The Score: Mark Isham’s MIST-ifying Music

Mark Isham has concocted one of the most otherworldly, alien, and mist-ifying scores you’ll ever hear for Frank Darabont’s creepy and disturbing adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most inventive novellas, The Mist.

Humans trapped in a mysterious mist that hides lethal monsters 

Incorporating sound textures and atonality for a sense of maximum unfamiliarity, Isham’s music eschews melody completely and incorporates a movable stratum of sounds to demarcate the environment within the mist. Isham, who has composed extremely persuasive scores for films like CRASH, BOBBY, THE BLACK DAHLIA, and BLADE, has imbued THE MIST with a powerful sonic ambiance of strangeness that embroiders the rift between dimensions.

Isham had previously worked with director Frank Darabont when he scored THE MAJESTIC in 2001. He had heard from Darabont about THE MIST some years ago, when the director mentioned he was going to do the film. “I’m not going to have any music in it,” Darabont told Isham. “It’s all cinema verite, it’s all documentary style, we’re going to use sound effects and that’s it.”

Well, the road to cinema verite is paved with good intentions. It wasn’t long before Darabont was back on the phone with Isham, sheepishly beseeching, “I need some music!” What changed Darabont’s mind? “I think he just needed to up the ante,” mused Isham. “I think he found if you’re going to sit there for an hour and 35 or 45 minutes, you need the sonic landscape to change a little bit.” Isham was brought into the project and had about a month compose and orchestrate the score.

“[Frank] did spot it in a way which did keep a lot of his initial concepts intact,” Isham allowed. “We only scored 18 minutes of the movie, and most of it, 95% of that, has to do with the creatures themselves – just adding to the chaos of the sonic element when the creatures are around. I tried to keep it completely atonal and just take one step above the sound effects in terms of becoming musical but not too much above them. I tried never to use a chord, only occasional intervals, and things like that.” Isham’s score embodies a lot of percussion, a lot of very modulated, discordant clusters – sheets and shards and blaring resonance and reverberation. It’s all extremely subtle and disturbingly ethereal.

“In all the scenes, where there’s real dialog, where people are actually discussing things and intelligent and interesting and social commentaries are coming out and relationships are being explored, there’s no music.,” said Isham. “The music is reserved for, literally: “Holy shit! What is that! Oh no! Oh God! Aughh!” It is for when there’s nothing really, from a dialog perspective, worth hearing, and therefore the music has to fill in just the sonic landscape. I think it’s an interesting balance.”

Holy shit! What is that! Oh no! Oh God! Aughh!

During the editing process, Darabont had temp-scored the film with various pieces of music, which is what convinced him that music did in fact have a place in THE MIST. The final result, Isham feels, is a good balance. “Frank was able to keep his initial concept,” said Isham. “On paper he has music but it certainly is not music in the traditional sense.”

As noted, Isham avoided providing music for character, and he left the human conflict between the factions in the supermarket unscored. Only when the creatures within the mist make their presence known does Isham’s music waft out of the silence, like the frail ether of strange fog – or the wriggling, inquisitive tentacles of some unseen leviathan. What was Isham’s technique to supply the necessary suspense and shocks that the film needed, while painting the mist’s elusive environment with clarity?

“A lot of it was in the construction of the musical vocabulary,” Isham said. “The decision to never be tonal, so that nothing ever was comfortable, and then to just not be afraid of going to real extremes, to just bang when you least expect it and hit a lot of things right on the nose, which you do expect, and then all the sudden doing something you don’t expect.”

Rhythm became a key element, in lieu of an accessible melody that could be relied upon to deliver developing variations. “There’s one motif, and it’s simply based on a sampled string that’s being bowed and just got tweezed a particular way so that it’s halfway between a mournful and horrific sound, but it feels completely organic at the same time,” Isham said. “It was one of those great pieces of sound that you could manipulate and use over and just twist it and get thousands of different uses out of. It sort of became the motif of the music, just this one moaning cry of despair, and you could use it against drums and be vibrantly alive, and you could use it by itself and just be petrified. And we actually found some great sampled voices of Bulgarian chanting and things like that. We tried to keep to things you don’t expect coming out of nowhere, just like the visuals.”

Composer Mark IshamIsham, who had started out scoring films like NEVER CRY WOLF and THE HITCHER with synthesizers and electronically sampled acoustic sounds, enjoyed the opportunity to return to experimental knob-twisting and patch-cord plugging. “I do it mostly in the computer now, but I have the same velocity,” Isham explained. “I’ll start with a sound that has the basis of what I want and just start twisting it around and tweaking it. The main thing is to find something that has a performance element to it. If I’m playing around with a sound and I can’t keep myself amused with it, then I’ll generally throw it away and keep going until I find something else. The main sounds that are featured in this score were the ones that I could have played for a while. I improvised several pieces of music just based on these sounds; they’re so rich in their own make up that they’re just captivating, you’re just intrigued by listening to them.”

Lisa Gerrard’s “The Host of Seraphim,” from the 1988 Dead Can Dance album, The Serpent’s Egg, was used by Darabont during the climactic scenes when the protagonists leave the supermarket and seek escape through the mist. The track provides a complete about-face from Isham’s atonal environment, with Gerrard’s ethereal voicings and the track’s angelic, spiritual paean to the heavenly places, become a lament for the characters we have come to know and love. “The Lisa Gerard/Dead Can Dance piece was the first piece of music that Frank put in the film,” said Isham. “I believe at one point that that was going to be the only music in the film but that after people responded so well to it, he started to consider the possibility of more music, which then led to my score. I also felt that the piece worked exceptionally well, so I had no problem with it being there. It was fun to design a score that would make it seem as if that piece had been designed to be a part of the score all along.”

Isham wrote a bridging piece that appears midway through the song, where it accompanies the moment when the gigantic, insectile creature, visible only by its treelike legs, passes over the group’s SUV, which gives the cue a unique mixture of the elegant and the unearthly. “The sync of the original ‘Host’ that Frank liked the best left a 16 bar gap as ‘bigfoot’ is revealed and the characters react,” said Isham. “None of the material from ‘Host’ worked for that section of the picture, so I wrote and recorded a ‘bridge’ that is inserted into ‘Host’ for that section. If you compare the soundtrack album version to the original version you will hear the addition.”

FILM REVIEW: The Mist

About the Author

Randall Larson

Randall Larson contributed “The Score” column to Cinefantastique magazine from 1983 to 1999. The author of Musique Fantastique, A Survey of Film Music in the Fantastic Cinema (1984) and Music from the House of Hammer (1996), Larson also published CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal during the 1980s. He currently writes a bi-weekly film music column for buysoundtrax.com, reviews horror soundtrack CDs for Cemetery Dance magazine, writes for Music from the Movies and Film Music magazines, and writes soundtrack CD liner note books.

One Response to “ The Score: Mark Isham’s MIST-ifying Music ”

  1. [...] paean to the heavenly places, become a lament for the characters we have come to know and love. Click here to read an interview with composter Mark [...]

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