Flimmakers revive classic, epic tale
The makers of the Slamdance Festival feature "The Call of Cthulhu" went to great lengths to wake up an old short story in the silent, black and white form, typical of its author’s era.
The adventure articulated by H.P Lovecraft, considered by many to be the father of gothic horror film, was initially written in 1926. "The Call of Cthulhu" calls for more than 50 actors and locations around the world, on land and at sea, and was therefore long thought of as "unfilmable."
Fans of Lovecraft since high school, Sean Branney and Andrew Leman are co-founders of the H.P. Lovecraft Hisotrical Society and each year take a break from producing plays at their Los Angeles Theatre Banshee to make their way to Oregon every October for The H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival.
Branney adapted the screenplay from Lovecraft’s short story, and Leman directed it. The 47-minute film spent 18 months in production, and premiered at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon in 2005.
Though Leman admits many filmmakers remake Lovecraftian tales with dialogue, he and Branney felt to create the true sense of creepiness and dread prescribed in the original form, the film needed to be silent.
"Lovecraft was not interested in dialogue," Leman explains. "And keeping words silent was a way of distilling the atmosphere." The time period between World War I and World War II always fascinated Leman, he says.
"Those years were a time when America was optimistic and a time of romance," he explains. "There was still mystery in the world. Now, unless you go to the bottom of the ocean, everything has already been discovered It’s hard to shake anyone’s beliefs anymore."
The film explores the path of a young man who appears to have gone mad. While going through his great-uncle’s old files, he comes across a series of newspaper articles and an interview with a young man’s account of the "Cthulhu Cult." The cult, the man discovers, has to do with an ancient race of creatures from the bottom of the ocean waiting to be unearthed to take over the world. Leman calculates shooting took a total of 14 days, while the rest of production the bulk of which meant building sets for the multiple locations took 18 months. The filmmakers used their own "Mythoscope" process, a combination of vintage and modern techniques to produce the film, constructing miniatures and models to create locations in a warehouse space.
Shooting film without sound was an advantage when it came to directing, says Leman.
"Because we were shooting a silent film, I was able to talk to actors as the scene was going on It’s definitely a dream to a lot of directors that they wish they could have a remote control on actors to guide scenes," he says.
"The shooting schedule was very fast. In most cases, scenes took maybe one or two takes." Since "The Call of Cthulhu" does not record the voices of actors or sound, the accompanying soundtrack becomes a powerful element.
"Of course a silent film is never really silent," Leman observes. "The music was crucial and helps cue the audience."
Four composers wrote the music using the Internet to share ideas, he says. Originally, the composers were to work concurrently with the filmmakers, but when one of the composers needed to leave the project early, Leman found Troy Sterling Nies, a composer in North Dakota.
"Troy actually turns out to be a Lovecraft fan himself, and started to write some of the music blind," he said.
Though the music sounds like a full orchestra, it was primarily orchestrated using computer programs like Digital Performer, instead of hiring musicians to play the parts, according to Leman. The premiere screening of "The Call of Cthulu" at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festal in October last year took home the audience award as Best of Show and the jury award as Best Short Film. It has since screened in Croatia, Argentina and Sweden.
"There are a lot of Scandanavian fans of Lovecraft," Leman notes. Some who have seen the film have approached Leman and Branney with allegories for the Bush administration, but Leman says that’s not what he had in mind. It’s a tale that he feels is timeless.
"It’s the tiniest epic in the world," Leman explains. "It’s the story of going up against forces you don’t understand and attempting to come out of the situation with your wits in tact."
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