The Housemaid: An Eloquent Haunting
Jerome Leroy’s experience scoring The Housemaid for Vietnamese-American film director Derek Nguyen was an especially rewarding experience. The movie is a romantic horror film rooted in the ghosts popular in much of Asian folklore. It was a tradition that Nguyen was personally experienced in, and his treatment of the vengeful spirit at the center of the film afforded Leroy a number of unique compositional opportunities.
“The film is inspired by my grandmother, who was once a servant in a grand estate in Vietnam and ended up falling in love with the landowner,” Nguyen explained. “As a child, she used to love to tell me ghost stories. One of the things that stuck with me was how she believed that spirits lived in trees. After I learned about the atrocities that Vietnamese rubber plantation workers experienced under the French landowners, I thought about how haunted those plantations must be. The ghost of Madame Camille in The Housemaid was inspired by the idea of colonialism: she is the spiritual embodiment of how imperialism wreaks havoc in their colonies, kills its citizens, and haunts its inhabitants even after they leave.”
That understanding gave Nguyen the story for his film script, which tells of an orphaned Vietnamese girl hired to be a housemaid at a haunted rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. When she unexpectedly falls in love with the French landowner, she awakens the vengeful ghost of his dead wife… whose rage fuels a bloody retribution.
Upon the recommendation of producer Timothy Bui, who had worked with the composer previously, Nguyen brought in Jerome Leroy to score his film. “Tim had given me a quick overview of the film, describing it in these terms: a ghost story set in Vietnam in the 1950s,” Leroy recalled. “So, I was genuinely surprised and intrigued when Derek and I first discussed the score, because he made sure to mention two points I didn’t expect: first, that while the film was clearly anchored in the horror genre, it was first and foremost a gothic love story; and second, that even though it was set in a specific country during a specific period in history, the story had to feel universal. These two statements strongly influenced the stylistic direction of the score.”
Initially director and composer explored the idea of using Asian instrumentation in the score, but Nguyen decided the film needed something that was more classical and universal in tone. “I wanted the score to be lush and haunting with a gothic feel,” he said. “It was also essential that the music was in line with the dark visual style of the cinematography,” Nguyen added. “In order to make the music congruent with the melancholic and eerie visuals, Jerome expertly composed moments of stirring strings, haunting vocals, and streaking violins.” In addition, Leroy came up with the idea to incorporate voices to give the housemaid character, Linh, a sense of innocence and purity, as well as using pounding percussion to accelerate the tension of the more active horrific scenes.
While The Housemaid was a big production for Vietnam, by Hollywood standards it was a small independent film, which meant a very tight budget for the filmmakers. But the goal from the beginning had been in creating a score that predominantly featured live players, and the budgetary wherewithal to make it happen was ultimately found. “The score ended up being performed by a chamber ensemble comprised of solo flute, oboe, piano, and harp backed by a string quintet,” Leroy said. “This gave us a full spectrum of emotions that we could easily rely on, at turns intimate, emotional, soft, warm, and sweet, but also harsh, piercing, brooding, and desolate. All of this was complimented by various libraries of effects, ambiences, small percussion, and vocals, sometimes simply for aesthetic reasons, and other times to help build tension and broaden the score’s scope.”
Interestingly enough, Leroy and Nguyen never met in person while the film was being scored. Nguyen was working on post-production in Vietnam, while Leroy was working out of his Los Angeles studio. “We worked entirely via Skype,” Nguyen said. “I’m still surprised that we were able to work remotely and get the quality of work we did! Jerome would compose something and send it to me via Dropbox; I would listen to the music and then watch the scene with that score. We’d meet again on Skype and talk about individual beats, themes, and moments.”
Leroy’s musical score also features a decisive thematic architecture that prompted a purposeful interaction of musical themes associated with specific characters and story elements. “From the very beginning, and based on my discussion with Derek, we felt that using themes and leitmotivs in the score to The Housemaid would make a lot of sense,” Leroy said. “The film features such fully-developed characters displaying a wide range of emotions, it was hard to resist! But it was also a way of connecting and bringing a sense of unity to all the varied elements in the story. I was also lucky that the film started with a beautiful, three-minute long opening credits sequence, which immediately gave me the opportunity to establish the tone of the film via a leitmotif that represents the dark, somber past of the Sa-Cat Plantation, and the movie’s main theme playing over beautiful and ominous shots of the Vietnamese countryside.
“Sa-Cat, as a matter of fact, is such an important ‘character’ in the film, that it gets its own leitmotif: a slow harmonic statement over deep, low percussion,” Leroy continued. “Linh ends up having two themes: an uplifting one when we first meet her, and a variation that turns nostalgic and mournful by the film’s end. Of course, for a gothic romance, it seemed appropriate to write a ‘forbidden love’ theme, underscoring the emotional connection between the ‘peasant girl’ and the army officer. Madame Camille has her own leitmotif featuring the harmonic tritone, eerie vocals, and somber piano lines. And finally, Linh’s parents also get their own theme, briefly stated at the beginning of the film, but fully developed near the very end.”
“Jerome delivered a score that was frightening yet beautiful,” Nguyen concluded. “There are times when I just listen to it on its own without the film because I find it so beautiful, lyrical, and melodic. The music is so emotionally true to the characters in the film. It really enhanced its emotional core.”
Randall D. Larson