Grimmfest: Composer Patrick Savage Discusses The Creative Process Behind New Puppet Horror ‘Abruptio’

Abruptio (2023) © HellBent Pictures LLC.

As Grimmfest 2023 drew to a close on 8 October, festival organisers were pleased to welcome composer and musician Patrick Savage to present the final film of the festival: Evan Marlowe’s puppet horror, Abruptio. A story told entirely through the use of lifelike latex puppets, the film offers a darkly comic satire of the insane and horrific state of the modern world.

Half of the composer-duo Savage and Spies, Savage is best known for his work on The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009), and has also worked as a musician on many renowned films including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), and Elvis (2022).

The Indiependent sat down with Savage to discuss his career up to date and the process behind scoring a horror film.

The Indiependent: What was it like to work on this project?

Savage: “It’s always an extraordinary privilege to be invited to score any film because any independent film that gets made is a monumental achievement on the part of the producers and directors. If you’re invited to join the adventure, it’s a big deal so it’s always a huge privilege. 

This particular film maybe even more so because this was a long-term project. It was a very small team working in production on this for more than eight years, working with puppets. It was probably the most unusual process we’ve been involved with because rather than work on the whole film in one go, which is usually what happens, we worked on bits and pieces as they were done and they could be separated by months or years. So it was a case of hearing what we composed many months ago and working with that, maybe on a completely different part of the film. We only really got a sense of the overall arch of it right at the end, so it was a pretty unique process. It was the only film that I’ve really worked on in this way.”

When did it click for you that composing is something you wanted to do?

“That’s difficult to answer but years and years ago I liked messing around on computers and writing pastiche stuff. And almost for a laugh, I sent out some little recordings to filmmakers to see if I got any reaction, expecting complete silence but it wasn’t complete silence. There was some positive reaction and that was some encouragement to go on.

I met Holeg Spies on Myspace because we realised we had a lot in common musically even if we were in different countries and we started to work together. We worked together on our first feature film which was a vampire film. And it kind of worked. The difficult thing with that is not getting started, it’s keeping going because there can be times when you don’t feel particularly encouraged. But working in a team like that, that keeps you motivated and that’s kind of how it worked.”

Why is the score so important in setting the tone and mood in a horror film?

“It’s certainly a very powerful and atmospheric storytelling tool, but it works in very different ways in different films. Probably the film that Holeg and I worked on that’s best known in horror is The Human Centipede, and that’s almost a strange biological noise. It’s sound design, it’s not music you listen to on the way home. And that was meant to work like a constant piercing headache, whereas the music in Abruptio is, in a way, much more traditional scoring. It’s sort of Bernard Herrmann-inspired scoring that hopefully some people will hum on the way home.

It works in different ways in different films but I don’t think many people could imagine a horror with no music at all; the music can give a film a particular fingerprint. It’s Something you can really recognise. You hear a couple of notes of the Psycho (1960) score and it conjures up the whole film. And I can’t think of another score that sounds like Psycho. So that’s quite a creative achievement.”

Is there any particular moment in this film that you’re particularly proud of?

“Yes, there is but I’m not sure how much I should give away about it because I think it’s quite important that people don’t know too much about the film before they go in. But there is one scene where, I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we have ragtime music against a particularly disturbing scene which is quite a unique horror scene with an element of comedy. It’s a scene I’m quite proud of but I don’t really want to say more than that.”

What were some of the challenges when approaching the composition?

“I think the big challenge was that it was over such a long period of time. It’s a tribute to the single-minded determination of Evan that he kept on with this for so many years. It’s an amazing project but just to get it done was so impressive. Also really you want to plan out your score and say ‘ok this is the biggest point of the film and this is the most tender point of the film.’ And that’s hard to do when you’re seeing the film as puzzle pieces. So I think possibly the score came out differently than if we’d have done it all in one go, but at the same time, I’m quite happy with how it turned out.”

What advice would you give to anyone who’s exploring the avenue of sound design or creating film scores?

“I would definitely advise people to get in touch with film students, with the up-and-coming generation of filmmakers, and join that film community. Another important route is assisting film composers who are working now just to see how they’re getting things done and how they approach stuff. The great thing now is that anyone with a laptop can do it. But it does mean there’s a crowd of people who are looking to do the same thing and that can be tough.

I think part of it, as well as developing your relationship with the up-and-coming film community, is finding your voice because ultimately you don’t want to sound like everybody. It’s important to start to develop just yourself doing it—your own unique voice which gives filmmakers a very clear reason to hire you and not somebody else.”

Some answers edited for clarity

Words by Katie Heyes

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