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Chad Rehmann has scored dozens of horror and holiday movies. We talk to the music composer about his career and his creative process.

An interview with Chad Rehmann: Get to know the music composer

Chad Rehmann knows how to capture a mood. He’s one of the most versatile film composers working today, as he’s able to switch between gruesome horror flicks and feel-good Christmas fare without missing a beat. 

Much of Rehmann’s versatility comes from his willingness to experiment. He may have been trained as a contemporary composer, but his willingness to incorporate sound effects and vocals makes each of his scores feel fresh and singular.

Film Daily was fortunate enough to talk with Chad Rehmann about his flourishing career and his new film Dashing in December, which recently premiered on the Paramount Network. Rehmann also discussed his creative process, his dream collaborators, and his knack for composing holiday scores.

What role did music play in your life when you were growing up? 

Music was a big part of my childhood. One of my grandmothers could yodel, and my other set of grandparents clogged and danced well into their 70s. In addition, my mother and aunt both sang, so family gatherings were always brimming with music! I started playing piano, like many kids, when I was around five years old and was told that I took to it quickly. 

As my lessons progressed, I remember wanting to change the songs that I was supposed to be practicing and experiment with other ways that they could be played. My piano teachers, obviously, were not fans of this! I was fortunate enough to live in a community (St. Johns, MI) that appreciated and supported the arts, so many opportunities were available to me growing up. 

Marching band, musical theatre, jazz ensembles – I tried them all! In high school I had an orchestra teacher who was also a composer, and he encouraged me to explore writing, even having the high school orchestra play a piece that I wrote while still in school. That was a pivotal moment for me.

When you first moved to Los Angeles, you bussed tables during the day and wrote music at night. Did this busy lifestyle influence your songwriting?

Working a day job while pursuing another career is not easy; however, it quickly teaches you about time management and navigating competing priorities. These two skills are absolutely necessary in the film composing world! In addition to bussing tables, I also spent time accompanying singers and working with choirs, which exposed me to a lot of music, harmonies and song styles. 

Those early years in Los Angeles were all about gathering as many tools as I could for my musical toolbox while still paying the bills. My wife at the same time was completing an intense masters program for her career, so there was a lot of time for me to work and learn as much as I could! 

Did you always want to compose for film or was it something you discovered after moving to L.A.? 

I remember watching Field of Dreams with my grandfather as a kid and for the first time realizing that there is someone out there whose job it is to write music for film. I grew up in a small, rural town however, so I never came into contact with anyone who made a living being a composer. The concept was foreign to me. 

I actually went to college at Michigan State University with the intent of getting a Music Education degree and becoming a high school band director, but quickly found that I was not cut out for that kind of work. I enjoyed dabbling in writing music, so switched my major to composition during my sophomore year. Three months after graduating college, I got married and left for Los Angeles with the sole intent of writing music for films.

What is the film score you consider to be your breakthrough and why? 

I think Funhouse Massacre was the first film that I scored that resulted in fans reacting to the music through social media. That was pretty wild to get comments from complete strangers about the film score (good and bad!). The film was such a blast to write, as I had the opportunity to throw everything and the kitchen sink at it, so I was really excited that it resonated with people. 

The film developed quite the cult following, and many people on Halloween still dress up as the characters and tag the film online. It was also the first film that received a theatrical release meaning friends and family could go and see it in a theatre, so that was a pretty big deal for me personally.

How do you determine which films you want to score? Does it help to have an emotional connection to the film itself? 

Some films I connect with, some films I don’t. And while I can’t expect myself to have a deep response to every project I take on, I can try to put myself in the mind of a person who may need to hear the story and experience the film. It’s my job to use music to help the director tell his/her story, so that it can connect with someone, somewhere. 

That being said, there are films that I have deeply connected to, and it can definitely be a more joyful experience. It can also be nerve racking, though, as I want to get it exactly right since I’ve invested myself emotionally.

Another big criteria that I have when determining which films to take on is seeing who the team will be. Working on a film means dedicating a good portion of one’s self to the project, as well as interacting with the director and production company on a daily basis.

I need those people to be individuals that I have (or can develop) a good relationship with, as they become part of my life for a month or two. I don’t care how great the film is, if I know from previous experience, or word of mouth, that it will take a toll on me personally, it’s not worth it. 

Do you like to see a rough cut of a film before you write music or do you prefer to compose beforehand? 

It depends on the time that I’m allowed. If I have at least 4-6 weeks to score the film, I don’t need to see a rough cut. If I have a reduced schedule, however, I want to see a rough cut as soon as possible – and, in certain cases, I have started writing music from a script knowing that once the film is locked, [I] will have limited time to work. Another instance of wanting to see a rough cut is if I know that it will be a non-traditional score.

Camp Cold Brook is a good example of that. I knew after reading the script that this film would be a major undertaking, especially since my team and I were creating many instruments from scratch, so I needed to jump in as quickly as possible.

You have a recurring collaborator in director Andy Palmer. What is it about his films that mesh with your musical sensibilities? 

Believe it or not, I actually met Andy by cold calling him about 7-8 years ago regarding a low budget project that he was directing. We immediately hit it off and have worked with each other ever since. It isn’t so much about the films that he makes (even though they are amazing!), it’s more about his openness to experimentation. 

One of the aspects that I love about Andy as a director is that every time I come to him with an idea his immediate response is, “Let’s try it!”. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but, to be given the opportunity to explore and create without boundaries or hesitation is a gift.

Your latest collaboration, Camp Cold Brook, bears one of your most ambitious scores yet. Did your comfortability with Palmer allow you to experiment more? 

Absolutely. For most of Andy’s projects, he and I start talking before production even starts. This allows me a lot of time to test out ideas and get his reactions. I’m able to talk to him unfiltered and he gives me his opinions unfiltered! That being said, I think there is a mutual respect between us that allows me to take risks knowing that he’ll give them consideration and not write me off completely if he hates it. 

And, yes, it was an ambitious score – complete with a children’s choir, instruments that were created from playground equipment, an orchestra in Budapest, a jazz trumpet player creating drones, and my kids screaming into microphones at the studio. There were a lot of moving pieces!

In a previous interview you said you incorporated children’s screams and breaking twigs into the Camp Cold Brook score. How often do you work in non-instrument sounds? 

Rarely! I know it sounds silly, but I feel more comfortable in front of a 65-piece orchestra than I do in front of a computer developing sounds. Because I was trained as a composer for the concert hall, my comfort lies in working problems out with pencil and paper as opposed to tweaking parameters in some software synth. 

I think I’m an outlier in that sense – many composer friends of mine love creating and working on sounds and resynthesizing them, and while I can and do work like that for certain projects, I get my energy from collaborating with live, breathing musicians. That all being said, Camp Cold Brook is one of the scores that I’m most proud of because it required me to step way outside of my box. 

I could have played it safe and tried the traditional route, but the film needed something different and it was my job to figure out how to give that score to Andy.

In addition to Palmer’s horror films, you score numerous Christmas films for television. Why do you think your music is so well-suited to these disparate genres? 

I have been blessed to work with production companies that have produced content in numerous genres, and subsequently brought me on to score those productions. Because of my background, I feel that I have a lot of tools in my musical toolbox. No matter the genre, story and character are what drives my inspiration for the score. 

There are really only 12 notes in the musical language; it’s my job to put them in an order that will help the director tell their story. And, selfishly, the holiday films are special for me, because I have three small children and a wife who can’t stand horror films, so these they can actually watch!

Does your creative process differ based on the type of film you’re scoring? 

Not really. For most of the films I’ve scored, I have found that much of my creative process takes place when I’m away from my computer. Because of that, I purposefully take a day off after watching the first cut of the film. For me, I need to initially step away from the film in order to collect my thoughts and begin brainstorming about how I want to approach the film. 

Early on in my career I would watch the film and immediately start writing. Inevitably this resulted in many first and second drafts being thrown out before I even send them to the director, as I don’t think I had enough time to fully ingest the material and let it marinate a bit in my mind. 

A majority of the melodies and themes that end up in a film come from me humming in the shower, a thought that I had while taking a walk, or an idea that pops in my head as I play with my kids. The worst is when the idea comes right before I fall asleep, because that means I have to get out of bed and get it on paper before I forget! 

Your next holiday flicks are Christmas on the Menu (Lifetime, December 18) and Dashing in December (Paramount Network, December 13). Is it difficult to find musical variety when working on so many similarly-themed films? 

I try to focus on what makes the film stand apart from the others and accentuate that. Locations are a good place to start. Is it in the country? City? Coffee Shop? Antique Store? All of these locations can suggest a different approach to the store. Another way to differentiate the score is by focusing on the backgrounds of the characters. Are any of them from the city? Small, rural town? Ranch? Far off location?  

This helps in examining what musical language to use. If a character is from a small town, maybe they deserve a melody that is simpler and more folksy. If a character works in business or technology, maybe there is a digital component to the orchestration. If a character is free spirited she/he may have a melody that enhances that aspect of her/his personality. 

There is always something unique about every project that I feel I can latch onto and use as I develop the film’s musical world.

I understand your Dashing in December score isn’t a straight holiday score, but has a more country feel to it. Can you expand on this? 

After seeing an early cut of the film, I knew that sleigh bells, flutes, and other instruments that one would expect to hear in a Christmas film was not the way to go. The director (Jake Helgren) and I decided early on to score this film more as a Romantic Drama that happens to take place during Christmas as opposed to a “Christmas Film”. To be clear, there are still a lot of Christmas songs present, but that’s accomplished through some fantastic source music used throughout the film. 

The score for this production has a more intimate character than others I’ve written – only using a string orchestra, acoustic guitar, a tiny bit of piano and the occasional solo violin; however, in some ways having a “simpler sounding score” was more difficult. It’s easy for a composer to hide behind a large orchestra, but purposefully limiting one’s resources and using the resources sparingly can bring about its own challenges. 

In terms of melodic themes, I did rely heavily on scales and chords that are more indicative of a western/folk musical language. The score needed to feel as if it was an extension of the location itself. It’s rustic, simple, and centered on friendship and love. At the same time, there is a cloud of uncertainty as many of the characters are having these internal battles of what they need from others and what they want from the world.

The challenge was to blend those competing moods, while still keeping in mind that this is happening during the holiday season.

I imagine you work on these holiday scores all year round. How do you get in the Christmas mood, even though it might be summer, when creating these scores? 

It is a strange juxtaposition to be writing Christmas music when it’s scorching outside. I wish I had a secret to divulge, but it is just part of the job! Much like reading sweet stories and tucking my children in at night and then cranking out intense music for a horror scene – after a while it becomes easier to separate and dial it in when necessary.

You are trained as a contemporary composer. Have you considered releasing music outside of your film scores? 

Yes. It’s in the works. That’s all I can say!

Some actors hate watching themselves when a film is complete. Do you enjoy listening to your old scores? 

It depends. If it’s live musicians playing, then it’s fun listening to the scores because it brings back memories of the sessions, the players, and the relationships. If it’s a score that I mocked up on a computer, that’s tougher for me to enjoy because all I can do is critique the way that I mixed it or the samples that I used. 

Because sample technology has grown exponentially over the last ten years, listening to some of my older scores make me wish I had better technology at that time to fully realize the score I was trying to create.

What is the film score you are most proud of? 

I’ll give you two for different reasons. My favorite from the horror genre is Camp Cold Brook due to its uniqueness and me putting myself in the uncomfortable position of having to write a score completely different than how I have done in the past. 

My non-horror genre pick is Dashing in December, hands down. The world needs this film. All people need to see themselves represented in media. Love, in all forms, needs to be celebrated. In addition, this film allowed me to work with some amazing musicians, as well as collaborate with Paramount Network for the first time. It’s been a truly enjoyable experience from day one.

Who are your biggest musical influences? 

Marco Beltrami and John Powell, to me, are two composers at the top of their game. In addition, Dvorak, Elgar, Beethoven and Mahler to name a few. I actually don’t listen to a lot of music when I’m on a project, as my entire day is consumed with sound already. But, when I do listen to something, it normally works from the orchestral repertoire or podcasts. Kind of a nerdy answer, but it’s the truth!

Are there any filmmakers you would like to collaborate with? 

I would love the opportunity to work with Blumhouse Productions, as their output over the last few years has been outstanding!

What should the composer’s main goal be when scoring a film? 

Serve the film and help the director tell the story they want to tell. Ego has to be left at the door. Sometimes we as composers are asked to do something that is completely opposite our instincts; however, it’s not our baby. Some directors have been living with the film for years, and the composer is one of the last people to watch it. 

We are many times not aware of the hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations that have taken place regarding this film before we even stepped into the picture. While it’s entirely appropriate to bring a fresh set of eyes and ideas to the film, one must always check that the musical decisions that they are inclined to make are serving the story and the director’s intent, as opposed to what the “composer wants to do”.

It’s a tricky balance, but one that becomes easier with every film.

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