Gary Lucas was born to make live soundtracks for movies—even if others might know him for his work as guitarist and producer for the likes of Jeff Buckley and Don Van Vliet.
Checking in on his cellphone from New York City’s Hudson Street, where he’s strolling with Bob Dylan archivist Mitch Blank, Lucas remembers being nine or 10 and screening 8mm versions of classic horror flicks for his neighbourhood friends. Flash forward a few years, and one of his first jobs as a musician was creating a soundtrack for a New York State Department of Forestry documentary, Aquatic Ecology. The narrator? Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone renown.
“So that was my first taste of it, and I liked it,” recalls Lucas, the mastermind behind one of two live-music film events at this year’s Chutzpah Festival. “And how I got into it in a big way was back in 1989, I got a commission from what was called New Music America, for the Next Wave Festival. It was like, ‘Please come up with a project that involves another art form and your music.’ So I thought, ‘Hey, it would be really cool to score a silent movie. What about The Golem?’ ”
Lucas laughs, remembering how he used to gawk at stills from Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s 1920 classic in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. “I was like, ‘Wow! A Jewish Frankenstein monster! How cool is that?’ Plus, I worked for Captain Beefheart for five years, and Don used to say to me ‘Don’t you wish you had a golem?’ So that was encouraging.”
For this year’s edition of Chutzpah, Vancouver’s annual celebration of Jewish culture, Lucas is leaving his golem at home and focusing instead on accompanying James Whale’s Frankenstein and George Melford’s Spanish-language take on Dracula, both from 1931. For both, he’ll blend composition and improvisation, using only his guitar and an array of electronic effects.
“I have themes, but I juggle them; I’m like a silent-movie piano player,” he explains. “I change it up every time I play to keep it fresh, but I never know exactly what I’m going to do.
“What I feel in the room, or what I had for dinner, or whatever, it all goes into these editing decisions in my head as I’m playing. The trick is to try and make it seamless—and not be too obtrusive, where people notice the music at the expense of the narrative and the film. I want to, like, reanimate these dead actors, basically, and make them live again.”
Elsewhere at this year’s fest, reanimation is also a factor in The Rescue. But where Lucas’s connection to vintage horror films is primarily aesthetic, brothers Alvaro and Boris Castellanos have a genetic connection to their subject. The filmmakers’ second feature celebrates their late grandfather José Arturo Castellanos, whose most important legacy is how he saved thousands of Jewish lives by issuing forged identity documents while working as the Salvadoran consul general in Switzerland during the Second World War. To make it, though, the brothers first had to confront their own tangled family history, which included estrangement from their father, José’s son, and a childhood move to Canada during the worst of their country’s bloody civil war.
“I usually tell people that making the film was a very expensive form of therapy for me, because it allowed me—and I think my brother, too—to get over some things that personally we hadn’t dealt with, some feelings,” Boris Castellanos tells the Straight from his Toronto home. “So it was liberating in that way, because we can now embrace our family and we can be proud of our lineage. Whereas before, we were not proud, and we had some resentment.”
The brothers Castellanos—musicians themselves, and successful event producers in Ontario—are billing The Rescue as “a film concerto”. Along with several guest musicians, pianist Boris and bassist Alvaro will appear on-stage during screenings, but they won’t play during the entire documentary. Instead, they’ll accompany the photographic montages that punctuate the interviews with Holocaust survivors and Castellanos family members, using the nostalgic sounds of danzón music to evoke the 1940s in which the action is set.
“While we were editing, we were thinking to ourselves, ‘This is great. This is an incredible story—but there’s still something missing,’ ” Boris explains. “And I think what was missing was my brother and I, our own kind of soul. We were thinking, ‘How do we make this film our own, and how do we tell the story in a way that no one but us could tell it?’ That’s when we decided to bring in the music. ‘Instead of making just a documentary film that people go and watch,’ we said, ‘why don’t we make it an experiential, kind of expanded film piece?’ And when we screened the film for the first time everybody loved it, so we knew we were barking up the right tree.”
Gary Lucas will present Frankenstein and Spanish Dracula at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on October 30. The Rescue plays the same venue on November 23.