Haymaker‘s a 2021 film from writer, director, and star Nick Sasso (Boardwalk Empire) about a former MMA star trying to reinvent himself after his life in the ring comes to an end. Composer Christopher Thomas fills the film with sonic jabs and uppercuts that push the narrative to greater heights.
Nick Sasso is Nick Malloy, an MMA fighter who suffered a humbling defeat in the ring. Now, he’s working as a bouncer, but that gig soon ends when Nick stops an attempted rape. The potential victim, Nomi, a transgender singer played by Nomi Ruiz (Mayans M.C.), is grateful and offers Nick a job as her bodyguard. Nick agrees, and while the pair form a close relationship, Nick’s also busy trying to get back in the ring and return to glory.
PopAxiom spoke with Chris about when he knew he wanted to be a composer, making the music for Jeffrey Reddick’s Don’t Look Back and getting in the ring for Haymaker.
When Chris says, “Music’s always been a part of my life,” he means it. “My parents are musicians. My father told me that the day I was born, they put on a conductor’s baton and a bow tie and took a picture. It ended up on the cover of the hospital’s pamphlet that year.”
“When they brought me home,” he continues, “they told me they played some St. Olaf Choir music. From day one, I was being prepared for music.”
Chris’ connection to music grew by leaps and bounds quickly. “I knew I wanted to make music forever when I was in the second grade. I heard Beethoven one day, and I decided that I needed to learn piano and learn the songs of this person.”
“After that,” he says, “I was introduced to the cello in the fourth grade. The cello is what I studied professionally into college.”
By the age of eleven or so, Chris knew “music was it. I knew I was going to be a composer.”
“I didn’t even know what a composer was at that time,” he admits. “I just knew I needed to keep creating music and write it down.”
Chris’ journey to film composition took a turn after a random store find. “One day, I found some tape cassette albums for movies like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jurassic Park, and more John Williams. It sort of hit me: ‘wait a minute, these guys work for film. I wonder if that’s how you make a living and write music?’ I got into Bernard Herman and Nina Rota. I heard my personality in these offbeat composers.”
Chris worked on two projects with a producer connection. Andrew van den Houten worked as a producer on both Haymaker and Don’t Look Back, the horror film from Jeffrey Reddick, the Final Destination creator. “I finished the score for Haymaker first, but it had a much bigger delay on the release.”
As Haymaker wrapped up, “Andrew told me he was about to start a new film with Jeffrey Reddick. Andrew passed on my score for Haymaker to Jeffrey, who then wanted to meet about the new project. Andrew called Jeffrey right then and there.”
Haymaker lives firmly in the drama category, while Don’t Look Back mixes in a healthy helping of horror. “I tried not to go all horror music all the time [with Don’t Look Back]. We saw the world through Kaitlyn’s eyes, and we needed more drama. It was a lot of juggling the drama and thriller aspects.”
“In Haymaker,” he explains, “when Nick and I started working together, we knew there were a lot of obvious things that we could play in this film.”
However, Chris affirms, “we did the opposite.” Haymaker‘s sound isn’t what you might expect. “We said, let’s not hit every moment. Let’s write a concert piece and only hit moments in a scene when we have to. Let’s make it feel like a violin concerto in a movie.”
“The approach was completely the opposite from Don’t Look Back,” he says.
The composer gets near-final cuts of films, sometimes with a temp score, sometimes without. What’s part of Chris’ process? “I watch the films as much as possible until I start to feel the rhythms in the movie and the edits.”
“I try to look for that almost like the cuts are a metronome,” he explains. “I look at the colors and get a sense of the tone radiating from what’s happening on screen. I turn that into sounds and send it to the directors.”
Chris is a big fan of theme. “Theme is a connection. It’s how you relate and grow with a character.”
“Bruno Coulais makes some of my favorite film scores,” he says when asked about modern composers. “Danny Elfman is a big one for me. It’s like Bernard Herrmann was reincarnated for another generation.”
The spirit of Bernard Herrmann and the composers of that ilk is important to Chris. “I like to feel like I’m going to keep carrying that spirit.”
Chris could rattle off a massive list of composers he admires. “I love Alan Silvestri, John Powell, and James Newton Howard. My other obsession growing up was movies.”
Chris loved movies. “I had a lot of support and talent for the music. But I watched tons of classic films from Hitchcock, Fellini, and Kurosawa. I heard so much of my imagination in those scores that I felt like those composers were guiding me where I wanted to go.”
What’s a film he’d love to score if they were making a version for modern audiences? “I don’t know if I want to see a remake of one of these, but I’d be honored to carry the torch for Rebecca or Vertigo. I’d love to do something like Vertigo, but Rebecca speaks to my aesthetic.”
“The Haymaker album is available on iTunes, YouTube Music, and other streaming platforms. The film is currently available for rent on VOD and digital platforms. So, what’s next for Chris? “Over the summer, I was part of a shoot for a masterclass on film scoring. That “will be coming out soon.”
Is Haymaker on your watch list?
Thanks to Christopher Thomas and Projection PR
for making this interview possible.
Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!