Composer Ian Chen Discusses Score for Netflix’s ‘Green Door’

Gone through all the new shows on Netflix during this time at home? If you like horror, a title worth taking a second look at is the Taiwanese horror-thriller Green Door. We nabbed an exclusive interview with Ian Chen who worked on the Netflix title.

The six-episode series was adapted from Taiwanese author Joseph Chen’s novel of the same title and tells the story of Wei Sung-Yen, a troubled psychologist who returns from the U.S. to set up his own practice in Taiwan, where mysterious patients and uncanny events shed light on his murky past. One of the things that makes the series unique, is the unpredictability.

Accentuating the unpredictability is the original score by composer Ian Chen. Chen does a great job of heightening the emotional connections we have to the characters, as well as weaving the plot together nicely with the score. To learn more about Chen’s work on Green Door, we conducted the below Q&A with him.

He discussed everything from working with the show’s director, Lingo Hsieh, to the different character themes he created.

WoN: Green Door is a Taiwanese horror drama. Is the sound of a Taiwanese project like this different then, let’s say an American horror drama? If so, how are they different?

I find that Taiwanese dramas tend to be less genre-restrictive. You’ll often find elements from other genres, such as comedy or thriller, mixed into the plot, even if the series is billed as horror. This means the soundtrack must be more flexible to accommodate the various tone changes that occur throughout the show. For example, in Green Door, the main protagonist Wei Sung-Yen, played by popular singer Jam Hsiao, becomes a psychiatrist for ghosts. While some ghosts might be ill-intentioned, most are just as clueless and naïve as their living counterparts. They come to Wei to look for ways to resolve their problems, and in doing so, some very human relationships are uncovered and heartwarming stories told. I would even go as far as to say that Green Door is a mystery thriller comedy under the facade of a horror drama.

WoN: Do you have a favorite episode of Green Door, musically? If so, why did that episode resonate with you?

Episode Five concludes the story of Yu Hsiu-Chi, played by Golden Horse winning actress Hsieh Ying-Xuan. It is one of my favorite character arcs in the series, spanning most of the season, centering around a woman who is possessed by the ghost of a mobster boss’s runaway younger brother. The relationships involved are especially intricate and coupled with Hsieh’s brilliant acting – switching swiftly between a proper Mandarin-speaking lady and a crude Taiwanese-speaking gang-member – make this concluding episode one of my personal favorites of the show. The music for the climatic reveal scene was worked on over and over again by me and director Hsieh, perfecting each and every detail, resulting in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the show.

WoN: A lot of composers have said that scoring a streaming show is like scoring a long movie, in your case a 6 hour one. Did you find that was the case with Green Door?

I think this is true to an extent. When developing musical ideas for a film or TV show, I often start by examining and understanding the psyche of the characters and the world in which they reside, both of which are fundamental building blocks for an engaging story. With a TV show, there are more conflicts to resolve and more time for characters to grow, and therefore I often get more opportunity to develop themes and motifs further alongside the characters. In Green Door, our main protagonist Wei undertakes the responsibility to help the ghosts he encounters, but shadows from his own past slowly catch up to him, culminating in his eventual breakdown in the final episode. For that scene, I took elements that were planted in his previous encounters throughout the season, which foreshadow the truth that he had been unwilling to face.

WoN: Did you give each of the characters specific themes in the show? If so, which character did you like scoring the most?

Yes! Each story arc in the show has a specific sound and group of themes associated with it. My favorite theme belongs to the mobster boss Shen Jin-Cheng, initially penned by co-composer Alex Wong. The original form of the theme is a melancholic melody played on the clarinet, reminiscent of the Godfather Waltz from Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy. I was able to use a variation of this theme in Shen Jin-Fa’s repentance scene, following the climatic reveal in Yu Hsiu-Chi’s story arc in Episode Five.

WoN: Music in horror genres is very specific, as it tells viewers when they should be scared or when something bad is about to happen. Did you feel any extra pressure knowing this and that the score sometimes serves as another main character?

I don’t think that is necessarily the case for Green Door. It’s true that sometimes there are jump scares or other classic horror moments in the show which require such techniques, but more often than not, the tracks are based on themes and textures derived from the characters and backstories involved in the show. For example, Wei has recurring nightmares involving one of his ex-patients Doris. The tracks used in these nightmares have an underlying theme that weaves through her storyline.

WoN: What was the most challenging part of working on this project?

Green Door had a particularly tight timeline for music production. A previous composer was let go late into post-production, leaving just a few weeks for the music team to compose, record, and mix 112 tracks of varying styles and instrumentation, not to mention the numerous revisions for each cue. The core music team is made up of three composers: me in Los Angeles, Alex Wong in San Jose, and Sean Kim in New York, as well as our scoring supervisor Shao-Ting Sun, also based in New York. It was our coordinated effort that contributed to the successful completion and delivery of the soundtrack within the allocated time we have. On top of that, it was crucial that we coordinated the application of thematic materials and motifs throughout the season to create a seamless and unified voice.

WoN: Lingo Hsieh is the director of Green Door. What were her main notes about the score during the production process?

Lingo had specific ideas about how the score would assist the show, so most cues took some revisions to perfect. Because of the number of technicians, musicians, and composers involved in this project, and given the short timeline, it was essential to have a leading figure who is clear about what they want. In general, Lingo looked for music that enhances and intensifies the emotional intensity of each scene, whether it being a hair-raising jump scare, or a heartbreaking departure.

WoN: What shows are you currently watching right now on Netflix?

I’ve just finished catching up on all 3 seasons of The Crown, and have now moved onto another great “period” drama: Netflix’s first original Korean series Kingdom.