The emotional Sundance film, Mass, follows two sets of parents (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) years an unspeakable tragedy tore their lives apart. This film is a masterclass in straightforward storytelling, with the film largely taking place in one small room. The nature of this film created a unique challenge for Darren as the composer, as he did not want to add a score that distracted the viewer from the already powerful performances.
Darren Morze, the composer, and director Fran Kranz both believed that this film was more impactful with an ambient and silent score. In a recent interview with ProductionHUB, Darren discusses how they tried various musical cues and ultimately came to this conclusion. Though Darren’s impeccable composing work comes front and center during the end credits, where he wanted to evoke a feeling of hopefulness, without making the ending seem too happy.
PH: Hi Darren, how are you? Can you share with our readers how you got into composing?
Darren Morze: Hello! Sure, I got into this world in a very roundabout way. I started out as a frustrated musician playing in underground punk and goth bands in Philadelphia. A few got close to going somewhere, but ultimately none of them went anywhere. That lead me into music production as a career– so I started producing bands in my home studio and touring as a live sound engineer. I began touring a lot with Stellastarr* who had just signed with RCA. The lead singer, Shawn Christensen, started writing scripts as something to do for the long hours in the van or on the tour bus. Eventually, he started writing and directing short films and I asked him if I could do the music. For some reason, he didn’t want to do it himself and let me do it. The third one we did together, Curfew, ended up winning the Academy Award in 2013 for Best Live Action Short. That pretty much decided it that film scoring was perhaps what I should spend my time doing.
PH: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on? How have they presented different sets of challenges?
Darren Morze: Every project presents a new set of challenges and I always learn something from every one, even if I don’t realize it at the time. Before I Disappear is a feature-length version of Curfew, so that was a really tough one because I had to expand on something that obviously is already perfect– kind of like how I felt about working on Mass. Another personal favorite of mine is a short film called SLUT. The director, Chloe Okuno, shot the film in 35mm film stock and went out of her way to make it look and feel like a state-of-the-art horror movie made in the late ’70s. The challenge there was to evoke the sounds and styles of people like John Carpenter and Ennio Morricone, without directly just ripping them off.
PH: Speaking of challenges, let’s talk about your work on Mass. How did you get involved?
Darren Morze: Before Mass, I had scored a few films that writer/director Fran Kranz had acted in. We’ve known each other for years. Shawn introduced us, and it turns out that my manager Keith is also old friends with Fran– though I didn’t find that out until fairly recently. In February 2020, I was on tour doing sound for Dr. Dog. They had brought me out of live sound retirement in 2018. We were a few shows away from playing LA. No one knew yet what COVID-19 was going to amount to. I was sent a working cut of Mass and it completely knocked me out of my seat!
Fran and I met up in LA and we hashed out a plan to try to see what music could possibly work for the film. Then I got home from the tour in early March and began scoring Mass, just as the world went into lockdown. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life– watching the news and wondering what was going to happen to us all, and then retreating into my studio and dealing with this intense subject matter. I should mention that at that time I was also scoring a film for my friend Mylissa Fitzsimmons called Everything In The End. A beautiful film about a young man who travels to Iceland to find his father and while he is there the world comes to end. I was working on both of these films at the same time! During the COVID-19 lockdown! “Heavy” does not even begin to describe it! Haha!
PH: What types of challenges did you face with composing this film?
Darren Morze: The main challenge was not ruining it. As far as I was concerned, this film was already finished and perfect with no score. Even though I love what I do and I deeply love film music in general– a lot of times as a viewer when I hear the soundtrack creep in, it reminds my subconscious, “Hey, it’s cool. This is just a movie.” I wanted to get as far away from that as I could for Mass. The acting is so great and so visceral that I really wanted the audience to be in that room with the characters– feeling everything that they are feeling. A lot of times with film composing you are tasked with creating the emotion or mood that didn’t get properly portrayed by the actors or captured by the camera. None of that was the case with Mass. When Fran first hired me, he said that he really didn’t think the film needed any score at all, but test audiences and a couple of the producers thought maybe he should try it. I said no, you are right, and it’ll be my job to prove it to you.
PH: Is there a general rule of thumb to ensure the actors’ performances aren’t overshadowed by sound?
Darren Morze: It’s on a case-by-case basis. If a film requires a lot of music, sometimes I’ll figure out what note the lead actor’s dialogue centers around and then write the score in that key. That way the dialogue is almost like the lead vocal in a pop song and you can turn the score up louder than normal and it will still feel harmonious in the mix. Most times though, it’s just about figuring out what is the prime directive of each scene and deciding what kind of music, or even what kind of sounds will serve that scene best. In the best of times, you are just enhancing what is already happening onscreen. But sometimes, you are actually saving it.
PH: What was it like composing for a film that takes place in one small room?
Darren Morze: It wasn’t so much about everything taking place in one room. It was more about how the screenplay and actors’ performances, to my ears, had such a “music” to it already. Adding score over the top of that would have just disrupted the raw and realness of it all. Like there’s the scene where Jason Isaacs’ character painfully recounts the exact events of the fateful day, minute by minute. It’s awful and wonderfully captivating at the same time. I spent weeks working on just that sequence and I came up with some really intense, chilling stuff. Droning, writhing, squirming, and agonizingly building tones that slowly creep into your head and puncture your subconscious. Really great stuff! But in the end, we decided that this isn’t a David Fincher movie– and that’s the point. To me, this film works on such a sublime level because you feel like you know these people and they live in your town. And Fran and I felt that dense, uncomfortable silence was the most efficient way to convey that.
PH: What is a silent score and how can it be effective in storytelling?
Darren Morze: To me, when the music and the cinematic razzle-dazzle are turned off– it starts to further blur the line between audience and story. I kept bringing up this example to Fran while we were working on Mass: There’s this cheesy but amazing Italian horror classic from the early ’80s called House By The Cemetery. It’s got this incredible neo-classical synth score– but that’s not the important part at all. The best part of the film is right at the end when the protagonist finally meets the villain. All the music just cuts out. She’s just sobbing and you hear him slowly moving forward. It’s so uncomfortable. If I got trapped in this basement and that half-dead guy was coming towards me, about to dissect me, there wouldn’t be epic Hans Zimmer music. I would just be totally screwed. In silence. It’s probably a weird reference, I know, but I really grasped on to it while I worked on Mass. I feel like it really worked well.
PH: Let’s talk about the song in the end credits. What was that like to score? What was going through your mind while creating that?
Darren Morze: Fran and I talked about the end credits song a lot. After all that restraint, this was going to be my defining statement on this film, so I wanted to nail it. Fran’s brief was, “make it hopeful and uplifting, but NOT feel like a happy ending.” I kept thinking about the shot of the field across from the high school where “the event” took place. It happens twice– when Jason Isaacs’ and Martha Plimpton’s characters are deciding whether or not to go to the church, and also at the very end, before the credits. My take on it was that time doesn’t care. You can heal and move on, or hang on to your grief until it ruins you. Time doesn’t care. It will move on, regardless of what you decide to do.
I decided the best way to convey this idea would be to perform and mix the track live. That way, if there were any mistakes– which there certainly are– they would be unchangeable. They would be indelible. Like what happens to us in life. Basically, I set my studio up as if I were performing live. I had looper pedals at the ready and programmed some things in to perform when cued up. The initial sound bed would start up on its own and then I would drop things in and add echo and reverb on the fly. I did two takes and sent them to Fran. He thought they still sounded a bit “bright” and the first one he thought was almost “too cheery”. So I made some adjustments and did a slightly darker third take. That is the one you hear in the film.
PH: How has this career evoked change in your life and work?
Darren Morze: My favorite moments are when fantasy and reality start to blur. Back when I lived in Brooklyn, I had to take a redeye flight out of JFK to play a gig. I had been working hard on a dystopian time-travel mini-series for a few months. When I got to the airport and I was waiting in line at TSA, I saw the villain of the show also waiting in line. Now, this randomly happened to be the actor who played the villain of the show. But it’s 5 AM and I’ve been looking at his face for weeks. It was a 12 Monkeys moment. I asked myself, “Do I need to stop him from ruining the future?!” Luckily, a few fans asked him for an autograph and I was whisked back into reality. But let me tell you– those 30 seconds of bizarre “in-between worlds time” can be really fun!
PH: Can you share what we can expect from you in 2022? Any exciting life endeavors or work projects?
Darren Morze: I am really excited about a gritty neo-Western called The Last Victim starring Ron Perlman, Ali Larter, and Ralph Ineson. My score is a really big character in the film. It really sets the vast, expansive, middle-of-nowhere mood. It is a bit like the polar opposite of what I did on Mass. It hits theaters and streaming in February 2022.
I am also planning a follow-up to my solo record Never Ever which came out this past October. That record was an expansion of the live recording process I used for the Mass end credits song. Now I’m looking to expand it even more. Never Ever is streaming everywhere and you can pick it up on cassette from Press On Records.
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