Knock At The Cabin Composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir Was Inspired By The Legendary Bernard Herrmann [Exclusive Interview]

This post contains spoilers for "Knock at the Cabin."

M. Night Shyamalan has made a throwback picture with "Knock at the Cabin." The old Universal logo and the old-school opening credits make that abundantly clear. When unwanted guests arrive and say the end is near, Shyamalan tells a story about the dangers, fear, and hate that plagues society. With composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir ("Y: The Last Man"), the filmmaker creates a near constant sense of dread. 

Stefánsdóttir was never explicitly instructed to go back to the past and pay homage to the likes of Alfred Hitchock's go-to composer, Bernard Herrmann — she just knew that was the route to go. She also wanted modern touches and biblical references in the thunderous score. Recently, Stefánsdóttir was in Los Angeles to take a break from film composing to work on an album, but she made the time discuss her ambitions and influences for "Knock at the Cabin."

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'It's your worst f***ing nightmare'

What were your initial ideas for "Knock at the Cabin"? What did you immediately think the score called for?

Just by reading the script, it's always a little bit of a shot in the dark because when you actually get to see the visuals, it can really change because the aesthetics of the film, the cinematography, the acting, the colors, and the overall artistic direction for me is impactful on the music writing. It helps you understand what tone the film needs. When you're just reading a script, it's incredibly open to interpretation.

My first instinct when I read the script is, you can just tell from the title, "Knock at the Cabin," that it's very familiar. It's an old story. We know this motive so well from just the history of cinema, especially horror cinema. So I'm like, "Okay, it's a nod to something that we know."

I'd only spoken to [M. Night Shyamalan] once and then I was just reading some stuff online. I had read that he was shooting it on film on '90s cameras. So I was trying to imagine what his vision or direction was because he was still shooting, so we hadn't had this major artistic talk of what he wanted to do.

My first, absolutely first instinct from that was if we could go back to, in my opinion, the golden era of horror filmmaking, if we could go back to the '60s, but still in a contemporary way. With this cabin in the woods, there's something that makes me want to think about Hitchcock and think about what Bernard Herrmann was doing. Even though I would never write that kind of music or the same, I mean, it's a part of an era that is not here anymore, but it's such a great era of both film and music.

I allowed myself to be inspired by the tonal and the chord language of Bernard Herrmann. It's not jazz chords, but it's his usage of chords. I'm just not that educated in music to really know what it is, but I have a good ear so I can kind of figure it out. I felt that should be the tonal language of the film, but of course, in my own way and in a more contemporary setting. I wrote this 25-minute piece of music that I sent to Night, and somehow that was the right tone. I got lucky because you never know. So that was the initial thing of how I got the idea of what is the tonal language of the film. That is one aspect.

I also, coming from electronic music, the sonic language and how the sounds are also equally important. As we start the film, it's also tricky because it only happens in this one cabin. The entire story is in one room. It's almost like a theater play, and you have to be really creative to sustain tension and multilayered storytelling within such a narrow visual frame. So as I started, I use a lot of inspiration from what I see and feel. In the beginning, it is the woods, it's the knocking sounds of the woods — what do they sound like, and what does their environment sound like? And then the second layer is, what is the initial emotion? When we start, we don't know anything, and it basically just starts in pure terror. It's your worst f***ing nightmare.

Those are initial emotions, because we can't give away too much too soon. And then the weapons, they have these weird biblical-looking metal weapons. I use a lot of these kinds of things as inspiration for what kind of sounds I create.

'All these really close up, detailed shots of their faces, it brings out a lot of emotions'

You feel that Herrmann influence right from the opening titles. As a composer, is that always a thrill, just having that moment to really set the tone?

But that came much later. That wasn't decided until very late in the process. I think what is cool — and I don't know, maybe Night would be like, "No, that's not correct," but I'm just going to say it anyway. When we started, it's such an open forum, and Night and I had a talk and I asked him, "What do you want?" And he was like, "I'm not going to tell you anything. I don't want to name composers. I'm not going to name music because I want you to find something by yourself, from yourself, that is truly unique for this film." He gave me the freedom to take my own artistic direction of what I thought should be the atmosphere of the film. You could have done a totally different kind of score, which would've not taken us to this nod to this certain era of filmmaking, the Hitchcock era.

So the visuals and the graphic design of the opening credits is an obvious nod to, we are back in the '60s. I haven't really asked Night about this, but I took this artistic direction in the score to do a really obvious nod to that era. I think these things inspire each other and ultimately let the film really feel, in some sense, that it's new, but it has all these references. So, the opening credits just came very late. I'd already written a big part of the score.

Night is so skilled at blocking and camera movements. How did his way with moving the camera and cutting influence the score?

The cinematography I find especially amazing in this film, and how he shoots. That is so interesting about how you can solve shooting in one room, basically, because it becomes very emotional. Thank God the acting is really good in the film. All these really close up, detailed shots of their faces, it brings out a lot of emotions. Sometimes it can even be more tricky if the actor is really nailing a scene and you're really believing the actor and the story, and then you're finding a way to enhance those emotions. Or you are addressing something that is not being said on the screen or is not being said by the character. It can honestly be even more tricky when the actor's acting is really good and you really believe it as it is. Sometimes there's like a side story or something else that we need to be tackling with the music.

Dave Bautista brings a real sensitivity to the movie, his character, Leonard. What kind of theme did you want to create for him?

One of the first things I wrote before I had seen the movie was a theme for Leonard. When I was writing his theme, it was beautiful but melancholic because he kind of stands for something good, as one of the Four Horsemen. He stands for guidance. It was having to come into terms with knowing that you have to make a really f***ed up, awful decision to do something that is for humankind. I think no human really has that experience. "I have to do this to save the entirety of humanity." I mean, that's a heavy burden. So, the theme I wrote for him resulted in his acceptance of that, but we actually didn't end up using that in the film.

After I had written some character things before seeing the movie, we understood that we had to take another direction in the film, because a big part of the plot is that we cannot reveal who Leonard really is. That has to wait. So we cannot reveal anything about the characters with the music. There couldn't be a real profound character theme for Leonard or something that tells us about who they are, because it's so important that we don't know, and the music doesn't tell that. The music is taking the perspective of [the family] Andrew and Eric and Wen.

'There's one completely crazy instrument that I recorded'

Last time we spoke, I asked if you found Iceland a peaceful place to write, but you then described the harsh weather at the time. Is that an ideal setting to score a horror movie like "Knock at the Cabin"?

[Laughs] I mean, Iceland is good to write music in because when you're doing a job in the fall, in the winter, you just don't want to be outside at all. I always have candle lights in my studio and write music in the dark. It inspires you in the way that you just want to be inside.

You also use some unconventional instruments, like glasses of water.

I used that sound again recently. 

In this movie?

Nobody knows. It's such a good sound. Yeah, I squeezed it in. It's in one scene. For this sound, I mean, it is completely in the organic world. There are some hidden electronics in there, but not really as much in the subsonic base field, so you're not really going to know. I just felt that this should be a really organic, orchestral, lush, beautiful score. It's a terrifying score. I mean, a couple of beautiful moments, but there's one completely crazy instrument that I recorded. I had never heard it played before. It's the contrabass clarinet. It goes so many octaves lower than whatever instrument. For example, in the "Four Horseman" cue, the bass drone you hear in the beginning is the contrabass clarinet, and it creates all these weird squeaks and noises and harmonics.

For me, the sound drone of the contrabass clarinet, it is terror, because it comes from your gut. It's somewhere down there. Because it's a woodwind instrument, it also has all these surprising, squeaky wood sounds. That became a fundamental source in the terror. It's played by this instrument player called John McCowen. He's an American who lives in Iceland, and he's probably one of the handful of people in the world that knows how to play this instrument with these crazy extended techniques. It's a very unique way of playing the instrument.

Why did you want to keep the electronic music more hidden?

Sometimes you just need to use it for practical reasons, and that is just a little enhancement. It's just a little addition. What maybe separates it from a completely old school soundtrack to something that's more contemporary is that with a little bit of processing and electronics, you can make things sound really big and f***ed up. So there's a lot of subsonic filth. There's a lot of filthy dirt in the low end of the score. It is just a sonic addition to the complete nightmare that they are experiencing.

'I was referencing the biblical story in the score'

Now you've scored the apocalypse twice. What other instruments or ideas did you have to give a sense of the world ending?

Well, for this particular movie, I am going to the Book of Revelations. I was reading a lot about that. The angels, it's the doomsday prophecy from the Old Testament. There were seven angels, and for each plague that was to be unleashed for humankind, an angel would blow [a horn]. I was referencing the biblical story in the score, but not until later, because we couldn't give it up. For example, before they sacrifice Redmond, there's a knocking sound, and I make it knock seven times. The numbers that I'm using, I'm really intentionally — nobody's going to know that I'm referencing this prophecy from the Old Testament. And when Leonard cuts his throat — I mean, I hope I can spoil things in this interview.

I'll put a spoiler warning.

That is the first moment I then take the angels flowing, it's like this big brass sound that comes. It's a complete reference to the biblical story. I thought it was super fun to read about that and get inspired, because that is the understory. That is the big plot. That is something we don't know until the end of the film. So I really like taking inspiration from that stuff and creating the sonic world. And then of course, use the voices. It's the angelic choir that comes there just after Leonard dies.

That is really cool. Do you really think someone might not sit down and catch those details? Someone will know exactly what that is, right?

Yeah, maybe. I think probably someone that knows their s*** might be like, "Oh!" But I think 0.001% the audience will think about that.

How did the editing affect your score? Were there any changes made to the picture that made you pivot?

I wrote the score pretty fast. Pretty early on, I tackled a lot of the bigger scenes in the film. The process of this film was quite fast, but it was very long in the beginning. We were talking about two and a half hours. So what happened is they kept editing, editing, editing, down to 90 minutes. Of course, that really affects the music, so for me, as a composer, I lost a bit of my thematic material and a lot of melodies and a lot of themes that I based around the story that unfortunately kind of went away in the edit. But that's also how filmmaking goes. You gotta kill your darlings and just be okay with it.

"Knock at the Cabin" is now playing in theaters.