Facing the music

Andrew Desmond on Freya Tingley, Rutger Hauer, Alexis Maingaud and The Sonata

by Jennie Kermode

Andrew Desmond on the set of The Sonata
Andrew Desmond on the set of The Sonata Photo: courtesy of Andrew Desmond

Screening at this year's Frightfest, Andrew Desmond's handsome occult thriller The Sonata made quite an impression. It's the story of young violinist Rose (played by Freya Tingley) who learns that her estranged father, a famous composer who spent his later years in obscurity, has passed away, leaving her his mansion in France. Visiting with the intention of selling the property, she discovers that that's not all he's left her - there's a piece of music there, apparently waiting for her, which just might be a work of genius. To decipher it, however, she has to follow a series of clues which gradually lead her - and her manager Charles - into very dark places. It's a remarkably polished feature début and I asked Andrew what led him to take on something so ambitious in the first place.

Rose makes herself at home
Rose makes herself at home Photo: FrightFest

"Everything started with a conversation I had with Arthur Morin, my co-writer on the film, about the fact that we had never really seen a satisfying genre film where the playing of a piece of music is the element which sparks and triggers something strange, scary and supernatural," he says. "As big fans of Gothic thrillers, horror films and HP Lovecraft, we began to think about this and started writing The Sonata as a short film which was called Rose at the time. Little by little, the story grew bigger and bigger and, encouraged by my producer Laurent Fumeron, it slowly turned into a full length feature film. I was personally driven and compelled by the concept and the musical aspect of the story but also by the visual potential we had at hand."

It couldn't achieve what it does without the contribution of composer Alexis Maingaud. Were they working on it together from the start?

"I've actually known Alexis for over ten years now," he replies. "We met as students and started working together on some of my very first short films at the time. When this project came to be, I of course couldn't get the musical aspect wrong considering the importance it has in the story. We at first started looking around for various different composers to work on the film before discussing the matter with Alexis. He sent me a short three minute test which he composed specially for the film and ultimately turned out to be the best possible person imaginable for the job. The music had to be both scary, strange and also seductive, somewhere in between Bernard Herrmann and James Newton Howard but with his own personal style tying everything together. I am personally very happy and proud of our collaboration and truly hope to be able to work again with him in the near future."

Rose is troubled by strange visions
Rose is troubled by strange visions Photo: FrightFest

How important was the setting - in terms of the French location and the house itself - in setting the tone for the story?

"I wanted the film to be set in a country where the main character, Rose, didn't fully understand everything going on around her, in a similar way to some of Roman Polanski's films such as Frantic or The Ninth Gate. There's something slightly unnerving and unsettling with not being able to understand fully the language of the place you evolve in and which, on a more personal level, happened to me as a Brit growing up in France as a child. The actual house and main location was of course of paramount importance as well considering the film is a Gothic thriller and not only had to appear dark and moody but also reflect to some extent the personality of Rutger's Hauer's character, Richard Marlowe [Rose's father]."

How did he go about casting the film?

"For Rose's character, I wanted someone who wasn't your average, everyday looking person and Freya Tingley definitely has that quality as well as being a great actress. I had seen her in Hemlock Grove on Netflix and thought she would be perfect for the part. She also has that pure, benign quality I was looking for but also a much darker and stranger side to her which I was seeking. For Charles, I needed a middle aged, charismatic actor who could come up with the intensity and ambivalence required for the character and I was lucky enough to work with Simon Abkarian; He's one of the best actors in France, an amazing professional and a very loveable guy who I can't thank enough for taking part in this project. For the supporting roles, I had a wonderful cast of British actors including James Faulkner, Matt Barber and Christopher Brand who all play small but important parts in the story."

Catching the melody
Catching the melody Photo: FrightFest

Rutger Hauer has a small but pivotal role in the film. What was it like working with him on one of his last performances?

"To play Richard Marlowe, I wanted a recognisable face for the audience and an actor who was not only charismatic but also mysterious. Rutger Hauer had those wonderful blue, electric eyes that could shoot straight through you when talking to someone along with a deep and captivating voice. He was therefore perfect for the role and a joy to work with, a true rock star and a very funny (and slightly crazy but in a good way) guy. In spite of working only a few days with him, we remained in contact long after the film and I was very sad to hear of his passing. I will miss him very much."

This was one of the most beautifully shot and technically impressive films at the year's Frightfest. Does he feel that it's important to show people that horror can be as elegant and polished as any other genre?

"Thank you!" he says. "I am very proud of the whole visual aspect of the film and my collaboration with director of photography Janis Eglitis. To me, Gothic horror is one of the most visual genres around, allowing the filmmakers to play around with various different stylistic devices and it was important for me to create a dark, elegant and moody atmosphere to bathe the story and its characters in. Most horror films nowadays are monochromatic and desaturated and we here wanted to bring a little more colour into the equation while also remaining true to the darkness of the story."

The Sonata poster
The Sonata poster

The occult themes and symbology in the film are very detailed. How did he approach researching this side of the story?

"To my knowledge based on research for the script, the link between music and the occult goes way back to the Seventeenth Century where various people believed in the idea that music could possibly hide mystical powers. Sir Victor's character in the film is inspired by this idea but the cult he talks about, the famulus order, is fictitious. The music symbols in the script however are real and actually exist (although not for the same reasons as in the film) but were tweaked by us, including by my producer Laurent Fumeron, who has a very good knowledge of music."

How did he feel about the film screening at Frightfest?

"I'm so happy and excited that the film was selected and screened at Frightfest. It's an amazing audience with genuine genre fans and I am also personally very happy the film gets to be screened in London where I grew up. Regarding other film festivals, The Sonata has so far been screened in several different international festivals including Fantasporto in Portugal, BIFFF in Brussels, Fantasfestival in Rome, BIFAN in Italy, Popcorn Frights in Florida and will soon be screened at Film Quest in Utah. There are more to come but which I unfortunately can't talk about yet.

"I am currently working on several new projects and scripts including a science fiction film which will hopefully be the next to get made in the nearby future if all goes well, fingers crossed. I want to continue making films in the elevated genre space which explore new worlds and original stories, especially at the moment where this sort of film seems to be witnessing a rebirth and thriving more and more with filmgoers."

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