Joby Talbot is a composer for concert, stage and screen. His re-scoring of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr makes its world premiere on Saturday, Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. at the Theatre at ACE Hotel. Below are his notes and thoughts on Dreyer’s thrilling masterpiece.
Vampyr is a movie decades ahead of its time. Re-scoring it now, 86 years after its original and infamously disastrous release—it bombed at the box office and director Carl Theodor Dreyer didn’t make another film for 11 years—I am struck by how extraordinarily modern it seems. Meditative, dreamy and oddly unsettling, unfolding slowly and organically, breaking conventional rules of storytelling at every turn, Vampyr confounds our ideas of what a horror movie can be.
Nothing is as it seems. Inexplicable events occur and are never referred to again. Characters split in two, then watch each other from impossible points of view at entirely the wrong time of day. The strange, liminal dreamscape that Dreyer creates leave us uncomfortably confused, itchily aware of our own mortality, subtly horrified, creeped out rather than terrified. The film is the opposite of schlocky. Nothing goes bump in the night in the weird village of Courtempierre, no lightning flashes illuminate spooky castles on mountain tops, no mad professors salivate over bubbling test tubes, and no ghoulish monsters rustle around in the undergrowth. Instead, Alan Grey, our diffident and lugubrious hero, played—in the absence of an affordable professional actor—by the movie’s producer and main financier, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (a glamorous Parisian socialite who later went on to become editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar), calmly, almost soporifically, glides through the action. A study in bemused detachment, he seems remarkably unfazed by his encounters with murderous shadow soldiers, beautiful, possessed young women, spectral hounds and one decidedly peculiar doctor. We are left wondering: who is this man? In fact, who are any of the characters? None of them seem to behave like normal people. It’s as though everyone is under some weird enchantment. More than anything else it is this overarching feeling of inexplicable claustrophobia that led me to want to write the new score. I wanted to try to capture this nightmarish quality in music, to create a hyper-saturated and unrelentingly intense sound world, to point up just how weird and how weirdly beautiful this film is.
I decided early on that, though I would be replacing the original orchestral score by Wolfgang Zeller with my own music, I wanted to somehow maintain the movie’s 80 or so lines of dialogue and as many of the sound effects as possible—no easy task as the separate audio elements have not survived and the mixed soundtrack is badly degraded. The dialogue is often buried deep under layers of crackle and is balanced surprisingly quietly against the original music, so I have had to come up with some ingenious solutions to this puzzle. The limited number of lines, and the preference given to the music in the mix are doubtless the legacy of Dreyer’s original intention to make Vampyr as a silent. Technology and the advent of the talkies rendered this approach obsolete (at least in the eyes of his backers) but the film still feels like a silent movie. What talking there is is often surprisingly inconsequential and the film relies for much of its dramatic exposition on what are, in effect, inter-titles (in the form of the book that Alan is mysteriously given to read in the event of its owner’s equally mysterious death). Nevertheless, as I came to know and love the film more and more, I realized that the most important thing for me was to stay as close to Dreyer’s vision as possible, so I would keep the dialogue no matter how tricky that proved to be. I’m glad I did as some of the lines are electrifying and, again, startlingly modern. ‘Ich bin verdammt,’ sobs Sybille Schmitz’s Léone, tears cascading down her cheek. ‘Ich bin verlorren.’ [I am damned… I am lost.] As a portrayal of a young woman in punishing existential agony, it is almost unbearable to watch, and is made all the more unsettling with the knowledge of the terrible tragedies that befell this talented actress in real life, leading to her death by suicide at the age of only 45.
It has been an amazing privilege to have the opportunity to write a score for a film as iconic and rich as Vampyr. As I delved deeper and deeper into this visionary work of art, exploring my reactions to its many layers of meaning and translating those reactions into music, I began to feel a real sense of connection with the filmmakers. I’m used to working with directors who I know and can talk to face-to-face, rather than ones who died some years before I was born! Nevertheless, after a while, it really did begin to feel like a collaboration—a weird and rather lovely feeling of having a dialogue across the decades. Maybe this sounds hubristic or delusional, but, regardless, I do very much hope that the great Carl Theodor Dreyer would approve of what his extraordinary film has inspired me to create.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.