Striking the right note at Fastnet Film Festival

Carl Davis has scored such films as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and comes to the Fastnet Film Festival with his new Charlie Chaplin project, writes Ellie O’Byrne

Prolific film and TV composer Carl Davis will return to the Fastnet Film Festival.

MAYBE it’s the scenery or the easy-going hospitality, or maybe it’s the happy coincidence that in past years, Fastnet Film Festival in Schull has been blessed with dreamy, early-summer weather, but the annual festival in the fishing village with no cinema attracts an extraordinary number of repeat visits from high-profile guests from the world of film.

Prolific film and TV composer Carl Davis is amongst those only too delighted to return this year. “It’s my second invite, and I couldn’t resist,” Davis says. “I found it such an extraordinary place, in such a beautiful setting and so full of people with enthusiasm.”

From The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Naked Civil Servant, Davis’ compositions for film and TV series have received many awards in his 50-year career, and yet he has also found time to write ballets, operas and countless other works. At 80, he’s working as hard as ever.

Worlds apart from the cliché of composers as hermit-like creatures who require solitude and silence, he relishes collaboration as an energising force. “To use an old-fashioned phrase, it’s a turn-on. The music is stimulating and the company is stimulating; it’s thrilling to work with people with whom you are compatible; that’s perhaps the most fun of all.”

One of his better-known collaborations was with Paul McCartney, with whom he wrote the ‘Liverpool Oratio’, and they have recently worked together again, this time on a song for the forthcoming Raymond Briggs feature animation, Ethel and Ernest. “It was nice seeing him again after a long, long gap. We worked together for three years on the ‘Liverpool Oratorio’, which premiered in 1991. Paul wrote a song for Ethel and Ernest; suddenly we were in a room together, writing a song, which was really quite beautiful.”

Married to English actress Jean Boht, Davis is a New Yorker, but has lived in the UK since the 1960s. Another stand-out collaboration for Davis was with his filmmaker daughter, Hannah Davis, for her 2004 comedy Mothers and Daughters, which truly was a family affair; Boht starred in one of the most critically acclaimed roles of her career.

“It’s thrilling to have two generations working on the same project,” he says. “She was very tough on me: ‘Too long!’ ‘too short!’ or, ‘just wrong!’ I found it very funny taking notes from my daughter.

“But when you write for the contemporary film world, you can have no ego. There’s make-up, costume, props, set, and music: you’re a part of the production, working on a creative team.”

It’s certainly true that film audiences are often unaware of how great a part a film’s score has in creating emotional and dramatic impact. In his passion for composing and conducting for silent films, though, Davis has free reign to let music come to the fore.

Working frequently with filmmaker and film historian Kevin Brownlow, Davis composes original scores for films including The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and the Brownlow-restored five-hour epic, Napoleon (1927). Charlie Chaplin holds a special place in his affections, having recorded compositions for all 12 of Chaplin’s 1916 two-reelers for the Mutual Film Corporation, collectively known as The Mutuals.

“He signed an extraordinary contract in 1916 to do 12 films in 12 months. They certainly are wonderful films. I discovered that, because he had to work at such a pace to deliver the project, he fell back on his own life and his own experiences very often. If arranged in a particular way, you get a sort of miniature biography from scenes from these films.

“For me, this was a very special opportunity for a composer: to have a blank canvas, and the whole area of what was going to be on that canvas — what people would listen to as opposed to just watch — was very important. They were never meant to be silent, and what was going to fill the silence was music.”

He sounds so energised, and so full of enthusiasm; doesn’t he ever dream of retiring? “I can’t see it. It arises as a thought if situations are too frustrating or physically demanding, but I’m not going to. It would take a lot to really stop me; the only impediment is physical,” he laughs: “But it doesn’t take much strength to lift a pencil.”

  • Carl Davis appears at Fastnet Film Festival, presenting ‘Chaplin: Scoring the Mutuals’ and performing a live piano accompaniment of his composition for The Goose Woman (1925). See: www.fastnetfilmfestival.com

Other Schull highlights

The Program: A thriller charting cyclist Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins and journalist David Walsh’s battle to uncover the truth about sporting history’s biggest doping scandal, The Program stars Chris O’Dowd and Ben Foster. The feature-length biopic is directed by Stephen Frears, who will also be on hand to present Florence Foster Jenkins at a separate event.

Friday 26th, Palace Cinema

The Tales of the Tribes: Formerly Fastnet Short Film Festival, this year organisers have renamed the four-day event Fastnet Film Festival, no doubt due the quality and range of feature-length films on the programme. The festival’s title may have dropped its shorts, so to speak, but a diverse array of international and local short films still form the backbone. Introduced by Rolling Stones album artist and Schull resident Keith Payne, The Tales of the Tribes is a 30 minute programme of animations based on indigenous Indian stories.

Thursday 25th at 12pm, Palace Cinema

Stories in your Pocket: Filmmakers and documentarians are turning in increasing numbers to their smartphones to record footage and audio for their projects. There will be a host of workshops and other industry events for aspiring filmmakers and students. Neil Leyden, the head of RTE.ie, holds a masterclass in democratised content production, covering steps to create projects and build an online audience. 

Thursday 25th at 4.30pm, Plaza Cinema

Animation workshops and masterclass: For wannabe Walt Disneys of six and up, Rory Conway of Cartoon Saloon will hold two events next Saturday at the National School: a workshop exploring how shapes evolve into complex characters, and an animation masterclass with a preview of their upcoming feature, The Breadwinner.

Shapeshifters character design, 10.30am; Animation Masterclass at 2pm.

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