“Frantic comes with the territory”: Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini talks horror, synths and jazz

One day, at the dawn of the 1980s, Harry Manfredini sat down in the front room of his Bergen County home off Route 4 and started to compose the score to Friday the 13th Part 2.

He didn’t have long – maybe three weeks – but he had a secret weapon by his side and it said Korg on the box. This would be his second contribution to one of the best-known and longest-running horror film sagas of all time and only his tenth feature as principal composer.

He would go on to write the music for the next five blood-soaked visits to Camp Crystal Lake, take a break when Jason took Manhattan in 1989, and return for parts 9 and 10. In the meantime, Manfredini added his distinctive blend of jazz-inflected rhythms and post-Schoenberg sonorities to films from the House, Wishmaster, The Hills Have Eyes, and Swamp Thing series. Now in his early 70s, Manfredini lives in California, with over 140 films to his name and another 10 in the pipeline.

“He said to me, I am going to make the scariest film ever, called Friday the 13th, and you are going to score it”

Born in Chicago at the tail end of the second world war, Manfredini developed a love of music early on from the classic Hollywood films he would see at home on television. He studied at DePaul University in his hometown before pursuing a master’s at Western Illinois, finally moving to the east coast to take a doctorate at Columbia, all the while earning a few bucks on the side playing saxophone. It was in New York, doing his PhD, that Manfredini finally began in earnest to pursue his dream of becoming a film composer. Having once chaired a panel that Harry was speaking on, I know he’s a pretty voluble fellow, so I’ll let him take the story from there.

Friday 13th Harry Manfredini

“The dream seemed very much like that – just a dream,” he recalls. “I had pretty much given up on it. While at Columbia, I met one of my many mentors, Bill Ramal [of the Ramal-Wilson production team, behind hits for The Shirelles, The Miracles, and Del Shannon]. For some reason he liked me and gave me various tasks to do for him.

“One day, he asked me, ‘Harry, what is it you want to do?’ I meekly answered ‘I want to write film scores.’ He said, what are you going to write that Mancini or Goldsmith can’t write? I answered in a somewhat hopeless voice, ‘I don’t know, but you asked what I wanted to do and that is what I want to do.’ He then said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want to do, here is a list of things to do to get there.’

“The next day I started on the list. First: Asking the studio owner to let me write his theme song for a movie he was making – and I would do it for free. How could he say no? Well, I did. And guess what? He liked it. The engineer at the studio liked it too. We took the tracks, and made another version that we used as a commercial. A friend of the engineer heard the tracks, and asked if I would do some demos for him. I said sure, I will do them for free. I did two of them. They sounded great.

Friday 13th Harry Manfredini

“One day as we were mixing the demos, a fellow name Alex Goitien was walking through the hall at the studio. He came in and said, ‘Wow, that track sounds like film music. I am doing a film. Would you write a cue for me?’ I said yes, I will do it for free. And so I did. And he loved it. Another friend, an actress, saw an ad in the local showbiz daily for a composer who wanted an assistant. That composer was Arlon Ober. I walked into his office with my three pieces of tape that I had. He handed me a sketch and said, orchestrate this for these instruments by tomorrow. I said, okay. Next day he said, here, orchestrate these. A week later I was in a studio, conducting.”

“Frantic comes with the territory, it is something you have to be able to endure to survive”

How did you meet Sean S. Cunningham, director of the first Friday the 13th film?

I met Sean through a friend, Gary Templeton, for whom I wrote numerous children’s film scores [including The Curse of the Cosmic Comic in 1976, Angus Lost in 1983], some of which were award winners. Gary knew Sean and Steve Miner from living in Connecticut. The indie film [world] is full of people who all know each other. So I met with Sean and we hit it off quite well. And after a couple of fun little projects with Sean, one day he was sitting in his kitchen and he said to me, I am going to make the scariest film ever, called Friday the 13th, and you are going to score it. Sean is a very smart and clever fellow. He is bright and full of enthusiasm. Never stops learning. We are still very close friends.

Might we hear some of your music on Cunningham’s forthcoming spin-off TV series, Friday the 13th – Crystal Lake Chronicles?

It is possible that I will be doing the score to the Chronicles series, but I am not sure when that will happen – if it does. I hope so. It would be really fun and challenging.

What about Steve Miner, director of the second and third Friday the 13th pictures – how was his approach to film music different?

Sean and Steve are alike in many ways. They are both funny and sharp guys. If I had to say, the difference would be that Steve is a great film editor, and shoots his films with the editing already in his mind. He also has a good idea of what he wants musically, whereas Sean will let me go with my ideas, and then we have a meeting and discuss. My relation with both is great. I have not seen Steve in quite a while but still very much consider him a good friend.

What comes to mind when you listen, today, to the soundtracks for those first few Friday the 13th films?

As you can imagine things were quite different in those ancient times. Click tracks had to be determined and followed with out any deviation. Scores were written out by hand. [We had] a limited palette of instruments [to work with]. And the budgets – wow! I do remember those well. I was living in Teaneck, New Jersey. I worked in the living room. I remember having to go and count the bars onto the tape the night before the session (a technique I came up with to save time punching in and out. [It also] helped the players know where they were at all times). The thing was, I was counting the bars from the score, and my engineer looked at me and said, “There is nothing on those pages.” I said, “I know. I have to go home tonight and write them!” The piece was timed out and planned, but no notes at all. Frantic comes with the territory, it is something you have to be able to endure to survive.

Were there any particular differences between working on Friday the 13th Part 1 and on Part 2? I know Bernard Herrmann and Krzysztof Penderecki loomed fairly large over the first one, but what other music were you influenced by with this second score?

In Part 1, there was also a lot of Jerry Goldsmith. In the various parts that followed in the series I had a certain set of materials that always were involved in the score: certain sonorities, intervals, voicings, etc. The thing that set them apart for me was that invariably I would have purchased some new piece of equipment, and that new gear was always an inspiration and a valuable asset in creating the essence of the music for whichever part.

In Part 2, for example, I was very much inspired by the scene where Amy Steele puts on Mrs Vorhees’ clothes and talks to Jason. I called it ‘Chez Jason’. And my new gear at that time a Korg synthesizer, which did some cool octave displacements on certain sonorities that really helped in evoking the psychological job she was pulling on Jason.

Do you remember what type of Korg it was?

Wow, I wish I could remember it. It was a very small synth – probably the Mono/Poly – very cool. What drew me to it was the random octave displacement of sonorities. A really cool effect. Also on that film I might have had a [Yamaha] DX7, but I’m not sure. Anyway, at one point I had a DX7 which everyone had – very useful. I eventually had the entire rack of eight units in one 816 rack. I still have it actually. You can heat an entire room with it.

I had a Yamaha CS80 for some of the later ones but I had to sell that. It was so heavy and really was a pain – literally – to carry. I now have a digital version, which is okay. The DX7s came in very handy on House and House 2. Some cool patches I picked up really added some interesting sound [to those films].

Your career started at a time when electronic instruments and synthesizers were starting to replace the traditional film orchestra for some composers. Around the time of Friday the 13th Part 2, MIDI and computerised scoring were starting to come in and disrupt things even further. How did you see these developments affecting your practice – and the film music business in general?

When I first started it was almost totally orchestral scoring: writing it out and recording it with live players. I used very few synths. [There was] the aforementioned Korg and DX7 to start. To be honest with you, I fought until the fight was no longer a choice to only use live instruments but I lost the battle. As for sequencers, I used Digital Performer, and samples became the rage. With each six months or so a new set of sounds that are even better appear, so you are in the black hole of buy, use, and repeat – forever.

Of course digital music and computers even changed the way one actually composes. You get immediate feedback as to how something will sound that you can change on the fly. Every idea is possible – and worth trying. You will compose things you never could even imagine. The idea of tempo changes, or free time, is completely possible, and in reality, writing out the score or even a part is no longer a task.

Like I said, I fought it for a long time. Starting with only synths, and then eventually caved in to the sequencer, and here I sit now with about nine computers – down from 14 – and a carload of samples, just writing away. There is a program called Live (which, ironically, is not live at all) which I use from time to time in a collage-like technique. Live was another program that I fought against using for a long time, and then I thought of collage art and how artists would take rather random, and odd elements and create something original. Once I understood that, I tried the same thing with music.

I opened Live and just randomly grabbed a bunch of samples not even knowing what they were – some rhythmic, some American Indian, some simply electronic, others synth sounds – and said to myself, I am going to create something out of these elements. And after a little while, I had a rather interesting piece which in no way was possible other than with this program and these rather odd combinations of sounds. So I sold myself. And now it is a part of my arsenal of devices.

“It is the job of film composer to deal with the dramatic points, themes, characters of the story”

How do you generally start a new score for a new picture?

Generally, in a horror film or thriller, I don’t like to see any dailies, or even read the script. I like to see a fairly complete rough cut. This gives me the visceral feeling for the film. I want to see it for the first time just like the audience will. I want to react to it as an audience would. You can only get that experience one time. After that you know what is going to happen and it completely changes your reaction.

Doing this I can see where the visual has its strong points – and where I can help in creating the effect the director intended. [Where I can] enhance that effect by the way I manipulate the audience [through music]. After that, I look for elements in the film – either visual or plot points, characters, or effects, or even a prop that might be critical to the story and might have narrative value. The film composer is really more of a dramatist sometimes than composer. It is the job of the composer to enhance and delineate the story and the intent of the director by way of music, using colours and sonorities that evoke and reveal to the audience those intentions of the writer and director.

Once I feel I have these, I begin to search for themes, colours, sonorities, rhythms, etc. that will become the building blocks of the score. I do not know what other composers do, but that is pretty much my process. If it were a comedy, or a love story: simply exchange the scares and kills with the jokes, or romantic elements.

People often talk about film music in terms of “unheard melodies”, i.e. as music that ideally should affect the audience without really being noticed. How do you feel about this – do you want people to notice your music? Or would you prefer audiences to be moved by it without noticing it?

As I said before, the film composer is in many ways a dramatist. It is the job of film composer to deal with the dramatic points, themes, characters etc of the story. Sometimes very little composing is really needed – just a tone, or a colour – other times a huge complicated palette.

A film consists of elements, each being important, but at times one or another is more important. Picture, dialogue, sound effects, music – each has a certain place to take the lead. So, for sure, there are moments where the music is there to be heard and other times where it is not. Obviously the goal is to mix all these elements in a way that the audience receives a full plate of visual and aural experience. When someone focuses on the music over the picture, there may be a problem. [Perhaps the] music is overly dramatic or the picture is dull and the music takes up your interest. So the former can get in the way of the latter, and vice versa.

Have you ever gone to see a film with a sound editor? They don’t even see the film or hear the music. They focus only on the sound. Likewise, the writer on the dialogue; cinematographer on the visuals. It’s hard not to. I have gone to symphonies with clarinettists who can sit through an entire Mahler Symphony and never hear anything but the clarinet! So do I want people to notice the music? Not really. Maybe afterwards. But not so much while it is working under the picture. I want them to feel the feeling, or laugh, or cry, or whatever I am trying to do at the time. I want them to get what the music is saying.

Often people react to their reaction. I once did a short film called the Last Gandy Dancer, about a young boy and his grandpa. It was about learning to deal with death. The child loved his grandpa and was going to have to deal with his dying of cancer. One day at a New York University screening I was sitting with the director, and the students were there and, as young filmmakers can be, they were blunt and a bit green. One young fellow asked, “Isn’t this music a bit Hollywood-y?” with a derogatory tone. I was just starting out, and was a bit shaken by his barb.

My director, Burt Salzman, took the microphone and cautioned the young man. He said, you are reacting to your reaction. You were watching the film, you were pulled in by it, and you started to cry. And you hated that – because we got you. And then you said, why am so so emotional? And you said, it’s that damn music! It’s so Hollywoody. Yes it was. It worked. And it worked on you. I loved that response and I use it when I can.

Who are your favourite film composers?

One of my favourite composers when I first began was Michael Small. For fear of clogging the internet with a list, I can say that I am of course a fan of all the same composers you might think.

And which of your own scores are you most proud of?

I am most proud of what ever cue I just finished.

Are there any, perhaps quite well-known or celebrated, film scores that you personally really dislike? Or even, are there scores of your own that, looking back, you have come to regard as failures?

There is no way I will answer this. I always see the film as the problem, and never the score.

When did you move from New Jersey to California? Do you think it affected the kind of music you wrote?

I moved here about 30 years ago. I had a chance to get an agent and, certainly at that time, the opportunity to score was greater than on the East Coast. Far more films use post production on the West Coast, so more opportunity. I don’t think it has changed the way I compose or write. The space I work in now is much smaller than ever. At one time I had a large studio, but now with electronic and digital equipment, it is greatly reduced.

Here is a point concerning the earlier question about how the electronic and digital age has changed the film scoring business in general. First of all, anyone with an electrical outlet and some gear can score. So no longer are you limited to where you are, or who you are. It has also, as you might guess, changed the costs, and thereby the price of a score for the producer, and the fees for the composer. So it is a double-edged sword. Enough said. I get depressed about that.

What’s the earliest memory you can recall that relates directly to music?

As a child I had rather diverse influences. My father was a complete devotee of Italian opera, especially Puccini. I think I get my drama from there. My brother was into modern progressive jazz, especially Stan Kenton. Many say there is a lot of Kenton in my music as well. I can remember well staying up in the evenings with my mother and watching many of the classic films on television. I knew then that the music really moved me in those films, and from a very early age I wanted to score films, although I had no idea how to even begin to do it. I started studying music at six years of age, and that is where the love and the desire grew. I became a sax player, and worked steadily for most of my adult life. So I am all over the map – which is a good thing to be if you are a film composer.

What music are you listening to mostly at the moment?

Again, I am all over the map. I study some music for skill, or for technique: [Gustav] Mahler, and [John] Adams, lately. Some for the engineering and mixing of a particular piece. These would include country, pop, techno, goth, etc. I was listening to the scores to Nightcrawler and RED while driving this week.

Read next: Colin Stetson on the restraint and all-out chaos of his first horror score Hereditary



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