Feb 28, 2012

Interview with Mike Dubue of the HILOTRONS

Mike Dubue is a musican, composer and a member of the Ottawa-based band HILOTRONS.

Paul Gordon of the Lost Dominion Screening Collective interviewed Mike about composing music for silent films. Mike and the HILOTRONS will be playing live March 28th at the Bytowne Cinema as part of the Canadian Cult Revue film series.

Mike Dubue (right) conducting Night of the Living Dead LIVE.  
Interview recorded (February 27th 2012)

PG: So Mike, you have been involved in scoring for films for a while now, but how did you get involved with scoring silent films?

MD: Well, it started with Metropolis and the 2009 opening of the Mayfair Theatre. It was sort of a hefty idea as it’s a really long film, but we said "Hey, let’s try this" and well, I became really addicted to scoring silent films.

PG: What was involved with scoring Metropolis considering it's over 2 hours long. It’s a well-known film, what did it take to pull it off?

MD: Well, the original score for Metropolis is brilliant so we didn’t really stray far away from it. However, it is arranged for an eighty piece Orchestra and we were a five-piece band. So we sort of broke it down but we had a lot to work with already, so really the job ahead of time was learning the material and doing a lot of rearranging and a slight bit of writing. Metropolis gave us a good scope of what the work is like to score a silent film. Whether we want to start from scratch and score it note for note or if we want to work with existing material.

PG: What were the instruments used for Metropolis and who were the musicians?

MD: Drums and percussion - Mike Essoudry. Paul Hogan played electric guitar. Linsey Wellman played bass clarinet, alto flute, flute, and alto sax. I played left-hand bass, right-hand organ, some synths, and bass.

PG: Since Metropolis you have scored a number of silent films including running a silent film festival. Can you name some of those films for us?

MD: Sure. So Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Rail Rodder, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , Back to God’s Country, The Bear, Boy and Dog, Carry on Sergeant! (1928), Man from Glengarry, Tim’s Tiny Tooth, Wireless Telephony, Graphite Mining in Calabogie and Night of the Living Dead.

PG: Tell me a bit about Night of the Living Dead, that’s a bit of a different one because it’s not a silent film.

MD: The idea was to work with films in the public domain that weren’t silent but turn them into silent films in the sense of turning off the sound and then recreating the full sound design live. So I’d have voice actors on microphones in sync with actors on screen, then foley artists in sync doing all the sound effects with the film. Then I had a small chamber group orchestra of five strings, bass clarinet, guitar, prepared piano, vibes, and flute. It was all performed live to the film.

PG: Night of the Living Dead was one of your most successful shows including the shows at Bluesfest.

MD: That’s right, we did three shows at the Mayfair and two at Bluesfest.

PG: Are you ever going to do it again?

MD: Yep, when we can afford to do it. (Laughs)

PG: Ok what has been your favorite film to score so far?

MD: Well, Night of the Living Dead - it’s a tossup of three for three different reasons.

The Night of the Living Dead was really interesting because I directed a lot of how it actually worked live...I transcribed the whole script and created one of the first post-production scripts for the film because there was none in existence for whatever reason. Then I got to make a real Foley score, the way you would score Foley for something like an animated cartoon, like Looney Tunes. So that was kind of exciting...I got to work with the original music that George Romero had used but because it was all public domain I got to rearrange a bunch of ideas because the music editing in that film has always been kinda choppy. So I got to work with existing music but also rearrange, recompose. It was kind of fun to amalgamate it all together.

Then Cagliari is my favorite because I got to score it note for note. Then Back to God’s Country - it’s an original score but I kind of used lots of different music that would have been played or existed in Canada at the time, whether it be Canadian folk music, Acadian music, different Klezmer music.

PG: So right now you’re doing a mini tour with the HILOTRONS of Caligari plus four Canadian short films. How’s that going, and what’s involved with that?

MD: So far it’s going alright. We're trying to strategically book it for time and cost efficiency for the band on the road, because it’s a trying production to bring on the road. Trying might be the wrong word as we are enjoying it, there’s nothing trying about it - but it’s a lot of rehearsing to get it to the point where it is. It’s hard to treat the shows just like band shows so we are being selective of where we are playing. Then with the material itself it’s fun because with the four films as a band we are able to split the composing duties to everybody, we are all able to write for the films. So that’s a nice opportunity for the band.

PG: Speaking about the band, the HILOTRONS are pretty much a rock band, so what do they think about playing and composing for silent films?

MD: Well, the cool thing about this situation is that a lot of us come from and have somewhat of a background with scoring for cinema or live theatre, or dance. So we were able to utilize that experience in working with visual imagery. The band is good at wearing two hats, the hat of being a pop band playing on stage in rock concert format or we can work with a film, sort of like a chamber ensemble.

PG: Any major future plans?

MD: Well - as much work as I can do with the silent films. As much as I’m a musician, I’m also a real big film buff. A lot of what I’m trying to do with the silent films isn’t really necessarily about the music. The music is only there to kind of heighten the films and bring some attention to the actual picture. For me it’s all about the cinema and about people seeing the stuff because otherwise they might not see it without this opportunity. It’s exciting for the people to watch, especially the Canadian stuff that we are working with.

PG: Do you think silent films are having a bit of a renaissance? With The Artist winning Best Picture and Hugo.

MD: Yes, absolutely. Here is the interesting thing about the silent era: it is what it is and when talkies came out cinema became a different art form. Needless to say the silent era was pretty much completely squashed just because industry standards had changed, which is fine because we have had amazing cinema since then, but the art of the way silent films were made was kind of left unexplored. 30 years of the silent era is really not a long time for any art form so hopfully the renaissance that you mention maybe has a lot to do with people wanting to re-explore the idea an see what we can do with it now.

PG: Cool. Thanks for the talk and I’m looking forward to the at the Bytowne Cinema in Ottawa, March 28th, 2012.

Man From Glengarry Live