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Paint Your Wagon 

Music for movies: Better a dramatic feature than the "wall-to-wall talking" of a documentary

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
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With movies like Coming to Light, Regret to Inform, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse to his credit, Todd Boekelheide is the composer of choice for Bay Area documentary makers. But he typically faces a major constraint: "The music often has to accommodate almost wall-to-wall talking," he explains. "One of the challenges is to write interesting, supportive music that doesn't distract. Smoother textures don't draw attention from the dialogue as much as spiky, irregular textures. Piano and other percussive sounds, and complicated passage-work, can give the music a kind of 'Hey, look at me!' quality." The Berkeley composer gets to play with fancier musical ideas when he works on dramatic features, which is what happened when director Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God) asked him to score her Showtime flick The Outsider, a western starring Naomi Watts as a Montana Quaker sheltering a wounded gunfighter.

"Randa had a couple of spots where she wanted to use a Norwegian folk piece from a wonderful album called Nordisk Sang," Boekelheide recalls. "It features a vocalist named Pernille Anker, a pure and beautiful soprano, and Hans Brimi playing fiddle in a very raw, clean style. I wanted this to feel completely natural in the midst of my score, so I wrote some wordless vocal parts and hired a local musician, Aina Kemanis, to sing them. Likewise, I worked with local violinist and fiddler Jeremy Cohen to echo the Brimi style in featured spots throughout the film."

Regarding documentaries, Boekelheide notes, "In the mix, the music will be turned down almost to the level of inaudibility. But in dramatic pictures, various scenes can be given over to music." The Outsider airs Saturday, Nov. 16, at 11:30 a.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 19, at 10:30 a.m. on Showtime.

Damnation Alley S.F. IndieFest founder and director Jeff Ross was doing a fine Erich von Stroheim impersonation a couple of Sundays ago: strutting here and there, snapping his riding crop, pep-talking the cast and berating the crew, then squinting into the sun until the light was exactly how he wanted it to be to lens Scene 32. Well, OK, the shoot for the 60-second trailer for the fifth IndieFest (Feb. 6-16, 2003) was nothing like that. Ross and Mark Atkins (director of Night Orchid and last year's trailer) cooked up a Mad Max-ish scenario, with people lining up to barter their valuables for ultra-valuable drinking water. "A laptop earns a splash in the face," Ross explains. "Then the hero walks up with two big film cans with the IndieFest logo on the side." Needless to say, he scores the most water. The tag line: "Quench your thirst for independent film."

Although he shot on 35mm (in the "urban wasteland" east of Third Street), Ross figures to spend a mere $700. How? "Beg, borrow, and steal," he says, citing the independent filmmaker's creed. Ross anticipates that, as in other years, beginning in mid-January the Castro, Roxie, Red Vic, and Landmark theaters will show the trailer. Meanwhile, the weeknight IndieFest microcinema at Jezebel's Joint on Larkin (at Turk) keeps rolling, with the Bay Area premieres of David Warfield's Ocean Park (Nov. 21-22) and local moviemaker Marc Rokoff's Unspeakable (Nov. 28-29), a portrait of the artist the Rev. Steven Johnson Leyba, who's also an ordained priest in the Church of Satan.

Pennies From Heaven The International Documentary Association named Lourdes Portillo's Señorita Extraviada (with a score by Todd Boekelheide, incidentally) one of the two top documentaries of the year. ... Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, originally scheduled to appear at the Roxie last month with his movie In Shifting Sands, will field questions at the 5:45 and 8 p.m. screenings on Thursday, Nov. 14. ... The brilliant Irish actress and UC Berkeley artist-in-residence Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot), starring onstage in Medea at Zellerbach Playhouse through Nov. 24, will be in discussion with director Deborah Warner after The Waste Land (1996) at the Pacific Film Archive on Sunday, Nov. 17.

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Michael Fox

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