Modern Robot

Niki Q and A

Interview questions for The List

Is this your first time doing this kind of performance?

I’ve been playing live soundtracks since 2010. I started off with all kinds of video material: industrial films, oddball films, silents, weird cartoons and the like. These were improvised shows, but in 2015, I decided to focus on composing these soundtracks and presenting them to a wider audience.

The first show I took to a fringe was “At the Crossroads”, and it was music composed for Murnau’s 1926 silent film “Faust”. I performed it at Edinburgh Fringe, Orlando Fringe, New York International Fringe, and San Francisco Fringe. “Night of the Living Dead” will be the second film I’ve taken around to fringes.

What drew you to the film in question (and did it involve the words ‘public domain’)?

“Night of the Living Dead” has so many things going for it. I like to work with a movie that has a strong visual language, in this case the iconic zombies and lovely gore. The film was released in 1968, and I like a movie that’s older, without the frenetic pace of something more recent. For the time, making a movie in black and white was unusual, but love that it is.

Most of all, I felt the story of “Night of the Living Dead” was strong. George Romero’s approach is to put his monsters in the everyday world, with everyday people, and that speaks to me.

It’s a big bonus that the film is public domain. I’ll be able to bring it to all sorts of venues, and also it allows me change it and use it as an ingredient.

There’s the film, there’s the music – can audiences expect any extra bits?

Perhaps a heightened sense of mortality and dread as they creep out back into the dark streets of Edinburgh.

What are the challenges of scoring a film, as opposed to just playing a musical performance?

I am also a songwriter, and when I start a song, I take a small idea and develop it until the song seems complete. The song fills itself out, in a way.

With a film score, however, I am seeing the canvas first. The dimensions are there, and they are large. So the challenge is to begin writing material (some of which may work and some discarded) and know that with enough time and concentration, the film score will take form.

How much do you know about the venue you’ll be in, and how it will affect the performance?

I am thrilled to be at ZOO venues. The sanctuary space has steeply raked seats (pews, actually!) that will give everyone a great view of the movie, and the high vaulted ceiling will give us space to make some violent music without blasting people out.

Obviously, you’ll have had this booked in for the Fringe long before the passing of the film’s director, George Romero, in July. It seems odd to think of a zombie movie having something like poignancy, but do you think it might mean a bit more to people now?

My big surprise watching “Night of the Living Dead” was, in fact, its poignancy. It’s not what I thought it would be, and that’s a reason I now enjoy bringing this film to people so much. With George Romero’s death, I think people will come out of curiosity and with some amused nostalgia, and I believe many will find the same surprise. If I can bring out this part of Romero’s work, then I think I’ve have honored his life well.

You mentioned you’ve re-edited the film – to what extent?

The re-edit is significant. As a practical matter, I knew a 60 minute show would be a better fit for a fringe show. That’s a tall order, coming from a 96 minute film. I was concerned that I would lose the pacing, some core parts of it, or disappoint fans of the movie.

In 1968, the New York Times described “Night of the Living Dead” as “grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors”. While I think this wrongly dismisses Duane Jones’ excellent performance, some of the acting is, indeed, not very good. So these are the parts I began editing out. I removed a section with some aggravated scientists and government officials, a staple and trope in horror films that I felt didn’t advance the plot, and kept going from there.

I think what’s left is sharper, and makes more clear the story that George Romero was trying to tell.

How does your soundtrack work with/against the film’s dialogue, sound effects, etc?

Still thinking about the story that’s trying to be told, I left the dialogue in this edit intact. When a character is speaking, I keep the underscoring unobtrusive, and in several parts, leave the dialog bare, as it was in the original.

Dealing with the music in the original was interesting. In some parts, I left it in and wrote to that music. Combining the contemporary sound we are making with the soundtrack is a bit like sampling, and I enjoy the interplay.

In other sections, I didn’t want the original music, but to have the shot make sense, I needed the dialog or foley that was mixed in with it. So I went through the whole movie, lifted out each piece of foley, and for those sections, recycled those sounds to make the sound I wanted to hear.