When director Justin Simien was looking for a composer to score Disney’s “Haunted Mansion,” he called his frequent collaborator Kris Bowers. The two had worked together on “Dear White People” and Simien’s last feature, “Bad Hair.” “I’ve always wanted to have that relationship with the director where you work on a number of projects and develop this trust,” says Bowers.
For their latest film, which opens in theaters July 28, Bowers pays homage to the Disney theme-park ride and its famous “Grim Grinning Ghosts” tune while making his mark on the feature. With “Haunted Mansion,” which stars LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson and Rosario Dawson, Bowers tinkered with ghostly organ sounds and brought in elements of New Orleans jazz for the film’s sonic landscape.
Although it’s inspired by the ride, which is established and beloved IP, the film delves into themes of grief and relationships. What was your path to scoring the themes?
I started talking to Justin about how we might approach themes. The thing that stood out to me was this aspect of family or community. We meet Ben [Stanfield] at a point in his life where he’s rejecting people and not wanting to be in any relationship. So this idea of this group of people who help him with all that he’s gone through … made it clear to me that that would be the main theme.
In a lot of the big sections, what you hear is this familial theme. The other thing that stood out is the love theme for Ben and his wife. That sound is something that only happens a handful of times, but it’s at really impactful moments.
“Grim Grinning Ghosts” was one of the first challenges Justin mentioned to me. He wanted to see how we could reinvent it and use it in a way that didn’t feel over the top, and honor the song and ride. I found a way to create a few moments where we hear that theme, either fleshed out or reworked into variations. Other times, the first four notes are used in a leitmotif, especially when the ghosts are doing creepy things. The organ becomes useful to call us back to the sound of the ride.
What techniques did you use?
I found this fun technique through my studio manager where we played the theme on the organs. We had the organ player hold the chord while we turned it off — so there’s a long sound of the organ dying as the air is no longer going through it, and that sound is used a lot throughout the film. You hear it as soon as they go into the house.
How did you pay homage to the sound of New Orleans?
When you’re in Disneyland and you see the mansion, it’s so iconic, and Justin wanted to make it clear that the film was set in the city. We did a second-line piece with the Soul Rebels, and that’s the opening of the film. I wrote that with the band, and it’s a variation on “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” But throughout there are jazz elements. Sax-section moments are playing along with the orchestra. When you’re in the ghost realm, there’s a lot of improvisatory jazz that sounds like frenetic energy.
You also scored Disney+’s “Secret Invasion,” Netflix’s “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” and Searchlight’s “Chevalier.” What is it like having these projects come out?
This is a special collection of work that I’ve put a lot of effort into, and at a particular time in my life. “Chevalier” and “Secret Invasion” were around the time my daughter was born. It’s nice to be at a point where I can sit back and watch them with people I love.
Up next is ‘The Color Purple,’ what can you tell us about that?
I remember seeing the musical on Broadway and crying. People asked me why would they want to make another? It’s going to be worth it because Blitz Bazawule is an incredible filmmaker.
And, there’s the Bob Marley biopic ‘One Love’ also set to be released later this year, what can you share there?
It’s been amazing to see Kingsley Ben-Adir go from being in ‘Secret Invasion’ to being Bob Marley. He’s so convincing and incredible.