Surviving Theater 9

Music For A Tragedy by Sean Sumwalt

For this week’s music breakdown I wanted to guide you through my experience writing the music for an incredibly impactful film. Surviving Theater 9. This documentary drama (or docu-drama) centers around the tragic events on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado where a gunman opened fire on movie-goers. The story is one of strength, hope and not letting fear win.

I made the score to Surviving Theater 9 into a soundtrack which you can find and download off of Bandcamp. You can donate $10, $20, $100 or even $0 and this labor of love is yours. 50% of the proceeds will be donated to the National Compassion Fund at https://nationalcompassionfund.org/funds/, which helps support victims of future mass casualty crimes. Here’s the link!

On to my journey - In mid 2017, while closing late one night at the café where I used to work, I noticed a person editing a video. I was curious so I asked what editing program he was using and struck up a conversation. He and his friend then showed me the trailer of the film they were working on. This was that trailer.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, my brain began to flood with questions. I didn’t want to insult him, (I mean, he was there!) I honestly think I just gave him a big hug. (don’t quote me on this, it was an emotional moment) It was that night that began a great friendship with those two. I had no idea it would turn into a working relationship as well. You see, Tim (the director) and I had many many long talks over the following few weeks about the direction for the music of his film. We immediately clicked on the approach. My thought was that because the event in the Aurora, Colorado theater on July 2012 was such a recent tragedy, the music couldn’t be reflective in a ‘rose-colored glasses’ sort of way. If there was too much of an emphasis on emotional string writing it could be too melodramatic. [Think Schindler’s List, which is not melodramatic but that type of music used in this context could be]

This was, of course, not the most popular way of scoring the film. Trent Reznor’s Oscar winning score to The Social Network comes to mind. THAT had a lot of the film business talking. If you haven’t listened to it, give it a listen!

Anyways, before I was part of the project, a few of the composers wrote music that sounded like Pirates of the Caribbean and Beauty and the Beast for the project. After speaking with Tim ad nauseam, he asked for me to write the score. This was no small undertaking for me - a responsibility that I did not take lightly. I needed to represent the most intimate form of human pain and trauma through music, to show care for the survivors and honor and pay tribute to the victims. With Tim as my guide, I began writing.

Halfway through the film comes the scene where the cinematographer makes one seamlessly beautiful camera roll of all the characters coming together into the theater. It was a scene that I knew was coming down the pipeline. I was going to have to put “notes to the page,” absolutely dreading it every step of the way. I was unsure of how to handle the scene with the amount of sensitivity or respect that it deserved, because of the heavy subject matter.

***Warning***
The combination of images and sound contained in this video may be shocking or disturbing. No music is in this video. Gunshots are heard 55 seconds in.

Once I made it to this scene, I already had a few motifs, I employed throughout the score, but this very simple piano motive seemed like a good place to start. I felt that this sequence in particular should be the fullest and most resonant music of the film, being that it was the main turning point for these people’s lives.

My instinct (one you might guess if you frequent my blogs) was to stretch this out 15 times its normal length. What resulted was an organ-like quality that expanded to 8 minutes, entirely too long for the scene itself. In my mind the organ-esque richness gave the cue a heavenly quality. I wanted to make it sound significant. Their lives weren’t lost; they were just stepping up to the gates of heaven, and this was the music they might hear.

I peppered in some arpeggios to glisten on top of the grand piano entrance to signify the meeting of all of these seemingly unconnected people. Their stories were heard before this point with no exact indication on how they all were connected until this very moment.

The cue was starting to come together. Initially, we both wanted to have some music underneath the gunshots, not to take away from them, but to add to the chaos and confusion. Continuing with the use of the piano, I performed an eighth-note pattern on the pedal for a sinister pulse.

When I brought Tim over to play back this moment, I was nervous. I was more nervous to show him this cue than any other cue before or after it.

Was this right?

Was it too much?

Was it over-glorified?

I couldn’t know.


… “You did good, my friend.” He said. I was beside myself. Speechless.

After one more watch, I immediately pulled the volume of the music down right before the gunshots are heard. We thought the juxtaposition of the light and innocence of everyone just watching a movie next to the stark contrast of dark quick moving shots needed to be reflected in the music. It was, ultimately, the right choice.

Watching this scene as many times as I did had a lasting effect on me. One I wasn’t even aware of until the next time I went to see a movie after completing Surviving Theater 9. There just so happened to be gunshots in the movie, which made my heart start to race. I was looking at every possible escape route because I couldn’t figure out where in the cacophony the sounds were coming from. This feeling is one that cannot even compare that of those who have been through this as a real life event.

What helped me more than anything was meeting some of the survivors at the screening of the film in Tribeca.

1. Having them listen and watch the way we told their story was incredibly impactful to me.

2. Seeing their resilience through it all and still having a good time made me think that if they worked through it, so could I.

Without a doubt, the writing of this score has been one of the most meaningful pieces of music that I have ever contributed to film in my life. I merely hope that by releasing this soundtrack and writing about this process I can, in some small way, help those affected.

The complete unedited track can be found here using all the techniques I talked about above if you’re interested. Also, this track is the one included on the album!

Thanks for reading!