In a world of film trailers, one man stands alone.
David Asma (aka Spunkshine) makes movies more alluring.
interview by Kenyon Hopkin
If you've seen any trailers for new big studio horror films in the past few years, then there's no doubt you've heard at least a few seconds of audio by David Asma. Under the stage name Spunkshine, the Wisconsin-based artist--whose day job is a Public Defender Investigator--has contributed his brooding sound bytes (or "cues") to notable box office hits such as the Mist, Quarantine, the Box, and Drag Me to Hell. In early 2010, Asma's latest composition can be heard in the trailer for the remake of the Crazies. Truth be told, Asma is a very smart guy and well-versed in imperative sociological issues. -Kenyon Hopkin
Advance Copy: the Crazies trailer is out there now. Are you psyched to experience the movie?
David Asma: The trailer sure makes the film “seem” worth seeing. Not having seen the original Romero film on which it’s based, I’m not sure what to expect, beyond, of course, the unsettling scenes presented in the trailer. I’m a sucker for smartly-made zombie films so, yeah, I’m looking forward to it. But then again, the so-called “crazy” characters in the film aren’t technically zombies (or are they? Damn these trailers for peaking my interest in vague story lines).
AC: Without giving away secrets, when/where/how did you start doing film trailers scores? How did you get so lucky to score some of the best horror of the past few years? Is the sound in these Hollywood trailers entirely by you? Or is it more like bits and pieces.
Asma: I started “assembling” sound design and electronic music in 2003. It was a hobby and I was composing stuff primarily as a means to dabble in technology. I became literally addicted to music production thanks to Garageband (Apple). Having since progressed to more complex technology and software, I was accumulating a significant library of sounds. Luckily, my brother is a partner at an editing-house in L.A and he used one of my speedy, dramatic cues for the Sahara Superbowl ad. Since then I occasionally get a request for a custom-made cue, but the recent trend is primarily sound design instead of “music” per se. Atmospheres, bizarre aural environments, and “stingers” seem to be in style these days. Although my cues have been used in a variety of genres, a lot of the weird-sounding stuff works well in horror films and the “horror” category appears to be really hot right now. Trailers are amazing productions in and of themselves. Scenes are chopped-up, arranged, and rearranged to make the film appealing. The same is true for the sounds, which are so layered it can be difficult to distinguish singular tracks or cues. But that’s the point of a great trailer, to suck you in emotionally without distracting you with singular auditory elements.
AC: Trailers always make the film seem better than it is. It's music like yours that helps. Are you often disappointed when films you see are duds after a promising trailer? Did you ever work on one where that happened? Surely there were other trailers you've done that you keep off your resume.
Asma: Trailers are amazing marketing tools! If done well, opening day numbers will reflect it’s success. Music and sound design certainly contributes. My stuff for The Mist used these unnerving alarm throbs that really worked to create a feel (especially when married to the visuals which, of course, requires the skill of a kick-ass editor. Hats off to those folks!) But then there are those trailers where our suspension of disbelief is utterly distracted by the musical element. Take Kingdom of Heaven (thankfully I was not involved in that). The visuals were utterly incongruent with the cheesy rock-opera score in the background (I can’t help but laugh at that one). As for duds, it’s always disappointing to land a cue in a campaign and instead of seeing it in front of a feature at the theater, you learn that it’s gone straight to DVD. Daltry Calhoun was one those films. Never saw it and I’m not sure if it was actually released.
AC: what projects are on the horizon?
Asma: Hard to say. I never know what’s needed until I get a call requesting a custom-built cue. It depends on what the editor needs. It should be noted, however, that submitting a cue never guarantees its use. Other cues may work better or the campaign may be won by a competing trailer house. As for other projects, I’m working on sound design elements and a score for the forthcoming indie film, Phoebe. I’m told it should hit the film festival circuit in the near future.
AC: so your other employment is as a Public Defender Investigator. What does that entail?
Asma: In the real world, I work full-time at a Public Defender office. The office represents indigent folks accused of crimes. As a defense investigator, my job is to gather information about the alleged incident and the accused so as to assist the attorneys who are working on the case. The office handles cases ranging from misdemeanors to felony and death penalty cases. Some heavy stuff goes on at work and music production becomes a pleasant diversion.
AC: And you're also an Adjunct Sociology Instructor, with interest in crimimal justice. Is there anything you care to vent about that is corrupt and inept in the system?
Asma: There is always a risk of offending someone when venting about crime. But since you asked, here goes: The Death Penalty is broken. There is no credible evidence that it is any more effective as a deterrent to murder than incarceration. Plus, it’s far more costly than life imprisonment. We are the only Western nation to employ it (others have abandoned it). It’s carried out in a racially discriminatory manner. Essentially, it is a sanction that can be defended only on the grounds of retribution, which of course is fueled by misplaced public fears, which are, in turn, exploited by policy makers.
AC: Can you very briefly explain your involvement in each of these: dramaturgical analysis, media representations of identities, deviance/stigma.
Asma: At least from the sociological perspective, Dramaturgy is an approach to social analysis in which “theater” is used as an analogy to everyday life. Social action is viewed as a “performance” in which actors both play parts and stage-manage their actions, seeking to control the impressions they convey to others. Simply put, we act out our roles; we’re usually “on” in the presence of others. Dramaturgical analysis is the study of how meaning emerges through interaction, including expressive staging; how do we present ourselves to other? Is it convincing given the situation? Do we say the wrong thing while trying to impress the other? My diatribe above regarding US policy on Death Penalty may very well have damaged the Spunkshine image for some readers while concretizing a positive image for others. Media are powerful means of presenting information (think Trailers, this blog, news, concert performances). Keep in mind, however, media are heavily manipulated and arguably artificial; are we presented favorably or negatively? Impression management is precarious; if the performance fails, a spoiled identity may be applied, which starts us moving in the direction of what some consider deviance.
AC: judging by your music and the films you score, you're obviously into darker content. What are some of your favorite all time horror/dark films?
Asma: I’m not necessarily into dark content. Some of my stuff simply gets attached to dark trailers. My music albums range from “weird grooving” to IDM and ambient chill. As for films, I suppose I’m more inclined to lean toward the subtly bizarre rather than horror. Off the top of my head: the Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi et. al.), Moon, Sunshine, Let the Right One In, Solaris (both of them), Baraka, The Stalker, anything by the Coen brothers, Terrence Malick, Kubrick, Jean-Perre Jeunet, all Simpsons, all Futurama. Good Lord, I am such a nerd!