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Production Journal

Geoffrey Smith talks about working with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who created the soundtrack for The English Surgeon and what it was like filming brain surgery.

POV: You worked with Nick Cave on the film’s fabulous soundtrack. How did that come about?

Geoffrey SmithGeoffrey Smith: When I cut the trailer, I stole some of Nick’s music from a feature film he’d written called The Proposition, because it has a very melancholic tone, and the music fit Henry and Ukraine. I also know Nick, because we both grew up in Melbourne, and I said to a mutual friend of his, “Look, I think Nick would really like this character Henry.” In many ways, Nick is a real softy. His stage persona is one aspect of him, but he’s actually got an enormously big heart. Sure enough, he was very receptive to Henry on paper, and when I got back from Ukraine, I showed Nick and Warren Ellis (a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as well as the Dirty Three) some footage and they just fell in love with Henry. They were both so enamored of the film and the scenery and the possibilities. In the end it took us a while to organize their manic schedules, but we did the sound recording in three days in a big studio in London. What was so important was Nick and Warren’s emotional connection to the film and the character of Henry.

Both Nick and I hate sentimentality. We’re not into hearing violins when people or suffering, or playing up things that are not there. If it’s not there in the story, we shouldn’t be manipulating viewers with music. So in many ways, the film’s music is a counterpoint; it goes against the emotions. I think that’s why it feels very rich; it feels like a proper soundtrack to a proper film.

It was so great to work with technical musicians, especially Warren, on a vast range of instrumentations. We re-cut many of the scenes around the music once we had the music in place. The music, by the way, will be available on CD in the fall of 2009. Nick and Warren put together a whole compilation of recordings after Henry’s bizarre surgical instruments. So there are fantastically strange names for songs, such as Big Metal Sucker.

White Lunar will be released by Mute Records on September 21, 2009.



English Surgeon- Marian before the operation.

Marian Dolishny at the hospital before the operation begins.

POV: The 15-minute scene where we see Marian’s surgery is quite extraordinary. Can you talk more about filming that scene?

Smith: Because I knew Marian was going to be awake during surgery, it was most important to have a camera on him. The operating room was small, but there’s a dead space between the operating table and the wall. I stood there with a camera on a tripod, so I was also able to reassure Marian, smile, get him to breathe deeply and distract him in that initial half hour of “carpentry,” as Henry calls it, while he was having his head drilled open by Igor. My other two cameramen had handheld cameras, so they were just floating, getting shots. We went with that three-camera setup because there were so many things happening: There’s Igor’s end of it; there’s Marian’s face; there’s Henry’s interaction; there are cutaways with equipment and nursing and other things like that.

It’s a first-time event in Ukraine, and it’s obviously a very important procedure for Marian. And as an audience, we’re interested in Marian’s expressions and in what happens to him. The operation itself took four or five hours in real time, and I found the process fascinating. I hope the audience finds it interesting as well. There’s a man awake during brain surgery, and he’s an integral part of the surgery. Marian himself is the last safety valve. Meanwhile, as the surgery is going on, Henry waxes lyrical about the brain, about philosophy and about who we are while pointing to a living, pulsating brain.

It’s a little Frankensteinian, and there’s an element of horror film to the scene. But it also shows the beauty of the brain and the operation, and Marian himself is the one who is most profoundly moved by watching the scene. Can you imagine that? Watching your own brain! Not many people have that experience.





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He is firstly an artist and then a surgeon. He’s willing to look at surgery and surgeons. He’s prepared to be vulnerable ... He’s the very opposite of the arrogant, repressed surgical model.”

— Filmmaker Geoffrey Smith in Time Out London

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