Meet Vivien Villani – Composer of “The Smiling Man” and Engineer of Fear

How did you get involved with The Smiling Man?

I met AJ Briones, the director, and Tefft II Smith, one of the producers, at Holly Shorts Film Festival in 2014. Holly Shorts is at present time the best short film festival in Los Angeles from a networking standpoint, with many events and parties in addition to outstanding screenings. I had seen AJ’s first movie CAROLINA PARAKEET, which I liked, and we quickly understood that we would like to collaborate altogether. The timing was perfect because they were in pre-production of THE SMILING MAN. I was flattered to get their trust for this movie since the whole crew is made up of high-ranking professionals. Several crew members even work on Studio Movies on a regular basis: AJ and Tefft are part of the vfx Company Halon and in this framework, AJ worked on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, AVATAR and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and Tefft worked on SUICIDE SQUAD and ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Moreover, the sound editor, Jamey Scott, worked on STORKS, TOTAL RECALL and ALOHA.

What do you think made this project so successful with fans?

I’m not surprised at all by the success of the movie. The overall crew did an amazing job, the directing is outstanding, the visual composition and the cinematography are beautiful. The performance of Strange Dave contributes to make The Smiling Man a fascinating character, very choreographic and even dancing at times. The makeup done by Melanie Leandro is stunning, it is completely natural without any computer effects and took 6 hours to be achieved. It gives the impression that his skin is covered with ashes or lichen.

Besides, the movie explores in a very compelling way the terrors of childhood, with a deep symbolic subtext: when AJ gave me points about the movie, in order to have my score interact with the deepest layers of meaning, he mentioned that the movie was dealing with the way men often treat women. Every detail has a symbolic meaning: the little dolls symbolize the objectification of women, the magic trick is like a promise of having fun together but then a darker side is revealed with the blood and the dying mother… I think this underlying narrative is perceived unconsciously by the spectators and makes the movie even more interesting. Moreover, I think that dark, strong, fascinating horror movies are very compelling and even endearing to people who like them: I’ve attended many festivals where THE SMILING MAN was screened and have been impressed by how some spectators expressed a real love for the movie.

What was your process for scoring music for this piece?

When I got the first edit of the movie, it was entirely temp tracked. With AJ Briones and the producers Tefft II Smith and Nathan Hopkins, we discussed ways to go further by analyzing the core of every reference track and looking for appropriate concepts. Very often, the directors/producers choose references which are efficient but not the best choices for the movie in absolute terms. A meaningful conversation between both sides often allows to create a score which fits the movie even better.

First of all, this movie was quite unusual, with no dialogue at all, so we thought from the beginning that the music could suggest some underlying, poetic talk. In another way, we agreed on an overall classical musical sound which would fit the very polished visual style. I chose specific musical timbres to conjure up a feeling of talk, especially a trumpet in flutter-tongue for the “voice” of The Smiling Man, and a flute which displays short melodic motifs from time to time to convey the innocence of the little girl. When she walks toward the creature in the kitchen after having seen his hand, an alternating of these two musical voices almost gives the impression that they are talking to each other even though she hasn’t met him already. This kind of overall concept, which can be found in many major film soundtracks as an emanation of specific narrative aspects, is generally perceived by the spectator at a subconscious level and often allows to get richer and more original soundtracks.

In the final section, when The Smiling Man puts his hand in the blood pool again, another dialogue appears between the voice of a female opera singer, which symbolizes the unheard complaint of the dying mother, and a sarcastic solo violin which represents The Smiling Man’s laugh. This very unusual idea directly came from AJ after a few conversations and mockups. It is generally rewarding to have a director well involved into the musical process and offering inputs, which will allow the soundtrack to reflect in the best way possible his or her vision.

In a more general way, I thought the soundtrack should not only be efficient in a traditional way for a horror movie, with tension, jump scares, etc., but also convey a feeling of fascination, attraction that the little girl feels when she follows The Smiling Man to the kitchen. At different times, especially before the creature is revealed and during the magic trick, the score features a childish melody, like a lullaby or a music box, which sounds seductive first but gradually gets more and more poisoned, as a foreshadowing of the dark ending. I tried to create a score which would be at the same time dark, unhealthy and fascinating, as some beautiful scores by Christopher Young, Mark Isham or Marco Beltrami. These major composers meaningfully influenced me for the composition, even though the eventual soundtrack reflects well my own creative personality.

A very important point on which we agreed was to work with actual musicians and we’ve recorded the soundtrack with an orchestra of 18 musicians. I am very committed to this approach, the same as some directors are committed to shoot in film, and I always do my best to materialize that option even if it requires substantial extra efforts when the budget is low. For this movie, I was able to craft accurately with the musicians every detail of the performance: the trumpet in flutter-tongue, the sarcastic solo violin, some unusual ways to play the double bass… I think the collaboration with musicians is invaluable.

Do you prefer scoring horror genre? What other kinds of projects have you worked on?

I’ve always loved horror movies. This genre became all the more part of my everyday life that I had the chance to become friends with the legendary Italian director Dario Argento, the director of SUSPIRIA, many years ago. This relationship has been very inspirational in many respects: I’ve been invited to attend the shooting of several of his movies like MOTHER OF TEARS and was offered to write a book about his work for the Italian publisher Gremese. Many soundtracks from his movies are outstanding and some have been very influential for me as a composer, especially Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for THE STENDHAL SYNDROME. In a general way, I think the horror genre allows to create very inventive scores and features some of the best soundtracks ever composed, like some written by Christopher Young or Marco Beltrami. For all these reasons, I was very happy to be given the opportunity to score THE SMILING MAN, and I’ve worked on other horror movies like A CRY FROM WITHIN by Deborah Twiss.

At the same time, it is very easy for a composer to get pigeonholed and stuck in a specific genre, with people always asking you to create the same kind of things. This can happen with almost any department of the film industry: actors, cinematographers… and may be very unpleasant from an artistic standpoint. This is why it is generally rewarding to pick up different kinds of projects and to have a wide range of composition. I’ve done soundtracks for very different movies: comedies, dramas, thrillers, Sci-Fi, documentaries… I keep choosing my projects based on the artistic quality and not the genre they fit in.

What other films and projects can we hear your music in?

I’ve scored many fascinating projects but I’ll mention here one in particular, SNIP by Jenna Gelenberg (2015), her NYU Thesis film, for which I have a particular affection. I got deeply moved just by reading the script, and the movie was as beautiful as I expected. It was very interesting to score it because of the well-balanced blend of comedy and drama, which was a bit challenging from a musical standpoint. In the story these two aspects were alternating throughout the movie, or sometimes even blended into a given scene. I worked on musical themes which could, depending on the nature of the variations and the orchestration, convey either light-heartedness, appropriate to a comedic environment, or an emotional state for more dramatic moments – or even the combination of both.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

I’ve built strong relationships with directors or producers throughout the years and it now allows me to be attached to many interesting projects. Following the positive reception of THE SMILING MAN’s soundtrack, which won Awards and was praised by many fans and professionals, we plan to collaborate again with AJ Briones on his first feature film, which will enter soon pre-production. With Deborah Twiss, an iconic actress and director from NYC known for the Indie cult movie A GUN FOR JENNIFER, I’ll work soon on the Series A BEAUTIFUL DISTRACTION and then the feature film CRAZY TOWN. I’m also attached to the feature film FINDING NEPTUNE by Tosin Coker and James Shippy, a dark and fascinating thriller which deals with people’s dark side, mainly set up around night life in Los Angeles.

Besides, I have a privileged relationship with the director Jeremy Profe, whose feature directorial debut THE LENNON REPORT (2016), about the assassination of John Lennon, has just been theatrically released after winning major Awards in festivals. I acted as a music consultant for his previous works and we’ll collaborate together in the future for original soundtracks.

Interview by: D. Denali

Written by Mitchell Wells

Founder and Editor in Chief of Horror Society. Self proclaimed Horror Movie Freak, Tech Geek, love indie films and all around nice kinda guy!!