Holly Amber Church jokes about the length of her music on Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The composer, who scored the Emmy-nominated main title theme, reminds audiences, though, that even the shortest of cues can have a big impact. From the beginning of the highly entertaining Netflix horror anthology, Church’s main title theme invites viewers into a world of strange horror.
Church captured the terror and wonder you hope and expect out of a Guillermo del Toro project, and she did it in just a minute. The composer behind several horror movies, such as Ruin Me and The Devil’s Dolls, recently discussed with Below The Line crafting a main title theme that spoke to her love of horror and The Twilight Zone.
BTL: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.
Holly Amber Church: Thank you. Thanks for taking the time to interview me about my one minute of music. [laughs]
BTL: [laughs] Hey, it sets the tone nicely.
Church: Oh, thank you.
BTL: When you worked on it, did you get a chance to see a lot of the episodes to get a sense of what you were setting up musically?
Church: No, I didn’t see any of them. I just didn’t know. Obviously, I knew it was horror, I knew it was an anthology. I know Guillermo’s style a little bit, that he likes the beautiful mixed with the dark, and so that’s what I just went for.
BTL: Would you have preferred to see episodes or was it more freeing to create that music without having seen them?
Church: Yes, that’s a good question. I don’t know. This one I got an animatic. I actually did a demo for it. I was sent an animatic of it, so I got to write the demo to the animatic. I did see in storyboard form some of those cool visuals that ended up in the main title. I think that was the inspiration. Nothing from the episodes, but at least I saw, “Okay, this is where the main title is going.”
It was awesome when I saw the show. I ended up writing music for all the prologues too, when Guillermo comes out and he introduces. After I got hired to do the main title, it’s like, “Let’s use that theme, but in a more creepy underscore type of way, and let’s use it on all the prologues.”
Then, I got sent those, and he opens the cabinet, he pulls something really cool out. He says something very prolific and sets up what the story is. I was like, “I want to see these. What are these stories?” Even getting those, I didn’t know what the episodes were. I’d just do the title and something cool. Then I was even more excited to see the show.
BTL: What did you make of Guillermo’s intros? Did you want a bit of a Twilight Zone vibe as well?
Church: Oh, I love them. Growing up, I loved The Twilight Zone. That was my favorite TV show. Reruns, of course. [laughs] That was seriously one of my favorite shows growing up. Maybe it was my intro to horror. I love Rod Serling. That was probably my favorite part of every episode was when he would come out and introduce it. When I got sent these prologues and it’s Guillermo and it’s very Twilight Zone, I honestly had a huge geek out moment. I was like, “I cannot believe I’m doing this right now.”
BTL: Were there any specific homages in your main title theme? Anything like, “This is definitely Twilight Zone.”
Church: You know what? I did go back and I watched a couple of those things where Rod Serling came out just to get the feel. I knew I was going to use my theme, but there’s some cellista in there and things like that that just have that 1960s feel. Obviously, I just serve our show.
BTL: I do enjoy the drums in the main title, like a drumroll. It’s almost like you’re about to see a show. How did that idea come about?
Church: That was Guillermo, actually. That was his input. Because my original demo didn’t have that. He said, “Let’s start with the timpani roll to just give it this really majestic feel. We open in the dark, and then we see the cabinet and the door is open, and that just feels very majestic, like it’s bringing us into this world.” That was his brilliance. That was his idea, and I love it [laughs].
BTL: You said in the beginning, “Thanks for talking to me about my one-minute theme,” but that’s one minute with what, a hundred decisions going into it, right?
Church: Yes, that’s very true. It’s no pressure. You’re just opening the show. [laughs] For me, when I demoed for it, I wanted a very strong melody. I was like, “I want an old-school main title with a very strong theme,” because you still have those, but sometimes, you have things that might be one note or a sound design thing or something. I was like, “I just want it to be very melodic.” There’s pressure on me to write an earworm type of thing, something people would remember and something that felt melodic. Then just trying to incorporate the world and the visuals, and there’s that.
BTL: That’s a Creature from the Black Lagoon poster behind you, right?
Church: It is, yes. Signed by Julie Adams, who sadly passed away not long ago. If you saw my whole wall, it’s all monsters.
BTL: Those universal monster scores are just classic. Do they inspire you as a composer?
Church: I do love horror. That’s what I’m known for. Horror can be so many things. Sometimes it’s weird sounds, or sound designs, or sometimes it’s big and orchestral, which is where I think I live. I like doing all of those things, but just to get here a big, orchestral horror score is my thing that I love. I think that’s why this was project coming home for me, getting to do this. It’s all the things I love together.
BTL: Did you and Guillermo talk about any horror movies?
Church: We didn’t talk about horror movies too much, we just talked about the main title. He noticed I liked tiki. He’s like, “You like tiki.” I know he likes monsters too, so we both like monsters. We mostly talked about the main title, but a little bit of monsters and tiki [laughs].
BTL: What are some of your favorite horror scores?
Church: Oh, man, I love Psycho. I would say that’s probably my favorite of all time, Bernard Hermann‘s Psycho. I could listen to that over and over. I love things from the ’60s, obviously, ’50s and ’60s. I love a lot of Jo Bishara‘s stuff for The Conjuring Universe. Then you could go, Halloween is so great. It’s so different from Psycho. There’s just so many great classics.
BTL: I think almost every composer mentions Bernard Hermann as a favorite. Of course, he’s brilliant, but what do you think about his work that speaks so deeply to musicians?
Church: I think it’s just melodically, it’s brilliant, and he tried things. I’m sure everyone knows Psycho was just strings, he didn’t bring in any other instruments. What he was able to do with just the string section on that was amazing. He’d have these clever little motifs that he would use. His music was very exciting to me. Going back to The Twilight Zone, go listen to his Twilight Zone scores. Those are amazing too. He did a lot of those episodes. Jerry Goldsmith did Twilight Zones. You had a lot of your horror greats doing Twilight Zone episodes back in the day, which was amazing.
BTL: Like you said, you needed to create an earworm main title. How’d you want to achieve that effect in the opening?
Church: I wanted you to hear fragments of the melody, but it had to be just way scaled down from what the main title version was because he’s talking. I wanted it to feel a little bit more creepy, atmospheric undertone, but still, you had to hear the little snippets of that melody in there too. I think the note I got, which made me laugh for doing the prologues, was “a much less bold version” of the thing. It was something like that. It made me laugh. I was like, “Definitely.” [laughs]
BTL: How big did you want to go with the main title theme?
Church: I think because it was a demo, I was like, “I’m going all out.” If I have to tone it down, which I do with some of my scores a lot, especially if it’s an action scene or something, go big, but then if you have to tone it down, that’s a lot easier. I’m like, “Okay, I can tone it down.” That one I was just like, “I’m going to go big on this.” I didn’t know if there was going to be sound design in it or not, because you have all these cool things you’re seeing, like clocks and things, but they didn’t end up putting sound design in it, so that was great. I got to live big, which was awesome.
BTL: For that minute, you see very clearly the beginning, middle, and end.
Church: I think based on the animatic, it was clear how it worked, but the interesting thing is, in my demo, I had an A theme and a B theme. The A theme was the main one, and when we get to the part where we open the door and there’s the swirl of skulls, which I love, that’s where my B theme came in. I was like, “It needs to be a little more energetic and chaotic here, and so I’ll switch this, I’ll invert the A theme.” Sorry, this is totally nerdy composer talk.
BTL: No, no, please, go on.
Church: Then, when I met with Guillermo, we were playing it through and when we got to that B section he goes, “That’s it. Stop it right there. That’s the theme. Use that part. That’s our main theme.” He was totally right. It was way stronger. It was way more memorable. Then that became the main theme throughout. It just played a little more creepy in the beginning, and then when we get to those swirls of skulls, it’s a lot like I had it originally, where it just gets bigger and more energetic. Then we repeat it at the end too.
BTL: This is a random question, but when a show you work on drops on Netflix, do you ask around or are you curious about how people are reacting to your main title?
Church: No, actually I’ve never asked people that. That would be interesting to know. I just ask everyone, “Please don’t hit Skip Intro.” I was like, “Please, just listen to it. Give it a shot.”
BTL: I hate that they give you that option.
Church: Yes. I was like, “It’s cool.” That’s why the prologues were cool because people couldn’t skip those, so I was like, “They’re going to have to hear me for at least 30 seconds.” [laughs]
BTL: [laughs] I’m sure you knew people were really enjoying the show, but when you got your Emmy nomination, how’d that feel?
Church: Oh my gosh. It was unreal. I think it still doesn’t feel real to me. It’s just because too, I think, sometimes horror gets overlooked when it comes to awards. Obviously, Guillermo, he defies all genres, and he does get looked at for awards. The show was amazing as you know, just beautiful in every way. Production design, costumes, makeup, everything. It got the attention it deserved. For me, I’ve just been at this a long time, so I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get an Emmy nomination. That was a very pinch me moment [laughs].
BTL: “I’ve been at this for a long time,” that sounded loaded how you said it. What have been some of the challenges along the way?
Church: I think it’s just keeping your– What’s the term? Nose to the grind? Head to the–? Just keep going. [laughter] That was very Porky Pig of me. You gotta just keep going. I think it’s a journey. Some people, the door opens way quicker. For me, I’ve been working in the indie world for a long time, which is good. I got to meet a lot of people and sharpen my teeth and all that kind of stuff. Then, this opportunity came along, and that was amazing to start to even get to do this. Then I never knew that that would then turn into an Emmy nomination, so it’s very cool.
The Emmy-nominated Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is now available to stream on Netflix.