Interview: Composer Chris Thomas discusses scoring Nick Sasso’s Haymaker

Muay Thai meets globe-trotting romantic drama is the theme of Nick Sasso’s new film, Haymaker, which is now available on VOD. Sasso’s debut feature is quite ambitious, taking place in five different countries and starring many familiar faces such as Zoë Bell (Death Proof), Udo Kier (Blade) and D.B. Sweeney (Taken 2) to name a few. Sasso also leads the cast as Nick Malloy, a retired Muy Thai fighter, who is now looking for his way in the world. Adding to the action is the emotional score by composer Chris Thomas (Don’t Look Back). Thomas, who also happens to practice Muay Thai, explains that no matter how much action is happening on the screen, the music is always telling the story of a deeper, psychological narrative, rather than a physical one. To learn more about the film’s score, we spoke to Thomas more in-depth below.

*Thomas’s Haymaker score is now available digitally too.

Haymaker centers around a Muay Thai fighter, Nick Sasso, and you happen to be a Muay Thai fighter yourself. This couldn’t just be a coincidence, how did your connection to the film come about?

Actually, it was a wonderful coincidence! The producers who introduced Nick and myself didn’t realize I also had a background in Muay Thai. We discovered that connection when we first met. Not only that, but Nick was also looking for a composer who was good with strings. It just so happens I’m a cellist as well. It was a match made in heaven!

Credit: Bradley Lanphear

When starting a movie such as Haymaker, what is one of the first things you do?

Like all films, I start with a checklist list of creatively useful items. The most important is understanding the true heart of a story. This leads to studying the important characters, their struggles, desires, and what kind of musical styles will capture all of that (this was the most useful in this film). Next, I look for things geography, time, and place, then decide whether or not to reflect those items in the music (this was not useful in Haymaker). Finally, rhythm in the edit, color themes, how wide/deep the shots go, and things like that offer useful musical information (very useful in Haymaker).

Haymaker is a pretty grand movie, it was filmed all over the world. Every time they went to a new location, such as Thailand, did you feel the need to tailor the score to fit that environment?

I would normally jump all over the chance to use sounds from another part of the world. In fact, I love music from Thailand. However, for Haymaker, I had to resist this urge! The heart of this story never changed, no matter where the film took us. The characters took their desires and struggles wherever they went, and the music had to keep us centered on that aspect of the story. The most important thing for me to do was keep the viewer close to the heart. This meant finding the right theme and allowing it to grow with the main characters on their journey.

Do you listen to any music when you are practicing Muay Thai? If so, did you incorporate any of it into the Haymaker score?

Most of the time when we train in Muay Thai, at least in this country, a martial arts gym will blast some really gangster music. I don’t know why, but cracking shinbones against your opponent seems to hurt a little less when that music is on. Of course, while training for a fight or during intense sparring we will switch to classical Thai music that you would hear during a real match. So, to answer the question, I did not incorporate any of the above into the film.

On IMDB it mentions that you were the orchestrator on an episode of Lost, can you talk about this? What was it like contributing to such an iconic show?

Wow, that takes me back! There were a few seasons I was helping on the show, and I was helping arrange the music and conducting sessions. It was amazing to be a part of such a hit series, especially one that used a live orchestra every week. As a young composer, it gave me a lot of credibility when I ventured out into the industry. For some reason, I was tagged in a single episode but will be forever grateful for that opportunity when I was 24-25 years old.

You recently collaborated with filmmaker Jeffrey Reddick on Don’t Look Back. For people not familiar with Reddick, he is one of the great minds behind the Final Destination franchise. Were you familiar with his previous films before working with him?

Indeed, I was very familiar with his work! As a life-long horror fan, I’ve always admired his writing. One day I answered a conference call from my producer, not yet realizing Jeffrey was on the line to meet with me. Luckily, he is one of the kindest and unassuming people I’ve met in this business. He was immensely generous, gave me unbelievable creative freedom on Don’t Look Back, and a top-notch director. He was a joy to work with in every way!

What are you most proud about with your Don’t Look Back score?

With any film, finding the heart of the story is key. When I discovered Caitlin’s theme and matching sound palette, a new dimension of the film was born. It’s like giving voice to the subtext of what characters are feeling and thinking, but not able to say. That moment of discovery is always my proudest moment. Of course, I also loved that Jeffrey wanted me to write more of a drama score than a horror soundtrack. I much prefer movies (even horror movies) that are more character-centric than scare-centric.

A horror film score like Don’t Look Back is obviously a lot different from one like Haymaker. Is there a genre that you have worked on that is surprisingly a lot more challenging?

There were a few years I did a lot of comedy and animation. Every single day was brutal! You’re constantly changing speed and timings, hitting every little physical motion while trying to make the music seem natural. I would get 10 hours into a day and hit play to hear my progress. I’d only done forty seconds of a three-minute cue. The madness never ends. Don’t get me wrong, I love scoring comedy. But thank goodness a drama like Haymaker is the opposite of comedy in every way.

If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Oh goodness, what an impossible choice to make! While I love classics like Vertigo and Rebecca, I’d probably choose Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I’ll take my mundane dialogue in song form for the rest of my life, thank you very much.

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