In the past decade, Sweater Weather Music‘s Rob Lowry has become one of the industry’s marquee music supervisors. Whether he’s working on critical darlings, or crowd favorites, he’s been able to bring his distinguishable style to each project that he approaches.
For this Synchblog Halloween special, we spoke with Rob about the secrets behind music supervising his acclaimed horror films and television shows.
Hi Rob, can you tell us about the first horror project you music supervised?
The first horror project I music supervised was probably, Another Evil, in 2015. It’s a bit of a hidden gem – great concept, wildly funny, and at times deathly scary. I remember watching it at SXSW and just remembering how it was the perfect setting for the premiere – the crowd was laughing, screaming, giving every reaction you would hope for, all at the right times.
Having years of experience working in horror, can you tell me what makes for an effective horror film or television soundtrack? What are some of the ways you use music to make the on-screen suspense and horror as effective as possible.
There’s truly nothing better than a good horror film and I think for so long the genre was often discredited for being cheap or campy. But so many pieces have to be done so well in order for a horror film to work – so when you have a good one, it’s really masterful. I just re-watched The Sixth Sense and was in awe of how well it holds up – it’s really masterful storytelling. In my specific experience with supervising horror projects, a music supervisor’s job in a horror film isn’t necessarily creating suspense and horror, but really doing the opposite in creating warmth and empathy and drawing you in emotionally and teeing you up with a misdirect for when the horror and suspense elements really hit. You’re working in complement to the composer, who is probably creating more of the horror ambiance, and you’re working more within the world and relationships of the characters. Of course – using and re-contextualizing songs to make them spooky or take on a new life is always fun as well.
Along the way, you’ve tackled a wide array of projects, ranging from thrillers and documentaries, to comedies and satirical works. How does your approach to the horror genre differ from your approach to other shows and movies you’ve worked on?
Ultimately, it’s all the same, I think. Every single film or tv show is a new experience. You may work on two comedies back to back, but they have a completely different tone, different needs, different ambitions. As a music supervisor you’re supporting the narrative – enhancing character relationships, setting, emotional investment. In horror, it’s perhaps sometimes heightened because of the viewer’s sensitivity to sound – maybe just being more aware of that.
Is your musical approach and ethic consistent on each horror project, or is every film and television show you work on specifically geared toward the director’s vision?
Every project is geared towards the directors’ vision. You bring your own perspective and ideas to the table, and you have an open dialogue, and you see what’s going to best work to get you to where the director is trying to go.
Due to budget constraints, sometimes music supervisors are forced to choose a different song to sync a scene to. Do you believe these constraints can promote creativity?
Absolutely. If you have a limitless budget, you can use whatever you want. That’s exciting, and also presents its own challenges – but, it’s also exciting to have to dig and think outside of the box when you don’t have all of the easier tools to build the world you’re trying to create.
When do you start the sync process?
As early as possible. Ideally, I’m brought on when there’s a script – and will be there from the beginning of pre-production, to the end of post-production – and with all of the paperwork and licensing, sometimes beyond.
How many temp songs do you usually have for a single scene that needs music?
Sometimes, we nail it on the first try, sometimes, it takes hundreds of tries. Scenes evolve, so it’s important to always reassess things in context of the entire story as you get further down the line and closer to a locked cut. Making sure that the song and scene are still telling the same story and serving the same purpose.
How close is your relationship with the composers during the production of a horror project?
Relationships with composers vary project to project. Truthfully, most of my horror projects, I haven’t spent much time with the composer, oddly enough. But some of the scores done on those projects are my favorites to this day.
Are there any cinematic or musical inspirations you head to when working on these types of projects?
There are many different types of horror films within the genre, so there’s always the question of what type of horror film it’s going to be. Scream was always a huge inspiration to me. So many horror films within that subgenre are really just coming-of-age stories with a murderer built into it. So, it’s still about relationships, about growing up, discovering who you are…
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when working on a horror film or television show?
The same challenges I’d face with any project. It’s a collaborative medium, so you’re working with a lot of different personalities and perspectives. You’re all trying to tell a story, and have to figure out exactly what that story is – and how your ideas all fit into this puzzle. Budget is always a challenge. In less abstract terms – there’s always the challenge of getting approval from licensors when you’re using their music in explicit content. That’s always a hurdle, being completely transparent in terms of how the song is being used. Understandably, a lot of artists don’t want their music associated with a murder scene.
I always love to see your inclusion of underground records that seem to have been found in a tattered, dusty crate in a thrift shop. Particularly your use of songs by artists such as Mallory Sands and Tony & The Monstosities in projects like Villains and Are You Afraid of the Dark. How important to you is ‘cratedigging’ and are you often looking for obscure, under-the-radar songs?
As a fan of any and all music, I’m always looking to discover new things – whether it was released today or 50 years ago. Cratedigging is important just as listening to New Music Friday is important. It’s knowing where things came from and where things are going.
There’s such a vast amount of music, both new and old, and I think it’s my responsibiliy and job to listen to as much as I can and find the good – the usefulness in everything. I love all types of music, and I think that’s a real strength.
What are some of your favorite uses of music in a horror film or television show?
Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” in the Scream Trilogy is my all-time favorite. And really there’s so much incredible score to pull from. More recently, Mica Livi’s Mono and Under the Skin scores, Disasterpiece’s It Follows score, and honestly – Joe Trapanese’s score for the Are You Afraid of the Dark is so, so fun.
As someone who’s cleared notable songs for a number of films and television shows, what are some of the greatest lengths you’ve gone to to clear a song for use?
We spent 6 months tracking down a singer/songwriter that we used in the end credits of Another Evill. I’m talking trying to find him through online banjo fanatic forums, calling festivals he’d played at, labels he’d been on. Eventually, we tracked down his wife in the southeast, where they owned an antique shop together. She was so excited – she told me her husband loved horror movies and that the kids were so excited about it, too. It was a weird journey that had the most fulfilling ending.
Is there a dream song or a dream artist you’d like to sync in a movie?
I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of artists I love, and look up to, and who have really inspired me over the years. We have a new Taylor Swift song in the upcoming season of The Bold Type, which is exciting, and a potential placement for one of my favorite bands that I can’t talk about, yet. It would be amazing to have the opportunity and right creative space to use some of the artists I grew up loving: The Beatles, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen…
What are some projects we should look out for in the future that you’re working on?
I have a lot of fun stuff emerging next year… a couple Blumhouse films that I’m super excited about. A netflix movie called, Sorta Like a Rockstar, that’s a blast with a ton of music. The new Gia Coppola movie, Mainstream, will be out next year. A couple Hulu movies as they venture into the film / theatrical side of things. And then, The Bold Type Season 4, Ramy Season 2, The Baker and the Beauty on ABC, Miracle Workers Season 2, Lincoln on NBC, and Love Life on HBO Max, are all things we’ve been busy with and super excited about.