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Interview: ‘Mass’ Composer Darren Morze On Creating a Score for the Audience’s Subconscious

Bleecker Street

Darren Morze has scored over 100 feature and short films over the years, including Curfew, which won Best Live Action Short at the 85th Academy Awards. Recently, we spoke to him about his work on the powerful film, Mass (review here), and how both he and director Fran Kranz believed that the film was more impactful with an ambient and silent score. 

Though Morze’s impeccable composing work comes front and center during the end credits, where he evokes a feeling of hopefulness, without making the ending seem too happy. The song was recorded and mixed live with a combination of playing piano into a looper, sweeping swells, and other elements leading to a perfect sonic conclusion for this emotional film. To hear more about his process and other upcoming projects that he’s is composing, read on!

Here now is our interview with Mass composer Darren Morze:

Youve composed many films over the years, how did you get involved with Mass?

I’ve already scored a few films that writer/director Fran Kranz has acted in like Before I Disappear and Lust for Love. We are both great friends with writer/director Shawn Christensen and he introduced us years ago. 

In early 2020 my manager, who also is old friends with Fran, told me that Fran’s directorial debut, Mass, was in post-production and asked me if I would be interested in having a look. I was on a West Coast tour with Dr. Dog at the time, so I asked Fran to send me a Vimeo link so then we could discuss it in person when I got to LA. This was about two or three weeks before COVID really exploded and no one had any idea what was about to happen. So I watched the film and it completely blew me away! 

To my mind, Mass was already finished and didn’t need any music at all. I met with Fran a few days later and I remember saying, “I think my job here is to prove to you that this film needs very little, or maybe even no score at all.” After a few more conversations, we had a plan with various ideas and approaches to try. Then I got back home to my studio around the first week of March 2020 and the world went on lockdown. 

What was your process for creating the score for this film? How did the story influence your approach?

If I may quote RuPaul, my mantra for scoring Mass was “Don’t f— it up!”. Hahaha.

I was convinced early on that any score that I contributed had to live in the more “sound design” realm of music. The actor’s performances were so powerful to me that putting in some string quartet or synthesizer pads or whatever was only going to put a safety barrier between the film and viewer. I really didn’t want that. I wanted the audience to be in that room with the parents. That was my main focus. So I spent a lot of time sampling very tiny individual sounds– like toy pianos, hand chimes, wind chimes, copper pipes– and processing them to make them sound like otherworldly ambient wisps of air. If I’ve done my job right, you shouldn’t even notice them– just feel them float around in your subconscious.

I spent a couple of months layering in these tones and trying different pitches and stretching or mangling them every which way. My favorite instance in the film that showcases these sounds would be when the lawyer and the church coordinator are looking at the stained glass pieces in the window. When they realize that the kids made them and then debate removing them, you’ll hear this ghostly chiming in the background. It could be wind chimes on someone’s porch down the street, or you could be hearing it in your head– who knows? That was the desired effect. It was an insane amount of exacting work for something so subtle that only happens a few times in the film. There were so many other passes that I tried where the score made much more of a statement and created a mood and really pulled the viewer in, but in the end, we kept scaling it back further and further, until ultimately Fran and I decided that it was just better with no score. Sometimes you just can’t beat silence to set a mood.

Theres a moment towards the end of the film where the couples sit in silence and the camera cuts to each of their faces. The audience hears several musical cues as this happens – can you tell us about how you composed the music for that scene?

I actually didn’t do those. I believe that cue, as well as the piano lesson at the beginning of the film, all, happened on set. Those were in there on the very first cut I saw when I was on my way to LA. But they were really influential for me and really helped inform what I was going to do, or more importantly not do, for this score. Those bits really cemented the idea that to make this film as real and raw as possible, the only “musical” sounding music in this film should be the diegetic stuff that is happening onscreen. Everything else should be the cerebral ambient sound design stuff– if anything at all. Film scores are great and I love doing what I do, but as a viewer sometimes when I hear the score, it reminds me “hey, it’s OK, this is a movie”. And I wanted to steer clear of that as much as possible. 

You created the end credits song as well. Can you walk us through your creative process for it?

The end credits tune was really my time to shine and Fran and I spent a lot of time talking about it. Fran wanted something cathartic and uplifting, but that also didn’t feel like a happy ending. I interpreted that as “time moves on, whether you like it or not.” You can choose to heal, or not let go, but time doesn’t care– it will keep moving on. 

I thought a lot about the shot of the tall grasses blowing against the barbed wire fence in the field across from the high school. It happens when Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs’ characters are debating whether or not to attend the meeting, and then also on the closing shot of the film. I wanted to make the ending credits song have indelible marks on it– like the event that happens to our characters. 

I decided to record and mix it all live, in one take. I started with a repeating, almost moaning, pulse on a weird synth called a Mescaline made by Folktek. It kind of plays to its own tempo, so it never shows up where you think it will in the measure or bar– this creates the opening sound bed. Then I played the piano part and ran it through a looper and after a few bars, it starts to repeat itself. After that, I started adding the string swells and tinkly toy sounds, while adding echo and reverb effects to them on the fly. “Dubbing it out” as they say in the reggae world. There are mistakes and things I wished I could have mixed differently, but that’s the point. I can’t go back and change it, even if I wanted to– which relates back to a core message in the film. I did two takes and Fran thought they both sounded a little bright, maybe even too cheery on the first one. So I changed some sounds, changed the key, and did a third take. That’s the one you hear at the end of the film. 

What other projects of yours can we look forward to?

I’m still very excited about my latest solo record Never Ever that came out in October. A lot of it is an extension of the live studio process that I used to make the end credits song for Mass. 60 minutes of continuous music to zone out with or a soundtrack for working intensely. It is streaming everywhere and you can also get it in cassette version from Press On Records.

I am also really looking forward to the release of The Last Victim, a Neo-Western that I scored starring Ron Perlman, Ali Larter, and Ralph Ineson. My score is a very big character in the film and really helps to build the mood and landscape of the story. It hits theaters and streaming in February 2022.

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Written by Betty Ginette

Oscar Sunday is my personal Super Bowl.

I cover behind the camera artisans, and love to hear about filmmaking magic behind the scenes.

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