Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.
M. Night Shyamalan is a master of the unsettling — from The Sixth Sense to Signs and beyond, one of Night’s major signposts is a heaping helping of discordant atmosphere and the fragile lines between illusion and reality. His new series for Apple TV+, Servant, dabbles in those aesthetics to devilish delight. The tale of an affluent Philly couple, Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) who take in a mysterious nanny named Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to care for their son, Jericho — himself a therapeutic doll meant to help Dorothy through the grief of losing the real Jericho six months prior — Servant has all the signposts of an M. Night joint, from the deliberately stylized acting choices to the meticulous distance of its presentation.
One of the key players of Servant‘s haunting feel is composer Trevor Gureckis (The Goldfinch, Bloodline), who glazes every narrative surface of the show with unconventional, spine-chilling soundscapes. For the week of the show’s season finale, The Spool sat down with Gureckis to discuss working with Night, the unique process of writing music for television, and playing with the fuzzy nature of the show’s reality.
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The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
How did you come to work on the project, and with M. Night Shyamalan?
TREVOR GURECKIS: I know the music supervisor, Sue Jacobs, I worked with her on The Goldfinch, a film that I scored just before this. She had recommended me to Night. There are a couple of strange, thriller-y cues in that film for a few scenes she was intrigued with, so I presented him with some of that music and other things. We talked, and I started to write some music on the open-ended side of things to see what was going to work. I’d gotten the scripts and saw some dailies of what they were shooting at the house, so I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. After hearing those, he said, “all right, let’s do this,” and then the real process began of finding the right sound.
As you were working through the script and seeing that early footage, what jumped out at you to signpost your process for this otherworldly kind of sound?
GURECKIS: It was a very organic process to find the sound. I started with more of an orchestral palette, thinking in terms of the bigger scale in which the story could be seen, and that becomes relevant later. But he wanted to set the scene for the early episodes much like a play that happens in this house alone, with a small cast of characters. It has to have a transparency to it. The thriller elements are light, they’re not too heavyhanded; there are liturgical qualities to them. There’s this cold quality that has to come across, but nothing too heavy.
I usually start with sending ideas off the picture, nothing set to a particular scene; sometimes I’ll be inspired by a scene, but I won’t necessarily say “put this here,” I’ll let the editors experiment with that. Then they can say “this is actually working in this scene” — which is sometimes surprising to me. I’ll be like, “oh, this is when she’s taking a bath, I had no idea.”
So in this process, it was more about crafting pieces to fit the mood rather than going scene for scene?
GURECKIS: Right, just to find the right sound, so that when we found it, we say “this is going to work.” Then we hit the ground running, spotting every scene, applying what I had learned in that process to every scene going forward.
Once you arrived at that sound you wanted, what kind of instrumentation did you use? There’s a very plinky, atonal atmosphere to it.
GURECKIS: I bow a lot of things with a violin bow — I’ve got a glockenspiel, a kind of Tibetan bowl thing. I use a speaker stand, which is really weird [laughs]. Like a rattling speaker stand that I double with some other weird samples, and play it like it’s a drum. I play the concrete on my studio floor. I don’t know, I’m just hitting stuff [laughs].
What drew you to that, then? It seems to fit this kind of relatively recent trend in film scoring where there’s this melding of music and sound design, like Gravity and their ilk.
GURECKIS: I mean, you could imagine it being like the sounds of the house or whatever. I didn’t think of it so much that way as I needed interesting sounds, because [Night] was looking for that. Anything that sounded too conventional or out-of-the-box, it was something he would recognize immediately.
Was that a challenge for you, or did you take naturally to it?
GURECKIS: Whenever he caught it, I totally got what he meant, so. I use a lot of electronics anyway in my music, so there’s always an element of creating that nonconventional element, but getting nonconventional sounds out of some traditional instruments is an interesting challenge. I play the clarinet, and in this I’ve detuned my clarinet down an octave, playing multiphonics. I learned violin for this, and I’m detuning it also with some plugins to make it sound weird. Sometimes it sounds like a violin, and sometimes it’s just weird — playing behind the bridge, or over-pressure. A lot of that stuff is not particularly unusual for contemporary modern music, but in a traditional film or TV score universe it can come off as something different. There’s a different quality to it.
A lot of that comes through in the theme song as well, which is the first thing you hear. What was the process like for locking down the theme? Had you worked on the sound before writing the theme, or was it a springboard for you?
GURECKIS: That was really one of the last things I wrote; it’s based on stuff that happens earlier in the show, a little bit of the Jericho theme that happens in the first episode multiple times, and another theme that occurs later. We were just trying different things for the opening, everything from a woman humming to some more violin things. Sue was even pitching putting a song there instead of a score piece, but then it came back to hooking into these bells that are this Jericho-Leanne theme and playing off that.
Going to the characters, then, how did you want to underscore these characters and their rather delicate psychologies?
GURECKIS: There are two main threads through the score, I think. One of them — and it’s something that Night’s always playing with in this show — is the perception of reality. I actually had a watch party with some friends, I’m just kinda watching everyone talking about the show. I know what happens, you know? [laughs] But as they’re talking through it, no one’s outright asking me, but they’re trying to think through all the things. It really gets down to ‘what’s the real music? what’s the otherworldly music?’ Moments where you think “is [Leanne] just trying to steal their money? Is she a witch?”
Playing with that ambiguity.
GURECKIS: Yeah, exactly. So that part of the score oscillates between those two things a lot. And that’s something that Leanne’s character is doing herself: at some times she’ll be a very confident, normal person, and other times she’ll be very stranges, and the instruments will turn into very ‘what is that?’ kind of music. But with Dorothy, she’s always in a state of denial (hence the premise of the show), and with her, there’s a delicacy, so there’s a lot more piano. And I’m always incorporating the bells and the crotales and the glockenspiel and stuff because that’s just the aesthetic of the score. But [with Dorothy] there’s always more lyricism and authenticity. Even though she comes across sometimes as being fake, she means well. So I’m always trying to get under the skin of that.
Plus there’s the aesthetics as well — the show takes place in this lush, impeccably-designed Philadelphia townhouse that feels ripped from Architectural Digest, there’s lots of wine and food chat because Sean is a chef. Did those aesthetic markers come into play when approaching the score at all?
GURECKIS: I think the house itself has a quality to it that is a kind of strange place. I live in New York, so to me, the house is incredibly massive — it’s got two stories and a basement, I think — with a huge wine cellar. It’s got this unbelievable element to it.
There’s kind of an Overlook Hotel feel to it, as if the house is way too big for these people.
GURECKIS: Yeah exactly. And they have too much, as well — like, they’ve got all this wine, it’s almost like a restaurant themselves. They own the restaurant, which is their world. In that way, this house, which as you said is too big for them, is this existential, bigger story as well. As the story progresses, the story gets bigger and bigger, and the score sort of expands into the space.
With the first episode, there’s not all that much music; actually, when we first started, Night said, “I’m not really sure if we want any music in this episode.” And I’m totally cool with not having music if it’s not supposed to be there. But then we started using some of the themes, and it made sense to go back and think about it. It became more substantial, and the music became more dramatic to support the weight of the drama. Things are just getting more and more out of control and the characters don’t know how to keep it all together in this house, which is big and barely holding onto the edges itself. While we start in this super-transparency, I started to give myself room to grow throughout the whole season.
What is it like to work with Night as a collaborator? What impressions did you get from your working relationship?
GURECKIS: I learned a lot working with him; he’s great and open to hearing my thoughts on things. I learned a lot about the craft of scoring for film, which is something that he has a particular take on in terms of timing, not getting ahead of characters and their dramatic point of view. Sometimes there’s too much music in a show or movie, and sometimes an easy way to getting into situations is to take the author’s point of view, and you’re leaving ahead of characters. The music is taking you ahead of everyone, and leaving the audience all this information. When we’re watching a scene, he’ll say “you’re ahead of me.” I started to learn to be careful of not showing any more than what the character on screen is actually aware of, not what I already know is going to happen. As the audience member, they don’t know; the whole point is that we’re following these people and they know as little as we do. That’s something I learned a lot and was really helpful going through those spotting sessions with him.
Since this is your first TV series, what was the transition like from scoring film to television?
GURECKIS: It’s definitely fast, and a lot of music. Probably the biggest thing is the amount of music, which is substantially different. I write pretty quckly; in this case, I was doing a lot more recording in process rather than getting to a final date and recording, which is usually a really nice day. You can show up and say, “I did the whole score, and now I’m gonna have a week of recording and mixing.” But this is writing and recording at the same time, so they can get it to Apple to review it.
It’s writing 15-18 minutes of music for a week and a half, getting notes and going to Philly again to spot each episode and come back. It was really intense; by the end, you’re like “I don’t have any ideas for what to do [laughs]. I don’t know how many more bowed crotales I can do”, you know? But once you get the concepts in your head, you just open the session and go. I work in templates a bit, but they’re kind of vague. I’ll put out the five instruments I know I need to get rolling with, and it moves pretty quickly.
But it’s the same thing [as film], 2-3 minutes of music per day, but the haul is much longer. I think I was probably working on this for six months steady, from concept phase to complete final mix.
What lessons do you think you learned that you’ll bring forth to other projects?
GURECKIS: Every project is different, for sure. I’m working on a new film right now, and it’s a whole new beast in its own way. I wish I’d learned something here that I could apply there [laughs].
Do you think you’ll do TV again?
GURECKIS: Well, I’m definitely doing the second season of Servant. I enjoy long-form series; I do like the buttoned-up quality of a film, you have that one experience, which is a nice, unique way of having a composing experience. But I love shows too — Mr. Robot is my favorite show. I love every turn and big arc that they’re doing, you never know where they’re gonna go. That show could have never been a movie; it’s not even conceptually possible. Doing something like that would be an incredible experience; it just takes years and years and years. Composers are usually on tap for 3-4 months on a film, and we’re like “next one.” But if you’re doing a multi-season show, then you’re along the ride with them more closely.