Showtime was going to kick off its fall season by inviting Hollywood’s A-list of professional scarers to dig into its 13-episode anthology series, Masters of Horror. Among the chosen horror genre elite was John Carpenter, renowned for both his directorial achievements with cult favorites like Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog, as well as for his consistent ability as a composer to support nightmarish imagery with equally chilling scores.
Carpenter embraced Showtime’s vision and immediately got to work on “Cigarette Burns,” the eighth episode of the series that sends its main characters on a dangerous quest for a rare film print that, according to legend, drove its first (and only) audience to murderous hysteria. After tending to the usual filmmaking details that define his work and mark his process, Carpenter did something quite out of the ordinary when it came time to score the episode: He handed the music keys to someone else.
Enter Cody Carpenter.
He composed the score for “Cigarette Burns,” after doing some previous scoring work on individual scenes in Ghosts of Mars and Vampires. He’s also John’s son. “One of the things that’s great about this time in my life is I can watch Cody go beyond me musically,” says John Carpenter. “His playing ability in his ear is way, way beyond me. And his feel is starting to go beyond mine also. A lot of this is just creating emotion with music, that’s what it’s about, and in conjunction with the image.”
In an astoundingly short time frame of just 4.5 days, Cody Carpenter composed the entire synthesizer-based score for the film onsite at Cherokee Studios. With the Korg Triton as his primary instrument, Cody Carpenter also made use of the Korg MS 2000s for some analog sounds, and rounded out the composition with an acoustic piano, an electric guitar, and a drum kit. Aside from pre-writing the main title piece, his process was completely improvisational, playing to the picture as it ran on a big screen in Cherokee’s Studio 1.
“It’s just not as fun to pre-write music,” says Cody Carpenter about his preference for improvisation. Add to that a shared artistic philosophy that film scores should favor simplicity and subtly, and the Carpenter gene pool starts to reflect a mutual mad musical genius that debunks the Hollywood adage of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”
So along with studio owner and producer Bruce Robb, whose credits include Saturday Night Fever, Boyz in the Hood, Village of the Damned, and Shrek, Carpenter made the big decision to go digital on this one. Generally a die-hard fan of analog, Robb went Pro Tools HD on account of it being Cody Carpenter’s first full-fledged score: Robb wanted to leave Carpenter more flexibility than analog might have allowed.
“What makes Pro Tools really cool is your ability to manipulate things, to edit, to move beats around when something’s not quite on, to change tempos, to change keys, to change all of that,” says Robb. “But, as with Cody’s record, it turned out none of that was needed for the score. So I think if we do another one and get into anything that’s other than synths, we’ll definitely end up doing it analog. But we did ‘Cigarette Burns’ on Pro Tools HD, and it worked well with synths, and it sounds great.”
Robb also recorded the score for 5.1, rather than recording in stereo and then mixing it in 5.1 after the fact. The technique afforded Robb and Cody Carpenter more creative options, particularly in terms of servicing the film with a final sound mix that played an active role in maintaining the drama and tension of the story.
“Rather than just doing two things left and right, you’ve got five speakers so you basically have five channels at your disposal. You can do a lot of different and really dramatic things by using rear speakers for something other than just taking what’s in the front speakers and putting it back there,” says Robb. “It’s very effective, and it’s something I’d personally like to hear more of in theaters and in scores.”