Interview: Composer Matthew James on scoring The Djinn

Ezra Dewey as “Dylan” in David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s THE DJINN. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.
Ezra Dewey as “Dylan” in David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s THE DJINN. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release. /
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The Djinn
Ezra Dewey as “Dylan” in David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s THE DJINN. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release. /

1428 Elm: And going back to the whole newer horror thing, I have recently had the opportunity to interview some cinematographers, and they told me they enjoy filming horror because you don’t always have to deal in realism, you can branch off in a little more creative and surreal direction. Do you think that applies to scoring horror films as well?

MJ: Absolutely, and I think that with this film, they knew straight away that they wanted to make it period. They wanted to go back and pay homage to the retro. There’s no hiding that. What they did in Timecop1983, which is that Dutch artist who had a couple of tracks in the film, I was just like, ok, cool, I’m going to use these old Yamaha synths and things like that and these samples that are indicative of the 80s, I really just leaned into it.

Honestly, with the exception, of course, The Djinn’s kind of jump-scare moments, the last moments, when they’re fighting, I think there is a lot of surreality to it.

I mean, when we find out he’s in mourning, it takes a long time to figure out what’s really going on. So we’re really playing into this flashback, dream-like state, it seems like every day is the same, it doesn’t seem like he’s enjoying himself, there’s like Saran wrap on everything, I think everybody can sympathize with some level of mourning and grief. When you reflect back on those times, that is kind of like how he is. We play a lot on that too, his theme’s kind of lonely and out there, you know?

1428 Elm: With modern horror, grief and trauma seem to be themes that weave through that now, much more than they used to. It’s not just someone hunting down a bunch of teenagers with a knife. It’s become more realistically uncomfortable I guess.

MJ: Right, right, more dramatic. Drama and psychological thrillers have feathered their way in, which I think is good. I do respect some of the Saw franchise when it first came out, and things like that. I like stuff that’s smart too. I’m not judge about it, there are just certain things that we like more than other things. For me, I really do like the mind game kind of films.

1428 Elm: I love that, and I love when they fit emotion into horror. I call that heartfelt horror when it just hits you in the heart and you don’t expect it to.

MJ: Yeah, I would say The Djinn falls into that realm, especially when you get to the revelation, you know, in the third act or so. And, it’s kind of shocking and sad, like, “Wow, that’s what happened.” At the beginning of the story, it’s like, maybe it’s an apparition, you’re not too sure, because that’s kind of how it’s played.

Something’s haunting them, we do get that. But, we don’t really know what’s going on until we get into the apartment, and his father kind of hints at it. But we don’t really know what happened to the mom, or if that’s a ghost of her, or if it’s even her. Then it gets really weird from there.

1428 Elm: I didn’t review the film for our site, Maddy did that, and she loved it too, so I know it’s going to be successful. Before I let you go, tell me what you’re going to be doing next.

MJ: I’m working on a total shift of gears, a foreign film that is a period piece going back to the 1900s. Are you familiar with Montague Rhodes James? It’s based on a ghost story, it’s kind of a throwback to the 1900s, it’s an Italian indie film. I’m working on that currently, which is a blast.

It’s a total departure from anything I’ve done in a long time. It sort of calls back to the silent era, when there were organs playing in the theaters, we’re really going old school on this, which is fun, and challenging and fairly difficult, honestly. I just started on that, and other than that, there are a few other things in the pipeline potentially, but I can’t talk about them yet.

There’s a Netflix thing that I’m in talks with. We’ll see if that happens, it’s a thriller, so we’re finding out about that. I’m just kind of getting back to work after the whole crisis thing. We really got hammered, especially the lower indie world and the middle, trying to break into the mainstream…you know, they already have the top 20 guys for that, so you’re trying to navigate what happened last year. But, it’s slowly getting back.

But, the period piece is called Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and that’ll be done in probably a month or so. I know it’s a total departure from the stuff we’re talking about.

1428 Elm: No, it’s a ghost story, and that’s definitely in the realm of what I love, so I will look for it. Thank you so much for your time, and for talking to us about The Djinn.

MJ: Thank you for talking to me, I’m happy to talk about this. This is going to be good for all of us that were involved, people are pretty excited about it. It seems like so far, it’s been very warmly received by critics as well.

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The Djinn opens in select theaters and will be available to access on demand beginning Friday, May 14.