The Burn,” on the soundtrack album, to hear aching arms and fingers.). Undaunted, the Calder guys played to perfection. We recorded them in a tight little studio that places their sound right in your face. The Calder Quartet gives 10 Cloverfield Lane its frantic, restless texture.

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The second orchestra was the most exotic: a low string orchestra comprised of thirty celli and eight basses. No violins or violas. I treated the group like a traditional orchestra, dividing the celli into three sections and spreading them across the room in standard orchestral fashion. We recorded this group at The Bridge Recording in Glendale, a medium-sized room that would provide high impact and powerful low end. For mysterious passages, I gave each section its own own lyrical lines, resulting in a rich, sonorous sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before. For punchy ostinatos, I put everyone on the same groove, in three octaves, yielding an extremely aggressive sound. When featured alone, the low string orchestra punches through the mix like a jackhammer. When tucked beneath the other orchestras, the enormous cello and bass ensemble gives the score an other-worldly power in the low end. Listen to “The Concrete Cell” for a tour through all these different sounds.

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The other two orchestras were more traditional, but no less effective. We did a session of forty-five strings at the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Bros., and then three sessions of full symphonic orchestra, up to ninety players, also at Eastwood. These groups gave 10 Cloverfield Lane its epic sound, and greatly expanded my color palette to include muted trombones, stopped horns, fluttering flutes, string harmonics, and finger trills. These little flourishing touches were my tribute to the exotic colors of Debussy, Ravel, and Herrmann.

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All of these exotic instruments, percussion layers, vocals, and orchestras merged together into what I strove to make a cohesive whole. My goal was to create a sound that is unique to 10 Cloverfield Lane. This week, I had the privilege of attending the world premiere in New York City, where I could see the film with a fresh audience for the first time. Experiencing the waves of sound that washed over us, the rumble of the bass frequencies, and the crowd’s collective shock with each new twist was a revelatory experience, one of those rare moments in life when I’ve felt I know why I’m here.

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I am grateful to all my new friends at Paramount and Bad Robot for making this dream a reality. “Bear has written an incredible score for Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane,” producer J.J. Abrams said, when asked about the score. “It is tense, emotional music that gives the film scope and heart, augments the surprise and horror. It’s an homage to Herrmann, but wholly original at the same time. I’m deeply grateful to Bear for his contribution to this movie.”

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This score would not have been possible without the creative leadership of Dan Trachtenberg and J.J. Abrams. I would also like to thank Lindsey Weber, Jon Cohen, Ben Rosenblatt, Mike Silver, Stefan Grube, Robby Stambler and everyone at Bad Robot; Randy Spendlove, Kim Seiniger, and everyone at Paramount; Joanna Pane, Kaiyun Wong, Jonathan Snipes, Sam Ewing, Jonathan Chau, Michael Baber, Kyle Marie Colucci, Joe Augustine, Steve Kaplan, Peter Rotter, Richard Kraft, and my entire music team at Sparks & Shadows. Every step of the way, I felt supported, encouraged and creatively energized by you all.

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I am thrilled that my score for 10 Cloverfield Lane is finally out in the world, and that the soundtrack is available now from Sparks & Shadows, from iTunes, Amazon and your favorite digital retailers. For you collectors, the physical CD is on the way, so stay tuned for updates.

1. Michelle (6:08)
2. The Concrete Cell (8:29)
3. Howard (5:00)
4. A Bright Red Flash (2:53)
5. At the Door (3:00)
6. Two Stories (2:47)
7. Message From Megan (3:07)
8. Hazmat Suit (3:02)
9. A Happy Family (3:52)
10. The Burn (6:15)
11. Up Above (3:04)
12. Valencia (6:12)
13. The New Michelle (3:25)
14. 10 Cloverfield Lane (6:23)

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10 Cloverfield Lane allowed me to draw inspiration from my favorite composers, to work with inspiring filmmakers, to fulfill dreams of exotic instruments and experimental orchestras, and to write a melodic, thematically driven score in the style of those I have always admired. Looking back on the experience, however, one moment stands out against a blur of memorable moments. My entire journey on the film came full circle when I brought my daughter Sonatine, now nearly two years old, up to the orchestral podium to conduct with me. She stood facing the players with quiet awe as the intense sounds washed over us. She then raised her little arm and moved it up and down, imitating me, conducting a group of the finest orchestral musicians in the world.

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In that instant, I was overcome by a strangely satisfying sense of completion. I reflected back to the day Sonatine was born, when I sat in the hallway outside that delivery room, emailing the producers at Bad Robot that I would have to postpone our meeting. Nearly two years later, my beautiful little daughter stood with me before the orchestra recording that very film score. A poetic conclusion to this creative journey.

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UPDATE 5/3/16:

The CD is available today! Signed copies will be available this afternoon at La-La Land Records’ website. The CD is also available from Amazon.com and other retailers. Big thanks to everyone at Sparks & Shadows, Bad Robot and Paramount for making this possible.