Interview: Herd (2023) composer Alexander Arntzen

Herd - Courtesy Projection PR
Herd - Courtesy Projection PR /

Dark Sky Films’ latest zombie horror film, Herd, is out now. Alexander Arntzen served as the film’s composer. Some of his other credits include Initiation, Last Man Down, and Follow Her to name a few. We talked to Alexander about his work on the film and his recent soundtrack release for the film.

Directed by Steven Pierce, The Herd synopsis reads: “When Jamie Miller (Ellen Adair) and her wife, Alex Kanai (Mitzi Akaha), try to save their failing marriage by going on a canoe trip in rural Missouri, they find themselves stranded after an accident. Alex breaks her leg during a canoe flip and they must slowly make their way to the nearest small town for help. Upon arriving they find it has been overrun by virus-infected ‘Heps’ and extreme right-wing local militias who are battling them.

The leader of one of the groups, ‘Big John Gruber’ (Jeremy Holm), shuttles them to safety at his bunker where they are welcomed by a seemingly friendly group of locals, but after witnessing personal and gruesome horrors, the women know they must escape. Jamie and Alex now find themselves on the run, caught between the group that saved them, a competing militia, and the growing infected Hep threat.” Herd also stars Timothy V. Murphy, Corbin Bernsen, and Dana Snyder (AKA the voice of Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force).

Interview: Alexander Arntzen, Composer for ‘Herd’

1428 ELM: Can you tell us about your journey and experiences that led you to become a film composer and singer/songwriter, especially your time at Berklee College of Music and internships with Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I always have loved Film and TV growing up, but the thing that seemed to stick with me the most about the medium was the music and how it affected the scenes in such a powerful way. I decided I wanted to be a film composer by the time I was going into High School. I had taken piano lessons since first grade, and jazz band and orchestra starting in middle school.

Berklee was the only place you could get an undergraduate degree in film scoring at the time and it already had a massive reputation in the music world and especially in film scoring with Alumni like Howard Shore & Alan Silvestri. I was so fortunate to intern with Hans Zimmer &Danny Elfman learning so much just from being a “fly on the wall” and seeing firsthand everything it took to make a great film score.

1428 ELM: What inspired you to pursue a career in composing music for films and various genres/styles?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I suppose I like to keep things interesting from a creative point of view. I don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed into 1 genre my whole life. I appreciate so many different types of musical genres, and I like to incorporate different aspects of them into my work all the time. If I can combine two genres in a way that hasn’t been done before, then I feel like I’m really doing my job right. I never want to feel like I’m writing music I’ve already written so you gotta keep things interesting!

Herd – Courtesy Projection PR /

1428 ELM: Could you describe the creative process you followed in composing the original music for Herd? What were your main inspirations for this particular project?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: The creative process is always a little bit similar at the beginning, but then tends to take radical twists and turns as it goes along. You want to know what the filmmaker likes and wants to hear, plus what the film is telling me from the story, performances, cinematography, and environment, and then ultimately, what I think might be interesting as well. The main goal was to create a rustic, rural, and raw soundscape of music throughout. A blend of country, mixed with horror, and a good amount of action as well.

1428 ELM: Herd has a storyline involving a zombie outbreak and warring militia groups but with a few unique twists. How did the film’s narrative and themes influence your approach to composing the music for it?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I wanted to make a clear divide between the militia group led by Big John, our protagonists were involved with, versus the other even more aggressive and unrelenting group led by the character Sterling (Murphy). With Big John, it was far more rustic and folky sounding overall, but Sterling was entirely industrial and metallic and almost robotic and unflinching. That way, even without looking at the film, you could tell who was at the forefront of the scene just through hearing the music alone.

1428 ELM: In scoring Herd, did you collaborate closely with the film’s director or other creative team members to ensure the music aligned with the film’s vision and emotional impact?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: Oh yes! Me and the director Steven Pierce worked very closely together to achieve the right balance of emotions throughout the film. Between various rounds of back-and-forth notes, plus an in-person session where I edited and wrote some music on the fly in front of him, it was very beneficial to have Steve involved with the feedback on the Score. There were just so many emotional dynamics to navigate without that back-and-forth dialogue going between us throughout the whole scoring process.

Sonic architecture

1428 ELM: Herd seems to blend multiple genres and styles. How did you navigate this hybrid approach to create a cohesive musical experience for the audience?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I think overall when I write music, it’s a lot like making a building or being a sonic architect. You have a lot of the horror elements and textures as a base level to setting the tone, and then you use the more jarring and visceral elements to either move it into a more action-driven space, or softer sounds and instruments to lead it in the more emotive direction.

I’m always aware of the homogenous nature of film scores. So, you’re constantly juggling using recurring elements to give continuity, while striking the balance with having plenty of original sounds and textures for unique moments to create a score that is at all times familiar to the whole, but hopefully, never boring or repetitive at any point either.

1428 ELM: Could you share any memorable or challenging moments you encountered while working on the music for Herd? How did you overcome these challenges?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I think the most challenging moments were simply dialing in the delicate moments in the film. Ironically, it’s not the big action cues that are always the toughest to score. It’s the small moments, where you have to be supportive to the actor’s performance, while not distracting the audience from what they’re saying, but being impactful all the same. That just takes time and many back and forth[s] playing around with timings and what to leave in and out of the music with the director.

1428 ELM: Among the scores you’ve composed, what elements or aspects of the Herd score are you particularly proud of, and why?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I think a few aspects I’m most proud of are what I got from working with Gretchen Bloom, the cellist on the Score. Not only did she bring life to the cello lines I had expressly written for her to play, but also we were able to do some improv in both emotive and scary ways to really bring the score to the next level. Other than that, I think I was really happy with how I was able to bring together a whole bunch of different sounds and styles and it didn’t feel forced, but rather blended together as one score.

Differences between composing for films, TV, and shorts

1428 ELM: How do you approach different mediums, such as feature films, TV series, and short films, in terms of composing music? Are there notable differences in your approach to these mediums?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I can’t say from a compositional standpoint that I approach them differently. I would say that it mostly comes down to how much “runway” I have to develop the ideas. With shorts, there’s just less time to create and expand on ideas, so you need to encapsulate it much quicker.

Whereas with features and TV shows, there’s plenty of time to morph and rearrange the material, and build up the motifs you’re creating before you have to really put everything together at the end. So in that regard, Herd is great fun because I was really able to expand upon all the different ways I wanted to express the feelings and storylines that were brought up through the whole film through the score in a more dynamic and satisfying way.

1428 ELM: Looking ahead, what exciting projects or collaborations do you have on the horizon, and what aspirations do you have for your future work in film composition and songwriting?

ALEXANDER ARNTZEN: I should be working with my longest collaborator, John Berardo, on his 2nd feature film The Mannequin later this year and into 2024. It’s a wild horror film that I’m very excited to begin exploring, plus we are going to rearrange an old jazz piece I wrote for his 2nd short film back in 2010 to use as a diegetic piece of music as well in combination with the Score. It’ll be quite meta.

Also, I’ve been working on and still developing a movie musical for the past 4 years with a long-time filmmaker friend of mine, Timothy Hautekiet. It has one of the most original premises I’ve ever heard, and I can’t wait to share more on that hopefully very soon!

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