Posted on Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Composer Matt Orenstein on the Unique Scoring Process of Belle

In our latest interview, we spoke with Matt Orenstein, the composer of Level 33 Entertainment’s latest horror film, Belle, which was released last month. A reimagining of the story Beauty and the Beast, the film follows Belle, who works on the family farm and cares for her father after he falls severely ill. Desperate to save him, she journeys in search of a mythical rose believed to be a cure. She must surrender herself as a prisoner to a vicious beast as payment for the rose. Battling the beast’s spell and the two toxic relationships in her life, Belle’s true journey is only just beginning.

Belle was filmed in Iceland and to get a better feel for the film’s vibe, he traveled there for the first time. Matt soon found that wind played an important part in the geography, so to make the film as authentic as possible, found ways to weave the sounds of wind into the score. Matt talks about this and more below.

PH: Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into the composing world?

Matt Orenstein: I’ve been playing music since I was about four. I started with the violin, then moved to piano, and finally I picked up the bass when I was twelve and it started to click that music was something that I really enjoyed. I got accepted to Oberlin Conservatory as a jazz player, but about a year in I decided I wanted to pursue a course of study that would allow me to study music besides jazz. My final project was a film score for The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Scoring that had been a dream since I saw it in high school, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could score films as a career. After college, I moved to Chicago. I had thought about moving to New York, but my friend Julian wrote me and told me I should move to Chicago because “rent is cheap and people are reasonable.” When I got there, I was gigging as a bassist, and walking dogs during the day. One day I was walking a new dog, and her previous walker who was there with me told me he was editing a short film. Somehow, I talked my way onto the project. There wasn’t much else in the way of film scoring gigs in Chicago for me afterward, but the experience stuck. I left the dog walking job once I was able to get hired at a record store, where I wound up working as a clerk and used product buyer for about three years. We got a generous employee discount on used LP, so I wound up buying a bunch of soundtrack albums. Mostly horror, but I found some interesting non-horror stuff that I liked just as much. I’d listen and study them, and try to weave some of what I heard into my own work. If the movies were available, I’d watch them too. After I linked up with a few theater companies, dance companies, and performance artists, I realized that I loved writing music to underscore things you could see. I also realized I had to move to LA to do it. I moved here in 2016, and within a year I had reconnected with my old friend Max Gold, who directed Belle, and we worked together on his first film, Silicon Beach. Once I had that first feature under my belt, some more doors opened up and I was able to get more composing work.

PH: What do you look for when selecting the projects that you work on?

Matt Orenstein: If I can read the script and get a clear picture in my head from just the text, that’s always a good sign. If it feels like I’m on a similar wavelength as the director, as far as the film goes, the project usually seems appealing. For me, that means once I read the script, am I picking up on the same things that the director is picking up on? Musically, are we able to connect? As far as filmic references, do we understand each other? Or if we don’t yet, can we get there quickly? More broadly, the questions are a) is this a cool story, b) can we tell it effectively and in our own way? If it is, and if we can, it’s exciting.

PH: Was there a certain film score that made you want to become a composer?

Matt Orrenstein: Some scores and some soundtracks, yeah for sure. When I was a kid I saw The Sixth Sense, and James Newton Howard’s score was what scared me the most. More so than the visuals, even. I think that was the first time I understood the power that score holds in movies. As far as soundtracks, the ones to Wes Anderson’s and Quentin Tarantino movies had a similar impact. Rushmore wouldn’t be the same without the montage set to The Creation’s “Making Time.” “Needle in the Hay” was used in such a heartbreaking way in The Royal Tennenbaums. There are so many moments in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill that the music elevated … I used to drive around listening to both soundtracks in the first car I ever had (a 1996 champagne gold Camry station wagon). I was in bands at the time and writing my own songs, and I think that’s when the dream of having my music in movies started to form. That dream evolved from having my songs in movies to writing full scores at some point, but I couldn’t tell you when.

PH: What would you say is your “go to” instrument?

Matt Orenstein: The bass. Both electric and upright. I played in bands growing up, went to school for jazz, classical, and contemporary upright bass performance, and have been gigging since I graduated. I don’t necessarily write with a bass in front of me, but it’s always been my window into music. When I’m working on a project, I always make sure that I set aside some time to practice, since working with music in a tactile way gets me in the right headspace to write. One where I’m thinking both creatively and quickly. As a bassist, you’re responsible for defining the harmony and anchoring it to the rhythm, so I write as someone who has lived inside music in this way for a very long time. Bass is all over the Belle score; it was a lot more present in my early drafts, but it’s still in my score in a big way.

PH: What made Belle a special project for you to work on?

Matt Orenstein: For one, it brought me halfway around the world. When Max brought me on, he encouraged me to go to Iceland since he knew the landscape was going to figure prominently into the film he was about to make. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that. You can’t fathom the kind of unreal beauty, clean air, and eternal sun you find in Iceland in the summer until you’ve been there. Not in a tangible way, anyway. I had always wanted to go, but Belle gave me the chance.

I went there in July/August of 2019, and by the time I got footage it was the pandemic. The longer the pandemic dragged on, the more Belle felt like a lifeline. The world was a crazy place outside of my house, and being inside could feel confining and isolating. There’s only so much Tiger King and Last Dance that you can watch, and only so many things you can pickle. When I was working on Belle, I threw myself into it. Nothing else mattered when I was writing that music. Having that kind of outlet made it easier to have the emotional energy to cope with everything else that was going on in the world. And getting to work on it with Max, Patrick Lawrence (our editor), and Josh Ascalon (sound design) was a blast. Max and Patrick and I have worked together since Max’s first feature, and Patrick and I had worked with Josh on a short in 2019 before I went to Iceland, so everyone getting together on this was super cool.

PH: What is one thing you will not forget about your experience working on Belle?

Matt Orenstein: Going to Iceland was probably the thing that I’ll remember most about working on the Belle score. I had never seen anything like it.

PH: Is there a director or showrunner you would love to work with some day?

Matt Orenstein: There are a lot. I guess I’d say Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, Denis Villeneuve, Yorgos Lanthimos, Panos Cosmatos, Nia DaCosta, Alex Garland, and Charlie Brooker are the first that come to mind. They all work with great composers already, though, and if I were working with one of them that would mean missing out on hearing a score from a composer I really admire.

PH: What advice do you have for composers looking to get in the business?

Matt Orenstein: I’m not sure I should be the one dispensing advice. I’ve been in LA for seven years, and I still feel like I have a lot to learn. I will say that it’s worked for me to keep my eyes and ears open, to find things to connect with in other people’s work, and to be straightforward with people about who I am and what kind of support I can offer.

PH: What are you working on next?

Matt Orenstein: Over the last little bit, I’ve been playing bass on some other people’s albums, mixing other artists, making a couple of my own records, and writing songs with a few people around LA. A movie I scored called Daddy just recently played at Cinequest, and we’re getting it ready for whatever comes next. There are some other film projects starting to materialize, too, that I’m pretty excited about.