Holy Hell — Making the soundtrack
It was November 2015 and I had an email from an old University friend, Mary Wells, an actor, writer and director who has just premiered her amazing new show ‘Heroine’ in Edinburgh. Mary was story coach for the feature documentary ‘Holy Hell’ directed by a friend of hers, Will Allen, who she first met in Hawaii years ago when she was working there after studying in Glasgow. Will had recently left a cult he had been part of for more than 20 years and started to make the film about his experience which ended up with an official selection for Sundance Film festival, distributed by CNN and winning the Documentary Critics Choice Award
The cult was led by a man named Michel Rostand who started the movement in the early 80’s when it rapidly grew into hundreds of people and was eventually named the ‘Buddhafield’. Will was forced to leave home in 1985 after his mother discovered he was gay and his sister encouraged him to join an alternative meditation/community group where she was a member. Will was the ‘AV’ guy for the group and shot many hours of footage as well as making films for Michel to promote the movement. After leaving, he painstakingly pieced together all the footage to make this incredibly powerful film.
After Mary’s initial contact, I was intrigued and delighted to be asked. I was connected to Will and we had a Skype call to discuss what he was looking for. Will had sent me a rough edit of the film. I was immediately sucked into that world with the real footage making it really poignant — almost dreamlike. At this stage the edit was still too long with a lot of music throughout the film. Will admitted there was too much music and wanted to strip it back which was a challenge especially as he loved the music which was entwined with the picture edit.
The film had been accepted into the 2016 Sundance film festival and had to be mixed and delivered to the final mix by the 7th January. This was the beginning of December and we were weeks away from a final edit! I was coming in at the 11th hour and was really wary of doing too much before the edit was locked — each revision had some pretty dramatic changes. It is so easy to fine tune music to picture and then everything gets knocked out when you take a few seconds our here and there. Another challenge was to replace music that Will was so familiar with. Will had impeccable musical taste and some of the tracks he was using were stunning — I was nervous about how to match the music with my own voice whilst retaining the qualities of his musical choices.
Almost every music commission I have worked on arrives with guide music. This can be great as it gives a clear idea of what the director likes and also acts as a cue list for where music is needed. The problem however is that there needs to be a process of letting go where the director who has spent many painstaking hours perfecting the edit locked precisely to a piece of music has to adjust to a new piece of music. It is a testament to the power of music that its emotional impact can alter how we experience visuals. In an ideal world, the music would be composed in tandem with the edit but this rarely happens.
The tight timescales and the fact that the collaboration worked across an 8 hour time difference, I was in Scotland and Will in LA, made the whole process very intense- It felt like a months work condensed into a week! Small fry compared to what Will had been through but I think it got me closer to his mindset! In the end, the timescale got so tight that Will brought in Cody Westheimer to compose some additional scores which were really beautiful. I would talk to Will in his morning (around 5pm GMT) and invariably work that night to get him something by the end of his day. I ended up working till 5 am all week and getting up late and only starting work again after lunch! When the whole process was over, I had jet lag despite not leaving my studio. I think because a lot of the work happened in the witching hours and the intense spiritual nature of the film, it gave the music a certain ethereal quality and pushed me as an artist exploring new musical areas! There is something incredibly special about working when everyone else is asleep — no chores or todo’s nagging in the back of your mind! — complete space and freedom.
The score always had a tinge of the midnight hour with almost melancholic threads buried in its light filled overtones which really resonated with the film. The narrative arc of ‘Holy Hell’ was a really important part of its effect. the first two thirds of the film are in many ways joyous and euphoric. As a viewer you get sucked in to the hope and promise of elevating to a new spiritual plane. In the third act, there is a sharp turn where dark revelations are revealed. My instinct with the music was to go dark much earlier in the film- knowing how the story pans out. My music tends to gravitate to the darker end of the spectrum any way so it was just hard not to go there!
I used live cello, piano, guitar and ambient pads to sculpt the score — the piano was perfect as it can be very percussive and celebratory as well as incredibly melancholic. As the truth slowly revealed itself that melancholy dominates and a sinister air creeps in. I found there were so many levels the film explores, the human need to be loved and to love makes us so vulnerable and yet connects us to the universe. As the film draws to a close and Will is on the beach, I created a very slow moving piece a kind of ambient lament — it was very loose and spontaneous — every time I tried to tighten it up it just didn’t work — this became a really important cue.
It was amazing to be part of such an important film and a real honour to be asked to create music for Will, despite having never met in person. He is a truly amazing and beautiful person, for which this film was obviously so important in his life! The film has deservedly gone on to win awards and broadcast all over the world!