‘Last Man Down’: An Interview with Composer Alexander Arntzen

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What do the films Initiation and Last Man Down have in common? Besides both being distributed by Saban Films, what they have in common is composer Alexander Arntzen. Earlier this summer, Arntzen’s college slasher, Initiation, was released and now his most recent project, Last Man Down, a completely different style of film directed by Fansu Njie, just hit digital platforms.

In case you haven’t heard of Last Man Down, the synopsis reads: “After civilization succumbs to a deadly pandemic and his wife is murdered, John Wood [Daniel Stisen], a special forces soldier, abandons his duty and becomes a hermit in the Nordic wilderness. Years later, a wounded woman, Maria Johnson [Olga Kent], appears on his doorstep. Maria is an escaped lab rat, and her pursuers believe her blood is the key to a worldwide cure. Though John is hesitant to get involved, all doubts are cast aside when he discovers Maria’s pursuer is none other than Commander Stone [Daniel Nehme], the man that murdered his wife some years ago.”

Adding to the action of the film is Arntzen’s score, which he describes as a blend of orchestral and electronic music complementing each other. We wanted to learn more about his work on Last Man Down, so we conducted the below Q&A.

S&P: You haven’t scored many action films. How was your approach to this film different than your last project, the horror film Initiation?

Alexander Arntzen (AA): You are correct! I have done additional music for other composers’ action movies over the years, but this is in fact my first action movie score! That was actually one of the big selling points for me wanting to take it on. I think one of the biggest differences is that with an action movie versus a horror film, instead of driving up the tension and dread, your main job is to keep the audience’s energy high and sustained for long periods. There needs to be a sense of excitement and propulsion to the pace of the fights and shootouts, or else it can potentially get a bit monotonous.

S&P: What did pre-production look like for you on Last Man Down?

AA: Pre-production was really great! In order to land the gig, I actually scored three different small scenes in the film: one all-out action, one dialogue-heavy, and one slow-motion/action scene. Fortunately, Fansu loved what I did with those scenes, so I got the job! Actually, I don’t think we ever went back to them to correct anything. The other advantage of that is then I already had a strong basis for what the overall “sound” of the score would be like. The rest I was able to develop once I really got started officially scoring it.

Composer Alexander Arntzen

S&P: The trailer for Last Man Down has been viewed over 2 million times, which is pretty remarkable. Why do you think there has been such an interest in the film?

AA: I know, right?!? Our whole team is so excited to see that there appears to already be an audience for what we created. I think one thing that stands out is that there hasn’t been an 80s-style classic action movie in years. The Expendables 3 came out in 2014. I think there is a starving crowd out there that wants an old-fashioned action movie. That’s what we’re going to deliver to them!

S&P: Composers are known for sometimes using ‘found objects’ as instruments in their scores. Did you do anything like this for the Last Man Down score?

AA: Yes, I have always loved, when appropriate, to use ‘found sounds’ in my scores. For Last Man Down, the obvious choice that hit me was to use the sound of the cocking of a shotgun in the downbeats of certain tracks throughout the score, usually when the dynamic duo is getting ready for battle. You never know if these ideas are going to work, but gratefully when I tried it, it worked perfectly without being obnoxious or distracting from the rest of the music and scene. I think it added a fun layer to enrich the score overall in a more authentic way.

S&P: The film’s director, Fansu Njie, is a Swedish filmmaker. Did he bring a different perspective of how he wanted the score to sound than the American directors you have worked with?

AA: Fansu was fantastic to work with! I think we were both just on the same wavelength with what we wanted this score to be from the start. He had temped the film with Rambo, Dunkirk, and other various action film scores from the past and recent memory. I think because I scored three scenes before I even officially started to score it, we already knew that we wouldn’t have to rely on the temp as much and could really focus and create a score that could hopefully stand on its own. Fansu is a huge fan of film scores, so his perspective couldn’t have been better aligned for what we needed to do to make this score the best it could be. He really let me go and explore some really cool ideas I threw at him and allowed them to be heard without dampening it down. This score doesn’t hold back an inch, it goes all out, and that’s all thanks to Fansu!

S&P: You said that the Last Man Down score is a blend of orchestral and electronic music. Those are two very different kinds of music. How were you able to blend this together?

AA: I think this score probably is slightly more orchestral than electronic overall. So in that sense, the big Hollywood blockbuster-style themes mostly came from the orchestra, while the electronic elements aided in adding a gritty edge to the score. A lot of the pulsing undercurrents came from synth basses and distorted atmospheres, while the orchestra took care of the more emotional elements throughout.

S&P: What kind of plugins or software did you find yourself using most for the film?

AA: I use Logic Pro X to score all my films. Kontakt and Vienna Ensemble for most of the orchestra. Then Omnisphere was the major base for the electronic elements along with even using Logic’s own Retro Synth for one of the bass pulses. I also always use a lot of plug-ins to enhance the sound of the instruments. Waves SSL really helps to shape the strings in a more present and robust way. Also, choosing and messing with the right reverbs goes a long way for making the music sound as good as possible.

S&P: Did quarantine affect the production of this movie at all? Or your work on it?

AA: Ironically, quarantine was the reason this film exists at all. Sweden never fully shut down last summer. As a result, Fansu and Daniel [Stisen] got together this incredible team to make this film as a way to further all of our careers at a time when it was almost impossible to make a film, let alone an action feature! For me, since I worked from home before it was cool, or you had to, the process was much the same. I got the locked cut of the film and began working on it for a month straight till completion. Was a blast to do from start to finish!

S&P: Now that your last film, Initiation, has been out for a while and you can reflect, what was your favorite part of working on that project?

AA: My favorite part of working on that project would have to be the creation of the vocal sound that was used throughout the film. It was [director]John Berardo’s idea and I ran with it. I myself do not have a terribly low voice. But after I recorded myself doing some hopefully interesting sounding noises with breathing into the mic, I was able to transform the audio into a “monster” of sorts that added such a cool layer to the rest of the score. Plus, scoring any of the murder scenes will always be a highlight. The final “reveal” cue that wraps up the film still gives me goosebumps when I listen to it!

Listen to Alexander Antzen’s score for Last Man Down here: https://music.apple.com/us/album/last-man-down-original-motion-picture-soundtrack/1586560269

-S&P-

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