January 20th, 2015
My journey working on Everly began at a wedding eight years ago.
The groom was Joe Lynch, the filmmaker for whom I had just finished scoring Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. At the reception, I found myself seated next to the film’s star, Henry Rollins, who regaled the table with fascinating stories of his travels. Joe suddenly pulled up a chair beside me and oddly used this moment to pitch his newest cinematic idea: an action film that takes place in a single room, pitting a fearless prostitute against waves of assassins, led by a gangster named after a taiko drum as an homage to my percussive Battlestar Galactica scores. I knew Joe had a wicked sense of humor, so I laughed. A toast to Taiko then! Glasses clinked above the centerpiece, and we returned to a new Rollins story as Joe slipped past to the next table. As the evening wore on, and the champagne wore off, I began to fixate on what Joe had said. Might he have been serious about that movie? Furious taiko drums flooded my imagination. The seeds of my Everly score were planted.
Joe proved himself a man of his word: Everly was miraculously made, starring Salma Hayek, and can be seen on iTunes January 23rd, and theatrically in select cities next month. Despite having nearly seven years to think about it, composing the score presented me unique musical challenges.
When I score a film, I get my inspiration by looking first at the basic structure, tone and setting. Everly tells a relatively simple story, but in a highly stylized way. In the film, a prostitute fights off bad guys in hopes to save her young daughter. Simple enough, yet virtually the entire film takes place in a single apartment, giving the film a relentless, claustrophobic atmosphere. Into this limited space, Joe crammed martial arts, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, torture, tear gas, katanas, sai and much, much more.
Joe and I knew from the beginning that the score would need to help broaden the scope of the film, to make the audience feel they are watching a big, emotional story, one that just happens to take place in a physically restrained space. I wrote for the action and tension using propulsive, heavy synthesis and driving acoustic percussion (yes, many many taikos!), but it was for the film’s dramatic moments that I used the more traditional orchestral sounds I adore so much.
I wrote for a small string section during the film’s intimate scenes, the sequences focusing on the relationship between Everly and her mother, her daughter and her surprise ally, Dead Man. The live strings strings bring a warmth to these scenes, most of which are scored with variations of the Everly’s Theme:
Her theme has three primary notes because I can always imagine someone singing it to the syllables “E-ver-ly.” It’s a silly little trick, but one that I learned years ago and has been fun to use once in a while. I frequently had a female choir singing these chords, as well, though I managed to resist the temptation to have them literally sing her name, and just stuck with “oohs” and “aahs.” Still, though this progression is rhythmically simple, its harmonic structure is odd enough that it really stands out when it’s used. Throughout the film, any time Everly must make a major decision that will affect the lives of those she loves, this theme comes in. My hope is that it has been built up to the point that by the final time you hear it in the film, you are left feel immensely satisfied, because you’ve heard it throughout the film leading up to the climax.
I wrote another theme representing Everly’s daughter, Maisey, played most often on a piano. Maisey’s Theme is simple and child-like, easy enough that a child could actually play it:
My hope is that this theme adds weight to the film’s central idea that Everly fights for the life of her daughter, not for herself. Maisey is the only pure thing in her life, pure solely because Maisey is not actually in her life. Though only heard in a handful of moments, the Maisey Theme is the most important and most memorable in my score. In fact, my favorite passage in the score is the final statement of this theme (it’s called “Resolution” on the soundtrack album).
Even though I had a chamber orchestra at my disposal, I used those orchestral players exclusively for the intimate character moments. The rest of the score features Japanese instrumentation. Since Joe made good on his promise to name a character Taiko, I knew I had to find a place in there somewhere for taiko drums!
Scoring Everly was a bit of a nostalgic trip for me, because it allowed me to revisit my Battlestar Galactica percussion writing that first inspired Joe to create this villain in the first place. The pounding odaiko, thunderous hira daikos, furious shime daikos and piercing chang changs are so much fun to write for! Even though it had been a few years since I’ve featured taikos in my music, the old feeling came back to my fingertips swiftly as I composed.
Drums aside, it was still clear that Japanese music would be an important influence on Everly. The majority of the film’s characters are Japanese, including Everly’s ally, Dead Man. I found many uses for other Japanese instruments including Bansuri, Biwa, Koto and Shamisen. Dead Man is represented by a melancholy theme in the Shakuhachi. The film draws visual imagery from other parts of Asia as well, so I expanded the musical palette to include Balinese gamelan (for a sinister character known as The Sadist) and a Chinese Gu Zheng.
Ironically, there’s another sound that signifies the character of Taiko for the bulk of the film and it isn’t in the score! For the majority of the film, Taiko only appears as a voice on the phone. Joe wanted Taiko to have a custom ringtone, so all his henchmen would know when he calls. This ringtone is heard so often in the film that it almost becomes a character itself! I had never written a ringtone before, and loved the chance to try my hand at it. I pitched Joe dozens of potential candidates before I finally wrote one with the proper combination of tedious awkwardness and subtle menace. Taiko’s ringtone is just ominous enough to start wearing on Everly’s nerves the more often she hears it.
Joe knew early on in the film’s development that the story would take place at Christmas, and wanted the music to reflect that. I knew that Christmas music would be an important tool at my disposal. Christmas carols are woven throughout the film, featured in a montage and even whistled by a character.
One of the nice things about having an insanely talented musical family is that I never need to look far for help when I need it. I focused my energies on the score, and recruited my brother Brendan McCreary to produce and arrange both classic and original Christmas tunes for Everly.
Brendan’s amazingly authentic arrangement of “Deck the Halls” is featured in a hilarious montage where Everly cleans house (disposing of dead bodies and scrubbing blood off the floor, etc.). During this scene, eagle-eyed viewers can catch a glimpse of her phone screen and learn that her favorite holiday band is “Bear and the Public Dominons.” My cameo in this film is contained in a matter of pixels.
Brendan also composed and produced two original Christmas-themed songs, “A Very Merry Christmas” and “Fa La La La.” These tunes are infectiously catchy and were played in frequent rotation at our house last month! (Brendan showed his typical talent for going above and beyond the call, as he frequently demonstrates with his catalog of songs written and produced for Defiance, Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie and many other projects.)
Throughout the film, the holiday songs and my score tend to live in their own isolated worlds. I found the jarring disconnect between upbeat holiday songs and brooding underscore to be a powerful tool to keep the audience on edge. That barrier disintegrates, however, in the film’s stunning final shot (don’t worry, no spoilers). For the final moments of the film, I produced a new arrangement of “Silent Night,” and brought in my wife, Raya Yarbrough, to sing it. Aside from putting out her own records internationally, Raya is also known as the main title singer for Outlander, and I knew she would absolutely kill this track. Her intimate vocal blends perfectly in with the live string orchestra, and becomes increasingly powerful as she adds overdubs with each new verse. Raya did such an incredible job that we decided to feature her in the film’s official promotional music video.
This “Silent Night” music video itself was a whole different adventure! I produced it for my label, Sparks & Shadows. It was directed by Joe Lynch and produced by Sam Balcomb and Rainfall films. We’re basically the same crew that made my crazy “Don’t Stop Me Now” music video for Young Beautiful in a Hurry a few years ago, but Joe and I swapped jobs.
I’m thrilled to announce that Sparks & Shadows has released the Everly soundtrack album, featuring my complete score and Brendan’s Christmas songs, both physically and digitally. If you’re curious to hear this music in action, check it out! Signed copied of the CD are available for a (typically very) limited time from La-La Land Records’ website.
Now that the film is finally coming out, I can look back and realize how crazy this all sounds. Joe asked me to combine searing electronics, intimate chamber orchestra, Japanese folk music, pounding taiko drums and traditional Christmas carols into a film score, supporting a story that takes place in a single room, featuring a villain named after the musical instrument playing his theme. On paper, it sounds insane. In reality… well, it’s still pretty insane, but I had the time of my life writing it. And somehow it all works, even better than I had imagined that evening eight years ago, when Joe, Henry Rollins and I toasted to a bad guy named Taiko in a film called Everly.