With an overabundance of content being released on a weekly basis, it’s hard to know what to watch these days. Netflix might seem like the obvious choice for many, with hits such as Bird Box, Bright, and The Old Guard, but other distributors such as Gravitas Ventures and IFC Films are also releasing many noteworthy projects. One in particular from Gravitas and Kamikaze Dogfight is the action-drama Haymaker from director Nick Sasso. Haymaker follows a retired Muay Thai fighter (Nick Sasso) working as a bouncer, who rescues an alluring transgender performer (Nomi Ruiz) from a nefarious thug, eventually becoming her bodyguard, protector, and confidant. The relationship leads Sasso’s character to make an unexpected return to fighting, risking not only his relationship but his life. Haymaker tells a story about human dignity and love.
To learn more about the creative process of Haymaker, we spoke to the film’s composer, Chris Thomas, about where he got the inspiration for the original score. We also talked to him about his other recent film, Don’t Look Back. Read the full interview with Chris below. Haymaker is now available on VOD.
Your most recent film, Haymaker, has been called “Muay Thai Meets Globe-Trotting Romantic Drama”. Did the different geographical locations influence the way you score the film?
I had considered playing the geography of the film. Visually, it’s always so tempting to draw from the landscape. In this film, almost every overseas scene needed intimate and psychological treatment. It was more about what was going on in the characters’ minds, than where they were going. This created a beautiful coherency across the score, and every continent the movie took us. No matter where the main character was going, the music kept you close to his feelings.
Indeed, that’s almost always the case. However, this movie was quite a surprise to me. I expected to jump in with a lot of drums and brass, but the heart of this film was something completely different. We decided on a musical direction where the music plays past all the obvious martial arts and club scenes and goes straight to the heart of the characters. That’s why we decided on the violin solo over a bed of strings. No matter how much action is happening on the screen, the music is always narrating a deeper, psychological narrative rather than a physical one.
You have said that the director, Nick Sasso, wanted “more of a violin concerto than a film score.” Did you get the gig because of your violin skills?
Indeed, it was one of the reasons I was a good candidate for this film. Nick knew right away that he wanted a primarily string-based score. I happen to be a cellist by training and write a lot for string orchestra. It also happens that I’m trained in Muay Thai, and it is a very important practice in my life. It was a match made in heaven!
Going back to “more of a violin concerto than a film score” have you gotten a request like this from a director before? Does a request like this make the scoring process easier or harder for you?
Haymaker was my first experience with a filmmaker who started me on this path from day one. This is a rare approach, and very musically satisfying. It doesn’t make the scoring process easier, but it allows me to develop the music into a more sophisticated composition. That kind of time investment was a unique luxury in film music. I did something similar to this on A Whisper To A Roar in 2011, only because the film was re-cut 20 days before the recording sessions and we needed to start all over. I was asked to write a short concert piece for the piano and perform it live for the director. If it felt musical and natural to the film, we would commit to the material and score the film from scratch. Luckily, they really loved the new theme and it became the foundation for what turned out to be a very satisfying score.
One of the main characters in the film, Nomi Ruiz, is a performer. Was your music incorporated into her performances at all?
With Nomi’s music, we kept her sound completely separate. I wanted to make sure my underscore would stay orchestral and ethereal, only sneaking into the picture between Nomi’s songs to transport the audience to a more psychological place.
Is there anything else you would like to say to audiences about your Haymaker score?
I just hope it’s an enjoyable listen. It was such a treat recording a solo violin score over a bed of strings and vocal effects. Nick kept directing me to search for the sound of “the sublime.” An ethereal sound that called the main character to a higher place. Early on, I recorded pads of shimmering string orchestra effects mixed with singers performing soft murmurs. It’s a delicate texture you can hear throughout the entire score. Most importantly, the score plays more like concert work. I hope that makes the listening experience a little different than most film scores out there.
You scored Jeffrey Reddick’s latest horror film, Don’t Look Back. I’m sure on every project you learn something different, what did you learn on Don’t Look Back?
That is very true! Just when I think I’ve got the film all figured out, each new project humbles me in one way or another. With Don’t Look Back, I kept feeling like something was missing in the score. It was driving me crazy, but I couldn’t physically see anything else in the story that needed something different. Then, while scoring the final scene, fate directly steps in to save Caitlin. Right then I realized fate was the other main character in the film, and it had always been on her side. I had to go back to 12 other scenes where fate intercedes and modifies the music. By the end, there were three main themes: Caitlin, evil, and fate.
In a previous interview you did, you mentioned that you got to visit the Don’t Look Back, set in Baton Rouge. Do you normally get to visit the sets of your projects? What was that like?
Indeed, I always love visiting sets. I don’t always get to do it, but always take the opportunity to do so. With Haymaker, I was invited to fly to Thailand with the crew but had to stay in my studio to finish another film. You might think going to set is all about meeting glamorous actors and watching the drama of a big production. That’s not it at all. Visiting set is about being introduced to your new family. You get to know everybody working in every department. You get to know the faces of the camera crew, the editor, makeup, lighting team, sound department, and so on. When you’re scoring the film later, you can imagine the faces of all these people guiding every shot. It’s like 500 people passed off their baby to you, and you don’t want to let them down.
What was your favorite film score of 2021?
I’m always drawn to the off-beat talents in the industry. This past year, one of my favorite scores is WolfWalkers from French composer Bruno Coulais. I’m a long-time Coulais fan, and it’s always a treat when he drops a new score. There’s a special magic in those strange and enchanting melodies of his.