Interview: Composer Heather McIntosh on Z for Zachariah and Musical Innovation

Even if you don't know Heather McIntosh's name, odds are you've heard her music somewhere. In addition to being the house cellist for the Elephant 6 Collective, she has collaborated with artists like St. Vincent, Gnarls Barkley, M. Ward, Lil Wayne, Animal Collective, Cat Power, Bright Eyes, Norah Jones, Dr. Dog and many others. She entered the world of film composition in 2012, and  her debut film score for Craig Zobel's unnerving drama Compliance played a huge role in that film's impact (at the time, I named it one of 2012's best scores). Three years later, McIntosh has written music for a host of other features, including Faults, Amira & Sam and Honeymoon. Her latest score is for Zobel's Z for Zachariah, an absorbing post-apocalyptic drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine. I had the opportunity to speak to Ms. McIntosh about her work on that film, her approach to film scoring and her career thus far.

Clark Douglas: The first thing I want to ask you about is a hymn of sorts that Margot Robbie's character plays on a small church organ in a handful of scenes. Looking at the soundtrack credits, I see that was actually performed by you...

Heather McIntosh: Yep!

CD: Was that piece written before filming began?

HM: It was. I've been writing from the script – I had the script for two years before the film was made, actually, but that was one thing that Craig and I knew we really had to nail the tone of. At first, that hymn... the way I wrote it was much more... it felt more like a Protestant, traditional, choral, four-part hymn, but as it developed we knew it needed to feel a little bit more like score. It needed to be the theme in a way for Margot's character, Anne Burden. So yeah, I wrote it before the picture was shot, and I was lucky enough to actually be out there in New Zealand when they shot the scene with Margot playing the little organ on the set.

CD: So does she actually play at all, or did you give her a tutorial on that before the scene?

HM: I gave her... she had the score, she had the part, and she reviewed it so that we could sync the organ tone with the performance. So she was playing to the organ piece in the room while she was in the actual scene in the film. So yeah, fun.

CD: You mentioned that this originally started out as a more traditional-sounding hymn, and obviously we only hear the instrumental side of that hymn in the film itself, but I was wondering if there were ever any lyrics that you wrote – or even imagined – that might have accompanied that?

HM: You know what, I actually hadn't written any lyrics – there used to be an actual shape note song in the score that ended up not quite fitting the tone of the film, but it was the sort of shape note song that might have existed for ages and ages, in the tradition of Appalachian folk music. But, that ended up being a little too... maybe heavy-handed? There was a really cool arrangement that I ended up doing, and the lyrics – it was one of those classic fire and brimstone-style cues that I got these great vocalists to perform. The hymn itself doesn't have lyrics, though. We just knew that she believed, and that it was important for her theme to have an earnestness to it – you know, her spirituality, and we just really needed to be with her in that moment. It needed to be us going on her journey with that theme rather than a great, stoic church theme – church hymn, rather – but there weren't actually any lyrics for it; not for her theme.

CD: I know that with most film scores, the composer starts work at some point in the post-production process, so this has to be an atypical experience for you to get to get involved so early.

HM: Yeah! It's interesting with Craig, you know, working on Compliance as well, we started fairly early on. I've been pretty lucky with a lot of films to get in there before the picture is shot, but especially working with Craig. I had the script before they shot Compliance and wrote a lot of the themes. I went to go visit the set for Compliance as well, and it was pretty neat, because he had shared them with the director of the photography, people on the set, producers, so they knew the music going in. The sort of knew how the thematic content was going to develop, even as they were shooting. Now with this, it wasn't quite the same thing, but I did have a lot of time to sort of imagine how the score would be effective, and we had a lot of time to play with that.

It's interesting. You know, you have all that time to think about a thing. We ending up changing... there was a tonal shift in the film later in the process, so the trick of having that much time isn't to be so married to the original idea that you don't see what the film needs to be. You know, to be able to be objective with your work and say, “Oh, it would be so much better if we did follow Margot's character.” The original score used to be a bit darker, and functioned as this sort of objective thing where we were watching this chess game, almost. At the end of the day, we needed to connect with Margot's character, so the score became a bit warmer, and even more pastoral – the scenery in the film is really lush and beautiful, so we needed to really make sure it matched. So it's an interesting thing. So even when you have all that time, as a composer, you still need to be able to step back and say, “Is this really what the picture needs to be? Is this really what the music needs to be?” Sometimes, you need to change direction, even if you've been with a theme for a long time. It's just interesting that way.

CD: Was that a tonal shift that was made in the film as a whole in any way, or just in the way that it was scored and your approach to it?

HM: I think it was also addressed in the editing, but I think the score played a big part of that. Even though some might say the score is dark, there's a warmth there. Those more orchestral moments have a certain sense of yearning to them that I think sort of plays off of Anne's role in the film.

CD: Is that opening cue that builds into that beautiful, pastoral piece a reflection of that mood shift, as well?

HM: Exactly, yes. That's that biggest one. The original opening was darker – there were big, loud drums and all this stuff. I love what it became! That's the exciting thing, too... when you're working with film music rather than concert music, you know, in concert music you just kind of get to do your own dance, and the collaboration of working with picture... it really kind of taps into the same thing as when I'm working with a band or with other artists, you know, you get to build a new thing together. Sometimes you can get really special results from new parameters, so it's really inspiring to me.

CD: As you say, Anne is the character we feel we know the most about from the beginning, and we feel so much more uncertain about the other two characters and what their real motivations are. Was that uncertainty something that informed other portions of your score?

HM: Hmmmm. That's a good question. I think that the key we had – without telling too much about the film, or without spoiling, I should say – it was important to leave it ambiguous. We didn't want to be like, “Okay, here's the bad guy now. He's the one that believes in this.” You know, there is a certain delicate balance that comes from, like – you know, we don't ever want to go, “Oh my gosh, this is so horrific, here's this bad guy and Anne is super-scared.”

It's interesting, in hearing people talk about the film, there's room for many interpretations of who, and what, and where, and all these things. I think that was really important, in keeping with that original thought of, “How would you behave if you were the last three folks on the earth?” The way that you communicate with each other, all of these things would have so much more weight to them. So, it was a really delicate sort of dial, where you're attenuating how good and bad everyone is, and hopefully it made for a more complicated, interesting story, if that makes sense.

CD: Yeah.

HM: Yeah.

CD: Well, there are quite a few thematic ideas that are scattered throughout the score – I was wondering if you could walk us through the different themes that you wrote and what they represent.

HM: Sure! That's a little... let me think about this. Our biggest ones are – like, the opening, the very lush, open-world... it's interesting, in that opening cue, it sort of follows Anne from the outside world, which is the world affected by the apocalypse, and then entering into the unaffected world, which is the valley where she lives – this gorgeous, verdant farmland. We could have gone super dark with that, but we wanted to be with her and on her path, so there are more orchestral moments like that which are very lush and rich.

So, to break it down, we have Anne's theme, which is the hymn, which comes in a few times. There are different shades to it. The other two gents have their themes, which are labeled a little bit abstractly. So we have our outside/visitor theme, which is a darker theme where there's room for mystery. That's sort of a slightly more avant-garde approach, a more cello-driven moment where the strings sound a little bit more whispery and ominous, and that sort of ominous tension exists as the score develops. And then, towards the end, when we get into everyone working, we get to bring in that low brass – there's rich strings, but the low brass comes in and it gets to be something a little bit more hugely cinematic where... I don't want to say anything really about the plot, but...

CD: Right. But there's that one cue on the album, in particular – called “The Church”...

HM: Uh-huh.

CD: That has an almost triumphant sound.

HM: Yes, yes, yes. That one – when I was talking with Craig – you know, when we were working on Compliance, it really was one major theme and variations. It was a differently constructed score. I think what makes it work – there were a lot of close-mic cello sounds, and it was a very tight, intense sound. Here, everything sort of opened up, and we wanted to really get that pastoral thing. Craig really wanted it – we were going to have multiple themes, and it was going to sound big.

The score plays... not to do the old tooting of my horn, but the score plays a really big role in the film. It's a pretty quiet film as far as dialogue is concerned, where people are... like I said, in that chess-playing sort of way, more metered with how they're addressing each other. So there are all these moments where the score is doing a lot. It's interesting, looking back at the script itself, there are moments in the script that are like, “Score swells at this point!” You know, that was in very much in the early days, when we were putting together our first ideas for the score. It was great, we knew we were going to have a bigger sound and get away from the “theme and variations.” The score was playing a big role in the drama in a different way, which was really exciting. I had a blast doing it. And to do something that was a larger ensemble at times as well, that was a greater challenge for me in terms of orchestration, and I look forward to being able to do more of that in the future.

CD: What was the size of the ensemble you were working with on this film?

HM: You know, it's still quite small. We brought in a couple different sections. As a cello and bass player, I did a lot of the cello and bass recordings. Then we brought in a couple of small-to-medium high-string ensembles. We did violin and viola in one session – still not huge, it wasn't an 81-piece orchestra. We had like seven or eight players in one session, six in two other sessions, and as we were developing those themes, we were lucky to have some really great players. I do a lot of electronic and concrete things, and one of my instruments is just working in Pro Tools and the electronic software world, so I'm doing a lot of manipulating... bringing in my own cello sessions with the string sessions and folding things together in unusual and interesting ways. You know, it still wasn't done in a traditional “here's an 81-piece orchestra, John Williams style!” way, but for me, it was still a big step up.

Even in the way we recorded the ensembles... my instinct usually is to have the microphone tightly placed, especially in Compliance, where I put the microphone really close on the instrument to give it a more Abbey Road/Beatles type of sound, where it has a little more bite on the string and where you actually hear the bow on the string, but with this... I really wanted to hear the room. You have these beautiful players in your session, so you want to be able to hear them and enjoy them and enjoy the physics of those instruments playing together in a room – to hear those waveforms beating, it's really invigorating, and I wanted to make sure that was captured in the recording. So that's the approach with the ensemble.

Also, I have a portable rig, so I recorded... that was just the strings, but I have a harpist friend who lives in Philadelphia, so I recorded her there, a French horn player who lives in New York that I've worked with before, but we were on tour together, so I actually recorded him in Detroit – that's where we were at the time when I was working on the French horn sounds. Then I collected three of those foot pedal pump organs around the country – one in Asheville, one in Portland, Oregon. Mark Horton, who composed the music for Nebraska among other things, has a wonderful, beautifully in-tune pump organ that I was able to use, and then I used a pump organ that I found in New Zealand as well, because I thought that would be important.

CD: It sounds like you were doing a lot of work in the mixing and production process as well – it's not just a matter of gathering a bunch of musicians and recording, because all of the pieces have to be arranged.

HM: Exactly, yeah. I lived in Athens, Georgia for a really long time and played music with a bunch of friends there, and that was sort of their approach to recording. The initial stages of that was on, like, a four-track cassette player, where you'd sort of compile all of your sounds and make your own lo-fi version of, I don't know, say Pet Sounds or Beach Boys songs, but crossed with a little dash of Karlheinz Stockhausen, so there would be an element of avant-garde in the pop music. That bringing together of sounds - “Oh, I just found this organ sound over here!” - things that would seem like disparate instruments and places, even using sound design elements. I went and recorded a lot of organs, but I pitched them with quarter-inch tapes and manipulated them in an old avant-garde sort of way, just to have fun with the sounds.

That's the benefit of having years to work on a project, in a way, because I can sort of fold those sounds together in the way that I work as an artist, but a more hi-fi version of that, with Pro Tools sessions and all of the computer manipulation on my end. It's definitely always been a part of my sound. Even the orchestral things have a bit of manipulation. I also have some really great friends that are mixers that sort of help refine the sound – it's not all me. That's always been the way I've worked. I'm not against working in the more traditional way like we were talking about, where you write the music for an 81-piece orchestra session and you track everything in the final hour – that's a wonderful way to work as well, but there's something really great about being able to manipulate each of those elements and making something new, and that's sort of my happy place, when I'm given a chance.

CD: Does the notion of writing a John Williams-style score for an 81-piece orchestra appeal to you in any way, or is that...

HM: 100 percent! (laughs) Of course, even if I were given the opportunity, I would still bring in some of those other elements, you know. There would inevitably be my one friend who wasn't in town who would do a French horn session, or record some – I dunno, metro sounds from a trip to France from back in 1994 or something, I don't know. There would still be room for manipulation of sounds in the way that I find so fascinating, but yes! I hope that this is the... every project I work on is something new and different, and even if that may seem like a more traditional approach to film scoring, I look forward to that new experience for myself. I think that would be THE BEST.

CD: Looking at your IMDb page – you've been working in film music for about three years, and Compliance was your first project... well, was that actually your first project? The first feature, anyway?

HM: It was the first narrative feature. I also worked on a film called Examined Life that was directed by Astra Taylor. It features a bunch of the world's contemporary thinkers and some of the rock stars of contemporary thought, you know, Judith Butler and Cornel West. With that project, it was kind of a neat synchronicity thing where Astra just dropped one of my band's songs – an instrumental band that I was with – over the opening credits of the film, and she loved it. Then, she thought it would be great to get me in on the mix, so I contributed quite a bit of music to that project. But, Compliance was the first narrative feature that I did. I've always loved film music.

Even when I was living in Athens, Georgia, I was playing in bands during school but also working at a video store there, plus I was studying concert music and cello at the University of Georgia – but the other aspect of my film school was working at the video store and just voraciously taking in everything there. So, somehow in there, after playing with all the bands that I've played with... one of the bands from Athens was called Of Montreal, and Craig Zobel was friends with the drummer at the time. We had known each other as friends of friends and acquaintances for a long time, and somewhere down the line – I think at a show of theirs – we started talking about film music. I'd loved his first movie, called Great World of Sound, and we just talked forever about influences for us. It pretty much became apparent from that moment that we wanted to work together, which is a neat thing to have happen. Living in Athens – I lived in Brooklyn a little also – I was trying and trying and trying to figure out how to get into film music, and here there's this guy who went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, he's from the southeast and is making pictures that are so exciting and is a peer of mine!

So, right before Compliance was mixed, I decided I would move to Los Angeles, and ever since I moved – we mixed at Skywalker Ranch, which was exciting, and went to Sundance and it's just been unstoppable since then! I've been working in film music pretty much exclusively, and it's been great. Just paying rent!

CD: It's amazing the number of pictures you've worked on in just that three-year span. I know you've said you've really enjoyed working with Craig on both of his films, but are there any other projects you've found particularly rewarding so far?

HM: I know this sounds like a very political answer, but I've loved all of the projects I've worked on. Working with Leigh Janiak on Honeymoon was great, Faults was really... every single one of the projects has been something different. Faults was interesting. It was sort of the opposite of Z for Zachariah, where I had years to work on things. The film got into South by Southwest, and I think we had about a month to completely mix and score the film – which can also be really exciting. Working with him (director Riley Stearns), he didn't originally visualize music in the film at all; he just wanted it to be the picture. He never imagined that music would exist, not even a little bit or that a score would play any role in the film at all. Then they were watching cuts of the film and realized that score was going to be necessary.

Now granted, the score isn't huge – it doesn't have the same kind of thematic development as other projects I've worked on, but it's doing a lot of work in quiet ways. I find that to be equally as exciting, when you have these little moments where the score almost functions like room tone or sound design, where it's just giving these little uncomfortable pushes. To be able to do that delicately – or less delicately, depending on what the picture requires – is equally as fascinating as writing some symphonic moment that's sweeping across the screen. You get to play with all of the different tools in your kit. I don't want to sound too cheesy, but it's great to explore all the different ways to artfully manipulate. It's wonderful! And it's all collaboration, which I just love.

It's the same reason I love playing in bands. Just because I compose in one certain way, when you sign on with another composer, you're following through with their vision, and it may be a totally different beast. They may like what I did on Compliance or some other project, but... you know, I just finished a dark comedy called Manson Family Vacation that's coming out on Netflix in October, and that was a totally different beast. Jay Davis is the director on that, and it was interesting learning what tone he wanted. He's a very musical guy, same as Craig, but he gave me these really great playlists of stuff he was listening to while he was developing the film itself, and I love that aspect of researching and being able to get inside the head of the director and do the best I can to sort of facilitate the moviemaking. It's awesome.

CD: I know with Z for Zachariah you had to have that hymn ready at the very beginning, so that was a different case, but when you're hired to score a movie, where do you usually begin? Do you start with themes, or the general tone, or...

HM: You know, usually I ask for a whole bunch of research information. I try to get the script, I may have the picture. Usually I write away from picture at first, or I'll write looking at picture but not thinking, “And this is where this event's gonna happen.” I am writing for thematic development. Maybe not the same way as, I don't know, Hans Zimmer does these suites, I'm not gonna say I work like that, but I will develop sort of a playlist. I'm working on a film right now, and if you were to break it down in a very pedantic way, you'd say, “Okay, so we have a mystery insomnia theme, so that's one theme, and we have a romance theme, and a disenchanted love theme.” Maybe we have like five major themes that we're playing with, so we have a little connective tissue there. So, once I've gone through and spotted the film, I know more or less where those themes hit. So, I might watch picture while I'm sketching, a bit, but usually they're sketched and not totally realized until I'm like, “Oh, this is where they look at each other and this is exactly where this lands.” Usually the music comes first to make sure it hits the right tone.

The great thing is that if you're not trying to match everything 100% to picture at first, there's more room for you to play with how things can function down the line if you're not trying to put it into too tight of a box right away. A lot of my music has a lot of layers. I don't consider myself a minimalist, but I really enjoy having a lot of interlocking pieces that can exist together or come apart, and underneath that there's this beautiful little singular tone. Then, if you bring in the violas or the celli or something, then you have this cool interlocking counterpoint that can exist, but you can sort of strip away those elements and have maybe four different variations that exist due to the nature of ensemble. It's great to have those different variations at the ready that you can hand over to a director, so that they can listen to on their own – they can drop it into the picture and play with it.

Most directors – at least in indie projects – are also pretty capable with editing and messing with picture, and most directors I've worked with are pretty musically savvy. Even if they say, like, “I'm not much of a music person,” they clearly, as directors, have ideas of what they like in other films, so it's best never to sell their feelings on the matter short even if they don't consider themselves to be music people.

So yeah, I develop the basic themes and hand them over as playlists – you can literally do it, just play around with those themes and variations. Of course that happens quicker on stuff like the project I'm working on right now. I have six weeks to work on it – in comparison to two years, you know – you have to put things together and put it to picture much quicker. Still, the basic cell is the same to start with. The thematic content is where I usually begin, yeah.

CD: You mentioned that you don't really consider yourself a minimalist, but I was wondering if Philip Glass is an inspiration for you in any way, because there are moments – especially in Compliance – where I feel I hear traces of him in your music. Not that it's an imitation, but...

HM: Right, right. I definitely like Philip Glass, but, you know... music that I listen to day-to-day... when you're a sort of pop music person or an indie rock person, if you write for cello and do what I do, there's a minimalism there. I also love Arvo Part, I think he's great, but most of the stuff I listen to is different than that honestly. I love Ornette Coleman, I love the band Soft Machine... I love listening to film music, but a lot of my time is spent listening to Pierre Henry, more avant-garde music in my day-to-day listening. Electronic music, and people who are using music in a more designed, concrete way, if that makes sense.

CD: Yeah. You mentioned that your background is in that realm – is that something you're still able to explore between assignment?

HM: I keep trying to find ways to fold that into my film music. Recently, I've started doing more playing. I did a two-hour radio set recently out here in Los Angeles, and I guess this would be in the minimalist range again, having lots of loop pedals for my cello and plugging my cello into that, making themes that roll around in that sort of way, where I can play a two-hour set. I enjoy a challenge – I thought it was going to be a forty-minute set, and they thought I was a DJ, so I ended up having a two-hour block and I was like, “That sounds like a good challenge!”

CD: There you go.

HM: Yep. It's fun to be able to be performative again after taking a break from that for a while. It's been fun to get to still be experimental with the film music, and in those little performative moments I'm still working in that electronic music/concrete way, but the most rewarding way is making it work with picture. I feel like there is a need for that in film music. The coolest thing when you're working on a project is when you're working with a sound designer who tends to be a little bit more musical. Rich Bologna was the sound designer on both Compliance and Z for Zachariah, and he is a very musical sound designer. He writes music himself, and I tend to be a composer that gets a little sound design-y. I know composers who get very frustrated about sound design, like, “Agh, they're stepping all over my music,” but I love those moments where the sound design and the score blend and you maybe don't even know which is which. I've been fortunate to work on a lot of projects that cross that territory... maybe because I'm open to it, but I'm glad I can do that.

CD: As I'm sure you're well aware, film music has been a fairly male-dominated field for a long time. Do you get a sense that the industry is changing in any significant way in that respect?

HM: I think people are aware of it. It's so funny, when I first started, I never really thought about it. I played indie rock music, and was usually the only girl in a band all the time, and it was part of my DNA – I just never thought about it and did what I did. But, it is unusual. With Compliance, I was one of four women on the shortlist – which isn't even that short a list – to be considered for the Academy Award. One of four women! There are very few women who have ever been nominated, or who have won. Rachel Portman, of course, has won some things. It is a male-dominated field, and especially as you get into the higher echelon of projects, you'll see a lot more suits. (laughs) You know, I don't necessarily consider that to be discouraging. I've been working on all of these different projects with both men and women directors. You can look at the film industry and say, “Oh, it's so bleak,” but I feel like people are ready to hear more stories.

As a composer, I feel like part of the storytelling. People are hungry for new voices, and I feel like that's definitely come up quite a bit in the media across all aspects above and below the line with filmmaking. But people are becoming more aware that we want to hear more voices telling these stories, and being aware that there is a discrepancy is a huge step, in a way. It's an exciting time to be doing what I'm doing. I love it, and it hasn't limited me personally. I'm just going to keep pushing along and telling more stories. I'm so fortunate to work with so many great directors, where it seems like the relationship will continue beyond, “Oh, we did that one project together.” As long as we all keep making interesting things, I think we're all in a good place.

CD: Finally, I want to ask you about what you have coming up next. You mentioned Manson Family Vacation coming out on Netflix soon, but what else is on the horizon for you?

HM: Most of the things that are on the horizon are too far on the horizon to mention out loud. I just wrapped up a short that I'm very excited about called Through the Wall - it's a documentary, and I'm really excited about how the score turned out on that. It's very short, it's like a four-and-a-half minute documentary, which was another fun parameter to mess with, working on a shorter form like that. I'm working on a sort of existential comedy which shall not be named as of yet, but that's definitely fun new territory for me. And, a couple of other things that are still in secret. (Laughs) I know that's a little abstract there, but Manson Family Vacation is definitely on the books. It played at South by Southwest last year, and will be distributed by Orchard and Netflix very soon in October, I believer, so that's very exciting.

CD: Very cool. Well, thank you for taking the time to join us today. I always enjoy seeing your name appear in the credits of a new movie, and I'm sure we'll be seeing it on many more films in the years ahead.

HM: Well, thank you so much. It was great speaking with you.