SIREN composer Jon Clarke and Factory sound designer Anthony Moore discuss their roles on Kissing Candice, the debut feature from Aoife McArdle
Last September the debut feature from director Aoife McArdle, Kissing Candice, made its debut at Toronto International Film Festival. It was well received. As the Guardian put it: “Aoife McArdle’s tale of a teenager rescued in reality by a stranger from her fantasies is an audacious delight.” It followed up with a European premier at Berlinale and then showed at Dublin International Film Festival.
Music supervisor at SIREN Sian Rogers took the opportunity to sit down with the composer and sound designer Jon Clarke and Anthony Moore to discuss Kissing Candice and their process on the film.
SR> Firstly congratulations on the film, and to Jon for your debut feature film score. Let’s start at the beginning - how did you get involved with Aoife and Kissing Candice?
JC> We already had an existing relationship with the director, Aoife McArdle, from some advertising projects which SIREN and Factory collaborated on. On those previous projects we had taken more of a soundscape approach, blurring the lines between sound design and music. Aoife really liked that way of the two crafts working together.
On Kissing Candice Ant and I started by developing a sound palate for the film. I had some ideas for the music which I wanted to flesh out. I locked myself away in a room for a two days and created loads of tonal palates of different sounds, from violins and keyboards to different synthesizers. We took these tones and Ant started mapping it across the film in different areas.
I had also started playing around with a track I’d composed previously called ‘Aorta’. The track seemed to instantly fit with a section of the film we were experimenting with; it’s dark and brooding to start, and then it transitions into this beautiful piano solo at the end. We started to work with the all the tonal sounds as well as the stems for ‘Aorta’ and rearranged it to suit the seven-minute sequence of the film where it now lives.
AM> In the early weeks of our work, Aoife had loads of existing music she wanted to use. At this point it was uncertain how much of the film score we would end up working on. Aoife hadn’t heard anything we’d created so we got her in for a session to review. Initial presentations can always be daunting and we felt a bit nervous as we’d really pushed the sound and music ideas quite far.
Deep down, I knew what we had created was good and it was definitely interesting to listen to. I also had a hunch, due to our previous collaborations, that Aoife would like where we were going with things. She’s very good at briefing sound and music by giving great references of things that she likes and what feeling she’s after sonically.
Aoife was joined for the review session by Sally Campbell (the executive producer on the film) and I’m pleased to say that the session could not have gone better. They both loved what they were hearing, they seemed pretty blown away by it all. It’s a point when the film starts to come alive and it’s great to see that reaction from the director.
JC> I think Aoife cried.
AM> And that’s when they offered us the opportunity to score the whole film. I think for Aoife and Sally, they were struck by how we had created this beautiful combination of sound and music that it made total sense for us to look after the score as well as the sound design and mix. We’d created a world that was very believable and had all the elements that Aoife was looking for.
The opening of the film was the one of the hardest challenges to crack. It was really important to nail the feel for the dream sequence as I wanted these sounds to set the tone for the film. In those first few minutes, you’re being shown hints of the narrative and glimpses of each character. I wanted to allow the sounds and tones to set things up without giving too much away.
SR> How was that moment when you knew Aoife was excited by the tone you had established in the music and sound design and was going to let you run with them?
JC> It was a really exciting moment but it’s at this point that the hard work really started for me. The film had been temp scored out but as a result the film felt very disjointed and didn’t flow very well from scene to scene. The next part was to take the temp out and create new music that would fulfil what each scene needed.
SR> How was the process regarding temp tracks? Where there any in place and did you find this restrictive?
JC> It was great that we had set up a tone for the film that Aoife had bought into. I sat and did a couple of spotting sessions with Aoife, looking at each music cue and talking in depth about the edit, really getting into the story and the emotion in each scene to understand what the music needed to do
There were temps but these just gave us a framework of cues to go away and work on, rather than a sound. The next scene I looked at after Aorta was the end chase sequence.
There’s quite a few gothic, almost ‘70s horror-esque sounds in the film which we wanted to keep as an aesthetic going into the final scene. I had this big idea for an organ/synth finale, a really, big piece. It was tricky to create but the main harmonic shape came to me quite quickly, we then just kept coming back to it, re-working the arrangement and adding new instrumentation.
I felt the organ tied into the religious connotations throughout the film. We had set it up using bells in Ant’s first idea in the very first scene. It gives a feeling of church and there’s a lot of Catholic iconography in the film so I think I’d always had that idea that an organ would work well.
SR> What was your approach to other thematic ideas in the film? Did you and Aoife focus more on environments or specific characters themes?
JC> We talked about character themes quite a bit. We didn’t want to do anything too obvious so I approached it in quite a minimalist fashion in terms of the melodic content.
I used simplistic melodies but those melodies are developed slowly throughout the film. In ‘Arrival’ I drew the first melodic line into the film. It’s really simple, just two notes in the violin part, but those notes develop through that scene and into the rest of the score. It’s the boys’ theme but it’s not necessarily only tied to them, it’s tied to the location as well.
One of the main ideas Aoife wanted for the film was that the environment spoke to the audience as much as the characters.
SR> Did you find any scenes difficult to score?
JC> Probably the boys’ walk scene. It was more about finding the tone that we wanted at that point in the film because there’s a flashback to a memory before the big incident happens in the film. It was really difficult to find the balance between what the viewer wanted to know at this point. The music didn’t want to be so dark that it gave away that something terrible was happening but at the same time it needed to give a sense of unease.
AM> This music cue also had to show a sense of warmth too.
JC> There’s a little moment in that scene where Conor almost does a little dance and that inspired me to go into 3:4 and use a waltz-like feel. It takes you away from the impending darkness but uses the instrumentation to create a signal to the problems that are about to happen.
AM> Aoife wanted the audience to see that the boys weren’t always as bad as they seem. They were just a group of lads trying to live life in a humdrum town before the events of the film sent them over the edge.
JC> What happens to Caleb defines them from that point on.
SR> You can hear some hope in the score and in the sound before that moment happens…
JC> When we cut to ‘Happier Times’ that is another memory. This is one of the tracks that Aoife and I talked about in depth; and the feeling she wanted to convey to the audience at that point. It’s a happy piece but at the same time has a really sad tone to it.
We wanted it to feel at that moment as though they were walking towards the edge of a cliff. A lot of the music, even when there’s a slightly happier feeling on the surface there’s always an underlying tension, slightly de-tuned harmonics or something that steers you in the direction we wanted to go.
SR> It was a brilliantly collaborative process between you both and I think this close collaboration is what makes the sound as a whole so immersive. Can you tell us more about this process?
JC> The music and sound design are intrinsically linked. When we started working on the sound design that is exactly what we wanted; we wanted them to be completely blurred.
AM> That was the great thing about us being able to do both the sound design and the score. This unique opportunity allowed us to make a really cohesive sounding film. Jon and I have done loads of jobs on a commercial level where we’ve joined forces and honed this technique, so we knew we could do it and make it sound amazing.
SR> This immersive sound and blur between music and sound design ties in with the concept of what is imaginary and what is in reality. Those lines are hazy throughout the film and it makes the distorted tones used in the music and sound design incredibly effective. Can you tell us about some moments in the film when you think this is most successful?
JC> It’s most apparent in the club scenes, which are also some of my favourite parts of the film. I made some really warped, distorted, synthesised melodies which Ant took and worked in with a slowed down version of the ‘Shot in the Dark’ track. At that point there is a fusion of the licensed music, and our own music and sound design.
AM> The moment where the wolf appears in the club and says ‘they’re coming’ is a really interesting moment. I pitched down to half speed the techno track which is playing in the club. Then I started to add other weird and distorted elements on top of it. This results in the techno track blurring into a tense heartbeat type rhythm. It’s quite trippy and very surreal, but it works really well and gives the scene a real edge.
As a whole, I think the overall sound of Kissing Candice is really interesting. It’s dark and quite oppressive in places, but there’s also some lovely, warmer moments to create contrast. I love these little glimpses of happiness you get throughout the film.
SR> The score is a great mix of dark, warped electronic tones mixed with a much more traditional palate of strings and piano. Can you talk a bit more about your orchestration choices and how you made these decisions.
JC> I was quite lucky, I’ve been working on my own music for quite a long time. I’m a violinist and a pianist [and] a lot of the music that Aoife liked is from a more neoclassical background so it ended up being a good fit. I could immediately pick up the violin and score something out that worked and she reacted well to it.
I think that having these more organic, real instruments like the violin and piano bring a human element to the score. rather than only being synthesised or computer-based music it really lifts everything and makes it much more human sounding.
SR> The rawness of the violin playing ties in well with the rural Irish setting.
JC> I’m not a virtuoso violinist but I play in a certain style and one of the things that I realised is that my slightly rougher sounding performances of certain lines in the film have a really nice quality that seem to match [the tone and style of the] film. If it sounded too perfect it didn’t work.
AM> It’s those beautiful moments that Jon captured when he was sketching out some of his ideas for the score. A lot of those violin lines stayed with us because they managed to capture a feeling and a vibe. Whenever we tried to do it slightly differently, we always found it lost something. We’d always go back to these original sketches of violin because they were what Aoife reacted to when she first heard the score coming alive.
JC> I think also as sound designers approaching the music from a sound design point of view [we] are quite used to manipulating the sounds that we have in front of us to sound a totally different way.
AM> Musically, the violin and piano were obviously organic sounds and a lot of the sound design was also made from ‘real world’ source material. I used lots of earthquakes and volcanoes for atmospheres and transitions. These were heavily treated and effected to make the sound even more menacing and brooding!
Aoife was really supportive. We all just clicked in terms of what the Kissing Candice world sounded like. We were always trying to push it even further: make it weirder, make it darker! That’s what is brilliant about Aoife, she’s always up for pushing it that little bit further to make it great. She likes making the audience feel uncomfortable and on edge so they really immerse themselves in the film. She lets the audience figure out why they’re hearing certain sounds and how these elements all link together as the film progresses.
The Kissing Candice (Original Score) album is available here on vinyl/digital.