Interview With Z FOR ZACHARIAH Composer Heather McIntosh
Opening on August 28th is director Craig Zobel’s Z FOR ZACHARIAH. In the wake of a nuclear war, a young woman survives on her own, fearing she may actually be the proverbial last woman on earth, until she discovers the most astonishing sight of her life: another human being. A distraught scientist, he’s nearly been driven mad by radiation exposure and his desperate search for others. A fragile, imperative strand of trust connects them. But when a stranger enters the valley, their precarious bond begins to unravel. The film stars Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Having its initial screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Sasha Bronner of the Huffington Post wrote, “Zobel balances danger, suspense and the more delicate nuances of love expertly, leaving us unsure of both the threats outside the house as well as the danger within.”
The film features a score composed by Heather McIntosh (COMPLIANCE, MANSON FAMILY VACATION). McIntosh’s first two feature-length narrative films were accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 COMPLIANCE (directed by Craig Zobel) and then again in 2013 THE RAMBLER (directed by Calvin Lee Reeder, co-composed with Scott Honea and Jed Maheu). She was one of only four women who made the Academy Awards shortlist of composers for Best Original Score for the 2013 Awards for her score to COMPLIANCE.
I recently spoke with McIntosh about the process of creating the beautiful score for Z FOR ZACHARIAH and her thoughts on women film composers.
WAMG: Describe your latest soundtrack for the film, which screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The subtle tracks are terrific.
HM: This work has a very pastoral tone, even though we are depicting the end of the world, it takes place in the only part of the world unaffected by the apocalypse. There were strings and horns and harps, and I took those and added electronic and manipulated the sounds. Craig Zobel and I knew we wanted it to sound just as isolated as the images.
WAMG: You previously worked together on COMPLIANCE. What did he tell you he wanted from this score as far as tone and what did you want to do with your score?
HM: Seeing that we had worked together before, we knew how we wanted to the music to sound. It saved time that we knew each other unlike when working with a director for the first time. The music on COMPLIANCE was very minimal, but with Z FOR ZACHARIAH, we wanted to go all out with the score and its thematic development. Though it is a chamber work, we wanted the sound to be full and orchestral.
WAMG: Which scene did you score first?
HM: The scene in which Margot Robbie’s character Ann Burden plays the organ. We knew we needed to get the tone of this right. It needed to feel like a timeless hymn and also be a defining theme for Ann. It had to be told through Ann’s eyes – through the eyes of this person who is all alone, without being too heavy or sad.
I started working on this after reading an early draft of the script, long before the film was shot.
WAMG: “The Wheel,” amongst other cues/tracks, sustains such a mood in the film. What kind of ensemble did you use to record the score and did you use any interesting or unusual instruments – the organ is especially effective.
HM: I used the pump organ to convey loneliness as well as the harp, played by Mary Lattimore, to convey the passing of time. I did a lot of traveling to capture my friends playing, including a great French horn player, Jeremy Thal.
I also had a small choral ensemble, Gideon Crevoshay, Suzannah Park and Avery Book, where we recorded this ‘hellfire and brimstone,’ Old Testament shape note tracks. I will chase down people to get that certain sound for a cue and I knew my palette was going to be harp, horn, vocal and then a large string section. I manipulated the sound of many of the pump organs to create an electronic quality to them. Guitarist John Lindaman created a lot of underlying tension with phase manipulation sounds.
WAMG: There are so few women composers – you, Rachel Portman, Anne Dudley. Why do you think that is – lack of opportunity or not given the opportunity?
HM: I was classically trained and studied composition and cello. I also played in bands and it was unusual for the girl to show up as the bass player when I toured with Gnarls Barkley or Lil’ Wayne. There are quite a few women film composers and I found a great community of them when I moved to Los Angeles. We’re just getting our bearings a little bit and it’s been exciting to get this momentum going as there are super talented women. There is an organization here called the Alliance of Women Film Composers (http://theawfc.com/) that has a really great support system. At the end of the day, I just keep on creating and building new relationships.
I’m fairly new to this and it’s only been about four and a half years since I started working in narrative film composition. It’s been fascinating meeting both men and women composers and scoring is very solitary where you spend a lot of time working on your own in the studio and then collaborating with the filmmaker, but I found all these different organizations out here where you can build your “tool-kit.” After COMPLIANCE opened, I went to the Sundance Composers Lab and they’re really supportive of all voices in creating a dynamic representation of people trying to tell stories with film music and I feel really lucky to have been a part of that. They helped me refine my voice.
The numbers are growing for women film composers and it’s a really exciting time. I think people are hungry for new voices in storytelling and there is real potential in that. It’s so encouraging. I’d love to work on big projects and I’m very hopeful.
WAMG: What’s your next film?
HM: I did the score for a film that played at South by Southwest called the MANSON FAMILY VACATION by J. Davis which is coming out soon on Netflix. That is from Jay and Mark Duplass and I’m really excited for that to be released.
Roadside Attractions presents Z FOR ZACHARIAH in theaters and On Demand August 28, 2015. The Z for Zachariah – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack on Varèse Sarabande, will be available digitally on August 28 and on CD September 4, 2015