How To Amplify an Action Film Through the Score

This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

What would Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman be without Danny Elfman’s gothic score? Or Raiders of the Lost Ark without John Williams’s famous themes?

Whether we realize it or not, music plays a very large role in how audiences look at action films. These scores act like another major character telling the audience what they should feel and when. So how does a composer know when to inject a melody that is both commanding and memorable?

Composer Kevon Cronin can speak on this topic. Kevon’s latest action film, Lionsgate’s King of Killers, was just released and stars Frank Grillo (Captain America: Winter Soldier), Alain Moussi (Nobody), Stephen Dorff (Blade, Old Henry), Marie Avgeropoulos (The 100, 50/50) and Kevin Grevioux (Underworld).

A major key to a good action film score for Kevon is variation. “It’s important that the music is relatively fast and contains a lot of variation to keep the viewer unbalanced and add to the drama,” Kevon says. Another way to do this is by changing musical styles halfway through a scene or fight sequence.

Kevon goes into more detail about how he creates a memorable action film score in the below interview.

KING OF KILLERS Official Trailer (2023)

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Can you break down the sequence of events between finding out you got the film and playing the first note? What did King of Killers pre-production look like for you?

Kevon Cronin: I got the gig because I wrote a bunch of music that they could temp into the movie at the time and my friend [John Gurdebeke], who was the editor, put it in. Before even being hired on the project, I had heard through various industry contacts that King of Killers was going into production nearby. To convince him to bring me on board, I decided to write a 20-minute suite of music that my friend and editor could temp the movie with.

Thankfully, after hearing my work, they decided to bring me on board. At which point I had a wonderful discussion with the director Kevin Grevioux and one of the producers of the film, Christopher Rush Harrington, about the direction that they wanted to go with for the score. After having this discussion and watching the film, I sat down and created additional ideas and themes that I could then apply to the film and see what worked for Kevin and Chris.

Kevon Cronin headshot
Kevon Cronin

NFS: Were there specific equipment or instruments that helped define the sounds of King of Killers?

Cronin: Early on I realized that King of Killers needed its own unique sound. To do this, I reached out to an instrument maker living in Poland, who goes by the name DaShtick Guitars, to create a custom instrument called a cellotar. I bowed, strung, and plucked this instrument to help create the unique sound world that King of Killers lives in.

NFS: King of Killers is an action film and there are a lot of fight sequences in the film. What would you say is key to scoring an action-packed flight sequence?

Cronin: Well, first, the tempo of the music is important. It’s important that the music is relatively fast and contains a lot of variation to keep the viewer unbalanced and add to the drama. It’s important to include some percussive elements and rhythmic elements that help propel the scene forward. But, it’s also important to know when to pull back and not just score the action on the screen, but to help support the emotion and the story that the filmmakers are trying to convey.

For King of Killers, one of the instructions that I was given by Kevin and Chris is that they wanted a lot of variation during these fight sequences. That involved me changing styles of music, even partway through some of these fights. For example, there’s a fight between Asha (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Jorg (Frank Grillo) where the music starts out with heavy Japanese influence and then halfway through the scene changes to dubstep.

'King of Killers' cast watching a video
‘King of Killers’Credit: Lionsgate

NFS: Are there certain types of programs or software that you are a fan of when creating your compositions?

Cronin: Yes, Cubase is my go-to sequencer of choice. But it’s important to remember that you should always try and step back from the sequencer and the computer to come up with thematic sound design ideas away from the technology, whether it’s sitting down at the piano or humming a tune to yourself and recording that.

Then, when you step back to your sequencer, in my case Cubase, it becomes more about what you came up with your imagination and a little less about the technology.

NFS: Because King of Killers is an action film, did you work closer to the sound designers than in some of your previous, non-action films?

Cronin: To be perfectly honest, no. I didn’t have a whole lot of communication with the sound design team for this film, as it didn’t seem to really apply all that much. That being said, I was sure to deliver my score in as many stems as possible so that Kevin, Chris, and the rest of the team could have the freedom to decide what was and wasn’t working in conjunction with the sound design.

'King of Killers' movie poster
‘King of Killers’Credit: Lionsgate

NFS: Some of the film takes place in Tokyo. Does that part of the film contain any different cultural sounds than the rest of the film?

Cronin: It does. Specifically, there’s a scene where the characters sit down to have a meal in a Japanese restaurant, and I wanted it to be as authentic and true to that part of the world as possible.

As such, I was able to bring in a wonderful musician by the name of Yuko Nozoe to play Koto for that scene. Luckily, Yuko was very familiar with music that would be appropriate for the scene and played some beautiful renditions of traditional Japanese music on her Koto.

NFS: When you get writer’s block, what do you do to overcome it?

Cronin: I think the best thing anyone can do to overcome writer’s block is to step away from a project, or rather to step away from the computer or the keyboard and go do something else. Whether it’s walking the dog or reading a book, the brain has this fantastic ability to solve problems and issues away from work. Sometimes, all you need to get over writer’s block is a good nap.

NFS: What piece of advice do you live by when it comes to composing for film or TV?

Cronin: Have fun. Short and sweet. Just have fun and enjoy the process.

King of Killers is available now on digital and on demand.