Sundance Interview: Composer Garth Stevenson Discusses Creating the Music of ‘Them That Follow’

Alice Englert and Walton Goggins appear in Them That Followby Britt Poulton and Daniel Savage, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Julius Chiu

2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: One of the more unique entries at this year’s festival was the religious-themed drama, “Them That Follow.”

Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, the film tells the story of a young woman who faces a crisis of faith and obedience in her small town Pentecostal community. Alice Englert, Walter Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Pullman, and Thomas Mann star in this intense drama.

At the festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with Garth Stevenson, composer of the film’s original score. His filmography includes “10,000 Saints,” “The Grizzlies,” and last year’s “Chappaquiddick.” He also writes and performs original music apart from film.

Please enjoy this conversation with Garth Stevenson.

Karen Peterson/AwardsCircuit: How are you doing?

Garth Stevenson: Great, yeah. It’s been a fun few days.

KP: Is this your first time at Sundance, or have you been here before?

GS: It’s my third time. I was here with a film called “10,000 Saints” four or five years ago. And then a couple of years ago with a documentary called “Resilience.”

KP: How has your experience been this year?

GS: It’s been great. There’s been a lot of excitement around “Them That Follow,” and it’s nice. As a composer you spend so much time on every scene and you get to know the characters so well, but then to get to actually hang out with the cast and the editor and cinematographer, it’s a really nice celebration.

KP: I saw the film yesterday.

GS: At Eccles?

KP: Yes! I went in not knowing anything about “Them That Follow” except that Olivia Colman was in it. I think that was a really good way to go into it. 

GS: Yeah, yes, definitely.

KP: To not have any preconceived ideas. For you, when you first saw the script, what were some of your first thoughts?

GS: I think this has been kind of universal, listening to cast members and everyone involved. The script was just so solid and I couldn’t put it down. That’s not always the case, and so when I read it I really wanted to work on it. I could really picture it and kind of had some ideas for music already. And then I met with Dan [Savage] and Britt [Poulton], and my gut right from the beginning was this is going to be a nice collaboration. It was.

KP: They seem like a really fun directing team.

GS: They are. I always take everything back to music. I’m a performer as well and played in all different types of bands. I don’t know, when you’re playing in a duo there’s this really nice back and forth. But then in a trio, there’s room for even more discussion and ideas. Maybe working with two directors could be difficult, but this was a really great collaboration.

KP: What was it like when you first met them? What was the first conversation?

GS: Our very first meeting was on Skype, because we’re not in the same city. But then I went out to LA partway through the scoring and that was just really nice to exchange some hugs and then get down to work with them and the producers, looking through some notes and ideas.

KP: When you first started working with them on the direction of the score, what were some of the guidelines they gave you?

GS: They left me a lot of creative freedom and really wanted me to just kind of go for it. I always love the first week or so of working on a film because the deadline is not quite approaching yet and there’s time to just really experiment. I wanted to find the right instruments and the right sound first and then go from there.

One thing is three years ago – I’m sure other musicians and composers do this – but I was perusing Craig’s List for instruments because you never know what will come up. Somebody was selling about 50 of these 100-year-old church organ pipes made out of wood. It was a construction worker that salvaged them when the church was being torn down. He was selling them as lumber, which just broke my heart. I felt like I had to rescue these pipes. I think I got around 30 of them. That was the most I could fit in my van. And they sat in the studio for a few years, but I knew there’d be a good time to use them. So very early on in working on “Them That Follow,” these pipes, some of them are three feet tall and some of them are seven feet. They require so much air. The smaller ones I can maybe get a tone for one second with my lungs, so I went to Home Depot and got an air compressor and a really long hose and then just spent three days. I set up eight microphones in the studio and was just blasting air through all these pipes. It’s obviously not the way these pipes are intended to be played. I think normally a blower sends a much slower and lower pressure flow or air. But because of this, you’ve got these really strong, fundamental low notes, but also as you can imagine an air compressor has a real hiss to it, which ended up being perfect for the snakes. Also, some of them were attached to this catwalk twelve feet up in the air, this really narrow… I’m standing up on the edge trying to blow all these different pitches. I think in day three I was starting to wonder, first of all, I might fall and break my back. And I wonder if I should be working on some other thematic material by now! But I was just having so much fun and that really got the ball rolling for having a real, creative flow with it.

So yeah, those sounds of those pipes ended up being used to represent the snakes, but also some of the lower tones that came out you hear whenever you walk into the church, that barn-looking church, whenever they close the doors you get these low, almost sounds like a male choir mixed with an organ or something.

KP: It is interesting the score as they’re going into the church and closing the door, because what you’re seeing on screen feels so foreboding, but the music doesn’t necessarily doesn’t feel like it’s signaling danger. Can you talk about that a little bit?

GS: Yeah, we were all trying to be careful. It would have been very easy to make the music sound foreboding and almost evil, ominous, and we didn’t want to portray their religious rituals like that. But there was still an element of suspense. That first scene in the church, everyone’s getting into a trance, and it’s dreamlike. They drop out the sound. You see someone playing the tambourine but you don’t hear it. So, yeah, there were all these kind of dreamlike textures with the organ and the strings, and also the percussion. I wanted to use sounds that could have even been in that barn.

My studio used to be a woodworking and metal shop, and they left a lot of junk there. So I played a lot of rusty old metal. I got three different sized rattle snake rattles for the score, so I mixed those in. And then when it gets to Mara, the shot of her, my wife’s a phenomenal singer, so she layered six or seven layers to make it like a choral sound, because you’re really trying to get this mix of devils and angels. She loves her father, she loves her religion, but then when someone takes a rattlesnake out of a box and holds it up, that’s also very scary for most people, and should be. So then that’s when we brought in some of the more intense sounds in the score. Which later on in the film kept growing in intensity, right? And the most intense version of that theme is at the end when the snake is on Mara.

KP: That scene!

GS: Yeah.

KP: You do a lot with the rattles, but there are also a lot of sounds from nature because they’re in this community up in the mountains. 

GS: Yes.

KP: What were the inspirations for those sounds?

GS: My own music, when I work on my own albums, have been very inspired by nature. I’ve spent a lot of time playing my double bass, which is my principle instrument, in the woods. The desert. I spent a month in Antarctica with my bass. Played for penguins and whales and seals.

KP: That’s amazing!

GS: And for me, when I first started playing in nature was when I was in school, in Boston at Berklee. I grew up right on the edge of a provincial park in British Columbia, very much in nature. And at first I started practicing by Walden Pond near Boston, just to escape the sounds of music school. You know, at music school you have a practice room and you’re wedged between a drummer and a saxophone player. But then after going out there every day one summer, for like ten hours a day, it started sounding silly just to be practicing the jazz or classical music I was working on for school. So I started trying to almost score, just challenge myself. What sounds right for this? It slowly, over the years, kind of changed some of my musical language, and it’s something I’ll be working on the rest of my life.

So “Them That Follow,” the music in that is very different than my solo albums. It’s much more intense as a thriller, but then I did incorporate a lot of, you can call them nature sounds. And some of those are really manipulating the overtones on strings. I played double bass and cello and violin on this score.

This is a bit of a sidetrack, but in 2012 I spent three weeks in Tuva, which is a little region right above Mongolia in Russia, where there’s this beautiful ancient tradition of Tuvan throat singing. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it, but they sing one really low note, way down in their throat, but then by manipulating their throat and their mouth, one of the seven styles of throat singing creates this high whistling sound. And so you end up with these beautiful, lyrical, almost folk melodies that sound like someone whistling, or very angelic, on top of this just being produced by manipulating overtones. And that became a big part of the way I play string instruments. So yeah, to answer your question, those overtone explorations were used a lot in the outdoor scenes.

KP: For “Them That Follow,” did you ever go to the location to get a scope of what the local sounds were?

GS: I didn’t. They brought me on after filming and the edit was almost locked. But I had a pretty good sense. I’ve done a lot of hiking and camping.

KP: Sounds like you’ve been all over the place.

GS: Yeah, so I kind of know. Because also, another instrument I have at the studio is this pump organ, which is an instrument where you rock your feet on these pedals, which moves the bellows, and then you play the keys to produce the pitches. Pump organs used to be the poor man’s piano in the 1800s, and they were also easier to transport. Pianos were so heavy. And it felt like that’s the kind of instrument that could have been in one of these churches in the 1920s.

In “Them That Follow,” you probably noticed they have some of their services outdoors, and when Mara finds out she’s pregnant and goes down and starts praying, and then Lemuel, her father, approaches from behind, that was all pump organ. I could picture someone playing pump organ just behind the trees, just out of the shot. It felt like that could happen out there.

KP: What was the hardest part of the score? Was there anything that took a long time to get the right sound?

GS: On most films I work on, I would have an answer for you right away. “Them That Follow,” just from beginning to end, everything just kind of clicked. We had very few revisions from the directors and producers and the notes were very minor. So it was kind of a lucky one. We didn’t get stuck ever.

KP: When you’re just living your life, maybe in the car, what kind of music do you like to listen to?

GS: Most of the time I’m in the car, I’m with my two children who are five and two, so it’s usually what they want to listen to. Lately there’s been a lot of Michael Jackson… It got a little dark when my first kid was young because we got into a bit of an Elmo zone. But my wife’s a musician as well and was like, no, we don’t have to do this!

Lately, the last few years, I haven’t been listening to as much music. I think I work on music every day, and sometimes there just isn’t the bandwidth for new music. Or someone will send me something to check out, or I’ll go see a live concert. I kind of just let what comes in just happen. I have a good friend who’s obsessed with collecting field recordings from all over the world. He’ll send me nature recordings from Borneo or music from isolated tribes somewhere. I worked on the film “The Grizzlies,” last year, which took place in Northern Canada. Worked with this throat singer – different kind of throat singer – Inuit throat singer named Tanya Tagaq, and she’s someone I’d always wanted to work with because she sings on some of Björk’s albums and I’m a big Björk fan. So last year I listened to a lot of Inuit throat singing. I’d heard it but I really wanted to know it on a deeper level.

KP: What has working on “Them That Follow” meant for you personally?

GS: I guess every film, I learn something new. This was probably the most intense film. I worked on a film last year called “Chappaquiddick,” that definitely had some dark undertones, but it didn’t need the same kind of music as when someone is about to get bit by a rattlesnake. That pushed me. Some of those scenes, I feel like I got to an 8 out of 10 for intensity and I felt like that was as far as I could take it. And then maybe Britt or Dan would say, “I wonder if we could make it a little more,” or Bradley [Gallo], one of the producers. So getting myself to be able to take it from 8 to 9 or 10, or maybe even 11 for the final scene.

Also, with the exception of Annie, who sang a little bit, and my friend John Shannon, an old friend I toured with for many years – he did the guitar playing – but everything else I played myself. I love being able just to work with my hands. When there’s a close up on someone’s face and you choose to have one long note, there’s so many ways you can play with the vibrato or intonation. I think I wouldn’t have as much fun scoring if I didn’t get to play any of the instruments. It keeps my hands working. That’s just a totally different, not mental state, but I think because I’ve performed for so many years and still do, when you’re playing in a room and there’s people sitting right in front of you, there’s this exchange that happens. It’s a very intimate, human exchange that can happen in a live performance. But when you’re scoring a film, they’re not there. They’re on screen and it happened six months ago. But I still, especially the first pass, I try to imagine what would I do live? If I had my bass on set there, what would it be? Trying to make it as human as possible. It’s kind of the anti sampled score. All live instruments and trying to make them all feel very alive and human.

KP: What is some advice you would give someone interested in pursuing film composition?

GS: If they’re very young, I think just focus on music. Try to find your voice as a musician first. But use your ears and be aware of music in film and how it works. When do they bring it in? When do they take the music out? Does it move with the cuts? Is it in counterpoint to the cuts? But yeah, I think for children, especially, just explore and have fun. Fall in love with music first and then weave that into film scoring.

We would like to thank Garth Stevenson for speaking with AwardsCircuit.

“Them That Follow” was acquired by The Orchard and will be released later this year.

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