A Musical Feast: Talking with Colin Stetson About ‘The Menu’

Earlier this fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Colin Stetson about his work on The Menu.

[Please note, at the time of our conversation, the film was several weeks out from releasing. I did have the chance to view the film ahead of time, however.]

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Colin Stetson, who composed the soundtrack for The Menu. He has been contributing regularly to the world of film, TV, and game scoring over the past decade with such titles as Hereditary (2018), The First (2018), Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), Color Out of Space (2019), Barkskins (2020), Mayday (2021), Among The Stars (2021), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022), Uzumaki (2022), and The Menu (2022). Throughout our discussion we talked about his initial thoughts on the film’s unique aspects and how he gave it a soundtrack to match.

First off, I was curious what you thought of the premise of the film when you first came on board?

Well, the first thing I did with the film was read the script. And so really, I didn’t—I was telling somebody recently, who was, you know, excited to watch this film. I said, “What I would suggest to anybody [who wants to] experience this film, would be to not watch any of the trailers; to not know anything about it.

That’s very much how my experience was reading the script. Which is to say, I knew who was directing it, and I think I knew that Ralph Fiennes was in it. So [there were] no expectations, and just letting it unfold off the page. It plays entirely like its own story.

That, largely, is what draws me to work on a film. The biggest part of it is, when I read that [script, I think to myself] have I seen this a million times before? Do I already know this story? And this one I definitely had not seen before. So [The Menu] on screen is exactly as it had been on the page; something that is quite novel, and really fun. And just in doing all the things it does in an unexpected way.

When you started working on the film, did you talk with the director about what they wanted for the music? Were there very specific instructions, or were you left to your own devices?

For my part, I read a script. I have, depending on the script, varying degrees from a completely intact vision of what that music would be like to some approximation of that. For this one, I was pretty crystal clear on what I was seeing in my initial reactions. So, when I met with Mark the first time he asked me what it was that I was thinking. And I said this is what I hear. Certainly could go other directions, but this is what I’m hearing, what do you think?

Largely, that initial conversation where I brought to the fore what my concept for it was remained really intact. Some of that was [what] Mark had been leaning into initially as well, but we had several conversations in the outset, and then just followed down those paths.

In the most general terms, what was the concept you heard when you read the script?

In the most general terms, let’s boil it down to three—with a kind of fourth pillars—of what are the main building blocks. I would say the bones, the scaffolding of the whole score are the pizzicato strings, and the orchestral strings and piano strings.

It’s one of the first things that’s in the picture, when [the] score comes on, and it is something that permeates and develops over the course of the film sonically. There’s one moment in the movie where much of the change in character and overall aesthetic happens all at once. So it was like a light switch that goes on. But I’d say that the percussive polymetric rhythmic element of the pizzicato strings throughout the course, throughout the entirety of the story, that was the main thing that was there.

There are several themes which illustrate aspects of “The Menu.” The fact that the whole of this film is the unfolding of something that’s been conceived of before. In that respect, I do think, and I likened this score, this script, and this film to a film that I had done previously, which is Hereditary. There’s that element I always try to do with a film; I like the score to be the face of the underlying narrative itself. And that was very literally into an extreme taken in Hereditary where it really was the fifth character, it was the was the unseen character in the in, in every room.

And so, to a different extent, that is the case here, where many of those themes are really in my mind directly. The Menu kind of being reacted to and reacting to the the other characters throughout the unfolding of the events in the film. Those, I think, were there and pretty intact in my mind.

There’s an inception moment. A moment where everything that was kind of holding back gets to happen all at once. That whole instrumental change of aesthetic, color, timbre…all of that happens all at once. That was just in the script, you know, like that. You can see that by reading it, [the] opportunity was there to take that and to make that happen. Then there are moments of real deep sentimentality, very sincere, longing, very “churchy” sort of reverence in moments coming from the inner world of the chef character. Again, it’s there on the page and very clear as to how to approach it.

So yeah, it seemed to me that this was a great opportunity to get to play the two sides, which are fitting somatically, so much of what’s happening in something like the high end food industry to begin with there. There is all the pomp and luxury and excess and pretentiousness there, all of that is there. But there also is all the art and the beauty and the sensuality and so I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t front loading with either of those, but really letting them both be present.

That’s awesome. So with The Menu being a mixture of black comedy and horror, how did that affect the score? Or did it affect the score?

No? Well, I mean, the fact that it is a comedy effect, affects what it is that I was writing. Again, getting back to that percussive thread throughout all of it being this kind of string that lets you do a lot of things. It creates a kind of a delightful levity in the beginning, [but] allows itself to be very tension provoking and anxiety provoking.

Throughout, it also operates more or less like a switch on railroad tracks. So where you have train cars going straight barreling ahead, you can interrelate these polymetric rhythmic motifs over one another, and the insertion of one over the top of the other one will you can operate, like that, and, all of a sudden, everything veers off left, and it’s really useful in horror.

It’s also really useful in comedy, and I think I approach things where I try not to think about genre. I mean, I actively don’t think about genre ever, in any of these things, and it’s really just, what’s necessary. Does this need to be what are we feeling right now? What’s the underlying and the overlying theme of this scene in the context of that character? In the context of the whole film? What is it doing? Is it scaring us? Are we nervous for something? Are we terrified?

What’s that doing, and really just getting, just extracting the kind of basic human kind of necessity of the moment.

Are you saying it takes away if you do focus on genre?

Well, no…I mean, when you’ve seen something you’ve seen a million times, chances are, you’re hearing something you’ve heard a million times. It’s these ways that we all kind of—like, on a ski slope. All of a sudden, we can all start to go into the grooves that are these well trod things.

Does it start with the studio going, “oh, we need it to sound more like that, because that was the last thing that happened. And people seem to really like that. So make it sound like that!” Or is it that the people are drawn to things that sound the same when it’s a horror, it needs to sound a certain way so that it can be marketed as such and so that it can sound and feel entirely of its ilk, or something to that effect.

For me, that’s the kiss of death in terms of making real effective music; real affecting art in any way is if you’re playing to a kind of inherited aesthetic, and structure and formula. Then yes, to your previous point, I do think that it takes away something and maybe more specifically that it allows a kind of automaticity to happen in an audience member for them to simply sit back and let the thing that they already know is happening to happen again. I don’t know if that’s clear.

It helps explain a lot for me. I wasn’t sure how to ask about this, but you’ve pretty much answered it anyway. As I was watching the film, it labels itself black comedy and horror, but it doesn’t sound like one. I liked how like the music maintains its order throughout, most horror films, once the horror element gets going, the music devolves and spins out a bit. But this score didn’t do that. And I really liked that.

Excellent. Well, thank you, I appreciate that. Yeah, that it? If all of a sudden, everything becomes shrieking since since strings and, and, and just dread and gloom and and like big swelling, low end throbs, then. And those things are there. But if all of a sudden everything becomes well, those things are things like different iterations of those things, I guess, are there like different kinds of ways of making those things happen, or they’re in the score, but if that was all that was happening, the jokes won’t land the same way.

And also, if that’s not the story that it’s telling, it’s still all the way through to the end, it still makes fun of itself. There’s still a levity all the way up until the very last second, so yeah, I think every score is a bit of a puzzle, and a bit of a tightrope walk. Threading everything together and doing so in a way that isn’t just okay, now’s the drama. So now we throw in some saccharine strings.

Now there’s the horror. So we throw in the big pounding, percussion and low end subs and the high shrieking violins. And now it gets to be comedy. So here’s the quirky one. So that’s what I mean by genre. And that’s when I feel a score can just start to cut and paste. But for this one for everything that I tried to do with all this guys have done is try to give them a real sense of self, a real character to them, and to stay within the bounds of that character throughout the course of it.

I think you’ve been alluding to it, but I wanted to ask about Track 6 on the soundtrack: the mess. I was curious what did you do to make the string sound like that? Are they just regular strings or did you add something else in there?

In the film, there are always things to contend with in there. And certainly, I’ll say that. The volume that I hear certain tracks, certain bits of score in certain parts of films is not necessarily always the volume that a director will hear it as. When you’re doing that by itself, you hear all the nuance to it.

That one is a combination of things. So it is a combination of a big sweep, low end sweep of my own voice being doubled by the string bass section in this long kind of untwist sweep. Then around that there are these pristine orchestral viola and violin pizzicato pluck notes, questioning, and this almost grotesque sort of sine throb of a string just really exposed in quite Woody and groaning. And that instrument is a nickel Harpa. I was playing it in a way which is completely foreign to any actual good player.

But I think what you’re referring to in terms of that; there is a moment where the next course is being served in the midst of that confusion. And it’s kind of a tongue in cheek ominous, low strings ostinato that happens in this percussive driving thing, that then builds itself up to yet another break, where we can just be thrown into what will become the tension creating propulsion throughout the rest of the film, which is a lot of that polymeter pizzicato, but now brought by the piano strings. A piano string plucked is going to sound far more metallic and abrasive, than the orchestral strings plucked.

Then there’s a combination of them and a hybridization of those two things to varying degrees throughout the course of the rest of the film. And that all happens there in The Mess. And this is a big one in terms of the turning it has. There’s a little bit of everything harkens back to kind of an innocence in a questioning of what was before introduces entirely new sounds and in a completely different character. And also hints at everything to come.

So in general, it seemed to me as I watched the film, that instead of connecting to the human characters, it seems like most of the music revolves around the food itself. Am I imagining that? Or is that actually how it is?

I would say that mostly revolves around The Menu. When I say “The Menu,” I mean, this diabolical plan/plot that had been painstakingly constructed from the exact guest list to how it was going to all play out. Also what the actual literal menu was going to be for all of the courses. So again, I tried to make this core be the character of the menu in that broad sense of this plot unfolding.

These kind of aspects and melodic aspects of The Menu, when they’re happening on screen with a character who’s having a human experience in the midst of this, that character is, we’re seeing into their reaction and to their experience of the thing that’s unfolding. And so if that’s the chef then it’s the This is one quality of fats. Same Margot. It’s a it’s a very different, either. And that is true from the first note to the last.

Speaking of Margot, it just dawned on me, but by everyone’s own admission, she is not part of The Menu. So does she have her own theme since she is by all accounts an interloper?

Oh I didn’t see it as such! She has very distinct and specific interactions with The Menu which are different than with the themes than that is different than others. I’ll say that. There’s not like, a specific there is there’s one theme that operates with her and her alone, but I don’t know that I would go as far as to—because I’m very loath to say this is a person’s theme or anything—but I guess there are certain underlying elements that accompany her and her experience alone. There are certain underlying elements that accompany Chef and his experience alone. And in those two, those two things are true, but I don’t know, I’d go as far as to say that.

No, that makes sense. I had this bad habit of—I’m so used to studying leitmotifs in other film scores. I keep forgetting not all film scores go that way. Well, yeah, it’s true, though many scores do so it’s for sure.

Yeah. And I think that probably, if I was to analyze it, I could probably come up with things that are to that effect. But my conscious mind does not know it to be true right now. Yeah. When you when you when you study something, or even for me, and things that I discover things about, about scores that I’ve done that I did not know, I was doing at the time, only after the fact.

So what else did you choose instrument wise to score the film? I know you mentioned the the nickel Harpa.

Yeah, there’s a whole host of instrumentation there. Obviously, the orchestral strings are a big part of it, that piano is a big part of it. The saxophones are a big part of it. The nickel Harpa does definitely plays a really integral role. There is an enormous amount of choral writing in there, there’s a lot of human voice there are elements of actual literal kitchen type percussive sounds that those emanating from things like water glasses and pots and pans and some some old antique forks that I have that that ring and almost almost they’re very shiny like they’re almost like tuning forks and but I’m sure I’m leaving something out but that’s that’s the bulk of it.

Is there an element of a clock in there because as I was listening to the score, I swear I hear it ticking

All the ticking you’re hearing is coming from the the pizzicato strings and piano but yes it was purposeful.

Can you talk briefly about this moment at the end of the film when Chef is making his last dish? It sounds very different there.

There is a strong nod to the Baroque, I think in the establishing shots, certainly in the very, very beginning of the film. Then again, most notably so in this in this scene, and I just I wanted it to be I want there to be just this is the feel kind of hugely reverent. Again, there’s like to have a kind of high minded church Enos to it coming like, you know, very, very loving and, and sentimental. And so this is, they’re, they’re obviously well, the the whole thing is founded on this arpeggio attic, kind of aqueous saxophone bed that happens.

Then you just burgeoning throughout the course of it. There is a huge amount of, again, human voices. That’s the that’s the thrust of most of what’s happening there. And then throughout there actually some bowed piano strings that have a kind of harpsichord quality to them that I thought really brought the angelic again, the the the that church like, Reverend quality. And yeah, so I think that I think that’s the that’s the bulk of it.

Mostly what you’re what you’re hearing is that the dreaminess of the saxophones with with a little bit of this churchy, harpsichord building out the sides, and then the choir topping it. And that saxophone bed is, is the kind of the basis for all of these, these chef moments throughout the course of the film, you notice from the very beginning when he’s first having his when he’s having his first monologue to the diners, talking about, you know, telling them not to eat, talking about the experience of it. And that’s where we first feel this, that that that musical element come in, and it’s to me it’s very much his like that this sincerity of his belief and and feeling as it pertains to the art of, of his craft.

The Menu is currently out in theater now. Be sure to check out the film, and its soundtrack as soon as you can. I want to thank Colin Stetson for taking the time to talk with me about The Menu and diving into his process for the film.

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Armed with a PhD. in Musicology, Becky spends much of her time blogging about movie music on her blog Film Music Central when she isn't otherwise occupied watching movies and her favorite anime series.