Music For Vampires

Shooting Guns rocks the Roxy live for Dracula’s 1922 debut

Art by Darren Merinuk

Cover | by Craig Silliphant

Nosferatu
Music by Shooting Guns
Roxy Theatre
Friday 28

For the last few years, the Riversdale Business Improvement District and The Roxy Theatre have been putting on a series for lovers of film and music called “Silence is Golden”. They take a classic silent film and pair it with a live soundtrack by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra.

On Friday, Oct. 28, in celebration of Halloween, they’re putting a different spin on that idea, by screening the landmark 1922 vampire film Nosferatu with a live soundtrack from Saskatoon doom rock legends, the Juno and Polaris Prize nominated band Shooting Guns.

To paraphrase the late film critic Roger Ebert, Nosferatu was the (unauthorized) story of Dracula before the vampire became cemented in pop culture and subjected to as many spoofs as there are retellings.

“The film is in awe of its material,” Ebert said. “It seems to really believe in vampires.”

Director F.W. Murnau’s haunting German expressionist imagery builds both horrifying beauty and gothic suspense, keeping the movie relevant almost a hundred years later. The film also benefits from Max Schreck’s portrayal of the vampire as more animal than man — he’s more like a demented rodent than  cape-swooshing class acts like Bela Legosi or Christopher Lee.

“I hadn’t ever seen it before we agreed to do [the live soundtrack],” says Jim Ginther, Shooting Guns’ drummer. “Most of the guys have been big fans for a long time but even still, it’s almost like watching it for the first time when it has to be broken down and mapped out for a project like this.

“There have been many scores made for Nosferatu over the years but I’m glad to have kept myself in the dark on those so that we’re not repeating what’s been done before,” he says.

Ginther is correct — most of the original score has been lost to the sands of time, so many composers have written new soundtracks to the film for different screenings and releases. While those are usually orchestral, Shooting Guns will employ instruments from guitars to synthesizers, mixing their own style with the film’s tone.

“The hardest part of a project like this is making the first sketch,” says Ginther. “Putting something there to fill in the silence. Once something’s there, it gets easier as you refine. So after we got some rough takes over the full movie, we went back to each act and kept working on it.”

Shooting Guns aren’t strangers to film soundtracks as they’ve previously scored the Canadian film Wolfcop, and were actually working on the Wolfcop 2 score at the same time as Nosferatu.

“We didn’t originally plan to be doing both simultaneously but it’s working out well as we’re already in scoring mode,” says Ginther. “We’ve learned a lot from working on Nosferatu and are incorporating that into Wolfcop 2, especially with the overall approach. With the original Wolfcop, we were flying by the seat of our pants, so now that we’ve got a studio and strategy already in place — we didn’t have either the first time around — it’s been a lot easier to sketch out the sequel.”

The band has a projector set up in the studio and they record their rehearsals while watching the movies, so they can play it all back and workshop what they can do better on the following take.

They do that over and over again until something forms in the ether.

“After getting a working draft of [Nosferatu],” says Ginther, “we’re now working on refining individual parts, group dynamics, and the daunting challenge of remembering all of our parts without sheet music — we’re just going off of visual cues in the film and playing off of each other.”

“[We] come up with a theme or melodic shape and match it to the onscreen action,” adds guitarist Chris Laramee. “Not a very sexy description! But really, that’s about it. [There are] about four different moods or feels for the four acts. We will have seen the whole film 278 times.”

Laramee is kidding, but they’ve probably watched the full movie at least 20 times, with countless rewatching of individual scenes to fine tune things.

“My favourite scene is in Act Three, where the ghost ship is sailing with some very dangerous cargo,” says Ginther. “There are these incredible aerial shots of this huge sailing ship in the middle of the water and it has to be one of the coolest shots of all time — not bad for 1922! The scene itself is terrifying, but it must have been just as scary to shoot.

It was such a different world back then and it’s really cool how this film captures it so authentically, especially considering how new film was at the time.”

Nosferatu has a range of dynamics for a composer to work with, for better or worse. It has scenes of skin-crawling, creeping terror, but also epic moments where horror comes crashing down on your head. The best movie scores will augment key scenes, but for the most part, they need to add atmosphere while staying the hell out of the way.

“We’re taking a less-is-more approach throughout the movie,” says Ginther. “So that the heavier stuff stands out more. As a general rule, the more scared the characters are, the louder we’re playing. Each of [the acts] has its own type of tension and mini-climax so we’re trying to keep it as atmospheric as we can and then switch gears when the really creepy stuff starts going down.”

“The tones and texture rail into a sorta’ Wagnerian bummer riff that sorta’ just oozes out on the floor,” says Laramee. “Like blood.”