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“Vote Mark, Vote Shark” was the cheeky slogan New Zealand composer Mark Smythe coined during his inaugural awards season run. The Kiwi composer submitted his score for The Reef: Stalked in the Outstanding Score for an Independent Film category at the fourth annual Society of Composers and Lyricists’ Awards.

Smythe’s score competed against a wealth of studio backed titles like Everything Everywhere All At Once, The Whale, and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Luckily for Smythe, his score struck a chord with voters and he is now SCL Award nominated the aforementioned films’ composers.

Oscillating between soothing and scary, Smythe’s score captures the serene landscape of coastal life along with the dangers inherent to its open waters in The Reef: Stalked.

The film opens with a dark personal trauma long before audiences see the shark’s fin in the ocean waters. This plot element along with the “Man in the gray suit” gave Smythe an opportunity to explore different shades of trauma throughout the film.

Smythe has explored the thriller-horror genre previously with 2017’s BOAR. The pig-terrorizing film was composed during Smythe’s very successful tenure as the Chief Operating Officer of the Society of Lyricists and Composers (SCL).

Smythe has worked with over four dozen Emmy and Oscar nominated composers during his time at the SCL, and has a sincere appreciation for their acknowledgment of his work at this year’s SCL Awards.

Smythe spoke to Awards Editor Byron Burton about getting past the temp score placeholders for The Reef: Stalked, recording himself playing his own instruments, and the vulnerable moment when he was able to fully acknowledge his own work on the big screen.

Awards Focus: This film has a nice mix of musical opportunities and a nice mix of trauma. It’s a shark film and you expect that the protagonist is going to have to contend with that, but then it opens with the character of Nic facing a different kind of trauma, long before the open waters.

Also, the opening cinematography is gorgeous and you have these paradise strings, can you talk about the lighter side of the score and developing that?

Smythe: That was one of the more interesting things about this, it’s not really a straight horror-thriller film at all. There’s a side story and Nic is certainly going through some psychological dark times. But if you didn’t know there was a shark ahead, you’d be fully immersed in this tropical paradise.

There was some fairly innocuous temp music in those island scenes, and the first thing I thought was, “We’ll need some guitar and some ukulele.” I played the bass as well as the guitar and ukulele on it, and the director thought it was a harp.

It might have sounded a little bit Hawaiian at one point because I was using an ebow, which gets you those sliding high sounds. It created a whole world of sound to accompany this fantastic cinematography… the aerial shots, over land and underwater.

AF: So much of the film is the suspense that you rely on music for, like Spielberg with Jaws. You have to hold that suspense with the music and you can’t overtake the visuals on screen, but you have to continue to build the tension.

I’m thinking about the indigenous child swimming back to the island while the sibling is stuck on a barge in the shark-infested water.

Smythe: There are a lot of scenes like that in The Reef: Stalked. Myself and the director started halfway through the film, creating the right feeling for the tension which was very hard work.
I started on reel four which has the scene where a character asks, “Is that the first time you’ve seen the man in the gray suit?” That term is what surfers call a shark, and the director was very specific about the tension he wanted.

It took quite a while to get the right feel and textures, but once I had it I was on my way. I used a cello bow on my bass guitar and I hired a violinist to do create really creepy sounds.
We had to be so careful not to overdo it, and we really honed in on that and the reviews have said that we got that right.

AF: The finale confrontation with being caught in the net and having a friend in danger, the idea of cutting back to the drowning of her sister from the film’s opening… it’s great opportunity for score when you have two stories converging in that manner.

Smythe: The flashback to what I call “The other side of trauma,” they were incredibly frenetic. I had to pull out the “spaghetti strings” as referenced by the director. I sometimes wondered if it was too much, to be honest, because everything else was more structured and musically cohesive. Ultimately, it worked for him and Nic’s sister got her theme.

AF: In the end, we have that beautiful cinematography once again, as they lay down their tribute at the beach. The shot rises and it’s a breathtaking landscape, real estate agents should be using that footage.

Smythe: (Laughs) Yeah, it could be Malibu, right?

AF: It’s here that you create this fantastic closing track, can you walk us through that? Did that come very early in the process? When did you set your sights on that?

Smythe: Yes, it’s one of the few cues I did do early. It’s very lush and there’s real strings in there mixed with samples… organ, soft piano, and a key melody that’s played on cello. That scene was temped with a Hans Zimmer cue from Interstellar, and I knew I had to get that out of the way early.

I threw in some organ which is the only instrument I gave service to in regard to temp score, and the cue came to me very quickly. It was a D Minor theme which was dispersed throughout the film between Nic and her younger sister. I was blessed to come up with something that the director liked immediately.

AF: That’s “Dive Sisters Forever” (the cue)?

Smythe: “Dive Sisters Forever,” a lush cello line which was me playing a sample. I fooled them all, Byron!

AF: Is there one other cue you’d like to highlight from the film?

Smythe: Yes, “No More Paddling,” which is track sixteen on the soundtrack. It’s somewhere between the ocean beauty and the inexorable tension where Nic — who until that point had been extremely uncomfortable on the ocean — she has a steely look in her eyes and says, “No, no more paddling, we have to kill it.”

It’s a slow build of a cue with incredibly dark strings and tribal percussion building underneath. It ends with a huge drum roll and a vast shot of the ocean with the trap baited for the shark. I saw the film on the big screen in Glendale, and when I saw that moment it gave me goosebumps. I said, “OK buddy, you’ve got a chance. That was legit.”

AF: A rare moment of vulnerability for Mark Smythe in his Zelda shirt.

Smythe: I didn’t even know this (shirt) was Zelda, so I can’t claim to be cool there.

AF: You’ve been on every side of the music scene now.

Smythe: I have been, I much prefer being on this side (scoring films), but I’m so happy I was in the trenches on the other side of things (working at the SCL), cause that’s how I got to know a lot of really nice people. If I were quoting Don Johnson from Miami Vice, “I’m just a simple man in a sea of sharks.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.