When the first reviews of Ben Wheatley’s film Kill List came out, many of them referenced Jim Williams’ haunting score. It was deemed “abrasively oppressive” and “eminently unsettling”, intrinsic to cementing “the mood of dread and anxiety”.
“Britain has rarely seemed so eerie,” wrote Jonathan Dean in The Sunday Times, “the sound and score playing with an expert handle on tension, tension … release.” Screenings of the film were equally fraught – after its premiere at SXSW in Austin in 2011, a Q&A session followed where, according to one LA Times film blogger, “the audience was so seemingly disoriented and stunned, as if it had been collectively struck by a head-butt, that it took a few moments for anyone to think of a question to ask.” As visually arresting as Wheatley’s film is, Williams’ score had a significant role to play in rendering the audience in such a state.
Kill List was the second of Wheatley’s films that Williams worked on, following 2009’s Down Terrace, the director’s feature-length debut, and preceding Sightseers (2012) and his most well known work to date, last year’s A Field in England. The scores for each of these involve a range of different approaches to composition and an array of both sources and influences, yet there is connective tissue between them – from the outer edges of British folk and psychedelia, to Ennio Morricone and 1950s minimalism. And unlike directors who will occasionally give him an open brief, Williams says that Wheatley usually knows exactly the kind of thing he’s looking for: “It’s a massive help to have a musically cultured brief, partly due to it setting a 2 3 challenge for me to immerse myself in a musical world that will then enhance the drama, but mainly because it will then align with the artistic vision of the director.”
Leading up to his collaborations with Wheatley, there’s little of the unsettling overtones that would inform Kill List and A Field in England in Williams’ career. Before composing music for film and television, he started out as a session guitarist, appearing on tracks by artists from Cindy Lauper to This Mortal Coil, and for much of his TV work Williams has co-written with John Lunn, creating the soundtracks for Lock Stock: The Series, Harley Street, Material Girl and four series of the BBC’s Hotel Babylon, for which the pair received an Ivor Novello nomination. In 2005, Williams wrote the score for Nicholas Laughland’s TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree and, four years later, was asked to work on Down Terrace.
Initially, films are often ‘temped’ with existing fragments of music that help determine the kind of score that will eventually fit a particular sequence. These tracks can also act as a starting point for the composer. In Down Terrace, Wheatley had used some guitar picking by Bert Jansch, Williams explains, and old folk songs by The Copper Family and Karen Dalton, which remained in the final version. “I then wrote some material that covered the Jansch part, while referencing more moody stuff from Jansch’s band Pentangle, and I added some double bass and vibes material similar to the parts that Danny Thompson and Morris Pert added to the 1970s work of John Martyn,” says Williams. “For me, this created a melancholy mood that worked well with the plot regarding the dreadful disintegration of a group of ordinary Brightonians, as conveyed through the fantastically improvised dialogue, who just happened to be gangsters.”
Since then Williams’ alignment with Wheatley’s artistic vision (not to mention that of sound designer Martin Pavey, another regular Wheatley collaborator) has paid off and their close working relationship has no doubt helped the composer to find what he refers to as “the voice” of the music for each project he works on; a process where he will adapt his writing to the period, tone or style of the particular film. Of the four Wheatley projects, A Field in England required the most attention to historical detail, being set during the Civil War and featuring a band of strangers who find themselves in a field – itself home to a beguiling mushroom circle and crazed treasure hunter – while a battle rages on nearby.
Williams’ initial melodies and compositional structures for the film referenced folk songs and ballads from the time, mixed with ambient noise, with the majority of the pieces that made the final soundtrack subverted in some way; instruments processed or distorted to accentuate Wheatley’s immersive and trippy paean to British folklore. “I worked on some ‘contrapuntal’ material – where the harmony is made up of intricate strands of melody, common during the period in which the film is set – but that also worked well for the more Tangerine Dream and drone-style material,” Williams says. “These contrapuntal lines also worked on their own – as melodic fragments they provided a stark, eerie quality for some key scenes.”
Just as writer Amy Jump’s dialogue for the film was celebrated for its authenticity, Williams also sought to properly evoke the music of the period. One of the more conventional pieces of music in the film is an arrangement of a stirring Scottish pipe ‘pibroch’, Baloo My Boy, reinterpreted by Williams so that it could be sung as a ballad by one of the main characters. Of researching the time, Williams admits “it’s pretty specialist, but I have studied that period of composition in the past, so it was great to dip into that again. You have to be pretty stringent to ensure authenticity, as the language is complicated with strict rules: it isn’t simply a case of ‘referencing’, as it might be with other aspects of movie making, it’s more like re-writing the dialogue for a scene in Flemish – or, more accurately, the Flemish spoken in the 17th century!”
In a similar way, much of the shock factor in Kill List comes from the realism and authenticity of the action. Ostensibly, the film follows two desperate hit men working through a ‘kill list’ of targets for a mysterious client. While the violence is certainly hard to watch, it’s the grinding sense of unease that pervades the film which truly disturbs and continues to hold its audience long after it has ended (ironically, Wheatley has said that some of the film’s origins come from his own nightmares). Kill List’s score was influenced by the initial use of music by the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman in certain scenes – ‘spotting’ the action of the film. From this, Williams wrote a simple melody line (set to a Middle English poem) and all the material for the score, be it written for a chamber group or a sub-sonic track, was generated from this single fragment.
In Kill List, the music is perhaps all the more effective because it doesn’t adhere to ‘horror’ conventions. Williams’ score is minimalist and dissonant – a mournful note from a violin sets the tone at the opening, while ominous low-end percussive sounds swell in other scenes – but the music is disarmingly beautiful at times. It’s particularly unsettling, however, because unlike most horror film scores, it doesn’t aim to mirror or work in tandem with the photography.
Williams’ most intense pieces don’t necessarily crescendo at the point of action, but rather when characters have space to think or reflect on what just happened – it’s effectively post-traumatic.
“In a movie like James Wan’s Insidious (2010), the music score basically enhances the on-screen action,” says Williams. “The cut is accompanied by a slab of expressionist dissonance and that scares the reptile in us, in that we – as a hopefully engaged audience – just want to get the hell out of there. It’s like a ride on a rollercoaster – it’s thrilling because you want to get off, but you can’t. With Kill List, however, it was about setting up a fragile anxiety that then became dark dread, while finally ending up as the – spoiler alert – outcome. Around the middle of the film the most harrowing scene for many had no music – a decision that worked very well – because when the dread in the score came back in, it hit the audience when it was down!”
It’s little wonder that those audiences who have sat through Wheatley’s darkest tale have watched the closing credits in silence. With the relentless, mind-expanding trip of A Field in England resulting in a similar speechlessness, Williams’ work with Wheatley has so far forged some unforgettable experiences in sound and vision.