FANGS FOR THE MEMORIES
GREG KING speaks to Paul Gillett, to find out more about a special Nosferatu screening.
When you screen a silent film and want a live musical score to complement the action, who you gonna call? Well, the Ang Fang Quartet would be a good place to start, as they have been doing this sort of thing since 1999!
The Ang Fan Quartet was formed after a chance meeting at the Melbourne Cinemateque between Paul Gillett and Michael Coller in March 1999. Coller was looking for someone interested in creating a musical score to accompany a screening of the classic 1926 silent film Faust. Gillett is something of a film buff, with a passion for music as well. He approached three friends to work with him on the project – James Hazelden, Harold Lye and Brett Dellavedova. Paul had known James since their days in the theatre at Melbourne High School. They have been performing together ever since, playing mainly at film societies and festivals throughout Victoria and New South Wales where they provide the live musical scores to silent film screenings. Their live scores reflect a wide range of musical styles and influences, including jazz, classical, and 1920s German cabaret.
Gillett works by watching the film over and over on his television, sitting with his guitar and trying to work out music that can accompany the different moods on screen and bring the action to life for the audience.
The Ang Fang Quartet has also performed their popular improvised scores at other key events including the Melbourne Fringe Festival and the 2006 International Comedy festival. Gillett says there is something special in being able to play in front of an audience.
Gillett has so far created scores for Faust and Nosferatu, two dynamic, classic expressionist silent films from influential German director F W Murnau, and has also dabbled with comedy with the Charlie Chaplin feature The Gold Rush.
Gillett admits to a personal preference for dark Gothic tales, like Faust and Nosferatu, but confesses that creating a score for the 1925 Chaplin silent comedy The Gold Rush was also an enjoyable experience. “This comedy was an attempt to push ourselves in different directions,” he says. “The Gold Rush also offers a variety of different moods – drama, romance, and the slapstick comedy.”
Gillett suggests that silent film still holds appeal for audiences because it is something of an historical event. “It is a novel experience seeing such an old mode of expression,” Gillett offers. Seeing these old silent comedies with the live music score is a change from the bland blockbusters and effects driven films that we currently get from Hollywood. “Comedians like Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy had such style and class about them.”
Directed by F W Murnau, Faust is considered to be one of the best cinematic treatments of this traditional German folk tale about a good doctor who sells his soul to the devil for the gift of eternal youth. It was the director’s last German film before he emigrated to America. Gillett acknowledges that it is “a dark and spooky film.”
Gillett first saw Nosferatu as a teenager and it had a huge effect on him. “I was old enough to be scared by it, but not terrified enough to have to hide under the bed,” he recalls.
Why has Nosferatu stood the test of time, and still stands up, even after 80 years? “It’s all down to the extraordinary vision and technique of Murnau,” says Gillett, who rates Murnau as “one of the great film directors.”
Famous for its darkly Gothic photography, make-up and set design, the 1921 classic horror film Nosferatu was actually a retelling of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, although the story was given a few changes when the author’s estate denied Murnau the rights to the book. It is still regarded as the first vampire film, and the scariest.
“The film also had an extraordinary leading man in Max Schreck,” remarks Gillett. Shreck’s sinister Count Orlok remains one of cinema’s most haunting characters. There are many strange and colourful stories surrounding Schreck, a theatre actor who made no films outside his native Germany. A fictitious legend about the making of the film was most memorably told in Shadow Of The Vampire, which further adds to the mystique surrounding this legendary horror story. John Malkovich played an obsessed Murnau, while Willem Dafoe played Schreck as an actual vampire. Dafoe stole the film’s honours, delivering one of the most fascinating performances of his career. He maintained a fine line between outright farce and skilful characterisation as a beguiling vampire who cannot control his natural urge to kill and taste blood.
What next for the Ang Fang Quartet? Gillett is working on creating a score for the Robert Weine’s visually striking 1919 German silent film The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, which helped define the expressionist movement.
The Ang Fang Quartet can be seen playing their score for Nosferatu live at a special screening of the film at the Kingston Art Centre on Saturday July 19.