I recently scored a sci-fi horror short entitled While Mortals Sleep, directed by Alex Fofonoff and produced by Video Horse Films. The short made it into Sundance Film Festival and more recently, the Boston Sci Fi Fest.
In honor to celebrate, the director and I interviewed each other about the film. Quick description: it features a cold case novelist whose career implodes. She seeks refuge at her friend's remote vacation home. Upon arrival, she encounters a strange couple who claim to be the caretakers. As tensions build, a dark secret begins to emerge. The whole thing is shot on film with an amazing puppet. Super happy to be a part of it. Without further ado, it'll be myself interviewing Alex, then Alex interviewing me.
Synth History (Danz): What were some of the most challenging aspects about making While Mortals Sleep?
Alex: Shooting on film was definitely a little more stressful than I anticipated. I had some experience working with film, but not a ton. I was very nervous that something could be wrong with the footage and how we wouldn't be able to know until the shoot was over. My cinematographer, Lidia Nikonova, was extremely confident and relaxed about it though, and had to keep telling me over and over again, “They dropped a camera out of a plane for Dunkirk. Your movie will be fine.” Besides that, the production ran pretty smoothly. We had such a great team in front of and behind the camera, as well as extremely supportive location owners. It was honestly one of the best sets I’ve ever been on, and it was all thanks to assembling such a talented group of hardworking artists that believed in my sludgy dream.
Danz: What were some of your main filmmaking inspirations growing up, and how have they changed throughout the years?
Alex: When I became interested in filmmaking, I was really into Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. As I watched more and more movies, though, my taste drifted away from that and closer to a lot of 70’s American directors, such as Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah who were doing such interesting subversions of classic genre films. It was sometime around then that I saw Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time and I was simply stunned by its artistry. I was expecting a gorefest, but it’s practically a bloodless movie. There’s so much atmosphere and world-building, I never knew horror could be like that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I saw the bone couch, or the first time I saw the final shot of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw in circles as the sun rises. Soon after that, I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing, and again, I was stunned. The artistry and emotional expression that went into the creature effects blew me away. After seeing those two masterpieces, I fell in love with horror movies, and I’ve never looked back.
Danz: If you could bring one movie to a desert island (a desert island that had the ancient technology of a TV with a built-in VHS player) what would it be?
Alex: Robert Altman’s Nashville. There’s just so much humanity in the movie that every time I watch it, I find new little moments that make me fall in love with the movie even more.
Danz: Is there a set place in the universe Baby Gary is from?
Alex: Baby Gary, the alien baby puppet that stars in the film, is actually a product of humanity more than anything else. He is the product of cosmic forces within the earth’s crust and oceans transforming human pollution into a new evolutionary step for humanity.
Danz: What are the perfect ingredients to making sludge at home?
Alex: I actually could not tell you what the perfect ingredients are. Those secrets belong to an industrial slime company based in Santa Fe Springs, California. I do know though, that it is definitely NOT edible. For home I'd recommend chocolate syrup, a lot of black food coloring, and coffee grounds for texture.
Danz: If you could collaborate with any other directors, living or dead, who would they be?
Alex: This is the toughest question - there are so many! As far as dead directors go, Robert Altman is my one and only, and I would have loved to spend a day on set shadowing him, let alone collaborating with him. For living directors, I would love to collaborate with John Carpenter or Yorgos Lanthimos. Both are such incredible masters of dread, and it would be a dream come true to work alongside either of them.
Alex: What did synths bring to this score that traditional instruments couldn't have done?
Danz: Synthesizers traditionally go so well with sci-fi and horror. There is something otherworldly about certain synthesizer sounds, you can make the environment sound eerie with one low droning bass note. Natural instruments manipulated in some way bring a lot of uneasiness as well. Sending something acoustic through a synthesizer, or sampling and manipulating it builds tension. I really love the feeling of the uncanny valley, when something is somewhat human but not quite, when something just feels off. You can achieve that really well with synthesizer technology. I did that with a cello sample in middle of Susan’s Song, blended it with synths and it sounds pretty weird.
Alex: What was your main inspiration for the sound and style?
Danz: My main inspirations musically were Brian Eno, Mica Levi's score for Under the Skin, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I’m used to making a lot of melodic things, really focusing on recurring hooks and melodies. It was fun doing the exact opposite for this, aiming more towards ambient, unnerving and strange.
Alex: What was the biggest challenge of writing a film score versus writing your own music?
Danz: The biggest challenge was trying not to make what I usually make. When I write my own synthpop-esque songs, I’ve generally got a chorus part, verses part, etc. I wanted to make music without any structure for this and I wanted to have the songs be able to sit underneath the visuals and make you feel anxious.
Alex: If you could collaborate with any other film composer, living or dead, who would it be?
Danz: Probably Ennio Morricone or Jonny Greenwood.
Alex: What synths did you use for this score and why?
Danz: For hardware I mainly used a Prophet 6 desktop module, Moog Mother 32 and Minitaur. Surprisingly I used Reason as an instrument plug-in as well, and really fell in love with the grain sample manipulator.
Alex: What's your favorite synth score?
Danz: Oh my god it's always so hard to pick favorites isn't it? This is so hard! I can’t think of one favorite, so I’ll just name a bunch. John Carpenter is for sure the synth master. I also absolutely love Goblin and old school Italian horror movies (Giallo). Oneohtrix Point Never did an amazing job on Uncut Gems. Tangerine Dream are masters of their craft, too. There are a bunch. I recently watched The Holy Mountain and my mind was blown by the synths in it. I love when music randomly hits you over the head in a film.
Alex: Did you always imagine writing movie scores or is this a new interest/passion?
Danz: I’ve always wanted to, but wasn’t sure if I’d ever get the opportunity. I’ve written a bunch of jingles for commercials in Japan, for things like mayonnaise (haha), detergent, energy drinks. I wrote for a Mercedes ad once. It’s such a different animal to write with visuals that are longer than 30 seconds and I want to do it again.
Find out more about While Mortals Sleep by visiting WMSFILM.com.
References: Synth History Exclusive. Behind the scenes photos taken by Armen Perian. Screen grabs of While Mortals Sleep.