Midnight Movie: The Killer Cut
Penka Kouneva is a rising Hollywood film composer who blends her native Eastern-European influences with modern orchestra, Medieval chant, rock, and electronica. Her music is dark, emotive, and soulful. To date, she has scored 13 indie features, 4 television films for the SciFi channel, and episodic TV shows. These include the dramas The Third Nail and Richard III, sci-fi political suspense November, action-adventures Ice Spiders, and psychological thriller Dorian Gray. She is also a busy orchestrator and score producer on studio films including Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Bee Movie, Hostel I and II, Matrix 2, 3, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, etc. Penka’s music has been honored with WorldFest’s Platinum Remi for Best Score, Aaron Copland Award, and Sundance Composer Fellowship.
[2vs8]: I understand there is a re-cut version of "Midnight Movie" called "Midnight Movie: The Killer Cut" what was your involvement on this?
Penka: Yes, the new version ("the Killer Cut") is terrific. It has expanded scenes, new visual effects (really awesome "appearance" of the killer onto the celluloid) and some scenes have been slightly shuffled. I wrote a new cue for the beginning (which is also different - much stronger musically) and a few other expanded cues. I think the new cut is a huge improvement and I was glad to contribute to the score.
[2vs8]: How did you get back into the score, did you feel a change needed to be made with the re-cut or did you stay with the traditional idea you created?
Penka: Last summer when I was working on the release of the Soundtrack CD I decided to write a thematic suite that is a stand-alone piece -- strong and distinctive. The idea of a Suite came from Hostel II - Nathan Barr wrote an amazing Suite because his Hostel II score was a bit more subtle and probably he felt he didn't have a chance to write a great big "set piece." I felt the same way - I felt the CD would benefit from one strong piece based on the Killer's theme and then developing it. (In the film, the killer's theme exists only as a 4-note motif and is never heard beyond those 4 notes when the Killer makes a hit). So, that extended Killer's theme which I wrote in the summer of 2010 for the CD became the New Main theme for the new cut. It worked out just wonderfully. Of course, I had to conform it to the picture and add slashes, percussive hits and made sure it matched the editing. Overall, it's a much stronger beginning of the film - visually and musically.
[2vs8]: Will there be an additional score release of the extra music you had created or maybe a download option?
Penka: No, I don't think so. As I mentioned the CD contains that new extended Killer theme, and also a few other extended musical cues.
[2vs8]: What are your thoughts on music being only available as "the download only" option, do you find the music quality could suffer?
Penka: I think it's the future of entertainment. I personally buy stuff from iTunes often and use YouTube daily for research. It's amazing to have such wealth of music under one's fingertips. I've never been too crazy about super-extra-hi-fi because to me the music ideas, or storytelling have been more important than technology. But the quality has been good. I do appreciate iTunes and Amazon downloads and it's an amazing treasure trove to fans all over the world. Downloads have made music accessible to fans in every corner of the world, which is not how it was when I was growing up desperately seeking the Pink Floyd LPs I so much wanted to have -- but were not available in the stores (only on the black market). Music has become accessible which is a very democratic thing.
[2vs8]: Outside of "Midnight Movie" what have you been working on, who have you been working with and what is coming soon?
Penka: I have 3 indie features coming out this year: buddy drama ROUGH HUSTLE, mystery REJOUR (CHASING TIME), and a family drama EL NACIONAL. I've been very busy writing additional score on videogames - with Steve Jablonsky on GEARS OF WAR 3, and a Korean fantasy game about to ship, writing demos on few other games. I am building relationships and pursuing game projects, in addition to film.
[2vs8]: Something you have learned about composing that was different since you started?
Penka: Oh, I've learned so much lately and keep learning every day. These days I strive to write very distinctive, very memorable themes, similarly to how a hit song is created. There is something emblematic, very distinctive about such "iconic" theme that the fan remembers forever. It's hard to compose. It requires a lot of focus and whittling down the music, but first starting with a strong, focused musical idea, and then distilling it from there. I think nowadays with this enormous over-saturation of film scores, game scores, TV scores any composer is challenged to try and create a very distinctive, memorable, "iconic" music, or else sink into oblivion.
[2vs8]: What do you find to be the most rewarding doing what you do and working with those you work with?
Penka: I cherish my collaborative relationships that inspire me, challenge me and I learn tons of new skills. Such was my relationship with Ubisoft, the game company that produced PRINCE OF PERSIA. I was so grateful to my audio directors Simon Landry and Aldo Sampaio who were generous with amazing feedback and guidance. I cherish the challenging scoring jobs that made me seek out new approaches and reinvent myself as a composer. MIDNIGHT MOVIE was definitely such as job, and so were all my recent game jobs. For a creative artist such constant growth is a very rewarding feeling.
[2vs8]: What is a late night you have had working in the studio, where a inspiration hit you once you felt you might quit for the night?
Penka: I tend to be pretty regimented in my work. I usually spend a fair amount of time in the evening thinking up creative ideas and then sleeping on them and working on them in the morning. I often let creative ideas "ferment" for a while then distilling the best from them and crafting a theme or idea. I tend to be pretty thoughtful in my creative process. Otherwise try not to stay too late working because the next day is a wash and I am not very productive when I am tired. Composing demands an absolute concentration and during the day I tend to get distracted with tasks anyway.
[2vs8]: What do you feel is your best work outside "Midnight Movie" where you hear your work and think to yourself, that is my favorite?
Penka: The score to PRINCE OF PERSIA and now this KOREAN game are my best scores to date (in addition to MM), with which I felt I grew up exponentially as a composer and in my ability to write strong themes. Working with Steve Jablonsky has been amazing because he, too, works really hard to craft his themes, and that's the best influence on me - learning to craft power house themes.
[2vs8]: Tell us your favorite funny story while you worked in the studio and your worst one?
Penka: While recording at Fox Stage, one of the orchestrators with a really dry sense of humor said a joke:
"A cannibal said, I didn't like my mother-in-law.
Another cannibal replied, Have spaghetti instead."
But the joke-teller pronounced "cannibal" so it came out like a "camel." This recording engineer stood there dumb-struck trying to figure out what the "camel" said, and then we all rolled on the floor laughing at his priceless facial expression. This joke only works when spoken ... not written :)
The worst experience was working on a film where the director was shooting his next job on another continent and I had 3 weeks to deliver an action score. There were all sorts of disconnect in communication, work flow, and creative guidance, and most all, lack of respect on his part. This job got the cake for "worst job ever" and unfortunately also burned my relationship with the studio. Oh well .... lesson learned.
[2vs8]: Who inspires you in your field and what was the last soundtrack/score did you buy or listen to... or both?
Penka: Like most composers I have very broad musical interests: classical (early music, chant, Baroque, 18-20 th Centuries, postmodernism), film and video game music (I listen to new scores daily), rock, 90’s electronica, jazz, roots music, The Lomax Collection, tons of authentic world music starting with a deep knowledge of Bulgarian and Middle-Eastern folklore, and on and on. Some recent game scores that inspired me were CRYSIS II and DEAD SPACE II. Recent film scores were SALT and ADORATION. But the truth is, besides music I get inspired by people's generosity of spirit, humanitarian good deeds and kindness, and making the planet a better place.