Through sound, moving image and subtitles, Dawson City: Frozen Time tells a vast and far-reaching story of boom and bust, loss and memory. After over 500 reels of film were found buried and forgotten in the Yukon town of Dawson City in 1978, Bill Morrison pieces these abandoned pieces of cinema together to link the often-unbelievable history of a 19th-century gold rush mining town to the age of silent film.
It's a celebratory exhibition of things that are broken or left behind, and Morrison wastes no time in the film's 120 minutes to make sure every story that intertwines with Dawson City is told. From the gold-digging prospectors who managed to burn the town down nine times in its first year to the Indigenous population forced out by settlers, Dawson City: Frozen Time offers not only a look into discarded silent films lost to history, but a real-life version of the wild west Hollywood is so enamoured with. We watch the rise and fall of dreams, of wealth and glory, of the halcyon days of the early gold rush that hovered so often on the precipice of destruction, just as these flammable nitrate film reels came so close to destruction themselves. The fact that they exist, even scratched and damaged as they are, is a marvel.
The film is set to evocative, haunting, and elegiac music that deconstructs the meaning of a film score in the same way that Dawson City deconstructs film history. It was composed by musician and frequent Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers. Exclaim! spoke to Somers about how music sets tone and narrative, the difference between scoring nonlinear vs. narrative films, and the viewer's journey.
How did you get involved with this film, and what the process of recording was like?
I was brought in over three years ago for this project – I went to Bill's apartment in New York before he even started editing. He just had a ton of footage, and we just watched and drank tea and talked about what mood he wanted to achieve. He was really keen to never have the music be too on-the-nose, and sound "old timey." That was the only firm instruction I got from him, to not score it like an old-time film. I wouldn't have been inclined to do that, anyway.
I thought it would be really cool if the music mimicked the picture quality. I felt like the sound component of this project was equally as important, if not more important, as the composition. I wanted it to sound like the film looked, kind of dying or decaying or falling apart. So that was a really fun task, because I've always been drawn to these kinds of objects. There's an inherent beauty that's hard to put your finger on.
So I went back to my studio and wrote about 20 minutes of music, not to picture, just freeform, that I hoped would inspire Bill and so he could listen to something while he was editing. He used that 20 minutes plus an album that I published in 2009 with my partner (Sigur Rós' Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson, who performs with Somers as Jónsi & Alex) called Riceboy Sleeps. So he used that 20 minutes of original music plus that record to edit the film, very slowly. That was the template for where we'd go.
Bill gave me tons of freedom, and I would not work on the project for several months, then he'd get in touch and send me a rough cut, and I'd work really hard on some music. I would always send at least an hour of music. I liked to see how it built, and I wanted it to sound cohesive. My first draft was a bit optimistic and hopeful, but Bill encouraged me to make it darker, because for him this film is more of a tragedy about the city of Dawson, and he wanted the music to reflect that. So I worked on this on and off for ten months. It was my dream project, scoring to old crusty movies found underground. I'm so happy I got to do it. I never would have written two straight hours of music before in my life, but I was so inspired by the project that it forced me to step up to the task.
This film has no narration, instead relying on the images and some title cards to tell a story. How often did you try and tie the film's score to visual cues versus the story being told through title cards?
There was nothing really literal about what I did. It was more about mood. When I'm writing, I'm just watching the picture and thinking about the initial thread, how I want the music to embody the aesthetic of the warn out film. After I was done composing something, though, I would play with it to fit the picture and go over different scenes, see if the sound could reoccur or if it would feel repetitive. So there was a lot of trial and error, setting music to picture, nudging it around. I'd give it my best try, and I'd send it to Bill. Sometimes he'd like my placement or have suggestions. That part was quite fun. As you're watching a film scene, music can alter the tone radically and tell you if something dark or scary is coming soon. So it was really cool and fun to collaborate with Bill in that regard, nudging the music to certain scenes.
How is it different scoring nonlinear films like this versus narrative films? How is the process different?
It's so different. It's not even the same thing. Making this music was just writing music, period. Composing a film score, you're part of a big picture. Usually the musical cues are very short, and they're mixed kinda low and subliminal. Dawson City is the kind of film where you need the musical element to keep propelling the story forward, and regular narrative film doesn't rely so much on the music. It's a dialogue that works with a storyline, so you play a smaller role. That kind of scoring wasn't really taking place with Dawson City, it was just music that felt good. It wasn't more complicated than that.
There are a lot of themes in this film. What's the journey that you want viewers to experience while watching and listening to Dawson City?
Bill could talk about all this for days. While I was writing we had a couple of long emails back and forth, and it was really fun to read about what this story meant to him. There's a lot about birth, and rebirth, the death of the town and the town being rebuilt again. Like I said, though, I'm not the most literal person. I just close my eyes and zone out, and go with a good feeling, and if that carries through, then that's enough for me.
I love the idea of an old film where the picture is falling apart. It just creates something haunting and magical. If you're a history buff and like information, a lot of people are into that aspect of the film. I've met some people who just like watching old movies with the sound off because it looks beautiful. I like that the film can check both of those boxes for people. It's just a cool visual sonic experience that's unusual and not following any rules. It's an interesting and weird movie.
It's almost like it deconstructs what we think of a film score. It's two hours of uninterrupted music with two hours of uninterrupted footage. It's kind of like listening to a two-hour album.
Yeah, that's part of why it was so daunting. Originally the film was meant to be much shorter, but as Bill kept researching, he kept going down these rabbit holes and discovering more side stories he wanted to tell.
Does the music you composed tell any side stories?
I'd like to think that if you listened to it with your eyes closed it would tell its own story. But I'm such a feeler and less heady in that regard, and I can't really say "this is the thing that this is telling," but it's the feeling of being moved by something and not really knowing why. Like, why is this old photograph making me feel this way? Why is old footage that's worn out and a bit fucked up more interesting to look at than a crystal clear video capture? For me, it just is, and you don't have to know why, because there's some magic in it. I hope the music embodies that, and it captures that feeling even if you can't put your finger on it.
Dawson City: Frozen Time opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on July 21. Interview edited for length.