Nearly lost to history, an epic story of Catholic courage and religious freedom comes to DVD next month in the film The War of the Vendee.
Produced by Navis Pictures of Danbury, Conn., The War of the Vendee boasts a cast of more than 250 young actors whose ages range from 2 months to 21 years. Known for pioneering a new genre of “children’s cinema,” Navis has produced other films with all-child casts, including St. Bernadette of Lourdes, which aired on EWTN last May.
Navis’ latest film unveils the true story of a small band of French peasants, nobles and priests in the Vendee region of western France. In 1793, after suffering years of religious persecution by the architects of the French Revolution, the Vendeans launched a Catholic “counter-revolution.” With few weapons, the peasants charged into battle, sometimes armed with only pitchforks, their rosaries and emblems of the Sacred Heart.
The martyrdom of thousands of men, women and children in defense of the faith ultimately resulted in the restoration of religious freedom to all of France.
Well-known Hollywood composer Kevin Kaska, 38, composed and conducted the film’s original musical score. The multitalented Kaska has his own chamber group, Los Angeles Chamber Artists, and has composed music performed by orchestras ranging from the London Symphony to the Boston Pops. He has also worked as an orchestrator on top-grossing films like The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man 2 and Inception.
“When I saw the level of the performances these young people were giving, I knew the film deserved a score that would support, and even elevate, that,” said Navis Pictures’ President Jim Morlino, who directed the film. “But what Kevin Kaska has produced has exceeded anything I could dream of.”
Kaska recently spoke about his life and his work on this inspiring new film.
Some of the music for this film just takes your breath away. Can you describe the music to those who haven’t heard it?
I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s like the classic film score, maybe, of yesteryear — the way the big movies were done. The score is performed by an 80-piece orchestra of Hollywood’s finest musicians and a 30-voice choir pooled from many churches throughout the Los Angeles area, including St. Mel’s of Woodland Hills, St. Francis of Sherman Oaks and Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Los Angeles.
Why were you attracted to this film?
Because of the innocence of it, and because all the actors are children. Also, it’s a story not many people know about. It’s the classic story of Catholics being persecuted and not allowed to celebrate their faith.
This film contains all the elements that you want to be able to score as a composer. It’s a classic struggle of good vs. evil.
You said you grew up in Seattle and your whole family is Catholic.
We went to Mass every week. My father died of cancer in mid-October while I was involved in composing the Vendee score. He knew about the project. He was the anchor of our family. His brother is a Catholic priest and presided over the funeral. Because he died in the middle of [my] composing this, he had a profound impact on the score.
Has your faith influenced your music?
It definitely has. If you do not have God in your life, what’s the point of anything? What is the point of creating?
Some people’s lives are meaningless, and they don’t have any faith to rely on. You need to have a greater good in order to do what you do. Who better to rely on than God? They say Igor Stravinsky prayed every morning before he started to compose and every evening when he was done, thanking God.
You were Vic Schoen’s only protégé.
Yes, he was arranger for the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye. He was a master composer/arranger. He was Patti Page’s music director and arranged many of her famous hits: Old Cape Cod, Allegheny Moon, All My Love. He composed the whole score for the Danny Kaye musical-comedy The Court Jester.
How did you meet Schoen?
In the mid-’80s, when I was in junior high, Schoen moved up to Seattle. I heard about him and began pursuing him. I wanted to be his student. It took a few weeks to convince him. But he finally agreed to meet with me. I studied with him for two and a half years.
How did studying with Schoen affect you and your career?
He affected me profoundly. Not only learning music from him, but also hearing the stories about the personalities of the people he worked with and the struggles he went through. When you study with a teacher, it’s not just the mechanics of music that matters — it’s also everything else about the business. And I was learning that when I was 15.
What was the biggest challenge while composing the score for The War of the Vendee?
The biggest challenge was connecting with the movie and underscoring the emotional element through music. Obviously, if the movie was about a bank heist, it would be a totally different score. Or if it was a 1944 movie, then it would be a Big-Band score. The characters would be completely different, and the sound would be completely different.
So the biggest challenge is you have to represent musically what you’re seeing visually and also what’s going on on the screen emotionally. In this film, everything is there: humor, battle, grief. The timing and pacing of it all is crucial: the sense of being in 1793 France where the story takes place. That all has to be underscored musically.
What are your highest hopes for this film?
That as many people as possible will see it and enjoy it. In the end, that’s what artists do: You want everyone to view or hear your work and be affected by it in a positive way.
Sue Ellen Browder writes from Willits, California.