“What have you done during the pandemic?” is a question we will all ask each other for years to come. “I starred in a movie,” is something only very few of us will be able to say, but this is what the musicians of the Siam Sinfonietta, an award-winning youth orchestra based in Bangkok, got up to when Thailand went into lockdown. I talk to the orchestra’s founder, Thai-American composer and conductor Somtow Sucharitkul, and Thailand-based British film director Paul Spurrier about this unique and joyful project that saw them creating The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror, a film that will be released this summer at festivals around the world.

The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror
© Titania Pictures

As pandemic-prevention rules forbade group meetings, the Siam Sinfonietta, founded in 2010 and already claiming performances in Carnegie Hall, Berlin and Prague, saw all their plans for 2020 being pushed back – including important projects such as Mahler's Third Symphony and the Thai premiere of Beethoven's Missa solemnis. Sucharitkul grew concerned about the mental wellbeing of the young artists in his care, spanning ages from 16 to 24. Of worry were not only the obstacles to their musical development, but also the lack of real time interaction with people, which is an essential part of growing up as a young musician.

But there was a loophole: to help the local cinema industry – which in 2019 saw record numbers of international filming in Thailand – rehearsals, performances and recording were still permitted, with some restrictions, if part of a television or film production. “I was part of the team that wrote the rules for filming,” Spurrier tells me. “That was when I realised that it was possible to film, provided you're very careful. This missing year is such a crucial point in the development of young musicians, so we realised that there could be some symbiosis there.”

The plot of the film pays homage to B horror movies. It revolves around a composer and conductor, played by Sucharitkul himself, plagued by rejection and memories of a traumatic childhood, who gathers a group of troubled young musicians in his lavish yet abandoned family mansion to help him premiere a new symphony he's writing. But what starts as a moment of freedom and celebration of artistic independence soon devolves into chaos and orchestrally-themed murder. Is this the price to pay for genius? 

The trailer for The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror

When I hazard to say that to me it almost felt like watching an opera, Sucharitkul partially agrees: “It's very sort of German Romantic, in some ways. This film is about this passion that can only really be lived by going mad and dying horribly. Whenever I teach music to my orchestra, I tell them that there's only a few German words they absolutely have to know. And one of them is Sehnsucht, which is the kind of longing that is so desperate that you almost have to die to achieve it. And that somehow wormed its way into the story, because even though the conductor kills people, and is a horrible person, on some level he's quite sympathetic.”

But why horror? Sucharitkul is also a science fiction, fantasy and horror author, writing under the pen name S. P. Somtow, and both he and Spurrier have an enduring love of the genre. “We have such a large shared vocabulary of cinematic experiences, going all the way back to our separate childhoods. The homage to the B horror movie was the first thing that came to the surface in both of our minds.” 

“This project was born as a way of involving, exciting and entertaining the musicians,” adds Spurrier. “The reason people join the Siam Sinfonietta is to be inspired but also to have fun. If we were making something very stodgy, some very deep art film, that maybe wasn't the best way to engage young people. We're living through strange times in Covid, so while making a film which fell roughly into the genre of horror, we also wanted it to have humour.

“We went back to the films of the 80s that had a tremendous sense of energetic fun, from Roger Corman and Joe Dante, through to films like Poltergeist and Tobe Hooper's, where you came out feeling you might have had a roller coaster ride and some chills but you didn't come out disturbed for life, you know?”

The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror
© Titania Pictures

Even amidst the restrictions and challenges brought about by the situation, the experience for everyone involved was a positive one. “It was great to hear this amazing music come out of these musicians who hadn't, at that point, played together for over nine months, and to experience their relief and joy,” Spurrier recalls. 

Having Sucharitkul as an endless source of encyclopaedic classical music knowledge meant also that they were able to include in-jokes and references that only musicians might notice. 

“The first things you hear are familiar pieces of music, like The Magic Flute, or the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, which, of course, happens while the conductor is on the toilet,” Sucharitkul laughs, mentioning only a few examples “or the little boy who hates Chopin, after his father says at the end "don't worry, I'll never force you to play Chopin again", then you hear him practising the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto.” And bars from Chopin's concerto also feature in the composer's new symphony, almost as if he transmuted the kid's hatred into his own score. 

A composer writing a symphony imagining what an insane person's score would sound like was also an unusual approach that opened up the musical process to new fascinating depths. 

“The music had to represent the character's madness,” explains Sucharitkul, “but I couldn't suddenly write a piece in the style of Stockhausen: it still had to use the basic tropes of film music, because that's the vocabulary that audiences can relate to. It was very entertaining to write music as someone else, and I took great pleasure in being able to live up in a fantasy way all those things that conductors long to do in real life,” he jokes, “like beating up the orchestra, shoving flutes down their mouth… in a way it fulfilled an incredible fantasy of power!” he laughs.

Somtow Sucharitkul on the set of The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror
© Titania Pictures

The setting of the film is also incredible. In the movie, this unconventional temporary society of runaway musicians settles in a gorgeous ruined mansion. “About 20 years ago, a guy had this fantasy of building a huge polo club in the middle of nowhere, but he ran out of money and never finished it,” Sucharitkul explains. “It's never been used, except now and then as a film set. It's completely crumbling and unliveable, but we dressed it with props from the Siam Sinfonietta’s opera warehouse, with big set pieces from several operas: there’s a bit of Thaïs, a bit of Otello… The Roman columns were from Jesus Christ Superstar,” he laughs. “Luckily, we had a warehouse full of stuff, and gathering dust because we couldn't do any productions. And so we repurposed all of this, and it melded together in a beautiful way.” 

The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror
© Titania Pictures

In between the glorious music and occasional murder, challenging current news topics were also featured in the story: the pandemic itself, parental issues, prostitution. 

“The film didn't begin with the idea of doing socially intense subjects, but a lot of it had to do with the world we live in and the things that we are exposed to,” explains Sucharitkul. “We didn't want to say, okay, here's a big social problem, but we didn't want to ignore it either. The fantasy of the mansion works because the world that they are fleeing from is achingly real. Whether it's a dysfunctional family or virus problems, those are things that are true and you can't have a fantasy without reality.”

“The other thing that I think is wonderful, particularly about the Siam Sinfonietta, is its inclusiveness,” adds Spurrier. “Somtow has been up to areas outside the capital to the north east, which is traditionally a very poor area, and welcomes and encourages musicians from all walks of life, genders or sexualities. One of the things I love about Thailand is that it's a very open and accepting society, particularly in terms of the music world and particularly within this orchestra. It just seemed appropriate that one of the elements of this film was that what brought everybody together was their love of music. And it was true on the set, too: we had people from very different walks of life, and it was wonderful to see the way that everybody got on, regardless of their background.”

The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror
© Titania Pictures

When I ask them both if this is something they might want to do more of, since it sounds like they had such a great time, they both laugh good-naturedly. The answer is maybe. 

“Somebody once said that the most exciting hour you'll ever spend in your life is your first hour on a film set, and the most boring hours you’ll ever spend are every hour after that,” Spurrier says. “We shot the final scene with a single camera, so we broke down that score into literally two or three bar chunks. It was a strange experience for musicians to break up something which would normally rely upon the flow of the music. We had over 70 different little bits of that concert that had to be filmed from different angles, and that took eight hours of shot after shot: we finished at four in the morning. So I'm not sure that that's an experience that any of the musicians really want to repeat,” he laughs. 

“I think it was the musical equivalent of the shower scene in Psycho” chimes in Sucharitkul, joining in the laughter.

“Look, wouldn't it be wonderful if everything got back to normal and therefore none of these poor musicians would ever have to make a film again and eventually got back to doing the concerts which they were born to do?” continues Spurrier. “But this experience might have some follow on effect, where it has brought together these ideas of how you can expand the world of opera and music and put it on film, and have a wider audience.”

“We might think that the Covid crisis caused everything to change,” adds Sucharitkul, “but in fact, it was a catalyst. The fact that we were forced to reach out digitally to people accelerated inevitable changes. We no longer think of people as being far away anymore, because everybody is equally near. The world is not going to go back, we can't escape the fact that a lot of music and performances will take place in a new way. Yes, there's a lot of things we regret about it, but there might be new things that we like too.”

The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror will premiere in Thailand on 25th August and will be released in Europe at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in September.