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'I fell in love with it': Composer Joe Williams on his original score for Hitchcock's 'The Lodger'

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A still from Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 film 'The Lodger'

“It’s such an unlikely thing, and kind of magical in this way,” says Joe Williams, the artistic director of Austin Classical Guitar, about getting the opportunity to write an original score for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger 88 years after the film’s release. “In 2015, Austin Classical Guitar, led by Matt Hinsley, connected with Alamo Drafthouse – who are longtime collaborators at this point – and they had done one silent film score at this point and they wanted to do another one. Tim League, the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse, loves silent films [and] is a real scholar. And [he] shared about five films with me… and said ‘which one should we do?’”

Williams, who at the time was the composer-in-residence for Austin Classical Guitar, says he quickly picked The Lodger from the list of choices. “And I thought, man, this is it. Hands down this is the one to do. And then I went and watched the movie about, like, I don’t know, 100 times. I fell in love with it,” says. “It’s a silent film and so I watched it without the existing scores and that was really interesting. [I] diagramed the whole movie and then picked some performers who I thought were just out of this world and [I] really trusted and [I] really knew well. I asked Bion Tsang, the cellist – superstar cellist – and professor of cello at UT Austin, as well as my bandmates at the time… and then fashioned the score for their hands and really informed by the narrative that Hitchcock had made.

“You know, I love film but I’m not a scholar,” Williams says. “And certainly silent film was new to me. I’d never heard of the film. Of course I knew Hitchcock and loved his work, but I didn’t even know that he made silent films. And this in fact is his third film, but interestingly enough, he identifies this as the first true Hitchcock film. He himself says The Lodger is the first true Hitchcock film.”

Williams says some of the films on his short list – particularly the comedies of Buster Keaton – wouldn’t have been a good fit for his musical tendencies. “But this movie, it had so much,” he says. “It’s a drama, it’s a mystery. It’s very dark. It’s set in London. There’s a love story, there’s real suspense. And there was just so much to sink my teeth into in terms of musical portrayals that I thought, wow, I can inhabit these atmospheres with my music.”

After spending so much time working with The Lodger, Williams grew to truly love the film. “Hitchcock came to this and he really fashioned a layered reading of this idea of… the mysterious stranger kind of loosely modeled after Jack the Ripper,” he says. “And then a love story on top of that, and all this jealousy between a police chief and maybe the would-be killer. I love this movie. I feel so honored to have gotten to spend so much time with it. And I’ve fallen in love with all of the characters.”

After composing the score, Williams and Austin Classical Guitar performed it with screenings of the film multiple times, but that was several years ago and the public hasn’t had a way to enjoy the score since then. Not until recently, that is, when a restored version of The Lodger complete with Williams’ score became available to view on the Drafhouse’s Alamo On Demand streaming service.

It’s been seven years since he wrote the score, and after that amount of time Williams says he’s only now feeling prepared to try such a large task again. “This took a lot,” he says. “I’d never done a film score, and before this… I’d written a lot of concert music but never written anything over 20 minutes. And this is 90 minutes. And that was kind of a whole new experience and had all sorts of drama in the production of making it. And now here it is over five years later. Seven years later. And I think I’m ready for another one. But we’ll see. We’ll see.”

'The Lodger,' featuring an original score by Joe Williams and Austin Classical Guitar, is available to stream at Alamo On Demand.

Mike is a features producer at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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