Sound and silence

Pub date December 7, 2010

MUSIC/FILM In the latest chapter of the San Francisco Film Society’s ongoing efforts to present silent-era films with live musical accompaniment, John Darnielle — head honcho of the Mountain Goats — will be scoring the 1919 Mauritz Stiller film, Sir Arne’s Treasure. The beauty of this particular series, which has yielded original scores from Yo La Tengo (Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painleve), Stephin Merritt (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and Superchunk (A Page of Madness) among others, lies not only in the conceptual simplicity of marrying music and film, but in the freedom of approach given to each film’s handpicked composer. In Darnielle’s case, scoring a film meant digging up some relics of his own past.

“I don’t generally revisit stuff of mine that’s old,” he says. “But then I realized, soundtracking a silent movie is revisiting stuff that’s old.”

Digging through old notebooks full of unused songs and lyrics, Darnielle stumbled on the blueprints for an unfinished and unreleased collection of songs he’d written in the mid-1990s. The songs were originally to be used as a sequel of sorts to the Mountain Goats’ 1995 album, Sweden. But after rediscovering them, Darnielle realized that the songs’ moods and lyrics meshed well with the themes of the film.

Set in the 16th century, Sir Arne’s Treasure‘s story begins with the murder of a clergyman at the hands of three escaped mercenaries who are after his treasure. Eventually finding themselves trapped in the town — and among its vengeful inhabitants — one of the men becomes drawn to a survivor of their own killing spree, and the lines between justice and love blur.

After a few minor adjustments to his newly unearthed songs, Darnielle knew he’d found the material that would make up the bulk of his film score.

“It’s pretty exciting to dig up these old notebooks, very much like watching an old movie and seeing people dressing and doing things in a different manner,” he says. “Digging through those things for me at this point is like combing through public records or something. I tweaked them a little because I’m a better writer now than I was then. But yeah, I’m expanding this whole album I’d made about loss and catastrophe and incorporating it into the movie which is about loss and catastrophe [laughs].”

Darnielle will be pulling some other songs from the Mountain Goats catalog to use during the film, but he hopes his fans will understand that his approach to this project is different.

“I hope people don’t come expecting a sort of huge, surging Mountain Goats show type thing,” he says. “That’s my biggest fear, because it’s much more contemplative and patient in the presentation. I’ll be singing, but I won’t be stomping around or talking between songs.”

Darnielle’s got a couple tricks up his sleeve as well, only one of which he would reveal during our conversation. He’ll start the score solo on piano, but around the halfway mark he’ll switch to guitar as John Vanderslice joins him onstage for the remainder of the film. The two have worked together in the past, and Darnielle hopes Vanderslice and the two musicians he’s bringing along with him will help amp up the intensity in the latter stages of the film and bring it all to a nice “crescendo.”

His biggest challenge has been in finding that perfect balance between when a score should directly and forcefully impact the film, and when it should take more of a quieter backseat.

“Hopefully there will be sound almost the entire time, just because it’s hard for me to imagine dropping in and out of a silent movie completely,” he says. “When a soundtrack drops out of a current film, it’s fine because there’s dialogue. If the sound drops out of a silent movie, there’s dead silence.”

Whatever the result, Darnielle says this is a one-and-done type deal and has no plans to do anything with the score after this one live performance.

“I like things that exist and then stop,” he says. “So yeah, this will be it.”


Tues/14, 8 p.m.; $17–$22.50

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 561-5000