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James Iha scored the world’s weirdest Lifetime made-for-TV movie

Jun 16, 2016

The ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist discusses his role in James Franco's teenage vampire lesbian film.

For years, the Lifetime Network was arguably television’s – and Urban Dictionary’s – greatest punching bag. Mostly targeting female viewers, the cable channel earned a reputation for its cheap, made-for-TV melodramas that provided work for former stars work and guilty pleasures for the most shameless viewer.

The “Lifetime movie” had become a regularly used punch line, but in 2009 it was acquired by A&E, and all of a sudden it began to experience a renaissance. In fact, Lifetime has scored a legit critical and commercial hit with UnREAL, a behind-the-scenes look at salacious “reality” dating shows like The Bachelor that has the industry wondering what else can it surprise us with?

Well, after last year’s A Deadly Adoption, a stereotypical Lifetime thriller done as a parody starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, the network has returned with another salacious, eye-winking, star-studded affair called Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

If the title sounds familiar that’s because it’s a remake of the 1996 Lifetime cult classic starring Tori Spelling and Ivan Sergei. This remake, however, is being produced by Hollywood’s Jack-of-All-Trades, James Franco, who has reimagined the teen drama as a “same-sex vampire love story.” Franco, of course, also stars, along with both Spelling and Sergei, who surprisingly don’t reprise their roles, but these names are not the film’s most intriguing credits. That distinction goes to the film’s composer, James Iha. Yes, the James Iha who co-founded and played guitar for the Smashing Pumpkins in their best years.

The news of James Iha scoring Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? seems weird to just about everyone but Iha himself. Ever since he left the original formation of the Pumpkins when they broke up in 2000, Iha has put together a portfolio that includes everything from playing guitar with A Perfect Circle, supergroup Tinted Windows, and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Yukihiro Takahashi, to producing, remixing and writing music for a whole wack of artists – including himself.

Iha has also been busy scoring other television projects like Hulu’s Deadbeat and Family Channel’s A History of Radness (co-starring Henry Rollins, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds). We couldn’t get our heads around writing the music for this James Franco/Tori Spelling teenage-lesbian-vampire flick, so we called Iha up to find out how this happened and, naturally, asked him about the Pumpkins.

Mother, May I Play With Danger? premieres Saturday, June 18th at 8 p.m. EST on Lifetime. Read on for our interview and listen to several songs from Iha’s score.

AUX: So how did you get involved with Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?
James Iha: My agent put me up for it, and I was on a list of composers. Some of my music was submitted to James Franco and his production company, and I assume they like what they heard. For me, it seemed like a fun, crazy and evil movie. I liked it. I’m a fan of James, so I thought it was a no-brainer.

Producing a movie for Lifetime is an interesting move by James Franco. He really just does anything he wants and doesn’t seem to care.
Yeah, I didn’t think it was that unusual for him. But it is an unusual movie, and a movie for his stature. Knowing all of the things he does it seems in line.

Were you familiar with the original film?
I may have heard the title before but I didn’t ever see it. When I first got the gig I watched about five minutes of the original on YouTube, and it didn’t seem at all like it was the same script as the James Franco version. So I stopped watching it. And then when I went back to look for it later it was gone from YouTube.

Those types of films seem to pop up and then vanish within days. Did you listen to the original score?
No. When I watched the beginning of it, I think I heard some of it but it was such a crappy version, the quality of it. I couldn’t really hear it. But I don’t think it related, which is another reason why I didn’t think it would help to watch the original.

Franco has really transformed this film into something different, adding vampires and lesbian lovers to the story. Did he discuss the score and what he envisioned at all or did you have free reign over the music?
He had suggestions for a certain aspect of it, a certain kind of style he thought might work. There were three general themes in the film that I worked on. There was a heavy, guitar-driven one that sounds ominous, and there’s chanting on it. That was the opening theme and when the vampires appear. It would pop up. Then there was a second theme with glitch-y drum machine beats, synths and ethereal vocals for the quieter, romantic parts of the movie. That was his suggestion. And the third theme was this violin I have that plays like a guitar but you bow it like a violin.

I was working on a more traditional sounding, horror score with this violin thing. That was used whenever there was a fight or a chase scene. All of the themes were sent back and forth between me and the production company, so I got notes and comments. There was his take on my music, but at the same time I was able to go off and do stuff on my own.

You’ve done some previous scoring. How does it differ from writing a pop song?
It’s totally different. Whenever you write a song, whether it’s a rock song, pop or folk, you’re working within a certain parameter. Anything with scoring it’s as long as a scene is or whatever the in and out point of a scene. So it’s completely dictated by the picture and what the director are looking for. Sometimes the director and production company have a strong viewpoint of the music, or you have more open, free reign. I feel like I had a little of both on Mother, May I. It’s not a song at all though. It can be really subtle music or something approaching a song, but most of the time it’s just backing up what’s happening on screen.

Lifetime has gone from this network that makes hokey dramas, to one that exhibits great self-awareness and humour about its content. It’s had a remarkable turnaround. Were you aware of this when you took the job?
I did not know that. I only sort of picked up on that recently with some of the press I’ve seen. I live in L.A. so I see a lot of billboards for that new show of theirs, UnREAL. That’s obviously a happening show. But yeah, I didn’t know about the turnaround until just now.

Some blogs are writing, “Hear two new tracks from James Iha,” referring to songs from the film. How do you feel about this music being advertised as “James Iha music”?
Are you from Canada?

Yes. How can you tell?
I just heard you say “aboot.” Honestly I’m not really thinking about what people say. It’s a score for a movie, so when I’m doing it I’m not thinking about people remembering me from the Pumpkins or A Perfect Circle or solo stuff. I just have to make it work for the movie. If you don’t see the movie, it’s harder to get context for the music. You could listen to it as a soundtrack, but it certainly helps to watch the movie. I made it, but it’s not like I’m putting it out as my next solo album. It’s just music for the movie.

How often do you write songs?
Sometimes I do. It really depends. I have songs that could be used for a solo album, but I’m not working on one for myself at the moment. I just finished that film, and I’m producing this band [Zipper Club], so I don’t have that much time to write a solo album. Maybe I will later. When I worked on my solo album that’s all I did.

Back in March you performed some Smashing Pumpkins songs with Billy and Jimmy. I think that really got imaginations and hopes running wild. Was there anything more to that moment or was it just a one-off appearance?
Billy and I reconnected after a very long time. He invited me to play those shows and it was fun. It was awesome to play. For the moment that is all there is. I won’t say there won’t be anything else in the future, but for now that’s all there is. But we’re certainly connected again. It’s a good thing and hopefully something will happen again.

I imagine people must ask you about a Smashing Pumpkins reunion just about every day…
They don’t. But that’s nice you think that.

What’s your take on bands reuniting to play their classic material?
Bands are just random people and they do it for all different reasons. Sometimes it’s for nostalgia, sometimes it’s for money, sometimes they just want to play together again. It depends on the band and their motivation. I think everyone wants bands to look and sound exactly like they did in their heyday. And it’s hard for a band to redo that. It’s like going back in time and becoming however many years younger.

It’s an easy thing to go off on bands that do that, but they’re just people. I do the same too with my favourite bands. I have a mental image and a certain kind of sound in my head of what that band is like, but when you meet them, play with them, or actually know them, as you get older times change.

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