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Interview: ‘The Menu’ Composer Colin Stetson On Creating a Score Unlike Any Other

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in the film THE MENU. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

One of the most delightful film surprises of the year was The Menu. The dark comedy horror satire is an exquisitely crafted send-up of the fine dining scene. Directed by Mark Mylod and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, and Nicholas Hoult, The Menu cut through a crowded theatrical market to become a well-deserved critical and box office hit.

But the whole meal is tied together by composer Colin Stetson’s (Hereditary) genre-defying score. A refined but chaotic exploration of a high class world devolving into insanity, the music for The Menu adds another layer of richness to the film. We had the opportunity to speak to him about the process of making the music for The Menu, the inspirations he drew from, and what the jazz musician is looking forward to tackling in the future. 

[Note: the following interview has been edited for clarity]

Awards Radar: So we’re talking The Menu. I saw it at Beyond Fest in LA over a month ago and hadn’t seen the trailer beforehand so I was very surprised by everything!

Colin Stetson: I’ve been saying that to everybody! Most of the people I talked to about this had already been watching trailers and whatnot beforehand. But I’ve been saying to everybody just avoid [trailers]. I think trailers in general, these days give everything away. So many more people watch the trailers than do watch the movies. The trailer itself is just trying to get its own clicks. It’s just there to get its own advertising dollars. They basically just kind of make them encapsulate the whole film in this one minute and a half. But for this one as soon as you’ve got certain expectations, it really does spoil [the film]. You’re not going to not have fun. But I’m happy that yours was completely uninformed. And you just went there and got to just go for a fun, unexpected ride.

AR: So how did you come to hear about this project and get attached? What was that process?

CS: Mark [Mylod], the director, had been editing. In the early stages of the edit they were temping the film and putting different music in there and trying to feel their way into what direction the score might take. They eventually started to put some of my music in and a few other things of mine got in there and eventually it became a critical mass of sorts. So they decided to reach out to see if I’d be interested in talking to them about scoring. They sent me the script, and I loved the script, and immediately had a million ideas.

AR: I listened to the score again before this to refamiliarize myself with the music. There’s this sharpness that goes throughout. The movie has sharp edges and there’s this theme of knives and cutting that’s reflected in the music. Were there any culinary influences you took when you were crafting the score?

CS: I liked the observation of the sharpness. The core of the score is a very rhythmic, very pointed kind of scaffolding that takes us from beginning to end. When I read the script I really did see that as being the skeleton key for this particular score. Otherwise this thing could be quite unruly and in turn into a Frankenstein of sorts where at some points it’s like a chef’s table gala, kind of classical on the nose tropes, then it goes full horror, then it’s more slapstick and comedy, and at other times quite dramatic. So it really needed something to hold it all together and to be fully cohesive and to have its own consistent character. There are some sounds that are in the score that are specifically and literally culinary. I use pitched glasses and some pots and pans but they’re not very obvious. They’ve mostly played in blasts and clouds; they create big textures. There are some rhythmic applications to the pots and pans as well. But I think the biggest influence in terms of the culinary is the structure. The structure of the film is all set around the meal. It’s all set around the courses and it’s got a very tidy feeling to it. I wanted the music to reflect that structure and to enhance it.

AR: Were there musicians or musical periods that kind of influenced you? Especially at the beginning there’s a more classical sound, the type of music you would hear if you went to a fancy dinner that’s very heavy on the strings.

CS: The beginning needed to be the invitation; the audience is coming to the island as the diners are coming to the island. The expectation is of lavishness and excess and I did want for it to feel that way. The surface of [the beginning of the score] and of some of the other pieces throughout have a kind of Baroque leaning to them. Later on when things shift there’s a little bit more of a choral element that comes to play, that kind of worship church music that was definitely something that I drew from for significant portions of the film. I wanted to use that as an extreme juxtaposition between that and the much more explicitly horror direction and musical aesthetic that I used in certain points in the second act. I really wanted to make sure that one began in such a place so that the abrupt departure into something completely different would be as jarring as possible.

AR: To me as a musician you’re more known for brass and saxophone but the horns aren’t present until the very end of The Menu’s score, it’s very string heavy. Do you find working with different sections of the orchestra as you’re crafting the score more challenging?

CS: No, with instrumentation the challenge is initially just figuring out what the character of the score is going to be and how to limit that so that it just doesn’t become this amorphous blob that just does everything whenever; it has some cohesion. With strings the only real thing is that I don’t play strings. I’ll write the parts with piano and various other wind instruments. My longtime friend and collaborator Matt Combs plays the strings and he’ll take all my parts and then clone them on an orchestra of strings. I wouldn’t say that it’s more of a challenge writing for those things. It’s [about] knowing when to put what, knowing how far into what kind of aesthetic I want to go in. With [The Menu] the strings were going to operate in certain ways so I tried to be very strict about where it is that I use them and for what.

AR: When you’re watching the film, did you have any scenes when you thought the score should really be present or something jumped out to you in how it should sound based off of what’s happening visually and in the story?

CS: And all of that. Very much. So there were things like The Mess. If somebody listened to the album that cue happens at a particular point in the film where a floodgate kind of opens up musically. When I was reading the score I started reading the script [and] you can see that very distinctly in the script. There’s that moment where everything changes, that was something I heard off the page in that first instance of reading it. There are other things that you might get inspired by a particular shot. I remember there being a scene that I was writing that’s a little bit more because there’s a lot of development to it. It’s a piece of music called “Our Side or Theirs.” There’s a particular shot of Anya as she’s walking towards the camera walking away from the kitchen. One of the melodies that was happening later, in a very different context, was perfect to put here as one of its first iterations and that came from the shot of her leaving. It’s just so poignant, the look on her face, the perfect framing of that shot, the pacing of it. There are always moments like that where the inspiration comes for a very particular thing, in this case melody.

AR: What was interesting to me, I feel like a lot of your music kind of has this chaotic edge to it. Are you drawn to film projects that kind of let you unleash that kind of chaos into the score? The style that works great for something like The Menu where things are falling apart and going insane by the end.

CS: I’m looking for something that I haven’t seen before. For something like [The Menu], nobody’s made this particular film. There are things that are like it in structure a bit, but not this particular thing. I knew it would need a huge breadth of musical directions and it was instantly inspiring for me. To come up with this far ranging yet very concise musical character for the [film]. Film scoring is certainly a big part of what it is that I do, but it’s not the only thing that I do. I’ve been a solo performer and made my own records for years and continue to do that. And so film scoring, I don’t just take jobs. I won’t just go like, “Oh, well, I’ve got a few months, and somebody’s offering me this thing. I’ll do it and I’ll make something that sounds like the temp.” I really am only attracted to these [projects] that have some uniqueness to them and are asking something new from their director, the filmmakers, the cast, and the composer in a way that is unique to the storytelling. That’s always the driving force.

AR: Now after The Menu, what kinds of projects are you looking towards approaching in the future? Are there any directors or other musicians that you’d be interested in collaborating with?

CS: Oh, I have an almost never-ending laundry list of things that I’m in the process of doing now. I’m in the middle of two solo records right now, just released one, [and] another earlier this month. I have another score that I’m starting now that I’ll be working on over the next few months. I can’t really talk about it yet, but it’s a psychological thriller of sorts. It has a very theatrical feeling to it and a very unique overall aesthetic to the imagery so I’m excited about that. [I’m] doing another series next year. In terms of dream scenarios working with people I could go on forever and ever. There’s always Terrence Malick, who’s one of my all time favorites in terms of directors. I’m a huge fan of Claire Denis. Musicians? I don’t even I don’t know how to begin to answer that question!

AR: How about: are there any specific musicians you want to work with?

CS: An easy one is Jonny Greenwood but that’s what people would guess. [If I’m to] pick ones that people might not guess: Meshuggah, Enya and Willie Nelson. How’s those three?

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Written by Leila Jordan

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