Music Box of Horrors: Drew Daywalt & CORVO

Ever since master of short-form horror cinema Drew Daywalt founded his own production team, he's often turned to composer (and fellow FEARnet contributor) Gregory S. Burkart to supply the sinister musical counterpart to his vision. Under the band name CORVO, Greg has composed the music for nearly all of Drew's productions – from the epic web series Camera Obscura to the award-winning short film Polydeus, which made its web premiere on FEARnet this week. Drew recently had a chat with Greg and his wife/bandmate NiNi to discuss when it all began, how they work together, and why CORVO's sounds can be heard in the dark corridors of the Daywalt Fear Factory... so hit the jump for the full story!

Gregory Burkart: You know, we do so many interviews separately, but we never get to just rap with each other, at least not with the recorder on... so this is kinda cool, actually. It's like a DVD commentary without the DVD.

Drew Daywalt: Totally!

GB: How about I set the way-back machine for a minute?

DD: Go!

GB: Okay. So I interviewed you a few years ago, back when you were still with Fewdio. You sent me the Nightmare House DVD, I sent you a CORVO album...

DD: Yeah, it's still a staple in my car!

GB: That's awesome, man! So did you ever think back then you'd be matching up that music with so many of your films in the future?

DD: To be honest, I thought, “these guys are so good, they're never gonna work with us.” We were just kind of amateur hour, kinda putting stuff up on YouTube. We all had a film background, but this was just our poker night, you know? This was just for fun, so there's a certain ceiling on the quality... “I just won't get CORVO.”

GB: But that's the crazy thing: in a lot of ways CORVO started out as our poker night, just something we'd play around with in our spare time, and it kinda snowballed from there. When we watched your films for the first time, we told each other, “These feel like theatrical horror movies, just shrunk down.”

NiNi Burkart: Yeah, it's like they needed their own mini-soundtracks...

GB: Right, self-contained, just like the movies were. So when you showed me the script for Camera Obscura, we thought we'd try some demos for you and see if they fit.

DD: It's funny, you know... now I can't picture doing a film without you scoring it. I'm really hoping, if we want to talk about our dreams, that Daywalt & Burkart can eventually be like Tim Burton & Danny Elfman.

NB: We say that all the time!

GB: You know, that's what's cool about filmmakers with a personal vision – sometimes the music they choose goes hand-in-hand with it. Like if Burton makes a movie without Elfman's music, it feels like something's missing. Or early Cronenberg with Howard Shore, or Argento & Goblin, all their best team-ups.

DD: I was actually thinking about it in the car the other day... when you and I work, I don't feel like I'm just working with a musician; I feel like I'm working with the other half of a filmmaker. You're just covering the audio spectrum, while I'm covering the visual spectrum... because the movie's never done until you've put your stamp on it. Once you've done that, it's about a thousand times better.

GB: That's really cool, thanks.

NB: Wow...

DD: That's the way I see it – you're just my co-filmmakers, you and Jeff Farley.

GB: Well, aside from the obvious ego boost that that gives to a composer, it's so cool that you appreciate how much the element of sound really brings to a movie. I mean, especially a horror movie.

DD: The proof of that for me was on Jack, because I hated it at first. I was like, “Aww, I really fucked this one up.”

NB: Seriously?

GB: How come?

DD: Well, I could go on for a million reasons why I didn't like it, but it was due for this One Minute Film Festival, so I get it over to you, and it comes back... and I'm like: “Holy shit, this is awesome! What a great movie!”

DD: Even having done this for fifteen years, I still make that mistake... it's really not done, and you can't judge it when it's a rough cut, or even a final cut without music. The same thing happened on The Kindred. Before I sent it to you, I was so over that film.

GB: Yeah?

DD: Not because of the content, but because of everything I'd gone through with it. I was ready to shit-can this thing. But my wife said “No, it's great!” and when I sent it to you, you're like, “This is your best one yet,” and I'm thinking “Okay, I gotta start listening to my wife and my composer.” When it came back, it was fresh to me again.

GB: I'm glad, because that story rocked. It doesn't feel like a short story, but a glimpse of a very big one, you know what I mean? I knew I had to make it sound like we'd opened the door on something huge.

DD: It's funny, the night we launched that on YouTube, I got three phone calls: the first one was from Azure Parsons, who played one of the Kindred... she said, “Can we please do this one as a series? It's my favorite one you've ever done.” Then I got another call from Edin Gali, who said how much he enjoyed playing a lead character, and said “I'm so proud of this.” Then I got a third call from Timm Sharp – who's going to be doing Enlightened for HBO with Laura Dern – and he said “Man, we've got to turn this into a movie or a series.”

NB: He's so good... his career's really taken off.

DD: Yeah, and he's like you guys: even though he's able to make a career out of what he's doing, he's also in it for the art of it. Like when we shot the elevator scene for Kindred, he asked me how these characters feel when they “die” and return to life. I said, “after the initial shock and pain, maybe we can look at it from the perspective of an intense heroin high.” So he comes back and says, “I think there's a movie about these characters being addicted to dying.”

GB: That's awesome...

NB: Oh yeah, very cool.

DD: So we're exploring a gang movie or series where the first ten minutes involve Edin being pulled into this world of addiction. That's right up our alley, isn't it?

GB: Totally. Speaking of that scene in the elevator, I was telling NiNi how I really wanted a big glossy photo of that three-shot showing the Kindred all pimped out.

DD: I know, I was summoning my old music video days for that one.

GB: Classic hip-hop composition.

DD:  Yeah, you know that reminds me... for two years I was a top 10 director at MTV Europe, and back in the day hip-hop artists would get off the plane ready to meet their director, and they'd see this dorky white Comic-Con guy... and they'd say, “You're Drew Daywalt? Fuuuuck, man!” It was a real shocker. But I was able to convince them I could cut to the beat. I'm a nerd, but I dream cool.

GB: I think I'll get that phrase tattooed on some part of me. So anyways, let's talk about my other favorite, Polydeus... or I guess I should now be saying the award-winning Polydeus.

DD: True... which is cool, right?

GB: Which is very cool. I'm gonna say the HELL outa that from now on.

DD: Oh man, you should have seen it on the big screen for that festival. The sound system there was amazing! It sounded so good. It was way more intense, more than I even expected. At the end of the film, there was absolute fucking silence from over five hundred people... first, I was like, “uh oh.” But then I looked around, and there were eyes wide, jaws open, hands to mouths... so then I thought: “Good, okay. They're really into it.”

GB: I remember when I watched the rough cut, I thought “This one is going to really disturb people... but they're gonna go back and see it again just to figure out what the hell they just saw.”

DD: That's probably because of what we don't do in the story, the visuals or the music... we don't explain any of it.

GB: There's no need. It's like Lovecraft: the idea that if you think too much about what's going on, you'll go insane. Timm's character gets sucked into a world that you created... and we know it's fiction, but it feels so creepy that there's a sense it just might be too dangerous to watch, so I kinda wanted to create that same feeling with the music, like it's dangerous to listen.

DD: How'd you come up with that?

GB: Well, you created your own rules for that world, so I decided to invent some musical rules too. I wanted something chaos-based, so I chose a Sherman Filterbank.

NB: I've heard them call it “Lucifer-in-a-Box.”

GB: Yes, it's pure evil! It never makes the same sound twice. You plug a sound source in, turn some dials and crazy shit comes out the other end. In this case, I ran a baritone guitar into it and loosened the strings until they sounded frightening.

DD: Well, it worked... because after plugging your music into the mix, I found myself tensing up, which I hadn't been while I was cutting, because I was so used to the imagery. I was thrust back into the world of emotion, and everything became intense again. That's really how I knew it succeeded.

GB: Like you said before, when all the parts are in place, you just know when it's right.

DD: Let's talk about the monster's language and speech you invented for Polydeus... how did you pull that off?

GB: It was pretty basic... to get the voice, I used a gadget that live vocalists use when they can't afford backup singers. You can dial in different pitches and vocal types and layer them together, except I did it in ways the designers probably never intended. Then for the words, I did an anagram of the monster's dialog and replaced the letters until they flowed like a real language. The only word I didn't change was “Polydeus.”

DD: Which was awesome!

NB: Yes, that's the best part!

DD: I thought the coolest thing in the movie was the creature itself... until you gave it a voice. Then I said, “now it's done, it's ready to come out of the oven.”

GB: I love hearing that!

DD: I do love The Kindred, but I still think Polydeus may be my favorite.

GB: I'm proud of both... but if I'd seen it in the theater that might have pushed it over the top for me too.

NB: It's so hard to pick for me. Each one is such a complete creation, it's kind of a living thing.

GB: Maybe that's another reason why we work so well together. By now, I tend to get a real sense just from reading the script, or sometimes just when you describe the story to me, that the movie is already coming to life in my head.

NB: When we start discussing the score, it seems you approach the music like it's an actual character in the film. Does it feel that way to you?

GB: It really does, like there's a personality in there.

DD: That really comes through on my end as well.

GB: It's like when actors have chemistry on screen. I think the music has to have the same kind of chemistry with the story and the visuals.

NB: Or the director and the composer. You guys finish each other's thoughts by now...

GB: Yeah, we're to the point where I'll start texting him a music idea and he's suddenly texting the same idea back to me before I can hit “send.” That happened once.

DD: I don't even give you any damn notes anymore! I just send you something, and say go. Nine times out of ten, you're thinking of something that I wouldn't have thought of, being the artist that you are.

GB: Well, please keep the films coming, because each new one inspires me in new ways.

DD: Absolutely.

GB: We're just really grateful for the opportunity to work with you, and looking forward to more exciting stuff ahead... it looks like we're all gonna be busy in 2011. Busy is a good thing.

DD: Yes! I feel really good about this, guys.

NB: Me too! Very excited.

DD: It's gonna be a good year.