In Ryan Zaragoza’s Madres, a Mexican-American couple moves to a small migrant farming community only for mysterious horrors to unfold. 1428 Elmasked 10 questions to the film’s composers, Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia Jr. We discuss the unique properties of Madres as well as anti-immigrant hysteria and their favorite films and TV shows.
Interview with Madres composers Isabelle Engman and Gerardo Garcia Jr.
1428 Elm: The score is haunting, and its melancholy seems tailor-made for Amazon Studios’ new original horror film. Then again, this isn’t just a horror film but a dramatic story. How did you balance those elements in the score?
Isabelle Engman: As you describe so well, Madres isn’t a typical horror film, we would say it’s mostly a dramatic story with supernatural elements. After we had read the script, we felt that taking a more dramatic approach with the music would be the most suitable. Madres has a very cinematic look and vibe and the cursed ghostly elements are more in the forefront of the film than the horrific ones. Therefore, it felt more natural for us to lean in on the supernatural aspects rather than creating overly scary music just for the sake of it.
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: There were essentially two parallel stories going on. There was the supernatural story and then the real-world dramatic storyline. So we structured the score around two main themes. There’s the real-world theme that represents the town and the events involving its inhabitants. Then there is the lullaby theme that you hear being played by the music box in the film. That is the predominant supernatural theme that guides any of the scenes that involve the more haunting and folkloric aspects of the film. That structure helped give narrative clarity to the music.
1428 Elm: Madres deals with immigrants and identity as a major theme. In what ways (if any) did this impact the score?
Isabelle Engman: The first thing we composed was the lullaby, which musically is inspired by Mexican music and folklore. The lullaby melody and its tone set the foundation for the rest of the score. Gerardo is Mexican-American from South Texas and spent a lot of time in northern Mexican towns. He had a very instant personal connection to the music having grown up in this similar type of setting.
The more suspense airy music you hear throughout the film is almost solely recorded with Mexican indigenous flute instruments by multi-musician Ralph Torres. Also, at the core of the story, we have these women that have suffered tremendously, we wanted to represent them by using female vocals, giving them the most featured element of the score.
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: Adding to Isabelle’s answer, yeah, it definitely had an impact on the music. I am of Mexican descent, so definitely wanted to pay some kind of tribute to that, like using indigenous Mexican instruments. As is with many other social issues, often the people who are most negatively affected are the women.
The heavy emphasis on the immigrant women in this film made us want to honor their voices. So a lot of the aesthetic of the haunting music is female voices. Whether it is chanting, humming, or the high voice-like indigenous flute playing, we wanted to create a sense of multigenerational women calling out to us.
Madness and beliefs in Madres
1428 Elm: Madness and beliefs figure into the storyline. How did you decide to incorporate those elements into the music?
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: They were a part of our more fantastical “the curse” sections of the score. We created simple and repetitive vocals and haunting pianos that create almost a trance-like effect. There’s an unsettling and otherworldly mood to the cursed music that has a feeling that you can go mad at any point but also simultaneously works as music that would accompany a superstitious folk tale.
There’s this constant teasing of whether the character Diana is going mad or really is experiencing these supernatural events, but the folklore elements are constantly present in the storytelling. So we really leaned into the folklore and superstitious beliefs.
1428 Elm: Blumhouse Productions and Amazon Studios have released Madres. What is it like working for such large companies?
Isabelle Engman: It was our first time working with both Blumhouse and Amazon Studios, despite the fact that the film was shot in the middle of a pandemic and a few hurricanes(!), everything went very smoothly and we had a fantastic time working with them. Being part of a production on a larger scale like this is a huge creative trigger!
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: Much more people to correspond with!! The biggest difference from our previous jobs is when it’s around the time of the release. There’s so much promotional material going out everywhere. There are trailers and ads everywhere. And even billboards. That was new for us. Seeing the film pop up as one of the first options on Amazon Video was very exciting.
1428 Elm: People often focus solely on the music in the film, but scores are often worth listening to on their own. Where can people find the score to Madres? Is it available on Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp, Amazon Music, or YouTube?
Isabelle Engman: We’re working on a future release of the score, will definitely keep you posted!
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: We are hoping to get it released!
Influences to the Madres score
1428 Elm: Is the score to Madres influenced by any other films?
Isabelle Engman: Yes, two of our favorite horror scores are from The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both of these soundtracks have these supernatural dramatic elements to them, they’re very haunting and melodic. We decided early on together with director Ryan Zaragoza that we wanted to take a more fantastical ghostly approach with the music rather than it being a typical horror score.
Since the film is more of, as you described so well, a dramatic story, we found this musical approach most fitting. We worked very melodically throughout the film as we’ve brought up earlier. Even in the most dissonant cues, the themes are in there in more twisted warped shapes. You can find fragments of the themes in every cue in other words.
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: Absolutely The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth and their scores. Those are very lyrical and melodic horror scores that had a haunting beauty to them. We wanted that for this film.
Approach to story elements
1428 Elm: What’s the best way to discuss some of the film’s story elements?
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: So I see the film as an investigative thriller that navigates through a superstitious setting to shine a light on issues that affect certain Mexican and Mexican-American communities.
Isabelle Engman: Couldn’t sum it up better. We have this community that’s often overlooked, Mexican-American migrant workers and underlying terrifying truth.
1428 Elm: Race/ethnicity has a very strange and disturbing history in the United States. For example, as a Finnish-American, I’ve read odd stuff about Americans trying to ban Finns from entering the United States under the Asian Exclusion Act (and even referred to them as “China Swedes,” whatever that means). In your opinion, why do these general issues/patterns of behavior still persist?
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: I think in general, lack of exposure to different people and experiences contributes a lot to this issue. That paired with a more individualistic culture makes it hard for our country to progress on the issues around race. Doesn’t help that there is a lot of hesitance in covering the history of our racial issues in an education setting. Take the Finnish example you noted. Most people wouldn’t be aware that such a thing happened.
Isabelle Engman: That phrase was new to me. I share the same point of view as Gerardo in this matter. Behavioral patterns I hope will see change sooner rather than later. Long overdue.
Favorites horror films
1428 Elm: What are some of your favorite horror films and TV shows?
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: As noted before, I love the Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth. I also really love both the Swedish and American versions of Let the Right One In. The American version is Let Me In. For TV, I’m really into the Mike Flanagan-verse. Flanaverse? Lol. I really enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House, Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass. They are not only scary but have really beautiful and tragic stories at the core.
Isabelle Engman: How long can the list be?! I’ll make sure to keep it short! I love all the classic horror films that also inspired the 70s feel of Madres, especially The Shining (big Kubrick fan) along with films like The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and the list goes on.
Same as Gerardo, one of my favorites from the Scandinavian area is Let The Right One In (proud Swede!). The Spanish film Veronica is also at the top. Next up for me is Titane, I dig Julia Ducournau! On the series side, same as Gerardo and adding The Outsider.
1428 Elm: What sort of projects are you working on in the future?
Isabelle Engman: We just wrapped the music to a documentary about the Laemmle family including Carl Laemmle, who co-founded Universal Pictures. The Laemmle family name is also very familiar to folks in Los Angeles as it is a beloved theater chain with an emphasis on independent and foreign cinema.
The film covers the family’s legacy and their drive to keep a family theater business thriving in changing times. The film comes out early next year and is premiering at Laemmle Theatres here in LA.
Gerardo Garcia Jr.: Yeah, as Isabelle noted, we have a documentary coming out next year called, Only In Theaters, covering the Laemmle family theater business. It’s an intimate and minimalist score primarily made of string quartet and piano. We are excited for people to check it out.
Madres is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video as part of Welcome to the Blumhouse.