Ben Lovett on Invoking Heavy Metal While Composing the Score for 'Hellraiser'

Ben Lovett on Invoking Heavy Metal While Composing the Score for 'Hellraiser'

- By Nicolás Delgadillo

The musician and composer has been contributing original work to the genre films for years, but the Hellraiser reboot offered a new kind of challenge

Some of the biggest horror movies are beloved not just for their scares but their music as well, just think about the power behind scores like John Carpenter’s Halloween, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, or Philip Glass’ Candyman.

The original 1987 Hellraiser is a classic for many reasons, one of the biggest being its massive orchestral score by Christopher Young. With an elegant, romantic and larger-than-life sound, Young’s music elevated Clive Barker’s film to soaring heights. Hellraiser stands out from the rest of the 80s horror pack thanks to that distinctly and dramatically gothic feel and how uninhibitedly grand it allows itself to be. The soundtrack alone is essential for any fan of the genre.

So when it came time to put together a new take on the horror classic, the music was always going to be one of the biggest challenges. This reboot of the franchise (which acts as a new adaptation of Barker’s original novella rather than a remake of the film) comes from director David Bruckner.

Bruckner has established his own brand of wistful but no less intense storytelling in the horror genre with films like The Ritual, Southbound, and The Night House. He also contributed one of our favorite segments to the V/H/S anthology series. The pensive yearning behind the genuine terror of The Night House is likely what helped Bruckner land the job of reviving Hellraiser.

Bruckner brought on longtime collaborator Ben Lovett to tackle the score, trusting the composer’s talent for unique and deeply thematic compositions to help bring this new vision to life. Lovett has been a rising star in the genre space thanks to his scores for Bruckner’s films as well as other recent breakthrough favorites like The Wolf of Snow Hollow, The Old Ways, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, and The Beta Test.

Hellraiser was his biggest and toughest task to date, taking clear inspiration from Young’s original score but still needing to have an identity all its own. Thankfully, the nature of the franchise and the story let Lovett truly go for broke, creating a fresh cacophony of beautiful, swooning orchestral sounds that match the unholy onscreen spectacle.

We had the opportunity to talk with Lovett about his work with Bruckner and the unique challenges of scoring a new Hellraiser film. The musician, composer and producer discussed the daunting task of following up Christopher Young's score, channeling his inner metalhead to capture the right orchestral feel, and getting to go as big as possible with the music.

This is yet another collaboration with David Bruckner for you. You’ve known each other a long time but what keeps drawing you to his work besides just being a good friend?

Ben Lovett: You know, I think that it's partly because having come up together and kind of cut our teeth doing a lot of low budget indie stuff that no one ever saw before the things that they finally did. I think that our instincts about narrative and storytelling and how we think about these things have developed along a similar path and have developed in a similar way. There's just a kind of a certain way that we both think about story that allows us, you know, kind of a unique opportunity whenever we're working together. It's also just a very rare thing to be able to continue to develop a relationship with someone that you've known that long and have continued to work with. Every time we do a project and finish it, I'm able to go off and work on other things and work with other directors. And it often times takes any director years to get another project back into post. So every time I come back to do something with David, again, I'm kind of coming back with all these new experiences and new things I've learned or taken away from from other projects. It always renews the experience for us both.

How did tackling Hellraiser come about? Was David approached with this?

Ben Lovett: We were at Sundance for The Night House when we heard the first whisper of this; when it first just came up as something that was floated as a possible project in the works. And then of course COVID happened and everything turned upside down and all that until about a year later. Sometime early or middle of last year, he had a script and he was considering it. He asked me to read it and so I read the script and we talked a lot about it. The nature of our collaboration, all through the process tends to always be very story focused. Even when we're talking about the score, we're never really talking about it in musical terms. We're always talking about it in emotional terms and in narrative terms. So we talked a lot about the script and the challenges of just what was there before you ever get to the point of discussing all that you're contending with when rebooting a franchise like this.

Was there ever any discussion about - from both a musical standpoint and a filmmaking standpoint - completely going in a different direction with the film?

Ben Lovett: Yeah, I think that we started from that place. My first instinct was just “okay, so we should just do something totally different.” I started writing from a place that was very much informed by Christopher Young's original scores and the music that had been made for the early films in this series, but it was so that I knew what to do differently. We got a little down the road and started to talk about the nature of so many fundamentally identifiable things about the franchise - visually and with the mythology - and there were so many things changing. Both in how the characters look, the way the box works, just all kinds of things. That one area that we could really still make it feel like Hellraiser was in the music. The more we talked about that, the more I started to really understand just how much those Christopher Young scores were an intrinsic part of what makes Hellraiser feel like Hellraiser. I think that it's that combination and juxtaposition of his very lyrical, romantic, Gothic style of melodic music put to these very disturbing coarse images. I think that was very groundbreaking in 1987 and I think that it still holds up as one of the reasons that those films are singularly unique in the genre.

Hellraiser has been a series where I obviously knew who Pinhead was but I had never actually watched the films until a couple of weeks before this new one came out.

Ben Lovett: My relationship to that stuff was similar, I had what I would describe as a peripheral relationship to it. I knew what Hellraiser was. I could identify Pinhead. I remember being a kid walking through Blockbuster Video and walking past the box and the cover and seeing Doug Bradley on it and being scared to death and, you know, didn't want anything to do with that. I've come across scenes here and there but I didn't walk into this with a lot of baggage and a lot of preconceived ideas about what I thought Hellraiser was or should be. I felt like that gave me some fresh perspective on it. I dove into all that stuff, but it was so that I could really understand, or try to find some inspiration in, what they had done that might help us inform the story that I knew that we had to tell.

I think what I love so much about the original, also not knowing much prior, is that I had a preconceived notion of what I thought it was and it just was not that. It was so much more fantastical and a little darkly funny.

Ben Lovett: You know, I had that too. And I think that what was a really interesting thing about that is it’s a little bit synonymous with the film that we made. When I finally sat down and really poured into the original Hellraiser film, it was not what I was expecting it to be and I really enjoyed it. I think that, for something that a lot of people had a lot of expectations and a lot of anticipation and a lot of ideas of their own about what they wanted our film to be, I think more than anything, it probably wasn't what they expected either. For better or worse. Some people were pleasantly surprised and I'm sure that others were not. But I think that that part of it was an interesting bit of symmetry with it.

I read an interview where you talked about not having the rights to the original music and that you just had to go to Spotify and listen to the soundtrack and do it by ear. How painstaking is that? What changes in the process?

Ben Lovett: All of that's true. And the reason for that was simply that the studio making the movie did not own the rights to that original music. So in order to get it, they had to go and negotiate a deal to be able to allow me to interpolate those melodies into my score. And that took a while, you know? And in the meantime, we couldn't sit around and wait to find out if we were going to be allowed to do that. We just went with the premise that we have - it’s Hellraiser, you know? Work it out. There was just no way to access that music, in terms of like the scores or any way of translating the material. I just had to pluck it out and it took a lot of effort and a long time and I owe it to people who are much better at doing that part of it. Whenever I would need help I would reach out and go, “Good lord, can somebody help me with this particular piece?” I was trying to basically deconstruct it down into something that I can then re-orchestrate that we would have to go and record, because we had to strip all these parts down in order to weave them into individual places where we wanted them to go. Or to try and take something like the original melody for the Cenobites, for instance, and try to find a new way to implement that into a new sound. Something that is still identifiable, but just a little different, a little messed up.

Have you ever had to write a motif or theme for a character or a set of characters like the Cenobites before?

Ben Lovett: Sure, different kinds of characters. they're uniquely something of their own. It felt like, since we had the opportunity to employ this recognizable theme for them, that we should. That was an asset that would just make it cool. It was new and different for me to be able to draw upon something that already existed. I've written them from scratch plenty of times. What I've never had is the opportunity to base it on something that already existed so that was kind of an exciting new thing to work with.

A lot of your work has a blend of the metaphorical and the supernatural. What small things can you add to a score that gives it kind of that implication?

Ben Lovett: I think that the score’s role in the film, no matter what kind of film it is, is typically working in the area of the story that you can't write, you can't shoot, you can't point the camera at it, you can't have the actor say it. So you're communicating that other part; the way things feel and the way that we understand music and the way things feel in music to us. I don't work exclusively in genre but I like genre material because it's so highly metaphorical. Everything's really a story about something else usually, the good ones anyway. It's not really about the thing that it is on the surface. The Night House and things like it, that’s just metaphors on top of metaphors. It's so much fun to play with; to help draw out that other layer of what's going on in the story. I think that the way that you do that, or the way I do it, is I have to just be able to identify something in myself, where, in my own experiences, I can describe what that felt like to me in the music.

With this score you get to go really big, especially by the end. Was that exciting to get to just really go at it like that? Or was it a bit daunting?

Ben Lovett: It was both. It was certainly daunting, it always is when you're trying to balance the needs of the film against the means that you're provided, whether it's time or budget or whatever. you're kind of like, “How are we going to pull this off?” That part's always challenging. You're going into it knowing how huge the Christopher Young scores are in all the Hellraiser films - especially Hellbound, it’s just like this gigantic, operatic, insanely huge sounding thing. The excitement of that is that the parameters are built so wide. They've built such a big sandbox for this where so many things are still in bounds. There's almost no such thing as too much. It's very easy to hit too much in a movie where the music's concerned. For so many years, it wasn't that uncommon to write a piece of music that was just too big for the image. Like I'm implying something that's there but in such a way that the image just can't support the scale of how hard the music is going at it. Whereas this, you know, you've got giant geometrical Gods coming out of the sky. I mean, it's so nuts. It's so good. It's just like, “Oh great! I want to find the limit of where too much is.”

We're predominantly a music site and predominantly a heavy music site. That kind of music often deals with the horrifying and the gruesome, but it mixes them with the melodic and the beautiful in the way horror does. As a musician, how do you approach achieving that mix without coming across as cheesy? For lack of a better term.

Ben Lovett: Well, that was the unique challenge of this, in trying to balance the influences of the original against something unique and different. There's this big, romantic, very melodic music that is established as being a key part of the Hellraiser sound. And yet, I also felt like there's nothing more heavy metal than Hellraiser. There's fucking chains that fly out of nowhere and shit. I had to have that in there. I was channeling everything. That's the thing that's interesting about Hellraiser, is even the stuff written for the original movie that wasn't used was famous! Like the famous Coill score! I was trying to soak up all of that and like, “How can I build a little bit of that nasty industrial kind of vibe? Where do I put the heavy metal in this?” The Motörhead cover of Ozzy’s “Hellraiser”, I had that on repeat. How do I channel all that in here and balance out the kind of prettiness of the melodic music - which I enjoy - with the kind of brute force of trying to get the orchestra to kind of play a metal riff, which I also love? So in a track like “Blood Box” or “Pleasures of Power”, there's times where you can really hear that I'm just getting them to play this slow, doom metal riff that really isn't that complicated, but it's meant to counter the complexity of how melodic some of the other music is and needed to be.

‘Hellraiser’ is now streaming on Hulu.
Visit Ben Lovett’s official website
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