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JAMES HORNER FILM MUSIC | February 28, 2024 |

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Jean-Baptiste Martin

James Horner Seminar – Soundtrack!
Soundtrack! Vol. 11 No. 41 March 1992.
Special thanks to Luc Van de Ven (Prometheus Records)
In December 1991, James Horner gave a series of Seminars in Australia. Andrew Knipe taped the Melbourne seminar for us. Although extensively edited for reading purposes, the text is so interesting that it deserves publication in its entirety.
Tell us about your musical education.
I was educated primarily in London where I went to the Royal College of Music and from there went to the University of Southern California and
got a Master's Degree in theory and composition, then went on to a doctorate and got a teaching job in LA. Primarily, all this academia was because I didn't find out about film music until, I'd say, eight years ago. Prior to that point, I was studying music and my plan was basically to write serious avante garde classical music, per se, and exist in the world of grants and commissions. For this you really need a power base of being in a University; being a professor, and even having grown up in England and having gone to a conservatory there, I felt it was more pragmatic to get an American degree; things were bleak academically in the UK, and so I got American post-graduate degrees. As soon as I got my doctorate I turned my back on academia and that world all together. I just had a change of heart completely after spending my whole life in conservatories and turned my attentions to film music. I was asked to do a student film, and then I went on to do several more and that led to doing very low-budget horror films for Roger Corman, then that led to my first feature film, my first big Hollywood feature film, which was like eight years go, and then it was onward from there.
We'll have a look at a number of science fiction pictures, starting with Battle Beyond the Stars.
Well, Battle Beyond the Stars was the last Roger Corman film I did, the special effects at that time were all done by James Cameron, who of course went on to do Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2, but he was the camera man for Roger Corman at that time.
I know that you consider this ancient history, but what sort of budgets were you getting to work with, and what was it like working on such a low budget?
Usually the budget was somewhere between eight and twelve thousand dollars all in, including my fee. You didn't work for Roger Corman to make a living, you worked for him for the experience of filmmaking and learning your craft. A lot of film makers started off with Roger Corman because he was making so many movies, but most of them were grisly horror movies and of not very high quality, but it was a great place to start. I made a conscious decision not to do any television when I was first starting out. I didn't relate to television, I've never been a television watcher, so I took the road of being penniless, but working on these low budget horror movies. The next cut after Battle Beyond the Stars was Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm. He was the special effects wizard behind 2001, Blade Runner, and Star Trek TMP.
Was moving up to Star Trek a quantum jump in budgets and production values?
Well, actually Brainstorm was after Star Trek. Brainstorm was a big move up because we used chorus and a big orchestra and it cost quite a fortune. From the low budget film making where my budget was around twelve thousand to fourteen thousand at the very top, I went on to The Hand, directed by Oliver Stone. It was also a sort of horror movie, but the budget zoomed up from fourteen thousand to three hundred-fifty thousand, because it was a major studio film, and now we working Union as opposed to non-Union.
So without 'incriminating' yourself, on the other pictures, you were working non-Union…?
Yeah. In the States, when a studio makes a film, a major studio has a contract with the musicians’ Union, which allows them to use Union personnel of which all the top composers and musicians are a member. However, it also obligates them to pay Union fees. When I was working with Roger Corman, he was not as signatory with the musicians’ Union, so I could hire orchestras… I think the union rate was $360 for a three-hour session; instead of paying them $360 for a three hour session, I was paying them like $80 or like $100 for the entire day, and of course, I was taking no fee at all. There is a big difference in Hollywood between working Union and non-Union.
So you really made a pretty critical decision there that you would go for the maximum amount of players and production values rather than scale your instrumentation down.
Yeah, a lot of times a film maker or a producer will say, "Here is twenty thousand dollars", or, "Here is a hundred thousand dollars," or whatever, "Make the music and bring it to me on tape", and that's fine except that it puts the composer in a dilemma. If he keeps the salary, it is coming out of the music budget and if he's pays himself a large salary it's also coming out of the music budget. So there's always the question of what's best for the film versus how much of a fee the composer wants to make. I tend to like being payed up front with the understanding that I'm not asking so much, and the rest is going into the orchestra. I don’t like to be the one to make the decision as to what I get versus what's in the orchestra.
Let's talk about Aliens, what sort of experience was that?
Aliens was my second film with James Cameron and it started off very well, I mean we were very good friends in the Roger Corman days. I went over to London to record the music with the LSO. I think we had sessions booked for the middle of March and I went over in the middle of January to start writing the music.
I was told the film had been finished and was ready to be turned over to me. I found that James Cameron was still shooting and hadn't even started editing yet! The release date for the film was coming up and I had to record the music, but the release date wasn't going to be pushed back. It was going to be in theaters in the middle of April and I had to start recording the music. Jim hadn't even started editing, he was still shooting and it was sort of a horrifying experience because my time was ticking away. He finally finished shooting and started editing the film and he brought in like thirty or so film editors to get it cut; he was turning over sequences to me that were, as they say, 'unlocked'–that is, they weren't finished, they were still in process, and I would be writing a sequence and the whole thing would change. Most of the sequences in Aliens are eight, nine, twelve minutes long, and so when you have to revisit the cue to change it, it's really, really difficult. Basically I ended up with about a week and a half to write the score and there's like ninety-seven minutes of music. It was a terrible experience. Usually with my scoring schedule I get five, six weeks to write a score, whether it's a ten minute score or a two hour score. I don't usually get more than six weeks, that seems about the norm.
It strikes me that working on a film like that in itself must be stressful. Watching all those action sequences again and again… How do you handle that?
Well, it's a bit of a struggle. I knew all the sound effects people, and I knew what to expect from James Cameron. When I got to London and he told me he really wanted a war movie in space, and he wanted lots of side drum, percussion and excitement. He didn't want much finesse or stuff in good taste. He just wanted a lot of sheer energy. He told me what the sound effects would be like and I met several times with the effects guys. I heard all sorts of examples of the weapons that he used, and that he had designed. I spent two days with he sounds effects people so I knew very much what they were doing. I knew that whatever I had to write, whatever I came up with couldn't be subtle. There wasn't going to be room for any cute flute solos or anything. It had to be really a lot of action music and a lot of sheer horse power from the orchestra.
Is it hard to get that sort of performance out of an orchestra?
It's not so hard. I mean when your recording with an orchestra and you have ninety minutes of music to do, I usually break it up into a day and I do about twelve minutes of music in a day. So when you do twelve minutes of music a day you end up spending ten days with an orchestra. Sequence after sequence after sequence like this with an orchestra can get pretty grueling, because they are playing out a million and one notes and really trying hard. It's not all that fulfilling because there are no themes, there's nothing to relate to in terms of beautiful music, it's just this sort of competing with machine guns. James was not very understanding of the process and even though I had a week and a half, he'd come storming out onto the scoring stage and say he'd wanted changes and I didn't accentuate something that I should have, things like that. You look at the guy and say, "Yeah well if I had had five weeks I would've had chance!", but in a week and a half, you're just scrambling to make your recording sessions much less finessing anything.
Okay. Let's move on from science fiction and have a look at a dramatic movie. In Glory you used the Harlem Boy's Choir…What was the thinking behind that?
When I first met the director, he wanted a more traditional approach. He had this story about the 54th Regiment, the first black regiment in the Civil War; it's headed up by a twenty-four year old Colonel who formed this regiment out of runaway slaves and free slaves (free men as they were called) in the Boston area. They were treated as a second rate outfit, and he volunteered them to take a fort in South Carolina called Fort Wagner. It was an impossible mission because the approach to the Fort could only be made from the beach and the beach was only about a hundred fifty feet wide, so there was no room for more than one regiment to go in at a time. He volunteered the 54th to go in first knowing that it would take the most casualties. Basically out of fifty-two hundred or forty-eight hundred men, thirty-eight hundred were killed. All troops were buried in a common grave. The director wanted to use the Battle Hymn of the Republic, he wanted to score the battle sequences with battle music and stuff like that. When I saw the movie, that wasn't to me what the film was all about; I wanted to score something much deeper, about the pride that the soldiers had, the coming of age of the colonel who started up as a juvenile and ended up knowing very well his destiny. I wanted to give them much greater meaning and to do that, I didn't want to score the battle sequences, I wanted to score the underlying feeling of the film and to do that, I used this Boys' Choir of Harlem. The director wasn't convinced. I wrote two themes for him and he was afraid that one of them was going to sound like a love theme as I played them on the piano (that's how I usually show a director what my ideas are, I can't assemble an orchestra for him, so I play it on the piano and I describe it to him). He was very concerned that it would sound too much like a love story, so he had me write two versions of three or four cues with a back-up theme that he liked much better initially. We went to the scoring session and I chose a cue to start with; we played the music to the picture and it was the version I liked, not the version he asked me to do. He came out and said, "That's great!", but up until that moment, I wasn't sure which version I would be forced to go with. Basically I was trying to score the underlying quality of the film, not the battle sequences.

Have you got anything to say about Field of Dreams?
You know, I never was a baseball fan, I still don’t know anything about baseball, but when I saw the movie, I loved it from the moment I saw it. I wanted to write something very magical for it, yet something uniquely American, and it has an Aaron Copland-like sound. This last sequence is a very long sequence, it's about sixteen minutes long. It goes all the way to the end credits. The director initially had New Age jazz on it, and the studio was horrified, but they were pleased that I was doing it because I was going to do like a big Star Trek score on it. They felt very confident in that direction and I had no intention of doing that kind of score at all. Most of the score in Field of Dreams is electronic, the last two minutes of the score are orchestral. It was done for dramatic reasons where I tied together all the threads of the film that I had been weaving throughout into the last two cues. That's really where the story comes together ultimately. I just thought it was a wonderful film, I wish that those kind of movies came along more often, but they don't.

An interesting thing you raised there about expectations. When people contract James Horner to do a score, do you think they have a certain idea of what you'll do in mind? Do you constantly frustrate them?
Yeah,I think I do. I tend to jump around from project to project and style to style. As you've seen of the range over the course of eight years or so, there's been a lot of difference in the kind of music you're hearing and the kind of project. When I was first starting out, I went from doing Star Trek to 48 Hours to The Dresser, and they are all completely opposite, each one is on the other side of the globe so to speak musically and I like to do that a lot. I mean that’s what makes writing film music most interesting to me. Se when someone hires me I don't think they hire me thinking I'm going to give them a big orchestrated score, I think they hire me for the danger factor, they don't quite know what they're going to get.

You said in one of the seminars, I think it was in Sydney, that you think the film composer is a chameleon, do you still think like that?
Yeah, pretty much. What appeals to me about writing film music is that each project is completely different from the other, I could have chosen to another Star Trek or two or three Star Treks because I was certainly asked, but I wasn't interested after doing a couple of them. Again you'll see in my style of writing, I tend to write very long pieces of music. I'm attracted by different types of projects back to back and that makes me into somewhat of a chameleon. I think that's really the thing that makes film music wonderful in that it gives the composer an opportunity to write different styles for different eras, different mentalities behind the scores, and that's something that has so much more power when it is married to a film than if I was just writing concert music on my own. I think it's wrong for people to look down on film music, to simply dismiss it as something Hollywood does but not a real art form in itself. Some do television and they don't care what they are turning out, and a lot fo people score films and they do it just for the income, they don't care about what they are really writing. I don't treat it that way, I really treat it as an art form; on a project like the Rocketeer or Star Wars, or whatever the project may be, a composer has to pay homage to what the film is about, so you can't put a boys' choir in Star Wars. Each film is different and each film allows you a freedom to compose what is appropriate for the film. So I think the movies are a medium for today's serious composer which is a marriage of music and image.
What stage are you brought in and how do you proceed from there?
Most people think that it's best to have a composer very, very, early on and quite often, I'm contracted before they start shooting or while they're still working on the script. But the way I like to choose films, I like to see the film before I agree to do it. Sometimes it's impossible, but sometimes a film maker, as an affront: "Here's this guy who wants to see the movie, he won't take it sight unseen, he wants to judge me" kind of thing, so I'm brought in at various stages. If I've worked with a film maker before, I'll tend to trust my instincts, but if I haven't worked with him before, I really will try to see the movie before I agree to do it. To give you an example, when I read Field of Dreams, it didn't do anything for me in print. Obviously the Robert Redford baseball movie, The Natural, had already been made, so I thought that a magic baseball theme had already been covered. The filmmaker put the decision into abeyance for nine months, went and shot the film, started editing and then contacted me again and showed me the film. Sometimes a film maker will try and lock up a composer like somebody who uses John Williams. Contracts are given a year in advance usually. Right now, people try and get me a year in advance as well. But as I said, the top guys try to see what the movie looks like. My own opinion about filmmaking is that I don’t like to be involved to early for another reason: I don't like to get too close to the film, I don't like to see the film shot, I mean, I don't mind visiting the set, but I don't like to be there on a day-to-day involvement. I don't like to be there during the editing process, I like to be there when the film is somewhat presentable to see because to me, one of the composer's main jobs is not to be a voice in the editing so much as to be the last voice before they have to show it to the studio, or before they have to show it to people who have a vested interest in how the movie comes out commercially. The composer can very often look at the film with the director, and the director will say, "Well, what do you think? Do you understand the sequence where so-and-so does this-and-such?" and you can say as a composer, "No I don't understand that." At that stage in the process of the film, it's still being edited, and the composer had a totally objective point of view, he hasn't been involved to early on. When the composer is involved over the period of a year, a year and a half, from the very first script all the way through shooting, he loses perspective, he's as close to movie as the editor and director are. So I like to be involved later on in the process.
In terms of giving the director an idea of how your thinking is about the film, do you provide the director with sketches or play the pieces on the piano?
Very often when I see the film, the director will ask me if I mind seeing it with temporary music. Temporary music is music he has taken from other movies or whatever and he stuck it in the movie in places to give a sense of flow to the film. I like to see it with that. I must say it gives me a very good starting point with the director from which to either agree and say, "Yeah, I understand what you're doing, that's great," or disagree, be able to say to him, "I don't know why you put that piece of music there, that piece of music does this to me, and the sequence doesn't do that to me. I think you're saying two things, one with the music, and one with the sequence, is that really what you want me to do?" So it gives a good point of departure when the composer sees the film with temporary music. When I do a film, I usually orchestrate and compose at the same time, depending on the time constraint so when a director will say, "Can I hear what you're doing?" I will try and play him something on the piano to give an idea of how the themes are going to go. I did this on Glory, I do this on almost everything. Of course it's not so easy on a film like Aliens when the score is so abstract and non-pianistic and also you don't have any time. But I like to work with directors very closely because I don't like there to be any surprises. The more chances I take with their movie, the more I want them keyed into what I'm doing. The worse thing is when they don't have a clue as to what I'm up to and I come back about six weeks later and they hear their first orchestral cue and they don't like it. So for me, I really like to stay in close contact with a director. Sometimes you know you have to swallow your pride a bit because they are full of their own musical ideas. But it's their movie and I'm ostensibly working for them, so I don't like there to be surprises. Sometimes composers won't watch a movie with another composer's work on it, they will never see a movie with temporary music in it, but these are very good working indicators for me…
How do you actually conduct?
I tend to conduct 'free time'. That is, I'll write the music, and I'll make little marks, indication or synchronization marks at the top of my score, and my music editor will look at those marks and run the film down. Other people use what's called a click track which is basically a system whereby a composer and orchestra here in their headset literally a click track going at some rate like a music metronome and the conductor's just waving his arms, and the orchestra is listening to the clicks and they are playing the notes to the click track. That to me creates precise performances but not particularly beautiful or musical ones so I tend to stay away from that. My method of synchronization is, as I said, 'free timing', which is conducting with no click track, just watching the picture and conducting the orchestra to the film.
Can you tell us something about ghost writing?
Ghost writing is when a composer takes credit for something but didn't actually write it. I don't know how often ghost writing takes place. I've heard lots of rumors that so-and-so didn't write a score. I don't think ghost writing takes place all that often in film. I think it happens in television a lot where you have a composer take a fee and he will sub the composing of the actual episode to another composer, that happens a lot. In film it happens less frequently, but I suppose it does happen. There are examples of guys who write songs who are asked to do the score who are obviously not film composers, so they write a song, or they write a single melodic line and somebody weaves it into a five-minute music piece, that I guess is ghost writing in a way, but that seems to be the extent of it.
Let's talk briefly about the process of getting work in Hollywood for a composer of your stature, how does that work?
Well, if it's a film that I want to do very much, I''ll try and approach the film maker any way I can through actors, through directors, through friends, whatever, I will try to get the film. I have not by the way gotten every film I wanted to do, there have been scores of films that I would have killed to do, but I haven't gotten them. There are projects which you are dying to do where you can't even get your foot in the door, no matter how famous you are. And believe me, John Williams–I use his name because currently I'd say he's at the top of the heap, so to speak–John Williams wants to do certain films and a film maker will say, "I don't want a John Williams score!". It's funny because he's really one of the most gifted people currently writing. It happens to all of us. The other side is that a film maker will approach my agent (all composers work through an agent in LA) and they say, "I'm interested in James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Williams; what's the availability?" My agent will say, "Well, I don't represent Jerry Goldsmith, but John Williams is this and James Horner is this, if you're interested they'd like to see the film." Usually for people who are at the top of their careers and agent will say, "Well, make up your mind whom you want because I'm not going to approach James Horner and John Williams on the same subject. Make up your mind on whom you want and I'll approach him." There's a whole sort of mating dance that's done, it's the same on every project, a film maker will go to an agent and say, "I need a composer and I want this composer" or "I want these composers, who's available? Can I hear music? Can you send me a cassette of their music?" An agent will send out music. Very rarely does a composer 'demo' something for a director by coming up with themes sight unseen and say, "I'm dying to do your film, here are the themes for your film." Usually that doesn't work, it sounds like it would work, but it doesn't. You can't even get a phone call returned sometimes. You really have to go through this protocol, it's like royalty.
What about socializing, meeting directors and producers at parties and that sort of thing?
It doesn't really appeal to me. I'm a recluse. I'm sure there are people that go and hob-nob and try to get job after job. I've never really seen that work. Even the whole idea of the casting couch as they say, where the pretty actress will get the job by going to bed with the director, it doesn't really happen; the guy who goes to a party to meet director so-and-so to say, "I'd love to do your music", I don't think any of that stuff really works, but in addition to that, I never go to those kinds of things, I just can't stand that stuff.
What about relationships between composers?
Nonexistent, primarily because everybody is trying to get everybody else's job, and there are only so many jobs to go around. In Los Angeles there are so few jobs and the fees paid and music budgets are allotted to films are high enough that everybody's trying to get the jobs. When somebody gets sick, or somebody is done an injustice by an unfair director, you can bet there are fifteen people standing in line who don't care what the injustice was. In Los Angeles there is no Composer's Guild, there's no composer's arrangement at all. It's you and your agent. All of the stories that you've heard about all of that stuff is somewhat true. I'm not very keen on Los Angeles, I had to move there once it became evident that the film industry as a whole, especially in the past ten years, has moved to Los Angeles. Most entertainment films, not art films, but most entertainment films are generated from money in the States. They will send a crew to Ireland or Norway, but it's an American film, whether it's on the Gold Coast or whatever they're filming. Those decisions about who does what are generated in Los Angeles, so you have to be based there, even though it's a difficult place to live.
Soundtrack releases, what are your thoughts on that, is it worth it?
A lot of people ask me why such and such of my scores was never recorded. In the states, all these films we've been talking about are Union films. Now, a fellow gets paid $365 for a three hour session. If that piece of music that he recorded in that three hour session is used on a phonograph record, he had to be paid another $365. So let's say it cost $200,000 to do the score for Rocketeer, just for the musicians (it was actually closer to $500,000) and you took 60 or 70 minutes out of the 97 minutes recorded for a phonograph record, that would probably be about $300,000 for re-use. Well, a record company has to come up with that money to pay the musicians for the rights to use the music on a phonograph album, they also have to pay for marketing, pressing vinyl or manufacturing the CDs [and ASCAP royalties–Luc Van den Ven], so it's an extremely expensive proposition to come out with an album, and it's not in my control. It's up to a film company to say, "Yeah, we'll put the money to pay the musicians again ("re-use" as it's called) for a phonograph album, because we think we're going to recoup the money and it's going to be a very successful movie and hence a very successful album." Or the record company will come up with the money. Sometimes films are done and no one says, "I know this film's going to make a fortune, we're going to make an album", and they will just let it go. Even though I bang on all the doors and try to push all the right buttons, no-one wants to spend the money, they just think the movie's not going to be successful enough to sell enough records that they will recoup their costs. That's why everything I've done hasn't been put on disc.
And in terms of royalties, is that a significant part of your income?
No. I have yet to see a penny from any soundtrack I've produced, including the Star Trek stuff which has certainly sold three or four million records. I have yet to see any percentage of that. I have a percentage, it's usually broken down, 5% for the composer and 2% of the profit for the producer. Since I do both, it's 7%, but these are just numbers, I mean there's nothing to share. The only thing that makes money is when an actor has 40% of the gross, that means he's getting 40% of every single dollar that goes through the turnstile, like Jack Nicholson, or Warren Beatty, then that's profit participation, but I don't see any of that.
Does that include video sales?
I don't see any of that, that belongs to the filmmaker. Basically, the composer has no control in Hollywood, I don't own the music, I'm simply a pencil for hire. They own the score, if they use the music, great, if they don't use it, OK, but they own it. I have no control over anything. If they want to make cuts, if they want to pull out part of the music, I can scream and shout, but that's all I can do. I have no control, I'm appealing to someone's better instincts. In Los Angeles, the composer is really just for hire, once he's written the music it doesn't belong to him anymore.
Are you actually dictated as to who is going to get the publisher's share?
No, the publisher's share is the film company that owns the score. So they become the publisher, they own the music. Paramount owns Star Trek, MGM owns Brainstorm, Tri-Star-Columbia own Glory, I don't have any part of that.
You've never negotiated for a little bit?
It's not a question of the agent negotiating, it's that it's a closed issue. As composers, we don't have any part of that. I have a writer's share, but only as a writer, not as a publisher, not as an owner of any of the music. To show you how crazy things are, for example, when I do a movie for Spielberg, or any of those animation films I've done, no matter who the composer is, they divide the composer and songwriter into two different categories. So I'll write the score and I'll also write three or four songs for the movie. They don't pay me as the composer and as the songwriter, they just pay me as the composer. I don't get paid extra for the songs. Now, if I wasn't a composer and all I did for a living was to write songs, I would get a percentage of the songs as songwriter.
Regardless of whether the songs are published or not?
Yeah, so if I work with two people who are songwriters, and I'm a composer and a songwriter, they just ignore the fact that I'm a songwriter, I have to actually go to the two guys I'm working with and they each have to give me a point or two of their percentage so that it's equitable for me. The way Universal makes its deals, they see a composers as writing the music and everything to do with the music, and they see a songwriter as writing songs, and so I fall into this nebulous bracket of doing both.
When you're looking at the titles at the start of a film and all you're seeing is black and the film hasn't got a chance to get into its stride, what do you think the music should do at that point?
Well, you've got a problem at the beginning of films. Most of the big film companies have some sort of corporate fanfare. As a composer you're faced with a problem–how do you come in after that fanfare if you have a completely different kind of music? In addition, you have the problem of the audience making a lot of noise at the beginning; you have to be aware that the audience isn't going to be hushed and completely awestruck by the first thing they hear. It will take them a while to get quiet. Those are things I think about. How to draw an audience in and get an audience quiet and give a sense of magic to what's going to happen. I also think about the end of the movie, how I want to leave the audience. Most of the films I've worked on in the last five years have been in a state of flux while I was recording the music, they were still changing sequences including the end credits, and the end credits don't have a final length yet, they didn't know how fast the end credits were going to move, that sort of thing. Usually when I write an end credit, I'm told it's going to be somewhere between four and five minutes. So I have to write an ending that goes off into infinity so that it can be faded out or left running. Listen to any of the films I've scored in the last five years, I would all say they all had this forty second feeling of going off into the ozone, and it's for that reason it's become sort of a trademark!
Do you do your own orchestrations, you haven't mentioned an orchestrator at all?
I do, depending on the time. I write about 2.5 to three minutes of music a day when I orchestrate, when I don't orchestrate, it goes up. I don't for instance write a piano line on one or two lines and then ship if off to an orchestrator and let the orchestrator make it into what you hear. I tend to do most of the colouring myself, I decide what instruments play what, what the voicings are. Obviously if I had a lot of music to write and a short amount of time, I'm not getting much done and I will run out of time before I finish the score. So in cases like that I will do as much of the orchestrations as I can, and I will make copious notes as to what I want on the score paper with arrows, "please double this to this," I'll put in as much as I can and it will then go off to an orchestrator who will finish it off for me and send it to the copyist.
When you first see a film, what sort of things go through your mind? Do you make basic decisions like, I'm going to write this very electronic sounding or atonal score, something like that?
I just see the movie and try to go with what strikes me as to the mood of the film and what sounds best about that sound. I don't think so much in terms of what the melody line is going to be, I think in terms of what the colours are. For instance, I'll see a film and say, "It would be great to have an oboe, a French horn, bassoon, and a pan pipe, or a pan pipe ensemble". I will proceed in that direction to try and get those forces together to come up with that kind of a sound, then I start to come up with melodic lines, knowing that an oboe is going to play it, or a French horn. For me what comes first is what the colours are, what my palette of orchestral instruments is going to be, synthesizer or acoustic or what acoustic instruments. Then I'll decide what the melodic lines are going to be.
It's often said that the best film music is the stuff you don't hear…
It is said that the best music is the music that can work its magic on an audience without the audience knowing they've been manipulated. That's the whole role of film music, ultimately. It's one thing to write a big piece of music when there's nothing happening except some beautiful visual, but those moments come infrequently, mostly it's under dialogue. As you've seen, I write very long pieces of music, other composers are very uncomfortable with that and write short pieces of music. My feeling is that I don’t like film music when I hear it, I find it obtrusive, and I take great pains as to how gently I start a cue and how I end a cue. Every time you have to be careful because the audience is almost always aware of a new elements being added, so my own instincts tell me that when I start a new piece of music, it has to be somewhat softly worked into, and it gradually ends so that you are not aware of where it stops, and if it plays over a long expanse, you are not aware of a lot of starts and stops.
Is there pressure to bear by the producers, saying, "We want you to do the music, and there's got to be a couple hits in there as well"?
They'll say they want me to do the score, and they want a song. Usually they won't be as polite to say, "Do you want to do the song?", they'll say "We want Bruce Springsteen to do the song, we want it to be in the end credits, we want it to be here, we want it to be there, there, and there, you do all the other bits." That's sort of what happens, giving an exaggerated example. You decide and you say, "Hey guys, you got the wrong fellow, I'm not the composer for this film" and you bow out before you get too far involved. Usually, they'll ask me to write the song, and I will then say, "I don't want to do the song, get somebody who's a rock'n'roller to write it." If it's a ballad, I'll do it, but if it's just a pop thing, I'm not interested. It's just nice to ask the composer, because very often for songs to work well in films, the tune of the song should be woven throughout the score a bit, it's not just these isolated flashy moments, then you back to the dumb score and then back into song. Very often that happens, and you've got a producer who wants to put out a soundtrack album full of songs. In fact, on certain films I've done, there's an hour and a half of music and there may be six songs of which one is featured, and the rest of them way in the background, and when they're making deals for a soundtrack album, you'll find they've got five or six songs on the soundtrack, and they've got only one or two songs from your score. This happens all the time. I've done film after film after film where I was just pushed aside for the record. It even happens to John Williams, on Born on the 4th of July–he wrote easily an hour and a half of music for the film.
Probably a very good case for releasing two soundtracks?
Yeah, but just figure no one is going to release a double record. The last time a double album was released, they did one album with Prince's songs for Batman, and Danny Elfman's score was released separately. Madonna's album for Dick Tracy was another exception. But usually no one buys the orchestral music, they buy the Madonna album or the Prince stuff. That's how they advertise the score, "Music by Prince, Additional Music by Danny Elfman" or something, when it's the other way around.
Do you find it useful for producers to know theory about music?
Let them stay out of the music world and just let me imagine what they're talking about. I mean, that’s my job. I have to adapt to their language, I have to adapt to their way of thinking; I think abstractly. When they describe it to me as a story book, that's how I put it together in my mind.
Are there films you look back on now and wish you'd never done?
Yeah, sure there are. When I look at the low-budget films I did, I say, "God", but you have to remember they were structurally important to me; I learned my craft with them. I knew nothing about scoring movies until I started working in student films and low budget films.
So while I wouldn't necessarily want anybody to see them, I learned a great deal from them and I met people through them. There are certain features I've done…The Hand, for example: I wish I'd never done it, it was a miserable experience. I wish I'd never done Name of the Rose, that was another nightmare. I wish I'd never done Aliens: to do that amount of music, it's one thing to talk about now, it's another when you're there and you know the director hasn't started editing the film and your time has dropped from eight weeks to less than five weeks and the LSO has got ten days booked and you can't cancel them. You're put into a position of either having to phone Los Angeles and [complain] or else just sit there, and that's a position nobody should put a composer into. When you're young and fairly inexperienced, it's a dreadful thing to go through for anybody.
How much listening to other music do you do, and if you're asked to do something like an ethnic score, how do you go about researching?
I do a lot of listening to music, mostly classical music, not much film music. I listen to ethnic music a lot, so I'm aware of different instruments that I'd love to use someday. The problem, is of course finding players and even if we find players, they don't read western music. This is something I always berate myself for, I'll bring in some ensemble and they are marvelous players and of course they come in with a very primitive-looking thing, and the orchestra always starts laughing and it's like the most racist thing you can do. Most ethnic music is indigenous music, it's not newly composed. Maurice Jarre is another composer who uses a lot of weird and wonderful ensembles. Basically I listen to a lot of ethnic music and I make notes about some great flute, then I try to find somebody who plays that instrument.
Did you have this problem with your upcoming project?
Yeah, I'm doing an American Indian film [Thunderheart]. They have very few flutes, most of it is stuff you attach to your waist or to your ankles, and you have a chanter. For western ears, a little goes a long way and you have to be able to manipulate it with music that is accessible to a western audience. I'm going to use two people who are both Sioux Indians from South Dakota. I'm going to write an electronic score, probably, and have a few acoustic instruments and I'm going to weave what they do into that.
Do you like the idea of ongoing director/composer relationships? Like you've worked with Ron Howard and Michael Apted both a couple of times…
I like to work with directors, you develop a relationship and a shorthand with them, but as often happens in this industry your sense of personal relationship is thrown. I did two films with Ron Howard and then he did Backdraft and I wasn't available.
What do you think are your best scores?
I can't really answer that, I get so wrapped up in each film. I like parts of In Country, I like parts of Field of Dreams, Glory, 48 Hours, I like parts of Star Trek II and III, lots of other films we haven't even discussed tonight. I tend to think that in isolated moments, I don't re-live them. Once I've written a score, I ship it emotionally as well as literally; it's gone and I'm onto the next. If I stay with it, I get hooked into all the things that happen after it leaves your control, you go crazy.
Do you ever listen to a score once you've finished it? Maurice Jarre says he never does.
I very seldom do. If it's something like this seminar, I've heard Glory for the first time in a long, long time. What it does is bring back fond memories of what I thought of the sequence when I was writing it, it's an emotion like a girlfriend. You don't really realize how much you miss them until you haven't seen them for a long time.
Are you getting more adventurous as you get older?
I think so. I feel more responsible to the people I'm working for, the more I try ideas that are not normal ideas, the more I want them to know what I am doing up front. If you surprise someone at a recording session, you are going to have your score thrown out, it's human nature. You have to make them part of the process, and the more adventurous I become, the more I have them involved in the process.
How can you improve your relationship with a film producer?
I've never figured out producers. I've met ones that are like the cliche guys in chequered trousers and golf shoes and have fifty phones. Then here are guys like Ed Pressman who is very timid and has impeccable taste and makes small movies, and also schlock movies–they know precisely what they are going after, the know exactly what they want to spend on making the movie, they don't have any fears about making a schlock movie with Schwarzenegger in it. What's harder for me to deal with are the producers who weren't in tune with the project; they're working on two other films, they want a song to be put in the music, they don't know if it's appropriate and they don't care; that, to me, is the worst kind of producer. The guy who has six films going and no film is being really well produced, it's just being put together and he throws in his two cents. There are a lot of producers who have three or six-picture deals and any one of them is only getting a third of their best efforts.
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  1. Zoe Potter

    This article, posted nearly two years ago, is really cool. He looks so young in the photos. Obviously a lot has happened in the past two years. To read this for the first time, for me at least, is interesting to hear about the process of film composing and recording the score to a movie as an intimate private process not seen to the public eyes. Thank you for posting this. Zoe

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