Interview with Phil Mossman

Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard

Phil Mossman is a composer who has worked with artists like U2 and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and he worked on Stephen Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and Oceans 11. He was also a member of LCD Soundsystem and took part in the band’s legendary final performance that was captured for the film Shut Up and Play the Hits.  Mr. Mossman is a very busy man and was kind enough to take part in this interview. I contacted him to discuss his work on the film We Are What Are.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. How are you today?

I am building a new studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn and have been waiting for the telephone guy.  I hope it starts ringing once he plugs it in.

Where are you from?

London, England.  

When did you discover music?

Before I was born my Mum was a mod and she got a job with Motown when they did a UK review.  One of her jobs was to lead Stevie Wonder onstage.  When I was 4 or 5 she got me one of those suitcase record players and gave me all her 45s.  Later I got a reel-to-reel and started recording stuff.  I think it all grew out of that.  

When did you start creating your own music and what style was it?

I wasn’t until the UK post acid house scene came along when I thought wow, music is in the hands of the people again.  I was too young when punk exploded and the 80s were all about big studios and record labels which seemed impossible to aspire to.  When Primal Scream’s Screamadelica came out my head exploded.  It had elements of everything that I loved about music; psychedelic, punk, soul, dub, and rock.  My mate Jagz Kooner and I started making tracks in his parent’s garage and later we joined The Sabres of Paradise, which was Andrew Weatherall’s band.  Andrew was responsible for much of Screamadelica so I’ve always been quite in awe of him.  He still makes amazing records.

What film composers, if any, would you consider to be an influence on your work?

I’m going to go with the artist who has had the most direct influence on my life and development as a musician, who is David Holmes.  We worked together for about five years and did our first film together, Out of Sight, directed by Stephen Soderbergh.  David is a force of nature and I miss him a lot.  I would work with him again in a heartbeat; he can whip a session into frenzy like no other.  I also admire Cliff Martinez; his scores have a lot of depth, soul and imagination.

How were you brought on to do the score for We Are What We Are?

The producer of the film, Nick Shumaker, brought me on very late in the game and there was a Sundance deadline so there was a lot of late nights.

The score is a collaboration between yourself and Darren Morris with Jeff Grace. What was it like to work with two other composers on this project?

It worked out great.  As I mentioned, it was an insane deadline so I was happy to share the load with some great talent.  Some of Jeff’s cues had been on the cut for some time, I believe that some scenes were actually filmed with his music playing on set.  I never met Jeff but his work is outstanding.  Darren is an old friend and possibly the most gifted musician I have ever met.  I knew there was going to be a big role for piano so it was a no brainer for me to get him involved.  I frequently cry when he sits at the piano.

The music you wrote for the film, much like the film itself, is both beautiful and unnerving. The opening theme perfectly sets up the tone of the film. The solo piano, while quite pretty, hints that something is deeply wrong with what we are about to see. Did you have a specific emotional reaction you were looking for with that piece?

I love that cue.  Case in point, that’s Darren working his magic at the piano.  The temp music was actually quite ominous.  I suggested to Jim Mickle that perhaps we shouldn’t blow our cover at the top of the film so we focused on scoring the coming of the storm.  The storm plays such an important role in the movie and the way Darren’s playing comes out of the raindrops gives me shivers.

“The Drive to Tire Iron” is an incredibly ominous piece of music that could completely stand alone, but when placed against the scene its truly unsettling. It has this low-pitched drone juxtaposed with a high pitched squeal that feels like a siren. How did you create it? What instruments were used to make it?

That scene is a turning point in the film, where you’re starting to realize that there is something seriously wrong with this guy.  Nothing really happens but there is an incredible amount of tension.  It starts with an eerie whir that is one of those kid’s toys that you spin around your head and it changes pitch how fast you spin it.  The low drone is the OB8 in the DFA studio, which still has character even at such low frequencies.  The metallic squeals are a Waterphone which you bow and the water bends the pitch.

“Frank Chases the Kids” had an almost Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter quality that I didn’t notice until I listened to the soundtrack on its own. While I was watching the film it fit the scene perfectly and it in no way called attention to itself but it really was quite different from anything else in the score. Was this by design? 

I was definitely channeling Assault on Precinct 13 and Tangerine Dream on that cue.  Jim said go big so the challenge was to do that in an interesting way.  I was using a lot of analog synths throughout so I used the power of the MKS80 and a real TR909 to shake some seats.

I love the music in that film. Not the best Carpenter film but goddamn it has great music. The Death Waltz reissue of it is beautiful. What are you working on now?

I worked on Mike Cahill’s movie I Origins this year but right now I’m finishing up the sound treatment for the new studio.  I need to finish it this week.

 

You can purchase the We Are What We Are soundtrack here and you can currently stream the film on Netflix.

We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay)

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I came across We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay) this past summer; I found it to be a fascinating, multi layered, beautiful story. What is presented as the story of a family of cannibals is so, so much more. You can take this movie several different ways; you can simply watch a horror movie that does not rely on gore to tell it’s story, you can watch a horror story that also explores family relationships and dysfunction or you can really go all in and watch a horror movie that not only delves into family, but also into homosexuality and how it is, or isn’t, accepted.

Written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, this is the story of a family who has just lost their patriarch. Though the religion or backstory behind the cannibalism is never explained, we understand that this family performs a yearly ritual that is to be overlooked by the man of the family. Seeing as how the father has unexpectedly passed away, this responsibility is supposed to go to the oldest son, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro). Unfortunately, this is a family with a mother who is slowly losing her sanity, a younger brother who has a quick temper and a sister who is clearly the “leader”, but can never be in such a masculine culture. There is an undercurrent of subtle disgust and disappointment towards Alfredo that does not make sense until a little later in the movie. Alfredo does not necessarily want to take the leadership role, but he cannot leave it to his impulsive brother, Julian, either. His sister, Sabina, has convinced him that he is more than capable of leading the family, so, Alfredo and Julian go out to find a suitable sacrifice.

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Their lack of experience leads to some bumbling and embarrassing moments while trying to abduct people. One unfortunate choice will even lead to another character’s brutal demise. As the time for the ritual grows close, the discord in the family intensifies; the only thing that everyone agrees upon is the fact that the ritual must take place. Just when Alfredo looks as if he is going to give up, a chance encounter on the subway causes him to reassess his life. Alfredo instantly owns his power, his new role in his family and his sexuality. As a gay man, Alfredo is looked down upon for his “flaw”. When he brings home a boy for the ritual, his mother and brother both use the F word freely and with much hatred. It is then that Alfredo finally snaps and has a heartbreakingly honest conversation with his mother about his sexuality.

 

 

This movie was remade into an American and Americanized version with the gender roles all reversed. I have no shame in admitting that I prefer the original version. Why? Because this version is a slow burn horror movie that is more concerned with story; while there are moments of gore, they are reserved and well done. A lot of the violence in this movie is inferred rather than shown; I always find this to be a much more effective means of “showing” violence. All of us can identify and sympathize with complicated family relationships and we have all been touched by someone who is learning to be comfortable in their sexuality. I love that the social and cultural differences between men and women were shown and I especially loved that it was clear that the women were the strong ones. I had absolutely no idea that I would be watching a movie that had a message. Usually, I abhor a “message movie”, but this was handled with great care, respect, a fair representation of all sides and a non heavy hand. You can either see this side of the story, or you can ignore it. Either way, you will be investing in a family falling apart and doing only what they know in an effort to survive. Grau is not asking you to agree or disagree with any of the narratives or character arcs in this movie; he’s just illustrating a basic, human fact. We are what we are.

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We Are What We Are

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In an unusual and rare twist, I am mildly annoyed by a horror remake. We Are What We Are, directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land), is a remake of the Mexican film of the same name. Now that this film is available on Netflix, Twitter has lit up with conversation about it. It seems to be the consensus that the remake is superior and the original is, simply, “meh”. I am absolutely gobsmacked by this. Why? Usually, I’m the one preaching tolerance and acceptance of remakes while the minority rallies against them; without even seeing them! After falling in love with the original film and all of it’s layered themes, I was beyond excited about an English language version and then I find out that the gender roles have been reversed?! Well, now I am so optimistic that it’s just stupid; and perhaps that was my biggest downfall.

We Are What We Are is the story of a family of cannibals that is living amongst us. Once a year, they perform a ritual in order to maintain their families’ survival. In this film, it is the mother who is the leader of the family. With a husband, two daughters and a young son, she leaves her family in a state of shock and panic when she unexpectedly passes away in a freak accident. Because the women are the ones in power, as it should be, the oldest daughter, Iris, will take on the responsibility of ensuring that the ritual is completed.

Iris (Amber Childers) is given a journal by her father Frank (Bill Sage); this contains the history of how her family came to this particular religious practice. Basically, what it comes down to, is the family was going to starve, so, Dad killed his brother and served him to his wife and daughters. He then told them that “all is forgiven in the eyes of The Lord”. Why a family who lives in a functioning, educated part of society would continue on with this practice is beyond me. It’s clear that the girls are not comfortable with it and they only comply out of familial obligation and good manners. It is their father, who married into the “faith”, that is insistent on perpetuating the cannibalism. He uses the word of The Lord as his defense, logic and reasoning. I try to not be offended when religion is used in flippant ways in horror movies, but this gets annoying and mildly offensive. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Who am I to argue with the word of The Lord, though?

This family lives in a small, tight knit community which brings up all kinds of problems. The local doctor finds some unusual symptoms in the mother during autopsy and then he finds human remains while walking his dog. His daughter is one of a few young girls that have gone missing in this community,so, he becomes a bit obsessive about putting all of the pieces together. All of this malarky culminates in a “shocking” ending that isn’t terribly shocking. In all seriousness, I cannot think of a more obvious solution for this family. For me, this movie was a bit too serious for it’s own good and relied too heavily on religion as a catch all reason for everyone’s behavior. I absolutely adore that Iris and her sister, Rose, were the ones who had the brains and the brawn, but they were still just caricatures of good girls.

Overall, this remake is a “better” movie than the original in the sense that it is more accessible,but that is exactly my problem with it. What I first saw as a horror movie with commentary on family and homosexuality was Americanized down so much that it simply became a story of a family that represents the token backwoods clan that we see all too often in horror. This family is surrounded by modern culture, religion, and societal values, yet continue in their anachronistic and barbaric ways. Why do these intelligent women do what they are told despite their obvious objections? The only thing that they did for themselves was the shocking ending. For me, this one was meh. I will take thought provoking story lines over recycled ones any day.

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