John Garden, the Scissor Sisters musical director, takes on the classic silent movie’s dinosaur crunching score
There’s a wonderful feeling looking at science-fiction of the past, especially when there’s a handcrafted element to the production of the movie. In the case of The Lost World, a movie adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, where a professor leads an exhibition into the jungle to prove dinosaurs exist, you’ve got an example of pioneering stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien that set the industry standard for what was to follow, namely his second masterpiece, King Kong.
O’Brien created a jaw clenching fever amongst his bewildered audiences’ imagination that CGI remakes of the movie have struggled to match. The only thing missing is the original 1920s soundtrack orchestra… which is where musical director John Garden enters center stage. Known for working with the Scissor Sisters, Alison Moyet and Ke$ha the musical director tailored a live soundtrack for an epic battle for supremacy between species.
Dazed Digital: How does directing the Scissor Sisters live performances or composing the musical Tales of The City compare to directing the music to a silent film?
John Garden: There is a lot of freedom working on a silent movie score and performing it solo. With the Scissor Sisters, there is less room for improvisation live, so the focus becomes about perfecting the group performance over many nights until you feel nearly invincible as a band. I learnt a lot about programming synths from Babydaddy, so a lot of that knowledge has naturally carried over into The Lost World and Tales of the City. With a musical like Tales, a lot of the composition has to drive specific plot or character developments, so there is an obvious similarity there with a movie score; certain themes attach themselves to characters or scenarios which can lead you down unexpected avenues musically. The story is always important, even with Scissor Sisters - Jake normally has a story going on in his head that he needs to communicate somehow through the stage show.
DD: What led you to create a synth heavy piece with a Bladerunner or Star Wars style feel?
John Garden: When I first watched the film I had such strong feelings of memory from my childhood, I wanted to explore that. I remember as a child not really understanding that the films I saw in 1982 weren't all necessarily made in 1982. So on seeing a film from 1925 for the first time in 1982, in my mind it wouldn't have seemed out of place if it had a score by Moroder or Vangelis. Obviously Star Wars has a symphonic score, but the drama of the music is always inspiring, there are so many great melodic themes in there.
DD: Do you think the 1970s and 1980s had a clearer unified vision of what the future would look like? More so than we’ve had in the 1990s or 2000s?
John Garden: That is a huge question! In terms of movies, I think we are now living in the future that was designed for us in the movies of the 70s and 80s, and there isn't much that can be imagined in a movie that can't be made in reality now - look at the swipe screens from Minority Report - I saw a demonstration of a real one in a TED talk recently. Modern space opera - like the Star Wars prequels - has to push the envelope further every time now, because we are already so much closer to the future imagined in the original 70s Star Wars. I loved Duncan Jones' Moon, because the design gave such a strong nod to the 70s/80s, but the ideas and concepts in the story were still fresh.
DD: Is the set-up you have to play live designed for improvisation?
John Garden: Definitely. So far each performance has been an evolution of the one before it. There are new themes that present themselves every time I sit with the film from start to finish. I've taken the laptop out of the current setup. Partly because I don't like relying on just one laptop if there's no backup, but I think it also might be a nod to the 1982 thing again. All I have is a bunch of synthesisers, one guitar, and a lot of midi cables. There are sounds programmed to correspond with each scene, but the notes that I play are never set in stone. I think anyone who saw one of the performances in June this year would notice quite a few changes by now.
DD: If you could pick any movie to re-soundtrack, which would it be?
John Garden: At the moment I've already started work on a score for another silent movie which I hope to tour next year, but if I had to choose any other movie I would probably say Brazil by Terry Gilliam, it's such a fantastic film.
The Lost World, Sunday 25th - Barbican Cinema, London