Returning to work with director Robert Eggers after their previous collaboration on The Witch, Mark Korven brings his musical talents to the late 19th century with his score in the psychological horror-comedy, The Lighthouse.
Behind the Music is an ongoing series that seeks to interview and gain an introspective on both established and up-and-coming composers. These composers, who have worked for everything from television to film to commercials to video games, share their experiences, work ethic, and more. For this edition, Hidden Remote talks with the composer of such horror hits as Cube, In the Tall Grass, The Witch, and now The Lighthouse: Mark Korven.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Mark Korven has been involved in the music scene for well over 40 years now, having studied formal music education for college in Edmonton. Afterwards, Korven further developed his talents as a musical artist, firstly with his debut album, “Passengers”, and then with his first venture into musical score composition with the debut feature of acclaimed Toronto New Wave director, Patricia Rozema: I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.
From there, Korven branched out into the world of film and TV composing, lending his musical talents to features such as Rozema’s next film, White Room, the 1997 horror cult classic from director Vincenzo Natali, Cube, Natali’s newest horror film for Netflix, In the Tall Grass, among many others.
But perhaps his most notable work, up to this point, is his collaboration with director Robert Eggers on his feature debut folk horror film, The Witch, which released to massive critical acclaim (amidst a strong mixed reception for general audiences as well) and led Eggers to continue making his own brand of horror. Now he’s used his newfound fame to craft a new horror experience, The Lighthouse, with Mark Korven lending his talents for the film’s music once again.
A film about two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) going insane on an isolated lighthouse island, The Lighthouse uses Korven’s music to its advantage, drumming up the tension with the loud swelling of the score to make the audience feel uneasy. Korven talks about his process behind making this type of music, what audiences could get out of The Lighthouse, and more here on Hidden Remote!
Minor spoilers for The Lighthouse ahead.
Hidden Remote: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for Hidden Remote! It’s an honor to have you. It’s a long time coming too as we’re hot off the heels of hype for The Lighthouse. From its debut at Cannes to the debut in October, Robert Eggers’ historical horror has garnered a high level of casual and awards buzz. How have you personally reacted to the love and anticipation for The Lighthouse?
Mark Korven: I never know how people are going to react to Robert’s films. Are they going to get it? Or will they dismiss it as just being way too weird? I’m glad that people are reacting so favorably to it, as they did for The Witch.
HR: On top of that, this movie is the latest in what has turned out to be a 30+ year career in composing, in addition to your work in music before then. A life of music, but with The Lighthouse now under your belt, how do you feel you have evolved with your approach to music and composing?
Korven: It’s difficult to say because Robert’s films are so completely different than anything else I’ve ever done, so they’re very much their own thing. However I have taken some of the spirit of sonic adventure that Rob encourages me to explore, and used it in other films.
HR: Before we focus solely on The Lighthouse, I do want to ask how you first came to work in composition for film. Researching you and your work, I noticed that you had a career in solo music before you transitioned to film composing with I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing in 1987. What led to this change for you?
Korven: It was completely accidental. I was a singer songwriter working on an album [Passengers], and the music producer was friends with the director of the film. Unbeknownst to me, he gave her some of my bed tracks and she liked them. So I ended up scoring the film, which strangely enough went on to win an award at the  Cannes Film Festival.
HR: And that would lead to a bigger focus on film scores! Your transition led you to compose scores for films such as Eggers’ previous feature, The Witch, In the Tall Grass, and the 1997 cult classic, Cube. You have done work for other films, shows, and documentaries, but is there something alluring about horror to you?
Korven: It’s really all about musical freedom for me. I like to push the boundaries and take chances. I’d like to do the unexpected, and avoid clichés as much as I can. I like the wrong notes. So horror seems to be a good fit for me. Plus I love a really great horror film.
HR: With The Lighthouse, you’re approaching a simple, yet intricate story of two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) slowly going insane at an isolated lighthouse. Some might say that it’s difficult to craft a musical score fitting of a dialogue-heavy horror-drama between two main characters. How did you and Robert Eggers get around this during the making of?
Korven: There was still lots of space to work in the film. I’d say a bigger challenge was probably working with the sound design, because it demanded a lot of waves crashing, screeching wind, etc. So finding a place for the music within the sound design was the most difficult part.
HR: Listening to the music, there’s an encompassing atmosphere to the score that essentially acts as a separate character in its own right. Some of the song intros even seem to mimic an alarm horn that one may hear from a distant lighthouse. Did you intend to have the score act as its own entity or did you craft the score with a different set of rules?
Korven: I think subconsciously, the score was intended as a separate character in the film, much as it was in The Witch.
HR: When crafting the film’s score, what would you say were your strongest influences behind the music? Even if your influences weren’t music-related, what were some of the driving forces?
Korven: Well in the beginning the main influence was the temp score as usual, but I’ve honestly forgotten what it was because the score changed a lot as it went through development. We were just looking for musical ways to get inside the heads of the characters, which were pretty messed up! So the music of course is pretty messed up, dissonant, atonal, mad.
HR: One thing I’ve noticed about three of your film score works is that The Lighthouse, The Witch, and Cube all deal with a somewhat similar theme of isolation and the effects it could have on the respective parties. Cube has unwilling people stranded inside a giant cube with traps, The Witch deals with a family shunned by their community and left to suffer alone in silence, and we’ve already discussed the story of The Lighthouse. Did you ever notice this pattern and if so, did it come into mind when making the score for the latest film?
Korven: In all honesty? No, I didn’t notice that. But thanks for pointing it out!
HR: Is there a specific moment in The Lighthouse where you particularly enjoy the incorporation of your music, such as a certain sequence or bit of action? If so, why that moment?
Korven: Well one of my favorites is the mermaid masturbation scene! It’s just so extreme and over the top.
HR: This is your second collaboration with Robert Eggers after The Witch, if that’s correct? Is there something specifically freeing about composing your music for Eggers’ films?
Korven: Yes and no. Robert is a very hands-on director and he knows exactly what he wants. So there are a lot of restrictions, less freedom. The freedom happens towards the end of the process when we start to push the boundaries.
HR: Well, boundaries have certainly been pushed, as The Lighthouse is already starting to divide critics and general audiences, much like The Witch did. It’s practically inevitable, but for those who are still on the fence about seeing the movie, what is your advice for them if they decide to cautiously check it out?
Korven: I think you’re right. This film was always bound to polarize critics and audiences, just like The Witch. All that I can say is if audiences want to take the chance, they’re definitely in for a film experience that they’ve never had before, whether they love it or hate it.
HR: Post-Lighthouse, are there any upcoming projects that you’re excited about? Do you think you’ll ever try to collaborate with Robert Eggers for his next film?
Korven: Yes there are, but nothing that I am allowed to talk about!
HR: Before we finish up, I would like to ask one final question. In the decades of experience you’ve had in the music industry, a degree of change and development is expected, both on the technical and personal. What would you say is the most important lesion you’ve learned throughout your career that can be applied to anybody growing up? Whether it involves music or not, what’s something you’d like for readers to walk away with after reading this and/or checking out The Lighthouse?
Korven: Good question. The best advice I have ever been given was to leave a good trail where ever you travel. And always respect yourself.
Mark Korven’s score for The Lighthouse is available on streaming platforms now and The Lighthouse is out now in theaters.