Category Archives: Interview

Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

Jane Shore (1915) has been described as the first British epic, and one that rivalled the best productions coming out of Hollywood at the time. A cast of thousands is used to great effect by producer/cinematographer Will Barker (founder of Ealing Studios) in this ambitious retelling of the story of Jane Shore: one of the many mistresses of King Edward IV who described her as one of “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” in his realm.

The BFI has made a stunning new print of the tinted version of Jane Shore (recently discovered in its archives) for its centenary. Composer Laura Rossi has written a new score for the film, which is being performed on a tour of the UK. Here, she answers a few questions about the project, and her writing process.
How did this commission arise and how did you choose the film?

Classic Cinema Club – Ealing wanted to commission me to score a silent film for a live music and film screening at their cinema club. We decided it would be good (as I also live in Ealing) to try and find a silent film made at Ealing Studios. I approached Bryony Dixon at the BFI, who dug out a few films for me to view in a BFI basement room on an old Steenbeck machine.

I was taught how to use the machine and change the reels. It was a very magical day watching reels of footage filmed over a hundred years ago. Jane Shore seemed the perfect fit – a film made at Ealing Studios by the studio founder Will Barker.

For this centenary tour the BFI made a specially restored digital print of the tinted version of the film which looks stunning. We were lucky enough to secure a grant from PRSF Women Make Music fund for the commission and first performance, and an Arts Council grant to help fund the tour.

What do you think is so special about watching a silent film with live music?

Watching a silent film with live music is such a magical experience and can be enjoyed on many levels. The music makes the images come alive and fills the auditorium, giving a four-dimensional experience.

It’s not just about watching the film, but also being transported back to this era. It’s fascinating to see how people acted then, the exaggerated gestures, and the early techniques of making films.

Continue reading Laura Rossi interview: ‘The music makes the images come alive’

An exclusive interview with @MsLillianGish

Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish

Don’t believe everything you read in the press. Contrary to published reports, legendary silent film actor Lillian Gish is not dead – she’s alive and well and totally winning at Twitter. Using the handle @MsLillianGish, the star of Broken Blossoms and The Birth of a Nation drops wisdom on the internet from a great height every day. Check out her Twitter biography, which is typically witty, informative and self-effacing: “I am the greatest actress of all time. If I had been a scientologist, you all would be one today. Yeah, I rocked it like that.”

Not content with enjoying Ms Gish’s wise words 140 characters at a time, I asked the star if she would be happy to answer a few questions for the benefit of the Silent London readers. To my great delight, she accepted. Unfortunately the time difference did not allow us to conduct the interview live, but I posted some questions to Ms Gish, and with her help of her loyal secretary she was able to answer them. Her responses are illuminating, I think you’ll agree. Here is the transcript of my interview with Lillian Gish …

Continue reading An exclusive interview with @MsLillianGish

Stephen Horne interview: ‘Silent films are constantly surprising’

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

Anyone who wants to learn more about silent film music will enjoy this. Chandler Bennett recorded this interview with Stephen Horne for KALX Berkeley 90.7FM, the student radio station at Berkeley, University of California earlier this year. It was recorded for the KALX show Film Close-ups – if you like what you hear, bookmark the site as it streams the station’s output online.

In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.

Listen to the interview here.

Silent film pianist Costas Fotopoulos – video interview

Costas Fotopoulos is based in London and works internationally as a concert and silent film pianist, and as a composer and arranger for film, the stage and the concert hall. He regularly provides live improvisations to silent films at BFI Southbank and he has also accompanied films at other major British venues as well as in New York, Warsaw and Italy. I interviewed him after a screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in Winchmore Hill, north London, organised by Around the Corner Cinema. We also discussed his score for modern silent film The Projectionist.

Neil Brand’s score for Underground: a preview

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

After months of work on his score for Undergound (1928), Neil Brand is still, happily, a big fan of the film. In fact he’s enthusiastic, and generous, enough to offer Silent London a preview of the music ahead of the world premiere next Wednesday and to chat about the film, and the process of scoring it too. Anthony Asquith’s film is set in London, but borrows its visual style from the European and Soviet art cinema that he loved so much: expect dark shadows, quickfire editing and geometric compositions. “Asquith was never again so bold as he was with Underground,” Brand says, and this score represents Brand’s attempt “to make music as bold as the film is”.

It hasn’t been an easy task. At first, he says, he was intimidated by the task ahead: the difficulty about writing for Underground, as opposed to Blackmail, which Brand scored for the BBC Symphony Orchestra last year, was that Asquith’s film requires snatches of lighter music. Blackmail is like an “icicle to the heart”, but Underground has wry, comic moments, at least towards the beginning of the film, before the characters make some disastrous decisions, and the film’s romantic triangle becomes an “Expressionist nightmare”. “Those first 20 minutes were horrendous to write,” he says. But four months later he has a complete score, which will be played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Brock, at the Barbican Concert Hall next month.

Brand is of course known for his piano scores, often improvised, for silent films, and here he has incorporated a piano into an orchestra score for the first time. He tells me this is partly because he wanted to use the love theme he had written for the film when he accompanied it at the London Film Festival with the Prima Vista Social Club two years ago. He also wanted to use the piano’s percussive bass sound and he enjoys the sound of a solo piano, at moments, over a quiet orchestra. “It’s almost a Morricone effect.”

Other than that though, Brand tackled the score as he always does, from the beginning to the end. This means that every morning, before starting work on the next segment of the film he would play through the existing score from the start. So he has heard the opening of the score, on his home computer setup, many, many times.

Continue reading Neil Brand’s score for Underground: a preview