Composer Paul Buscarello on scoring the ninety-year-old silent film The Phantom Carriage
Live music and film are strange bedfellows in the modern age, but it wasn't always so. In the silent era, a live accompaniment was standard practice for all films. Local musician and filmmaker Paul Buscarello is resurrecting that long-gone experience with a performance of his new, original score for the classic Swedish silent film The Phantom Carriage, about a man condemned to collect the souls of the dead for a year. Drawing on Swedish folk music and classic horror-movie scores like Halloween and Psycho, Buscarello has crafted a soundtrack that's both contemporary and true to the roots of the film and the medium as a whole. Before Buscarello's eencore performance of the piece on Sunday, December 29 (he debuted it just before Halloween) at the Sie FilmCenter, we caught up with him to talk about his background, the process of scoring a silent film and why he chose to do it in the first place.
The Phantom Carriage.
Westword: Are you a silent film aficionado?
Paul Buscarello: A budding one, maybe. I came to it because I went to the Silent Film Fest last year that Howie Moskowitz puts on at University of Colorado Denver. I liked it a lot. I'd seen a couple of silent films, but it was really something to see it with the live music, and that's very much how it's supposed to be watched. It's apparently a total abomination to watch it without any music at all, but definitely it was really exciting to see live performers and Hank Troy, who's from Boulder, does really good work. He improvises, kind of. That was exciting, so I started watching more silent films and then I figured, "Hey, it'd be cool if I performed my own soundtrack."
Why The Phantom Carriage? What drew you to that film in particular?
I was really looking for something for Halloween, and it's very dark. Nosferatu is another Halloween go-to, and this one just has more of this sort of human horror. It's about bitterness and nihilism and what happens when you let your hatred overwhelm you and regret and obsession. It's really dark. The filmmaker had sort of a Dickensian vision of this darkness and redemption, but I don't think it really redeems... I tried to echo [that] in the soundtrack with the theming. Maybe [the main character] has this spiritual renewal, but I think death is this force that is totally inescapable for these characters, for better or for worse. For him, for better, he sort of needs it to be redeemed at all.
I just think it's really spooky. The special effects are unbeatable. I think they're really perfect.
In the process of selecting this film, did you watch a lot of films before making your decision? Or did you say, "Holy shit, this is the one!" as soon as you saw this?
I wish I'd said "Holy shit!" when I saw this, because that would be more genuine. I was wanting to do a performance, but the second I saw the portion with the special effects I knew. It's just stunning how they created these double exposures and stuff like that. I wish it was the other way around, but I [initially] was just looking for a film to do the event.
What's your musical background?
I guess I'm a hobbyist. I played music for a long time, and I have sort of a multi-instrumental philosophy, which is a way of guarding myself from getting really good at one. I don't have as much commitment to virtuosity or anything like that. I get easily bored.
One of the problems of doing the soundtrack is I'm doing most of it on piano, and then the piano does some synthesizer stuff. I have a banjo and a mandolin and some other stuff, but it's mostly piano and I am not the best pianist. I'm not trained really in anything, so it was sort of, "How do I get what I want to play out there without showing the holes in my ability?" I'm not like Hank Troy or these people that do it professionally who are really good at just piano.
Did you incorporate any elements of the original score?
No, a lot of the silent movies either didn't have a score, or they sent out sheet music that quickly got lost. This one I just started from scratch. Most of the melodies are off of the melodies of Swedish folk tunes, because it's sort of a working man's story. Their idea of a folk song -- it's funny, you'll read the translation of the lyrics and it's about flowers and love and Jesus, but the melody is just dark and spooky. [Laughs] It sounds like it's out of the darkest of Chopin or sad piano themes. They were very easy to work into a horror film.