An arm-less knife thrower on the run from the law; a desperate woman with nowhere to go; a revolution in the depths of space. These are all stories that have been told by The Invincible Czars, a collective of musicians based in Austin. But these aren't the plotlines for concept albums: they're silent films that the Czars have brought back to life with original live scores.
Assembled by Austin musician Josh Robins, The Invincible Czars started out as a group heavily influenced by classical music. The group started building a following in their hometown, thanks to raucous live performances and annual holiday concerts. While writing their original compositions, Robins and keyboardist Bill Petersen (who died in 2014) started working on film scores for silent films. Since then, The Invincible Czars have been taking their silent shows on the road, making a name for themselves performing scores for films like Lon Chaney's The Unknown, Fritz Lang's Destiny, and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Their music is exposing and recontextualizing film classics for generations of film and music fans who didn't grow up with a live organist playing in the move theatre. Their idea isn't to attempt any kind of reinvention of silent movies—some are, unarguably, the most arresting films ever made—rather, they're reinventing the experience of seeing the films in person.
We talked to Leila Henley, who contributes vocals and wind instruments to the Czars sound, about the band's creative process and what they look for when they watch silent movies.
The Czars didn't start out doing silent film scores. What got the group into it? What was it about the process of scoring silent films that intrigued you?
I think Josh had the idea after seeing a few other bands in Austin do silent film scores and thinking, "Oh, I could do better than that." That's what I've heard him say. Because with a lot of bands, they'll just take their existing material—which is often rock songs—and just try to fit it into the movie. And it usually doesn't complement the movie very well. Josh wanted to do something that was more cinematic and truly original, something that was in-between the original silent film scores and something totally modern where you have these bands treating it like it's a music video. Where they just use the movie as a backdrop and play their own songs over it. We're trying to bridge the gap between those two approaches.
When you're watching a silent film, what are the things you look out for in terms of inspiration for the film score? What are the hooks that you thread the score around?
It's good to match what is happening on screen, but I think what really makes a film score good is to underscore the emotional landscape that's happening in the scene at any time. And sometimes that's not immediately apparent so you have to watch the movie five times before you go "oh, this person is supposed to be scared in this scene!" Like The Wind, that's one of the movies that we've done. The Wind is sort of a Western, starring Lillian Gish. Have you seen that one?
I've heard of it, but I haven't seen it yet.
It's really good. I haven't seen many silent films where a woman is the main character. It's interesting because she's caught between these various men in her life and trapped by their whims. And she's terrified by it, because there's nothing she can do on her own. When we were writing the score for it, I argued my case for the movie being about this woman who is tossed about by the winds of fate because she doesn't have any agency. In the original book The Wind is based on, she actually walks off into the desert to die because she has no way out of this situation. Of course, in the movie they change that so she falls in love with one of the dudes instead!
As a group, what's your process for putting a score together?
What used to happen was that mainly Josh and Bill Petersen, our original keyboardist, would look at the movie and work on different scenes when they felt like it. We've gotten more methodical since then—there's spreadsheet action involved now! We watch the movie and break it up into scenes, based on what seems like logical scene changes.
We put those scenes in the spreadsheet and come up with descriptions for the mood of the scene. And then we try to parcel those scenes out to different people. I will say that Josh is by far the main music writer for the group—he does most of it. Phil and I try to fill in here and there—we contribute themes. The thing with themes, is when someone comes up with a theme we'll go "Oh, that's Millicent's theme!" As a group we'll latch onto that theme and try to incorporate those themes into whatever we're working on when that same character or thing is appearing onscreen.
Everyone else can draw from each other's ideas that way, which makes writing easier. It also serves the movie better because if you're watching a silent film, sometimes the continuity is not that great and the story's hard to follow. So with the themes, it's a way of subconsciously reminding you who these characters are and what's going on.
Of all the films the Czars have worked on, which was the hardest?
I wasn't around when they did one of their first silent films, which was this Russian film called Aelita: Queen of Mars. I'd bet that first one was the hardest because not only was the band not familiar with what they were doing, but because that movie jumps around a lot. It's got so many continuity problems that trying to weave everything together so it makes sense for the audience would be very difficult.
There's a scene in Nosferatu that's pretty difficult to score, too. It's where it keeps jumping back and forth from Count Orlok on a boat—it just shows the boat, it doesn't show him, moving slowly through the water—to the main character, Hutter, riding a horse through the forest. They're both going to the same destination but if you're watching that movie for the first time it's hard to get what's going on there.■