A Modern Twist To A Western Score: Composer Tim Williams on “Diablo”
By: Marjorie Galas
The circumstances surrounding director Lawrence Roeck’s feature “Diablo” were too enticing for composer Tim William’s to pass up. If featured a cinematographer Williams greatly respected for his work on films including “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy, not to mention “Walking with the Enemy” which Williams also scored. The film also showcased rising star Scott Eastwood – son of Clint Eastwood – and Walton Goggins, an actor whose work Williams has admired for years. With a storyline punctuated by a horseback trek through the scenic Alberta countryside, Williams gladly signed on after his first meeting with Roeck.
Set in the Colorado territory shortly after the Civil War, Jackson (Eastwood) hunts a group of Mexican bandits who’ve burned down his home and kidnapped his wife. Through the course of his travels, he repeatedly encounters Ezra, a sarcastic psychopath. Prior to commencing, Williams met with Roeck to discuss the tone of the score, noting the setting was in line with “Wild Horses,” a film he scored for Robert Duvall. Despite the period setting, Roeck wanted to create a hybrid score, merging synthesizers with more tradition sounds of the Western genre that would define the emotional journey of the characters.
Recognizing Roeck’s desire to detour from a classic western score, Williams dove into finding unique ways to incorporate classic Western element with very modern twists. For example, he sampled the sound of shots from an old shotgun and used them as a percussive track. He also recorded the sound drumsticks made against a saddle and a gun barrel, creating a twist on auxiliary percussion. He also chose the harmonium – an Indian instrument that is similar in appearance to a pump organ with a keyboard -for various passages in the score.
“I sampled Scott Eastwood’s whistle, and adjusted its manipulation and pitching. It’s used in the background very clearly off the top of the soundtrack,” said Williams. “I tried to find unusual ways of approaching the score.”
Traditional orchestration sits at the base of the “Diablo” score, with designated instrumentation used to emphasize the psychological journey of the characters. Williams also wove a few reoccurring themes throughout the score, particularly used when Jackson is on the trail of his wife, the speed of his cross country trek captured in the air by a drone. The motif starts with an alto flute. A bass flute and female vocals are layered on to complete the passage. During the height of his gallop, Williams used a French horn and solo cello to emphasize his theme. Using two chords on the harmonium, Williams also created a theme that outlined the nefarious nature of Ezra.
“I used two chords in the harmonium. It creates a very evil, foreboding sense,” said Williams. “The pump keyboard fit perfectly. I avoided the guitar but at the end of the film I used it quite violently. It was detuned and strummed angrily with snapping sounds in the string.”
Incorporating the harmonium was a revelation to the classically trained pianist. After signing on to “Diablo” he placed a post on Facebook, hoping some associates may have accesses to specific instruments he wanted to use. Composer John Debney helped him locate the harmonium and showed him the basics of its operation: a pump in the back of the instrument is squeezed with the right hand while the left hand holds down the keys. The more he experimented with the instrument he found he could shape phrases, create sounds with treble, even define a buzzy, nasally quality. While he’ll always use professional musicians who specialize in specific instruments to attain the best sound possible, he enjoys adding new instruments to his personal repertoire, particularly when his approach to playing them enhances the score.
“I will self-perform any instrument I can. I am great at out of key cello and great at the shot gun,” joked Williams. “But a professional musician always brings color to the performance. We used vocalists, solo violin and cello to enhance the score, and that in itself is an amazing process.”
Throughout his career, Williams has worked on some big studio films, including “300”, “Conan the Barbarian” and “Watchmen.” While he loves the scope a score can bring to these blockbusters, he equally enjoys the creative process that defining a smaller indie provides. On “Diablo” he was able to incorporate the work of some additional artists, including Kirpatrick Thomas who wrote the end credit song, and Zella Day who collaborated with him on “Bloodline” – the piece that opens the soundtrack.
“Smaller indies can provide more opportunities to explore,” said Williams. “I love when musicians can react to that.”