INTERVIEW: Composer Matthew James On Making The Music For Horror Film THE DJINN

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The Djinn is a horror film from co-directors David Charbonier (The Boy Behind the Door) and Justin Powell (The Boy Behind the Door), an 80s era fairy tale gone horribly wrong. Composer Matthew James washed the film with an evocative synth score.

Ezra Dewey is 12-year-old Dylan who can’t speak. Dylan believes his inability to talk caused his mother to leave, and he now lives with his father, a nighttime radio DJ. Alone at home, Dylan discovers a magical book offering a fix to the young boy’s vocal woes. However, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, especially when a magic book and supernatural powers are involved.

PopAxiom spoke with Matthew James about his road to making music for the horror film The Djinn.

Making Music

“I’ve been a musician since I was seven years old.” Matthew’s journey with music begins, like many, at an early age. “I started on keyboard instruments. I grew up as a band geek in school, then transitioned into guitars and stuff, playing in bands.”

Being a performing musical artist was the focus for Matthew at this time. “In my 20s, I was a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. I was trying to be a live performer in my 20s; then, I took a break from music to return to university to study psychology. I realized at the end of the day is that the music bug always calls me back. I came into composing later.”

Decades ago, Matthew’s route to film composition was uncommon. But going from pop music makers to composers is much more typical, with people like Danny Elfman, Johnny Greenwood, and Trent Reznor making the shift. “The big dog himself, Hans Zimmer, came from The Buggles. He was a nerd with a big wall of synthesizers, and not many people knew how to run that.”

“Zimmer’s kind of the granddaddy of any of the kind of rock-oriented musicians,” Matthew says, adding, “He ushered in the ability for the computer nerds to come in and make this a viable path for themselves.”

Matthew was a bassist during his teenage years when he discovered a musical genre that’s not mentioned often enough but has a pivotal role in inspiring countless musicians — jazz. “I discovered Victor Wooten, a lot of fusion jazz, like John Pistorius. I like to say the bass was my spirit animal at the time.”

“You can slap a bunch of notes together and call it jazz,” he says about the seminal musical genre. “Sometimes it sounds like a train is about to derail, and you pull it back. It’s a lot of fun.” Noting that the experimentation and challenge of jazz draw nearly every kind of musician to it at some point. “Jazz and fusion was also the more difficult stuff you could play outside of the typical classical.”

After more than 100 interviews with composers, it seems starting at an early age is a vital key to sonic success in the industry. “I think it’s one of those calling things. There are pictures of me as a baby plunking away at a family organ. It’s one of those things that’s like, without being generic, you’re kind of born for it. You can certainly learn. We all have rhythm and musicality. But you don’t choose this; it chooses you. Human spirit and will can overcome all things, so I’d love to see a story like that.”

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About The Djinn

Matthew’s work on The Djinn began when he got “… connected with David Charbonier and Justin Powell back in 2019. I was coming off a project called Useless Humans. Ryan Scaringe, the producer, liked our relationship and offered me a chance at The Djinn. They showed me what was a rough cut of the film at the time. I could see the incredible work happening.”

“I wrote some demos for them,” he says about the first steps of the process. “The track ‘Artifacts Required’ ended up kind of being the cornerstone that sealed the deal. That’s the track that got me hired. Though I think it took two months to hear that I was on board.”

Scoring The Djinn started in late 2019. “By the nature of when I came on to start the project, they were still in the process of locking down the picture. I think we started scoring around October 2019. Since it was an indie, there was no hard deadline.”

“In the middle of January,” he continues, “We all got sick. We might’ve had COVID. We even tested negative for the flu. So, we were done around mid-February. If I had to say a hard time spent, it was probably the usual six weeks or so.”

Hit The Ground Running

Matthew’s transition from performing artist to composer didn’t take long, and he hit the ground running with the learning process. “I was fortunate that I came into this [composing] as an assistant on some major titles (Black Lightning, Being Mary Jane). I was used to these high-level productions that are super-polished. I’m going into Sony and Paramount dub stages. So, there’s a bit of a shock because I was spoiled.”

“In indie films,” he explains, “good ideas are often snuffed out by a lack of budget. Filmmaking is incredibly laborious. You have to be especially brilliant to use a tiny budget and make it into something viable. These guys on The Djinn did just that. With a tiny budget, they produced something that looks 10x more than it was. That’s a testament to the guys and how they understand story and cinema.”

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Wrapping Up

Growing up a performing artist, Matthew quickly points to a trio of bands as significant influences. “Any kind of my age growing up in the 90s will say Nirvana. Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica too, but Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was something else.”

I love sci-fi. I love the concept of space and the vastness of space. I love things like Gravity, Ad Astra, and Arrival. What’s scarier than the truly unknown and space is infinity. It doesn’t get bigger than that with the unknown. I love traditional fantasy too and writing orchestral stuff like that.”

Matthew says composers are notoriously competitive and love to challenge themselves. “I think comedy is some of the hardest music to write. You have to be so careful not to step on toes and understand the jokes and the cues. It’s so tough.”

He contrasts that with another genre, “That’s the beauty of horror — it’s ubiquitous. Everyone’s afraid of the dark and monsters and creepy things coming out of the closet. You’ll find similar boogie man archetypes. People understand “that’s scary, I’m going to die.” But comedy’s not like that, and it’s so tough.”

The Djinn is out on various streaming platforms, including Amazon and Apple TV. What’s next for Matthew? “I’m working on an Italian ghost story. It’s a period piece from the early 20th century. It’s a very traditional, orchestral thing. I may soon be working on a dystopian, sci-fi, virus film.”

Is The Djinn on your watch list?

Thanks to Matthew James and Projection PR
for making this interview possible.

Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!

Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.