Interview – Composer John McCarthy: The sound of horror movie music

John McCarthy. Photo by Peg McCarthy with stylization from Ken MacDonald.
John McCarthy. Photo by Peg McCarthy with stylization from Ken MacDonald. /

Shudder Original Anything for Jackson was just added to the horror streaming platform, and the score by John McCarthy greatly contributes to its dark, tense atmosphere.

Composer John McCarthy has written music for television and movies and won a Genie Award (basically, the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar) for writing the score for The Stone Angel.

McCarthy took some time to talk to 1428 Elm about writing the music for Anything for Jackson, which premiered on Shudder this month.

1428 Elm: Looking at your resume, you have written music for many different types of films, how does writing music for a horror film differ from other genres?

John McCarthy: The psychology of the ‘horror’ world differs from other genres of film in the sense that the otherwise imperative notion of subtlety is non-existent. There are so many instances where the job of the score is to contextualize the supernatural, which in essence de-establishes the unspoken rules of score. Scratchy violins which would otherwise be nothing more than annoying suddenly mesh and accentuate the unease that the filmmaker is trying to evoke out of the audience.

1428 Elm: What is your process for writing film scores?

John McCarthy: First and foremost, I need to build an understanding with the director, writer(s), and producer(s) as my job ultimately is to develop upon their ideas. Ideally, I would have the opportunity to read the script and talk with the creators to develop this understanding of what the music’s role is going to be in the film. I generally have two criteria that I start thinking about right away, ‘character music’ (the subtext of a character’s emotion) and ‘environmental music’ (how sound occupies and represents a relative space).

John McCarthy
Anything for Jackson. Image courtesy Shudder /

1428 Elm: Your sister Sheila played Audrey in Anything for Jackson, how did the two of you end up working on the same film?

John McCarthy: Sheila was working on Anything for Jackson, and during a conversation with her, she noted what a great time she was having on the set. This piqued my interest in the movie as she always knows a good project. They did not have a composer signed on yet, so I immediately sent in some music! Long story short, after a call with the director Justin Dyck and the writer Keith Cooper I got the job.

1428 Elm: According to the internet, you studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. At that time, did you aspire to be a composer who worked on films, or did you have other plans?

John McCarthy: A friend who was working on a TV pilot asked me to do some music. It was an entirely new experience for me, as when I was at the Royal Conservatory I was mainly there as a classical flute student, and when I studied at Humber College in Toronto, I studied first performance and composition. At that point, I realized that this was what I wanted to do, and have pursued film scoring ever since. However, for several years after college in my youth, I played with numerous bands such as Ian Hunter (Mott The Hoople) and Canadian recording artist Frozen Ghost.

1428 Elm: Of all of the films you have scored, which was your favorite, and why?

John McCarthy: That is a hard question. I don’t know if I have a favorite, as the movies that resonate with me are all for slightly different reasons. Love and Human Remains was my first film and was directed by acclaimed Canadian Denys Arcand, who taught me so much. Sweet Angel Mine was great as I was able to travel to Munich, Germany to record the orchestra. I won the Genie Award (basically the Canadian Oscar) for best original score for The Stone Angel.

1428 Elm: Tell us what you will be working on next.

John McCarthy: I just did some remote recording (sax and flute) for the band Morcheeba’s new album. I have a few things in the works film-wise… but I hope to work more in the horror world after working on this project!

1428 Elm: We hope you work more in the horror world too! Thanks for talking to us today.

There is a lot to check out on Shudder this month, including Anything for Jackson and the Unhappy Holidays collection, be sure to check them out!

Next. Laura Morris on Spotify's fascinating series Murder Ballads. dark

Have you watched Anything for Jackson on Shudder? Do you agree that the music adds to the atmosphere? Let us know what you think in the comments section.