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How a Grammy-winning Pueblo musician influenced the soundtrack for 'Prey'

The heroine of "Prey," Naru, is played by Amber Midthunder.
David Bukach
The heroine of "Prey," Naru, is played by Amber Midthunder.

A lot of franchise gunk and mythology has built up around the 1987 action flick, Predator — which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger and other he-men battling a vicious game hunter from outer space boasting thermal vision, a cloaking device, and big, nasty mandibles.

Prey, a new movie streaming on Hulu, stripped most of that plaque off and went back in time for an origin story, plopping the predator into the bucolic world of the Comanche people 300 years ago before the real-life invasion of alien colonists from Europe.

Prey's director Dan Trachtenberg, and producer Jhane Myers — a Comanche and Blackfeet American Indian herself — filled the cast with Native actors and even recorded a Comanche language dub. But Trachtenberg is also a gamer, and for the film's score he sought out a non-Native videogame composer he admired.

"He had been playing Assassin's Creed: Valhalla while they were in production on the film, and he really liked what he heard," says composer Sarah Schachner.

Schachner specializes in finding ancient, unusual instruments and weaving them into a modern action tapestry. She performs most of the stringed instruments herself — including a horsehead cello from Mongolia and a primitive violin from Kazakhstan.

"I just find with sci-fi projects, there's no boundaries," she says. "You can do anything you want. And, I mean, who wouldn't want to write some badass music for a new, feral predator?"

It was important for Schachner to collaborate with a Native musician on the score. "Just like everything in the film," says Myers, "I wanted it infused with authenticity." The producer made a list of Native musicians she knew, and Schachner was especially drawn to Grammy-winning Robert Mirabal after seeing him playing flute in a YouTube video.

Mirabal lives in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, and while not a Comanche himself, he had no qualms contributing to the film. ("It's irrelevant to me," he says.) He's a composer in his own right, and has worked on movies before — he scored the 2010 documentary Wild Horses and Renegades, and even acted in projects like Walker, Texas Ranger.

He was intrigued by the story of Prey, and saw in it something more than merely Hollywood high concept: "Living on a traditional Pueblo, with ancient stories and ancient philosophy, we have stories like this — of the star people," he says, "or the people of the heavens. So it just was something that we grew up with."

Mirabal draws on Native idioms and instruments, as well as modern jazz, hard rock, and hip-hop. His specialty is flute, including a double-barreled flute he invented himself. "It looks like a bassoon, and it sounds really unique because it's made from the traditional format of the native flutes, but then it's way larger than that," he explains. "It has a unique sound to it, especially when you start to do circular breathing with it, and then you start to pulse your breath into it."

With minimal prompts and a lot of freedom, Schachner worked with Mirabal remotely in a studio — this being mid-pandemic, he was in New Mexico, she was in Los Angeles — to improvise a library of free-ranging tones and notes.

"He has his own twist," Schachner says. "He has his own way of playing things. I think we both kind of share that love of music that can be both beautiful and unsettling at the same time. And everything he played... I was just in awe."

Schachner took those tracks and incorporated them throughout her score for Prey, sometimes plainly but often with the manipulation and distortion she applies to all the other elements in her music.

At the end of their one-day, remote recording session, she asked Mirabal if he also sang.

"And he was like, 'Yeah, I sing' — and he just sang something so honest and pure," she says. "It touched me when he sung it, and it was so unplanned. And it really just helped in certain moments of the film, give that kind of extra layer of depth."

"It's almost as if you're whispering the story," Mirabal says of creating music for film. "There's a visual aspect to it, but then there's a whole other mystical side of the story that is whispered to you through music."

So in this movie about a high-tech humanoid that dismembers its victims, listen for that whisper. In between all the screaming.

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