Scoring Escape Room, an interview with composer John Carey

Escape Room John Carey composer thumb

Columbia Pictures’ Escape Room continued to impress at the box office over the holiday weekend, finishing with an additional $6.8 million for a total of $42.2 million so far. It’s expected to top $50 million domestically, which is noteworthy because the film costs $9 million to make. One of the creative elements of the film that has not been thoroughly explored is the score by composers John Carey and Brian Tyler, who does a great job of creating intensity in every room the characters come across while helping push the story along. In the below interview, John Carey discusses working on the film and even addresses potential sequel talk.

For a film like Escape Room, what do you think the score’s #1 job should be?

For me, it’s about making the audience feel like tension is continually rising during each escape room sequence. Each scene starts out smaller in energy but things get intense really quickly as they start making discoveries and realize the amount of trouble they are in. The energy is constantly building to put the audience on the edge of their seat. So the idea is that the music follows that progression in each scene to help create an increasingly frantic experience.

The ending of the Escape Room is wide open for a sequel. Would you be interested in doing the sequel if there were to be one? Are there techniques or sounds you didn’t get to use in this first film you would like to try in the sequel?

I’d very much love to work on a future sequel. I feel that the ending sets up a sequel that will have even more scope and live in a larger “world” so to speak. So my instinct is that the DNA of the first score would still exist but with new ideas or aesthetics that would also widen the scope of the score even further. Maybe that could include an orchestra, maybe it could mean diving even deeper into the electronic world. We’ll see!

The film had a great opening weekend. How rewarding is that for you that so many people got to hear your work?

Very rewarding and inspiring! At the end of the day, the greatest reward is always the experience of working on the score and collaborating with the director. But Escape Room’s success is definitely huge icing on the cake and I am thrilled about it.

Escape Room has been compared a lot to the Saw films. Do you think that is a fair comparison?

There are vague similarities with the concepts, sure. But I think the overall tonality and style of the two are completely different. Escape Room has more elements of heroism while still being dark and intense. There’s more room for the film to feel fun… It isn’t as bleak whereas in Saw we feel like the situation is pretty hopeless the whole time. Both are two different intentions the filmmakers decided on. I think people will leave Escape Room seeing it as a much different experience than Saw.

Not to give too much away but the characters in the film go through a few different rooms in the film. Did you give each room a different musical tone? If so, did you have a favorite?

We did exactly that. We wanted the instrumentation to sonically match each of the different escape room environments by creating sounds that subconsciously remind people of natural sounds from real life. You can make beeping sounds that make people think of machinery, you can have ticking clocks that make people feel like they are running out of time, you can make something sound like wind and people will feel like they are outside in the cold, etc.. We put a lot of work into building these textures into the score. A lot of it was done by recording actual machines or objects the way a foley artist records sound effects!

You scored the film alongside composer Brian Tyler. Some of Tyler’s credits include Iron Man 3, Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Did you all get any musical inspiration from any of his previous action-packed films for Escape Room?

Definitely! I have worked on most of Brian’s films from the past five years as a music arranger. I’d say the biggest inspiration from those experiences are the things I learned from Brian about how to approach certain kinds of situations when scoring a scene. So it’s more mindsets than actual musical inspiration. How to induce more energy, how to be more emotional, how to craft a memorable theme as examples. Lots of valuable tools are in my tool kit now thanks to the opportunities I’ve had with Brian.

Did you have a favorite character to score?

Yes, that character would be the escape rooms themselves. Ironically what made it fun was that they intrinsically lacked character of any sort. They are machines, they have no personality. Yet they take on the role of the “serial killer” in this film, so they create all of the tension. So the idea was that the score would have all the intensity and emotion of a thriller/horror score, but we wanted it to sometimes sound mechanical. Almost like certain bits weren’t even written by a human, like a machine just churning away creating machine-like rhythms and pulses and beeps using the sounds we recorded. I think this created a lack of humanity that makes the threat of the rooms seem even greater.

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