Interview conducted 21/10/97
@ Hyde Park Mandarin Hotel
Where are you right now on The Beyondness of Things?
We recorded the orchestra on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Then rhythms and voices on Saturday. Then mixed it Sunday and Monday. The London Chamber Orchestra is the basis, but we’ve augmented it to a 90-piece orchestra. We brought Tommy Morgan the Harmonica player over from LA who’s terrific, and an English Sax player called David White. I think it’s a very interesting album.
- But it’s not a soundtrack?
It’s a tone poem. But it’s not one piece - it’s 12 separate tracks. Individual pieces.
- Have you been thinking towards something like this for some time?
Yes I have. Chris Roberts at Polygram I met about a year ago & said he’d love me to join the label. So I have a contract with them for 3 albums – not including soundtracks which we call a ‘best endeavour situation’. A lot of companies have their own affiliations with record companies. Fortunately this company that made Swept From The Sea was linked to Decca.
- So it was a wonderful opportunity to squeeze something else in. Am I right in thinking The Americans was your last non-soundtrack album? In 70....
Early ‘70s. I remember early ‘50s, late ‘50s, early ‘60s etc. That’s how I block things out.
- It’s quite a gap then.
I really love doing films & they keep coming along. I was with Sony for a while & did the 2 Moviola albums. That came about since they’d picked up the rights to Dances With Wolves. But I must say I’m really happy with the whole Polygram family. I really get a feeling they understand what I’m doing & what I’m about. Not to knock them but I never got that feeling with Sony. I was in the same group that handle Michael Jackson & the whole pop area. That’s what they’re used to & then you come along with this big orchestra piece & they don’t get it - that’s not their fault. It’s just finding the right niche & I finally feel I’ve found it. So maybe that’s one of the reasons I haven’t bothered recording something like this because I’ve not felt all that happy with the recording situations I’ve had. This is an entirely new opportunity to set aside time & do something. Come up with an idea, present it to them & do something.
- What does The Beyondness of Things ...
Mean? I just thought it was a great title! I love titles. It’s very difficult really. You’ll see from the track listing. It’s a series of thoughts. There’s a quote from a short story by Nabakov which explains some of it "_________________". I thought he’d put his finger right on it. It’s just a lot of very personal thoughts put into a dramatic context. I could go through each one and explain what it is -- but I’m not going to! (laughs). Hopefully people will react to it.
- So Swept From the Sea is the same label?
Yes. It’s had marvellous reviews in the States & been very well received.
- I know that was adapted from a Conrad short, and seeing your use of a quote on Beyondness, do you feel the need to ‘bone up’ on a film’s literary original when it has one?
I’ll tell you what happened on this one. The head of the movie company called me about Amy Foster as it was then. He said he was in England with the director Beeban Kidron (CHECK). Now I’d never heard the name & didn’t know if it was a lady or a man! So over the phone I’m expecting a guy, then this very charming woman starts talking from whom I asked for a script. In America when you want something you get it Fed-exed overnight. Here you stick it in the post and hope. So there I was waiting very eagerly for the screenplay & it didn’t come. So what I did was to go down to a local bookshop in Oyster Bay in New York, and bought a collection of the Conrad short stories. Read it. Liked it very much & I wrote 2 themes without reading the script. There were 2 things that were very obviously going to be there. This young man making this great journey from the Ukraine - Yanko’s Theme which represents the heart of the Russian background. A folksy theme. Then the Love Theme. He’s shipwrecked off the coast of Cornwall & can’t speak a word of English. The locals think he’s a madman, & Amy Foster is the girl who meets and befriends him all without communication. The first scene where they’re alone is in a barn. She goes to feed and wash him. So there’s this whole 2 and a half minutes scene with absolutely no dialogue. He wakes up and is cleaned. So the whole theme is a searching question mark - not a profound Out of Africa statement of grandeur. All very hesitant and temporary. I wrote both and recorded on piano and synthesiser. Beeban loved them and she hadn’t even shot the scene! I finally got the script & met with her. When I played the piano theme to her she loved it. I usually get 2 or 3 guys together to demo my ideas. And it worked beautifully. That’s a rare thing. But if you have a piece of literature of that quality you just know what’s going to be needed. You know he has reminiscences about his homeland. There’s a dance sequence where we go back to his home. I used a cimbalom. They had to have that in front to playback, then that was what was used as Yanko’s Theme. It’s a great movie in the sense that there are scenes without dialogue allowing the music to breathe.
- Vincent Perez is the central character.
Yes and he’s very emotional and sensitive.
- Although what you’ve just described was a rare occurrence, what I’ve always felt is your approach to scoring a film is to look at the whole thing at once. Identify an overall message or emotion and score that.
You’re absolutely right. I always go for a melody first, because it’s the most direct form of communication dramatically. It has to be versatile though. In Swept From The Sea, the love theme is used about 4 times without much change. But Yanko’s Theme used a number of times. He leaves his homeland on the train from Russia through Germany. Then the authentic dance. Then his reminiscences. Again when he dances with a little boy. It’s that one theme being used in many different ways. I remember Shostakovich saying about music to "keep the emotion intact". Once you capture that essence everything else springs from that daddy, the master file. You grow with other harmonic material. Maybe take fractions of the melody. That starts to dictate the rest of the score for you. I do love having a theme that works throughout - it’s not possible on every film. Take Out Of Africa - there was the main theme and there was Karen’s Theme. The rest was what I call scene by scene. On Dances Kevin showed me about 20 minutes of the opening sequence. A little tease of everything. So I got a feeling of the texture of the movie. All these things are terribly important. Then I went away and wrote 20 minutes of themes, knowing there had to be a John Dunbar Theme, knowing there had to be a journey theme when he takes off across this scape. Recorded them all with about 4 musicians. Played them to Kevin and he loved them. I never viewed Dances as a western but a story of a man who went out to the west. I said this to Michael Blake who wrote the script. He agreed. It’s this very heroic story of a man getting on a horse and riding across America. Everything I wrote in that movie was through his eyes. I had to dramatically get inside him and put myself on that horse. I hate writing music where I’m outside like the camera. It’s my job to get inside the soul of the person & react the way he must have thought getting on that horse.
Then I was nominated for an Academy Award, & I remember meeting Elmer Bernstein & he said "good luck but don’t build your hopes too high. There’s been some wonderful western scores written: Big Country, The Magnificent Seven, How The West Was Won. But they have this thing about western scores." So I said that was fine since this isn’t one! Theoretically then it’s the first western to win an Oscar - & written by an Englishman. I love that score, and I thought it was very spiritual. When he sees the slaughter of the buffaloes it breaks your heart. Michael told me the Indians never had a word for animals. It was another beast. I’m a man, that’s a beast.
- So ‘tatanka’ was that word?
Yes. Their naming of things was a literal thing based on whatever they first saw something do. Hence Dances With Wolves. I found that very interesting. When the Indians hunted buffalo, they only killed what they had to eat to survive. It was a big honour to be picked to go and kill to feed your family. The spirit behind all that action was wonderful. I was very moved by the story. I was up early at home watching a show that was interviewing the Pope’s personal photographer and had just published A Portrait of the Pope. All the time he’d been at the Vatican he’d taken these wonderful shots the official office didn’t want used. So he went directly to the Pope and showed what he wanted to publish and was given a direct blessing to go ahead. The interviewer asked what the Pope reads, and then asked about music. I’m waiting for him to say Beethoven’s 9th or something like that. He said he listens incessantly to Dances. That killed me. I phoned the producer and Kevin, then called the TV station to get the tapes. I think that’s a hell of a compliment.
- Isn’t a shame that from the point in time we’re talking about there’s subsequently been a real decline in the quality on films and their scores.
Oh it really is.
- Picking up on that perspective you took to scoring Dances of getting inside the character, I honestly feel that’s something very few other composers do, and wonder if that contributes to this decline?
But it sure works!
- The end result seems to be that there may be great films with scores whose albums don’t make for overly wonderful listening. Or a great album from a film where the music was lost. But with yourself it’s nearly always a great marriage on film followed by a great stand alone.
In the past 20 years I think there’s only been 4 platinum soundtrack albums - & I’m talking about scores not song albums. I’ve written 3 of them. I think Swept From the Sea has all that space in the movie to follow suit. A lot of that’s down to Beeban who really knew her stuff. We had the best of times. It’s getting subject with characters you can get inside. Sometimes you get a film in and you think ‘I can’t get inside this guy’. This whole thing with record companies pushing their albums, and the whole use of loud synthesised music is in their artificial creation it all gets lost. You know they know create horses hooves synthetically on a soundtrack? So what happens is you get a mush from the synthesised FX and music - they bleed into one another. It’s very difficult to find a movie to give you that room to be heard. Very rare you pick up a script with these qualities.
- Do you have another to look forward to?
I’m going to be starting a movie in November called Mercury Rising. Harold Becker directs Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin. When I heard about Bruce I had reservations. You see this Die Hard image. But they sent me script which has an action sequence at beginning and end, but the middle is this wonderfully drawn character with a little boy. An almost Hitchockian mystery. It’s not an action movie. The opening sets up this guy’s response to violence and the end is where the bad guy gets it! So that’s something I can get inside. You’re constantly looking for scripts where you can do that.
- So is that thin script pool largely responsible for the musical decline?
Well - what are the movies? When you look at the nature of these movies... These big blockbusters are for the kids.
- Hopefully the independents will get more and more popular.
Let’s hope. I’d rather not do a film unless I can enjoy it. It’s the way you move an audience and subconsciously they are communicated to. If I think back to something like Lion In Winter, I had that 120-piece orchestra and 40-piece choir. What that subconsciously did throughout was suggest how beholden the monarchy were to the Pope. There was this Roman Catholic presence in the score and felt the power of the Church. I met Jacqueline Kennedy at a party. She told me Jack and her loved the whole power struggle thing. That was the sort of opportunity you have to find. I don’t know what that movie would have been like if I hadn’t come up with that idea. Even Born Free in its Disneyesque way got across on that level. Thinking of songs, Midnight Cowboy is still shown at UCLA Film School as the best example of song in film. We didn’t go out and buy a bunch of songs. It was all written especially for the scenes. It was literally scoring with songs & took a lot of care with it. The scene where he steals bread & is spotted & is shamed just kills you. The loneliness of that song drifting down over it had such an atmosphere I couldn’t have got with a score. If it’s done right it can be terribly effective. That was John’s choice & I learned a lot from it. We spent 4 or 5 hours re-recording to film you know.
- What inspires you now.
I love to drive around New York. You see some amazing things. It’s full of all these oddities. I look at things and register them. You see something and think musically. I ride around with music on and look at things. Then for a moment you see things that coincide that can be really obscure. If you were looking at that in a movie you probably wouldn’t have played what you’re listening to. It’s quite a contrast that’s an education.
- I’ve recently befriended one of your biggest fans following in your footsteps - David Arnold. Have you heard Shaken and Stirred?
Absolutely. When I was at George Martin’s studio doing the demos for Swept From the Sea, George came in and asked if I knew David who was doing a Bond album. So we met and had lunch & he played me about 4 or 5 tracks which I thought were terrific. He’s kept the true Bond essence and given it a fresh twist. And cast it beautifully as well. It’s been a labour of love for him. I think it’ll do hugely well. The first single is already doing well.
- He refers to you in life and credits you on the album as ‘the guvnor’.
That’s very sweet of him. I’m looking forward to the song he’s co-written with Don Black for k d lang - she’s got a great voice. He’s doing a documentary they want to feature me in.
- Yes. In fact David’s wife asked me to recommend where the documentary directory could research your work. I recommended the redoubtable Geoff Leonard.
Yes he knows more about me than I know about myself!
- Do you know about the way David’s recording Tomorrow Never Dies? He gets about 20 minutes parcelled together a month to score.
(Sighs) It’s terrible. I had that situation. Goldfinger for instance. The Fort Knox raid we recorded on a Monday after getting the scene Friday. So I’ve had a few of those. In fact that’s what happened when I did King Kong for Dino De Laurentiis. There was this problem where there were 2 Kongs on the way simultaneously like a race. They’d shoot 2 or 3 reels, cut them and hand them to me. It’s not enough really. After shooting about 3 weeks, the other production gave up. So I suggested slowing up to Dino, but he says (mimics Dino perfectly) "No thees ees not the way wee do it John. I gotta get it out for Christmas." Anyway I ended up doing sessions all summer, and it went on and on. You don’t know where you’re leading - you should be able to look at the whole. You get forced into writing scene by scene which is a very unsatisfactory way to work.
- The result on TND is that the album’s cues need to be delivered before the whole score will be finished recording.
That happened to me once too on The Specialist. I did the score, then Gloria Estefan and her husband did all that Miami stuff and they wanted to bring out their song album way ahead. Yet in my contract I had 2 tracks on their album. I hadn’t written any music at that point. I was In London doing Moviola. I suggested writing 2 themes and recording with the Philharmonic at the same time. Fortunately he loved them. Then the instrumental album came out much later. It’s a very difficult thing, and producers don’t understand it. They come in and say ‘why can’t it be done?’ They don’t get it. The business has changed a lot you know.