West Bloomfield’s David Bateman actually isn’t all that into horror movies. But if you’re making a living as a film composer, you follow the work, and that just happens to be a lot of the work that’s followed him. Since landing his first horror flick, Dark Fields (a 2009 thriller about human sacrifice that featured David Carradine), Bateman has scored more than 20 films in the genre. And even though he’s written music for everything from goofball comedies about burping pigs to a moving 9/11 documentary, he indulged our treating him like he’s “that horror guy.”
Hour Detroit: It kind of feels like the indie horror genre is having a moment. Am I wrong?
David Bateman: Not at all, it’s a huge market. In fact, it’s really popular overseas, and places like Spain have these really big horror film festivals. But the thing in the indie horror scene is that everybody is trying to think of something new, because in a lot of ways, it’s the same story being told over and over again. For instance, two years ago, I worked on this movie called The Dark Below, and there was no dialogue in the whole movie — maybe there were like five words. But that was the filmmaker’s thing, because nobody had done that before.
I’m assuming when composing for a movie like that, you’ve really gotta nail the music.
For sure. I mean trying to pull it off with just sound design and music and sound effects was really difficult. The movie is about this woman who’s trapped under the ice, and her husband becomes a serial killer, and — well, I won’t ruin the movie for you. For that film, I wanted all the elements from the story to be part of the score: So for example, I recorded running water and recorded myself chopping up ice outside my house. Then I’d put those specific percussive sounds into my computer, mess with them, and that sort of became the sound of that movie. The director liked it, so it worked out.
You mentioned that filmmakers are constantly trying to think of something new. But do they grant you that kind of creative license with the score?
You know, that’s a really interesting issue, and this is a big part of the job that drives composers crazy. So when I get the movie, most of the time, the director has laid in music from other movies. It’s called “temp music,” and it’s just to indicate where he or she thinks the music should go. So they’ll pick out sounds from a movie like Inception, which has this epic sound that you hear in almost every trailer now. It was the same thing when all the Batman movies were remade; Hans Zimmer did this certain sound, and after that, everybody wanted it in their movie. But the thing is, some of it works, some of it doesn’t, and some of it can be a little bit over the top. If the production value isn’t as good as Batman and Inception, it almost becomes a joke, because if the visuals don’t pull it off, the music will make it worse. So often, I’m put in the position of trying to help a filmmaker not just do the same old thing, but it can be an uphill battle.
And in your opinion, how much of the scare-factor in horror movies is actually based in the sound design?
I think a lot of it is. Often when I get the movies, there isn’t much sound at that stage. The special effects aren’t in there either, and I’ll see the green screens. I mean, a demon will pop up and he has green stuff on his face so they can add the visual effects later. It’s more funny than scary at that point. The interesting thing about that is, when I am trying to write, I might not make a certain piece of music as intense as I should if I’m not actually scared by the scene. So sometimes the director will come back and ask me to rescore something that I didn’t make scary enough.
I’m guessing once you do one of these movies, you run the risk of getting typecast as the horror guy.
Yeah, definitely. You do one well, and you start getting the calls. In a way, that’s really flattering. The thing with horror movies is anyone can make one, but not everyone can make a successful one. So early on, I had a lot of students call me, and sometimes I’ll work on student films just to network with different filmmakers. But some movies you have to turn down because they’re just too disturbing; or, like I said, it’s just the same story over and over again. What I like to do is work with directors who make more than just horror movies. In fact, I recently bid on a couple romantic comedies for directors I’ve worked with before on horror movies, and I lost out on them. I think maybe they’re thinking, ‘Oh, Bateman is my horror guy, and this other guy is my rom-com guy.’ So when he does the next horror movie, he’s probably going to call me.
I’m trying to imagine what your romantic comedy scores would sound like.
[Laughs] It sounds kind of funny, but I’ve always wanted to work on romantic comedies. When I pick up my guitar and I’m just fiddling around, that’s kind of the music that naturally comes out. So rom-coms are still sort of a passion. They probably will be until I work on one.
Hometown: Royal Oak
Can Play… Guitar, bass guitar, piano, drums, and trumpet
Favorite Trumpeter: Miles Davis
A Girl Like Her (2015)
Blue Line (2018)
Man in Red Bandana (coming soon)
Bateman scored three films with October 2017 premieres, including two indie horror flicks. Asomatous starring Kevin Sorbo (of the cult TV series Hercules), is a straight-ahead haunted house thriller. For that matter, so is his other horror release, Anders Manor. Hey, he warned you: There are only so many suspenseful story lines to go around.
• Favorite classic thriller: Psycho.
• Favorite classic horror film: Friday the 13th (the first one).
• Favorite rom-com: Something’s Gotta Give.