Exclusive: Composer Cody Westheimer Talks 'Detention of the Dead'


One of the coolest things about chatting with musicians who work in the horror genre is discovering the many unique ways they translate the emotion of fear into musical form – whether it's through traditional orchestration, lyrical songs, sound design, electronic soundscapes, or any combination of the above. When I read about acclaimed composer Cody Westheimer, I learned he's one of those artists who can just pick up any musical instrument and teach himself how to use it, so naturally I was curious what instrumental approach he'd chosen for his first zombie film: the upcoming horror-comedy Detention of the Dead. Check out the interview on flipside, where Cody explains his own take on horror themes, shares his creative inspirations, and more...

Hey Cody! Thanks for your time, hope all is well.
All is, and thanks for having me!
Is Detention of the Dead your first horror score?
DOTD is definitely my first zombie score, but I've actually scored four or five horror films. But honestly, none of them were quite as fun as this. It's quite a unique blend.

What appeals to you most about writing horror movie music?

I love playing with "ugly" music. It's a change from the more lyrical writing I was trained to do.
Detention is obviously comedy first, and horror second...

You're definitely right about that...

…but did you still get to write some heavy suspense and shock cues, right?
Yes... my ears still hurt! I'd say the score is at least 90% horror. It actually has a bit of a paradoxical effect, in that seriously scoring comedic moments actually brings out the laughter of the audience even more effectively. There are a few moments that we went really far in the comedy direction with the score, and I think they're really effective, but for the most part we scored it not so subtly as a pure horror film.

You've learned to play many different instruments throughout your career. What kind of sounds did you summon to compliment a zombie comedy?
For a film like this, where you're trying to make it as "legit" as possible with the score, you want it to sound like a 90-piece orchestra at the Fox Newman Stage.  With that in mind, I stuck mostly to an orchestral palette. I tried to "hip" it up too though, with some beats, guitars, etc. and there are my usual touches in there as well.

Are you a fan of horror movies in general?
I like any film that promotes a visceral reaction, from a comedy with "WTF" moments to a horror film with "look-away" moments. The thriller genre is definitely a favorite of mine, perhaps more so than the classic splatter film genre. I'm truly hooked on Dexter right now... does that count?

Definitely. We love Dexter.

I'm only into Season 2, but it's absolutely addictive.
When you watch a horror film or TV show, do you pay particularly close attention to the music?
Sure. I think one of the best parts of this gig is that watching movies and TV counts as research! There's so much talent all around, I really enjoy getting inspiration from all fronts.
Are there any horror or suspense scores that stand out as classics for you?
It's probably trite to mention Bernard Hermann's scores, especially to the Hitchcock films... so I'll name Toru Takemitsu's score to Kwaidan.

Good choice... an awesome score, and a fantastic film. Do you have more horror or thriller projects on your slate?
Of course! I just completed the score to my friend Danielle Harris's directorial debut, a feature called Among Friends. It's at the opposite end of the horror music spectrum from DOTD, much more sparse... a lot of instruments I play and a bit less comedy. It's pretty intense!
You're known for your charity work and athletic achievements, including high-endurance competition. Does the discipline and stamina needed for training and competition cross over into your art?
This whole endurance sport was spawned by finding a way to grieve the death of my father back in 2007. Once you get addicted to those endorphins, it's hard to stop! I think I'm a very driven person by nature, so that naturally carries into everything I do. One thing that's amazing though, is that I often come up with musical ideas on a run. I've lost a few of them by the time I got home, so I try to bring my phone with me so I can record them.

You have this very bold approach to life and art... is there anything that scares you?
What is this, therapy? [laughs]

No, I'm just curious... and I ask everyone that question.

I guess my biggest fear is not doing my best. That fear usually inspires me... isn't everyone motivated by fear? But at times it can be paralyzing, so I find it very important to get some distance whenever possible. Even if it's just an hour to get out for a bike ride... I gain tremendous clarity by even just a little distance. Did I dodge that question, or is that good enough?

That was actually very insightful. But back to the movie: when can we expect to hear your music for Detention?
I hope really soon! The film already has a ton of interest from distributors and an iTunes score album is imminent.

Awesome! So we have that and Danielle's movie to look forward to... what else do you have in the works, horror or otherwise?
A lot of fun and exciting projects in the pipeline, including a dramatic feature set in Africa and a documentary on this guy named "Radio Man" that I'm scoring with my wife, Julia Newmann.

Best of luck on all of your projects, and thanks again for your time!

Thanks for having me!

Be on the lookout for more Detention of the Dead news, coming soon...