An interview with composer Barry J. Neely


He used a wide range of unconventional instruments to create the unique sound of “Slapface”.


Last August, we announced that Jeremiah Kipp slapface would premiere on Shudder in 2022. Now the wait is finally over.

In case you are unfamiliar with the title, here is the synopsis of the film:

After the death of his mother, Lucas, a loner who lives in a dilapidated house with his brother Tom, regularly seeks solace in the nearby woods. With his only “friends” being a group of bullying women, he keeps to himself most of the time. But, after a strange encounter with an inhuman monster, Lucas begins to withdraw from others. When the two come to a tentative trust, a bizarre friendship is born and Lucas is drawn into a series of primitive adventures.

slapface was a film festival favourite, screening at festivals such as HorrorHound and Frightfest, while also winning the ‘People’s Choice Award’ at Cinequest. Not only was the film recognized, but so was composer Barry J. Neely’s score. He won the “Best Score” trophy at Manchester’s Grimmfest last October. Since the music in horror movies plays a crucial role in the storytelling process, we spoke exclusively with Neely. Below he discusses his work with director Jeremiah Kipp, his love for non-traditional instruments and much more.

Barry J. Neely’s slapface the score is available nownumerically.

Dread Center: How did you get involved in slapface?

Barry J. Neely: The director of another feature I scored, somewhere slowrecommended me to the producer/star of slapface Mike Manning when they were looking for composers. I was very interested in working on a horror/thriller feature film, especially after seeing the short version of slapface. So, I’m really glad that connection happened.

DC: How would you describe the sound of the film?

BORN : The only word I always kept in mind was “off”. In our early discussions about music, director Jeremiah Kipp and I kept talking about how sound should always be a little uncomfortable. So whenever I wrote with something that maybe sounded too harmonious, I always did something to mess it up a bit.

DC: What was your working relationship with director Jeremiah Kipp? Did he have a fairly specific way of making the score sound or did you have more room to experiment?

BORN : From the start, Jeremiah made me feel like I could go any direction I wanted. But because it was our first time working together, it helped that he responded quite favorably to some of my previous work. However, I wanted to keep in mind that this was a very personal project for him. So I wanted to do my best to honor his work. My job is always to reflect what is happening in the story and with the characters. He knows that better than anyone, so his notes were always key in improving the way the music meshed with the visuals.

DC: What was pre-production like for you? What did you do to find the inspiration for the score?

BORN : I certainly listened to a few sheet music to get in the mood, but I certainly didn’t want to imitate anything either if I could avoid it. Producer Mike Manning had mentioned a few little things from a few scores he liked, and I certainly wanted to honor that. But they never got too specific.

I love experimenting with instruments perhaps not traditionally used for a given score. I literally typed the words “string instrument” on Craigslist and saw what people were selling. I ended up buying a dulcimer, which I added frets to, as well as drilled a big hole in its back, then warped it and bowed it with a cello bow, and a Santur, which was this hammered dulcimer Absolutely gorgeous Iranian I met. But even with that, I ended up modifying his hammers to get a smoother sound. I also brought in a violinist with whom I often collaborate, Crissy J, to add tension to the lines. It’s these instruments that really help guide and shape the sound as a whole.

DC: Musically, do you have a favorite scene from the film? Why?

BORN : My favorite scene is probably the first scene I wrote. And that’s because every time I start a score, I specifically choose the most “involved” scene that I can, that way I can develop the musical ideas that eventually spill over into the rest of the film. So there is this very long piece of music where Lucas meets the witch for the second time. The music had to move from apprehension, to fear, to terror, to uncertainty, and then finally to acceptance, because that’s what Lucas is going through. And in the end, Lucas sees the Witch in a very different way than he originally did, so I buried a floating but beautiful chord of a Ghuzeng (a Chinese stringed instrument) in the mix, and in more of that – to keep that “off” feeling – resounding, hesitantly played notes of the Santur. All of this was inspired by the expressions of actor August Maturo as he looks at the witch.

CC : Were you attracted to one instrument more than others for the slapface Goal?

BORN : Each instrument ends up having a specific purpose. Violinist Crissy J provided the piercing “sting” and tension when I wanted it. Zehra Fazal’s voice vaguely gave voice to the witch. The arched, warped dulcimer gave me a lot of rasp when I wanted to build tension quickly. The Santur provided a hint of melody. Then there were other elements like the rolling bass drum, a synthesized “buzz”. And finally a Tibetan singing bowl which I used to add a subtle tone to the more discreet signals. Now that I say all that, there are a ton more instruments than I can remember… but they all had their purpose.

DC: Horror movie music tends to be more “present” and prominent than music from other genres. Did you feel that was the case with slapface? Did you feel any extra pressure in this project, knowing that it is set in the world of horror?

BORN : Whenever I felt I was emphasizing the score too much, I withdrew. Because that’s the strategy that Jeremiah and I talked about from the start. Of course, there are parts of the score that come to the fore, but I always kept the instrumentation deliberately sparse. Admittedly, I was happy when Jeremiah told me to “carry on” on the film’s finale, where there was a temporary song at the start. At that time, I agreed to present the music.

DC: The film received the award for “Best Score” at the Grimmfest Film Festival. How does it feel to be recognized like that? Why do you think your score stood out compared to others who voted?

BORN : This award was a fantastic surprise. The main compliment I received from the judges was the subtlety of my score. Being the rhythm junky that I am, I was just proud of myself for breaking my own pattern! And Grimmfest is not joking. I was surrounded by incredibly well-crafted films, so I felt really honored.

DC: Your soundtrack of the film is available digitally. If you had to choose one or two favorite tracks from there, which would they be?

BORN : First I should mention that the names of the tracks are taken directly from the dialogue of the film.

So if you want to hear an intense 4 minute version, go for “Sometimes really bad things happen”. If you want to hear my favorite track I mentioned earlier, with a ton of ebb and flow, go for “First She Was a Breeze”. But if you want the “single”, there is always the short but effective “Poor Little Boys”.

You can read more about Barry J. Neely at https://www.barryjneely.com/.

slapface stars August Maturo (A girl meets the world, the nun), Mike Manning (Son of the South, Teen Wolf), Dan Hedaya (The usual suspects), Mirabelle Lee (Blood relationship), Lukas Hassel and Libe Barer (Sneaky Pete), Bianca D’Ambrosio (The bay, I’m mortal, scared of the rain)Chiara D’Ambrosio (Bay, I’m mortal).

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