At 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, Cinemapolis in downtown Ithaca will host a pre-release screening of “Wetware,” a new sci-fi feature film from director Jay Craven (“Where the Rivers Flow North,” “Stranger in the Kingdom,” “Disappearances,” “Northern Borders,” and many others), based on Craig Nova’s novel of the same name.
For the seventh time, Craven enlisted Ithaca musicians Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman – best known for their bands The Horse Flies and Boy With A Fish – as his musical collaborators. Hyman and Claus created the full score for the film, as well as the musical mixes. “Wetware” is just one of the many cinematic projects done by the pair over the past 25 years – visit their website for a complete list of their film work.
Beyond the music created by Hyman and Claus, “Wetware” also features contributions from other Ithacans: source music by Billy Cote and Mary Lorson (of Madder Rose) and Bronwen Exter, piano by Jessica Caporizzo and Xak Bjerken, cello by Elizabeth Simkin, and engineering of live piano by Alex Perialas and Mike Caporizzo.
Hyman, Claus and Craven will appear at Thursday’s event to discuss the film, which stars Jerry O'Connell (“Jerry McGuire,” “Stand By Me”), Cameron Scroggins (“Nashville,” “The Deuce”), Morgan Wolk (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Orange is the New Black”), Nicole Shalhoub (“The Good Wife,” “Madame Secretary”), Bret Lada (“Law and Order”), Gordon Clapp (“NYPD Blue”), and Garrett Lee Hendricks (“The Americans”).
Last week, Hyman and Claus sat down for a phone interview to discuss “Wetware,” their other film work, and their current musical projects.
Q: Now that you’ve been scoring films for 25 years, has it gotten easier for you?
Judy Hyman: Let’s put it this way – we love doing this, and we love working with Jay. In terms of our mutual understanding of how to work together, yes, certainly it gets easier and easier. But it was never difficult.
The first two film projects we did with Jay had a little bit similar approaches, but really, each project has been so different that there’s been a nice learning curve all the way along the way. And “Wetware” is really different than anything he’s done before. We’ve done things with sonics, but this all soundscape-y stuff, very moody and atmospheric.
Q: The plot sounds interesting – kind of futuristic science fiction.
Jeff Claus: Yeah, Jay called it “set in the near future,” so it isn’t full of lots of special effects – you’re not in outer space. And the book by Craig Nova was set that way, also.
But I think one of the cool things about this film and most of the others that Jay has done, even if they’re set pretty far in the distant past or are period pieces of sorts, he always teases out themes and issues that have relevance to the present. And this one clearly does. Science fiction always does that; good science fiction, anyhow. And this one definitely does have a number of issues that are really on the nose with struggles of the present day: economic inequality and corporate dominance of not only politics but the degradation of the environment and so on.
Q: That sounds right up your alley!
Hyman: (big laugh)
Claus: It feels right! I have to say, just for entertainment but also because we love the music, we watch a lot of Netflix and other sources of what are called “Nordic noir” – all the detective fiction. It’s pretty modern stuff and it’s usually kind of gnarly, spooky, very atmospheric and moody. And from our perspective, some of the best film composing is going on in those series – there’s some really great music there. So it wasn’t much of a leap for us to at least get excited about being involved in this kind of a project. We’d always wanted to do something science fiction, but really never had a full-blown opportunity to do it.
Hyman: The content and the theme of the film has to do with people who are down and out being genetically modified to handle certain difficult and undesirable kinds of work, and it’s not a theme that he made up from scratch. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been experimenting with genetic modification of military people to eliminate the intensity of their post-traumatic event sensations. So this notion of people looking into modifying how people respond through their genetics is a really scary topic that needs to be kept in our forefront, because it is something that scientists and the military are thinking about.
Q: That’s how Captain America got started, but that was in a comic book that came out during World War II.
Claus: And now the military is really doing this stuff. They’re especially interested in drugs and supplements they can give to people that may lower their stress-related responses to high-conflict situations.
Q: Do you two literally work together when you do these film projects? What are the logistics of your collaboration?
Hyman: We have a lot of ways to go about it. But we each have our own studio. Typically what we do is go through the film and figure who is going to be “in charge” of each cue. First we work with Jay to figure out where the music is going to go, and then we figure whose cue is which and then that person takes the lead. That can typically take the form of coming up with the germ of the idea, and then we collaborate or take that further. We work both together and separately.
Q: I remember when you first starting doing film work – you had to learn all about cues, timing, etc.
Hyman: Yes, that part of it is not as challenging as it used to be, for sure. Computers do a lot of work for you in that regard. But for us, it’s all about the musical creativity.
Q: Obviously, you’re best known for your Horse Flies sound, which is sort of a new-wave, old-time sound. But is there a similar sonic palette that runs through your film work?
Claus: No, it depends on the film. The first couple of films we did with Jay, he was looking for that kind of Americana, roots, with what he called a modern twist. And those were actually done with the full band as the Horse Flies, so they were more Horse Flies-esque.
We also do a lot of documentaries, including a bunch of PBS docs that have a certain flavor, and some of them were where Judy did all the composing and then I mixed them. So they all have different character.
One of the great things about doing film scoring is that you face each new project with a blank slate in many ways and then you have to figure out how you’re going to “populate” that picture, that piece of art, with the right kind of music that will support the film. We’ve done a lot of stuff where Judy has done all the composing that has a classical orientation or feel to it, though it’s never purely classical. It depends on what the director is looking for and what the film needs. We’ve done period-piece types of scores, we’ve done more contemporary rock ‘n’ roll scores, we’ve done Americana roots stuff. Some of the documentaries run you through a bunch of different worlds or environments or pieces of history, so you then have to reflect all those differences in the music. So it’s fairly broad ranging.
Hyman: The third film we did with Jay was about the Vietnam war, and it used a lot of guitars and drums, so we got a lot of the noted folks from around here to play live stuff as well as other stuff that we did on our own.
Claus: Right, and related to that, we’re not always playing every aspect of the music. Obviously when we work with computers we can work with sampled sounds and more synthetic sources to create things. But we do bring in people as you can see in "Wetware" to do different things where other skills were a better fit. So we’d create the music and then get people to play.
Q: “Wetware” also has music from some other Ithaca-based musicians: Billy Cote and Mary Lorson of Madder Rose, and Bronwen Exter.
Claus: That’s basically source music – that’s what it’s called in the business. If there’s music in a club or café, or they’re outside a bar and music is coming out to the street from the bar, or in the lobby of a funky backwater hotel, or if a radio’s playing – those type of things. It’s really fun to populate those musical needs with music you know and like, and there were some really great fits between the Madder Rose songs and the Bronwen Exter songs. I think they add a lot to the film.
Q: Some other Ithacans also contributed to the score.
Claus: Jessica Caporizzo played a lot of the piano, for example, where Judy did the composing. One scene included playing source music where the main female lead was a pianist – it was part of her backstory. You see her playing at a piano, so we wanted it to really be authentic. And Jess also did a number of cues in the film that required piano and required live, real playing and not synthetic playing out of the box from a computer. There’s also cello from Elizabeth Simkin, and Xak Bjerken played a bit of piano.
All of the other performers we draw on have a history of playing nationally and internationally, which is pretty cool. It’s just a great town for great playing in many different styles. When we want really great classical stuff, Cornell and Ithaca College both have world-class players. It’s really fun when you’re working on the score up front and realize you really need a French horn, which is not something that a sample out of a computer can fulfill, and you know you have great players in town that can do those things.
Q: It’s been cool to see you build a 25-year career in film work.
Claus: It’s really fun to keep evolving and growing but still holding on to the roots and your fundamental sense of identity. One aspect of that for us is that Judy does have musical training – she’s really schooled, so she brings a different level of compositional skill to the projects than I do, that’s for sure, and lots of people who end up in bands may bring. That’s really enhanced our ability to be a bit more flexible and to keep growing and evolving. We end up with this balance, though there’s certainly overlap in all these areas, where I tend more toward the sonic and atmospheric stuff, and she’s better quite often at doing the more melodic kind of stuff. It doesn’t always literally break out that way, but it seems to be the method that works well for us at this point.
Q: Anything else you want to mention about “Wetware”?
Claus: In closing, we really do love working with Jay and it’s been very interesting relationship that of course started somewhat professionally and now it’s very collegial and friendly. There’s a lot of trust on both sides and a general appreciation that we are still doing this stuff together. There’s a real sense of comfort – we can be respectfully critical from both ends of conversation with him. We feel fine if he critiques the music and he’s very comfortable in including us in comments about the film as it’s in the process of being edited. It’s really a deeply satisfying relationship, and we just feel very lucky that we’ve been able to do this.
Q: What other film projects are you working on?
Hyman: I’m working on a documentary for WUNC television about the civil rights history of city in North Carolina called New Bern. It’s a historical documentary, and then we’ve also just begun working on Jay’s next film which is based on a book called “Martin Eden” by Jack London – it’s loosely autobiographical, and set in about 1905.
Claus: That story also has a lot contemporary issues – a lot of the debates of the time were between socialism and capitalism, for example.
Hyman: And it’s sort of the beginning of the women’s rights’ movement, too.
Q: What else are you up to musically these days?
Hyman: We are really enjoying playing fiddle music in all these different configurations (such as Wicked Children, Small Tattoo, etc.).
Claus: We like the corner jobs -- playing in the corner of a room with no sound systems.
Hyman: Franco’s Pizzeria, Brookton’s Market – wherever there’s no sound system, we’re there!
Q: The Horse Flies just kind of quietly ended a couple of years ago.
Claus: We eased out at the end of the party! (laughs)
Q: But since the GrassRoots Festival will be marking its 30th anniversary this year, has anyone approached you about a reunion?
Claus: That hasn’t happened. In fact, we won’t be here that week, so that’s not happening.
Q: Well, you certainly had a great run with the band.
Hyman: We had a great adventure and it lasted a long time.
Claus: And as is the case when you’re inside of these things, the shifts don’t seem as maybe dramatic as they might if you’re on the outside. It’s just that we’re all going forward and sideways fluidly, and it seems natural what we’re all doing.
If You Go
What: Special screening of “Wetware,” with Jay Craven, Judy Hyman, Jeff Claus and others
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020