Tori Letzler

Tori Letzler is a Los Angeles-based composer, vocalist, and electronic producer using her diverse talents and eclectic experiences to create compelling music for multimedia. She scored the animated short “Fetch” on Disney+ through Disney Animation’s Short Circuit program. In 2018, she produced “The Future is Female” concert in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by BMI & Live Nation, highlighting the musical work of twelve female composers including herself. As a sound designer, she has created custom sample packs & presets using synthesizers and her trademark cinematic vocals for the likes of Yamaha, Noise Engineering, and Splice. She is also credited as an additional synth programmer on Marvel Studios’ “Captain Marvel” and an additional synth designer for CW’s “Batwoman” television series. As a vocalist, she has sung on over forty scores from heavyweight composers such Hans Zimmer, Brian Tyler, Lorne Balfe, Rupert Gregson-Williams, and more on major productions such as “Wonder Woman,” “Batman vs. Superman,” “The Tomorrow War” and “American Horror Story.”

Growing up in NYC, she joined The Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Choir at age nine. Following that, she toured internationally as a vocalist for Cirque du Soleil before attending Berklee College of Music. She is continuously releasing electronic music under her alias TINYKVT.

Tara Karajica talks to Tori Letzler about her career so far, feminism and film and more importantly, the score she composed for Netflix’s upcoming Russian spy sci-fi thriller, “In from the Cold,” a synth-heavy score inspired by the ‘90s industrial movement combined with soft and weirdly affected vocals.

 

What made you want to become a film composer?

Tori Letzler: I’ve been a performer vocalist since the age of seven and performing professionally since I was about nine or ten and I’ve just always had a love for music, specifically film music. One day, in high school, I just decided I wanted to be less of a performer and more of someone behind the scenes. I love telling stories and I love writing music and film scoring just seems like the best fit to pursue that.

How do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images and the special moments that transport us to another place, another time and even another world when we are watching a film or a series?

T.L.: As composers, we take our leads from the story, from the director and the script; we are serving the story of the film or the series. So, I very much take cues from what’s happening on the screen and what the character is feeling and I try to convey that in the best way possible through music without giving too much of the story away. I think music can act just as much of a character as an actor on screen.

How do you get in the zone? Does your creative process differ from project to project? Do you have rituals?

T.L.: Some days it’s harder to write music than others. But when you’re watching somebody’s story, you always have this constant inspiration coming. So, I always have something feeding into me. I’m not just pulling stuff out of nowhere, which is great. But other days, it’s harder than others. Sometimes, I’ll go outside, I’ll take a walk, I’ll listen to music or a podcast, I’ll improvise on the piano… There’s a bunch of different tools that I’ll use, but the main thing that just drives me forward is watching stories that I’m trying to help tell.

How did you get on board Netflix’s In From the Cold?

T.L.: I was brought on in March of 2020 — about two years ago now, which is wild, right before everything shut down — and our production was delayed significantly. A friend of mine over at Netflix had heard some of my music and passed it along to the creatives. And, because they knew the score was going to call for vocals and some electronic elements — that’s something that I’m known for — they thought that I would be a good fit. And so, I went into the normal download process. And then, unfortunately, once I was hired, production was delayed significantly. But the great thing about that was that I had a long time to sit with scripts and ruminate on how I would go about creating themes and working on story points.

Music plays an important role in the show and, as you have just said, you believe the score is as important a character as anyone appearing on camera. Involved from day one, you were first inspired by a Russian folk song and wrote a Russian lullaby the main villain sings that features as a prominent cornerstone in the story. From there, you composed entire theme suites based on the emotions in the script. Moreover, no temp music was used in production, and your suites were used as temp instead. Can you talk about this process?

T.L.: This was a really unique project. We knew from early on in the script that there was going to be some sort of “lullaby” that was sung in the show and used both as a vehicle on screen and then also in the score. Adam Glass, our creator, had heard a Russian lullaby that he felt very inspired by and we definitely pulled that as inspiration. It’s definitely not what’s in the show, but it was a really great cornerstone to start with. So, that was the first piece of music that was created and the actors got to hear it on set, which was great. And then, we used very little temp music for the show, which is music that’s used as a temporary placeholder before the score is created. So, myself and my partner, Steve Davis, created a bunch of theme suites very early on to show to the creatives and then we used that to really build on the score once we started getting final cuts in, but we were really scoring early on to dailies coming in and the script, which is very, very rare in our industry. Usually, composers are one of the last people brought on, so to have that much time and to be able to work directly with the editors and our amazing music supervisor, Michelle Johnson, is a very rare treat.

As the series flashes back to the main character’s past, you also wrote a synth-heavy score based on the grunge and grittiness of ‘90s industrial music, adding a feminine edge to it with soft and weirdly-affected vocals using sting-vocal processing. 

T.L.: Our show takes place between two time periods; we jump back between ‘90s Russia and present day in mostly Spain. And, our creator, Adam, and myself have such a love for industrial ‘90s music, so we knew that the score was going to have a touch of that. But our lead character being female, we wanted to have this feminine edge. And, one of the major themes in our show is duality; we’re constantly jumping back and forth during different time periods and different characters with different personalities. So, having these hard synths matched with these soft vocals really helped to capture that in my opinion.

You also utilized some astonishing analog scoring using Eurorack and other synths. 

T.L.: There is a tonne of analogue synths in the score!

And, a gnarly, synth-based cue with screechy vocals for the shapeshifting transformation theme…

T.L.: There are loads of weirdly processed vocals in that theme and throughout the entire score. To me, working on the score was basically like a masterclass for myself in vocal processing.

In that sense, how would you characterize this particular score?

T.L.: I think it’s just an electronic industrial-driven score with soft female vocal elements incorporated. I think it’s a highly emotional score. I think it’s fun and energetic. There are some great action scenes. I think it’s a little different than stuff we’ve heard before. And, it’s mostly electronic with hints of organic when necessary for emotional needs on screen.

Can you talk about your other projects? Do you have any favorites among the projects that you scored? Can you talk about these experiences?

T.L.: As of late, the pandemic kind of slowed a lot of stuff down. I was on this project for almost a year; it took up a tonne of my time and it was amazing. I’ve also done a lot of sound design for people I’ve worked with since — companies like Noise Engineering, and I built sounds for Yamaha and I’ve done a tonne of vocals on other people’s scores. In the last year alone, I sang on Lorne Balfe’s score for The Tomorrow War and I helped process those weird alien vocals myself. And then, other notable things: I’ve sung on a tonne of superhero projects — Thor, Batman vs. Superman, and then I helped out on the first season on Batwoman with some synth programming, so I am definitely pretty looped into the superhero world and getting to score what I would consider a modern day Superwoman was pretty cool.

There are more and more female composers today. Can you talk about being one of them today and who was your inspiration when you decided to become a film composer?

T.L.: I think we’ve hit a point in our industry where we have so many more women that are at the very top of their field and I think it’s great! A few years ago, we weren’t seeing as much of it and now I think we’re just getting looked at as equals — just as composers instead of female composers, which is great. I don’t just believe that women have to tell female stories. I think both women and men can tell stories about anything. My main inspirations growing up were John Williams – he was a huge one -, James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, and then obviously, Rachel Portman was one of the few female composers working on large films when I was growing up. There wasn’t a tonne of other women to look up to. Nowadays, I look at Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are using synths and a similar style to what I really enjoy. So, I pulled from a lot of different places. Even in this score, I was pulling from not just composers, but musical artists like How to Destroy Angels and Grimes.

In that sense, what is your opinion on the situation of women in film today? Do you see any changes in the film industry not only when it comes to female film composers, but in general?

T.L.: I think we’ve made great strides. We have women scoring blockbuster films and television series for the first time in a long time. We’re still something like 3% of the top films, which is an absurdly small number, but I think it’s getting better. I think we’re pushing through and I think we’re being seen for the work that we do and not just as totally females in our industry. We have a long way to go, but I think we’re getting there.

What was the best advice you received when you started out? And, what would you say to a young girl who wants to be a film composer now? What advice would you give her?

T.L.: Well, the best advice in general to anyone and the best advice that I received is just to be kind, which sounds silly, but being nice to people you work with and being patient is a big character value my opinion. You never know where your next job’s gonna come from. You never know who somebody is and you never know how that person can help you or how you could help them in the future. So, I think kindness just goes a long way. It’s not difficult to do and it can really make your life easier. What I would tell my younger self or another young female composer is: “Don’t give up! It’s hard and you’re going to have to push through a lot of challenges, but the reward at the end is worth it.”

Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and one you would like to work with?

T.L.: I think Patty Jenkins who did Wonder Woman is absolutely fantastic. I love that movie. I love that I got to sing on it and I would love to work with her in the future.

Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?

T.L.: Feminism comes with so many negative connotations. Yes, I consider myself a feminist because I am for equality. I’m for women being treated the same as men in our industry. And, I think I just get from my day-to-day supporting other women and I like seeing my female counterparts succeed the same as I do.

What would you say your sound is? What would you want your audience to feel when they hear your scores?

T.L.: My sound just changes based on the story. I think composers are chameleons. For this score, we really wanted to go in an electronic direction and incorporate vocals, but I’ve worked on fantasy scores, I’ve worked on things that use the orchestra across the board. As a composer, until you get to a certain place in your career, you don’t really get to be super choosy on the projects you work on, which is a good thing because they get very adept at working in a million different styles. So, I would say my sound always incorporates vocals in some way if the project calls for it, but I really like that the story dictate where my sound goes.

According to you, what is the best score ever? And, what is your favorite one?

T.L.: I don’t think I have a favorite score. But I am a big fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas by Danny Elfman. It’s definitely something I listen to over and over and over again.

What are your next projects?

T.L.: I can’t talk about the project we’re working on now, but it does involve a theme park of some kind. And, I’ve got a couple of big movies that are coming out. I sang on Top Gun: Maverick, which has been delayed significantly. But you’ll hear my vocals on some projects in the near future.

 

 

Photo credits: Niles Gregory Gibbs.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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