Ahead of the Screen Music Awards, which take place in Sydney this Wednesday, we caught up with film and theatre composer Christopher de Groot to discuss his nomination for his work on the low budget film Sororal.
You worked with director Sam Barrett on a film noir project in the past (Esoterica). How did your approach on this film differ to how you ended up doing Sororal?
I was brought on board the Esoterica project quite late in the process, the film was locked and sound design was well under way. At Sam’s suggestion I watched a few films that had a significant influence on his work. I then started to compose and after two months began the first recording session. Esoterica’s score was performed by a live orchestra of 23 players (woodwinds, brass, harp, piano, percussion, strings), which were recorded all at once over three sessions. By contrast Sororal had a much longer lead up – I was one of the first people to read the screenplay. Sam and I began watching films and exploring various musical avenues before the film was even shot. I visited the set on a number of occasions and played a very small non-speaking role in one scene. The music was composed over a year and recorded in four sections over several months. The guitar and analogue synthesizer parts were recorded in my tiny bedroom, the brass section at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts Music Auditorium, the choir at St Paul’s Church, and the rhythm section at Soundfield Studio.
Focusing on each musical section in turn ensured we could get great performances with little rehearsal. We could also do things like layer two choir takes on top of each other to make the choir sound like 16 (at the end of each session we took those layered takes and played them back through large speakers in the church and recorded the playback. In the end we added this to the two 8-voice takes to make it sound like 32 voices!)
In short, I had more time to write and record Sororal than Esoterica.
What did you know about the Giallo genre before you began working on this project (perhaps without realising it)
To be honest, I knew absolutely nothing. When Sam first mentioned giallo films I thought he was talking about a director named giallo!
– I understand you started watching quite a lot of the genre to prepare for the role. What are some of the highlights of the genre (in terms of the films themselves)?
I watch a lot of giallo films in preparation. The big one most people will know of is Dario Argento’s Suspiria  which is the first film in his ‘three mothers’ trilogy and Alice Cooper’s all time favorite horror film! Argento is the undisputed king of giallo. Mario Bava is the father of giallo and is also excellent. Some of the films I watched in preparation for Sororal that made an impression on me were Bird With The Crystal Plumage [Argento, 1970], Blood & Black Lace [Bava, 1964], Hatchet For The Honeymoon [Bava, 1969], Shock [Bava, 1977] Pieces [Simon, 1982], Who Saw Her Die? [Barilli, 1972] and my favorite Torso [Martino, 1973]
The word “guerrilla recording” is used a lot in regards to the process of making this soundtrack… even if you’d had a budget though, do you think you’d have done it any other way? And if you had, would you have gotten anything near the same result?
It definitely was guerrilla recording. Score recordist Ben Morris and I snuck around The West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in the summer break recording the brass section, we borrowed mics and cables and I think we even borrowed and moved a whole mixing desk!
One of my initial ideas was to arrange the ensemble around the acoustic space and record it with ambisonic microphones. The result would have been a spacial score that would come at the audience from all directions in 5.1 surround sound. Although we had potential access to ambisonic microphones, limited time in our recording locations made this idea impossible.
Ultimately the extra money would have been spent on time – more rehearsal time and more days of recording and mixing. The choir was made up of eight young Perth music students who were fairly unreliable. Many of the singers were absent from scheduled rehearsals and late for the recording sessions. One singer had to leave early from the first session to have a driving lesson! The choir sessions were the most stressful part of the recording process – I was scheduled to leave Perth to move to Melbourne the week we wrapped up the choir recordings so I couldn’t afford to push the sessions back or book additional ones, we had to crash through or crash.
I can only speak highly of the choir’s performance though; they were amazing. The singers had to navigate through some fairly tricky vocal parts and came through with the goods.
What surprised you most about yourself musically through the process of making the soundtrack?
I don’t think I was surprised at all; I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
What was the hardest aspect of completing this project?
It’s all the logistical things really, finding and booking players and trying to predict how long it will take and how much time will be needed to get the recording done. When there’s not a lot of money to spend I have to be pretty accurate with the timeline so that everyone knows where they stand.
How do you think the way you recorded the music for Sororal will influence the way you record music in the future?
Every film project is different and requires a methodology specific to that film. My most recent score (The Burning Kiss) was all recorded in my bedroom-sized studio in Melbourne, a completely different approach. Sororal is an amazingly bold and daring film and required a similarly bold and daring score. I think Sororal pushed me to be even more organized with my rehearsals and recording sessions than I was on previous projects. I’ll continue to strive to be as organized as possible; it’s the only way.
What are your thoughts on how the film came together in its final form?
Independent filmmaking is tough; it takes such a long time for the project to move through all the different stages from writing and shooting, to post production and then to finished film. For an indie film to even have a chance at success all the key creatives have to over-deliver. I think the Sororal team did that and then some! Our VFX team was one man called Brendan Seals who created a 3D body scanner out of a DVD laser and Lego technics! How’s that for over delivering? His work on Sororal had a direct effect on his securing a job at Hollywood VFX company Luma Pictures. Although the film has no big name actors it definitely punches above its weight, it’s no wonder genre fans from around the world are taking an interest. All we need now is for an Australian distributor to take a chance on it!
How do you feel it’s been received – both as a film and as a soundtrack?
Sororal has been very well received at genre film festivals around the world. The response to the soundtrack has been particularly surprising. Before it was released by soundtrack label Screamworks I had inquiries from giallo fans in Europe, Central America and South America all wanting to know how they could get a copy of the soundtrack! It’s a shame that Australian films have to make waves overseas before Australian audiences take notice. I hope over time that changes though.
What does the Screen Music Awards nomination mean to you?
It means more than anyone can imagine. The decades of hard work I’ve put in as a composer and musician, the huge sacrifices I’ve made for my art and my insistence on using live musicians and ensembles over sample libraries has been validated by this nomination. Sororal, a film with a tiny budget and no name actors has been nominated in Australia’s most prestigious screen music awards against a Nicole Kidman film and a Naomi Watts film. This is HUGE! I truly hope that this nomination can secure a cinematic release for Sororal.
You’ve been working in theatre of late, on “Persona” with Sam and on Zola’s Théresé Raquin. What have these experiences been like?
Working on theatre shows is a lot of fun. I performed live for both Persona and TR, the Persona season overlapped with the TR rehearsals which took a lot out of me physically. I’d finish a five-hour rehearsal and then drive across town to perform Persona. Theatre is a much more fluid medium, no two performances are the same so your music has to be flexible. Theatre requires a slightly different compositional approach; you often need to create fragments that are easily interchangeable and repeatable and that can adapt and move with each performance.
What is coming up next for you?
I am currently working on a top-secret project in the opera sphere. I’m also working on a few commissioned ensemble works and finishing up mixing The Burning Kiss score.
The APRA Screen Music Awards take place in Sydney on Wednesday. Stay tuned to The Iris for the winners announcements and more coverage!