A Conversation with Jerry Fielding by David Raksin
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine No.23, 1980
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
This interview took place about a year before Jerry Fielding’s untimely death on February 17, 1980. Mr. Raksin very kindly granted permission to print their conversation, originally broadcast on his ‘THE SUBJECT IS FILM MUSIC’ radio show. Special thanks also to Ronald L. Bohn, who transcribed the tapes. – Luc Van de Ven
My guest in the studio is Jerry Fielding, who is an old friend and a very, very much admired colleague, who is known in the profession as an exceptional composer, who has never thus far achieved the public renown that certain of our colleagues have. I’ve always found that that is the strange of omissions, since his work is so absolutely unique and distinguished.
Thank you very much. I’m not sure it’s a ‘glaring omission’. You know, there’s something to be said for never getting to the top, because there’s only one direction to go from there, and at my age I like to think there’s still some ways to go. David, as you know, I’m really kind of preoccupied with improving the craft, so that the people l respect will have a higher opinion of me.
There is a certain something about the respect of one’s peers which is in a class by itself. There are members of our profession, and I’m sure you have known some of them, who are very, very well known and who do not enjoy the respect of other composers; and they feel that keenly.
Yes, I’m afraid that’s true. Anyway, I feel rather strongly and very principled about this work. If one has to enjoy the luxury of living like a Hollywood film composer, you really ought to feel like you’re putting something back in. I mean, one should really be able to say, I’m doing something that’s as useful, say, as fixing plumbing. I’m far more concerned with what I consider to be the quality of what I do. That preoccupies me far much more than whether or not anyone thinks its sale able or commercial or whatever. I really find that I’m bored by all that stuff.
Well, I think in a way what you’re saying, is the same reaction so many of us have to a world in which A&R men – Artists and Repertoire men – are determining whether or not film music is appropriate to the film, whereas actually what they’re thinking about is: Will this sell us a record.
It’s somewhat a shame that an industry which has come as far as this has, and has become as important a medium of communication, considering that it started out as a novelty – it’s really become the most important medium of man-to-man communication and people-to-people communication that the world’s ever known – and that it has fallen into such a state of disrepute as far as its technique is concerned. The problem is that no rules have evolved for filmmaking as they have for ballet, opera, and even art shows. There seems to be a kind of do your own thing-ness about it right now.
Now I want as soon as we can, to treat the audience to some of your music. And I would therefore like to begin by asking you to tell us a little about THE WILD BUNCH, which we are going to play in a sequence.
It’s a classic film. We all get associated either with certain groups of people we work with, or studios, whatever. I happen to be kind of tied up in everybody’s mind, including my own, with Sam Peckinpah – who’s a very colorful guy to be tied up with. And THE WILD BUNCH is possibly, in my view, one of the few almost perfect pictures ever made. I could look at it every day and never get tired of it. It’s a Western; it was Sam’s big break into the ranks of the immortal directors, if there are such things. And Sam’s opening to this picture is really the classic. If you recall, the film opens on a cauldron with ants and scorpions in it… And it’s being looked at by a group of children, and if you look closely the next time you see it at those children, you’ll determine, if you care to see it, that there is something wrong with every one of them.
I saw that particular thing as Sam’s eye-view of the world.
And also, he is in a sense – I hate to sound like a film critic, but you know, he is in a sense one of those children peering at that little hell of scorpions and ants…
And the children themselves are monsters. One is an albino, one has terrible birthmarks, and one is blind… This by-play that goes on doesn’t – I know Sam very well, I mean really terribly well – it doesn’t shock him, this kind of thing. I mean, this is what the world is. And that’s the point this picture makes. I felt that the task of the score to this movie was at the beginning, because really it is in three major sections, so it’s really three pictures strung together, but the main task at the beginning is to set up something that’s tenuous, that doesn’t tell you, because you see the Wild Bunch coming in, in American Army uniforms, and if you know that they’re not who you think they are, then the whole thing is shot. So you have to feel that they are really soldiers coming into this town.
Of course, I remember that shot; this is a Peckinpah picture, and he starts with that ‘8000 millimeter’ camera shot, where they keep riding toward you and never seem to get there; and the music adds a very, very peculiar unstated dimension to what’s wrong with it, because its rhythm is so crazy…
It has portent, yes, because it is in elevenths. You couldn’t march to that. If you tried, you’d trip over. You know that it’s martial music, but you just can’t walk to it…
With a bad leg you could.
You might, yes. But then he passes to this marvelous town and past the temperance preacher. He sets up the smell of the area and the time. The jobs are to sell the real estate, and as far as the people know these guys are real, but there is the hint in the air that something is kind of wrong. We pass the temperance tent, with the marvelous speech dovetailed – you’ll know that because we come upon the harmonium which just plays a moment and soon we’re back into it again. And then, at the end of this long march into town, they come down to the railway station and all hell breaks loose. They blow up the station and they shoot up the town. Well, you know, then the job of the picture becomes – in the next hour and 50 minutes, or two hours and 50 minutes, depending on which version you see – it’s to take to these guys, who have performed a reprehensible act before your eyes, and cause you to weep when they die. And that’s a long way to go. So the score in this film is more old-fashioned, although it’s later in time than OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. WALES’ score made use, as you know, of much more modern harmonic devices surrounding the ambience of the time. This one is rather true to the period almost all the way through. After all, the main job here is to play away from the violence, play more of the warmth between the people, or the hatred between the people, and the real estate – more than anything, the real estate. Because if there’s anything Sam Peckinpah has, it’s a great pair of eyes, and he shoots period things better than anyone.
Jerry, in THE WILD BUNCH there is a sequence in which you used a march of the time which was used by the Villistas, people who were with Pancho Villa. Would you tell us something about that?
The sequence you are speaking about is a very brief, transitory scene where the Bunch is traversing a sand dune. There’s no foliage, it’s a bare pile of sand, just like the Sahara. And they’re walking across the top of it, and one of the fellows, Eddie O’Brien, trips his mules and comes tumbling down the thing, and they all come tumbling down. A very short scene. What it needed was a martial music, ‘getting from here to there’ music. In any picture like this, which deals with an historical era that is really history, I always like to research it thoroughly, because I like to be able to stand up under really critical scrutiny as to the authenticity in areas like this, and one of the things was a deep, long, and rather painful look into what Mexican folklore is. In Mexican music you find, I think, semblances of music from everywhere, with a great many European influences – everybody from Maximilian, the French, the Irish, whoever was there, they were all there for a period. ‘Adelita’ is a march – I’m not even sure if anybody knows who originally wrote it, or where it originally came from, but it became a song of the Villistas. It was sung both as a march and as a ranchero.
In THE WILD BUNCH there is an extraordinary place in which there is an assault on a train and there’s a battle at the bridge. It’s an enormously long sequence and I marvel at the way in which it was sustained both by his nibs, the director Sam, and yourself.
We had discussed something about the excessive use of violence for the first time in THE WILD BUNCH. There are three violent episodes: the initial shoot-out, the assault on the train and the battle at the bridge. The first and the last of those are emotionally very heavy numbers. The one in the middle is the gambit. It’s an act of defiance. They pull a robbery on an American Army train. It was brazen and impertinent and impolite and impossible – and they did it! And it has a great deal of titillation in it, in that it’s the good guys versus the bad guys, or the fools. The bad guys weren’t even bad guys in this case; they were the American Army. They were just fools. And, although there’s a lot of shooting and killing – there’s that scene where the train comes smashing backwards into a boxcar full of horses, it would normally be a terrifying thing, but it’s for laughs now. Although it’s quite real, it’s not to get too emotionally wrapped up in. Even the blowing of the bridge, which is one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed for anything, the same is true. There’s very little dialogue, in fact none, as you know, and it’s the entire gambit from the time they get on that train, until they take charge of that train, and rob the Army train, and escape with the goods, and then are chased by Robert Ryan and that little inefficient posse, which captures them at the bridge that they were about to cross into Mexico. They are about to take all these contraband arms across the bridge, and they are going to blow the bridge as they do it. They set the charges, start across the bridge and, lo and behold, the heavy wagon sinks into a hole in the bridge, which is quite predictable, and they are trapped there trying to get this thing out as the pursuers come upon them in a hurry. It’s a very tense moment. I think secretly the audience knows they are going to make it, anyway, and they do. You can hear all that almost in the music.
I must say that I sometimes think that if you and Sam Peckinpah were permitted, you could support the black powder industry in this country on your own. Well, the next piece we’re going to play is yet another ‘Main Title’, this one from Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS.
STRAW DOGS is possibly one of Peckinpah’s most astounding films. It has a superb cast – Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. The picture begins in a polite English village – very much the way VIRGINIA WOOLF began. Alex North’s approach to VIRGINIA WOOLF was a very valid one, too; he let the violins play, and he kept reminding you where you were. He played a chamber music thing which kept telling you all the time, “Look, this is happening in a university, after all,” and let the contrast speak for itself. You can’t quite do that in STRAW DOGS because it’s the same ambience, but it happens in a little village in England which is really strange; it’s very picturesque, and it starts like a postcard and then proceeds along its way without a hint of where it’ s going to get. The job of the main title therefore in this is, again, to give away absolutely nothing. You cannot give a hint where this is going. You mustn’t say this is a picture about contemporary life, or academic life, or a love story… you can’t do that, because if you do that you destroy the whole architecture. Where you’re going to end with this is so far removed from your beginning point. It’s not a circle like the other movies have been, tied up in a neat little bow at the end. At the finish of this, the people are a shambles, there’s not a sign of the original character, or what it appeared to be, left. Nothing. So it’s a complete metamorphosis.
I wrestled with this for a great deal of time. In fact the whole score was done – it was recorded in London where it was shot – and it got very late, and I began to get very worried. I thought, “What am I going to do?” I was really going around in circles as to how to tackle this. And, I think that it was the morning I got on the plane at 4 in the afternoon for London – that morning, in a dead panic, it just simply shot into my head to do this thing, a type of fanfare, which simply is a theatrical announcement. What it states is that you are about to witness a piece of theatre. Pay attention. And no more than that. It’s serious, but not deadly. It doesn’t tell you what kind of theatre you’re going to see. It leaves the field open for many things. And what happens at the end of it is, you’ll notice that it fades out. It’s all brass. There’s not much emotion in that, it’s not soapy, or syrupy, or schmaltzy. So it’s a small legitimate brass choir, and at the end of this – which is a very short main title – about 40 seconds into this thing, the brass begins to do an imitation of a real English belfry. And that is actual English bells which I recorded over there in a field someplace. I copied that sequence that the bells made, although there were four of them, and they didn’t always go in direct sequence, as real bells won’t do. In the film you can never tell where the brass quits and the bells begin, and it slings you into this bell tower which is the first image you see, and then you pan down on this picturesque village. And then all hell breaks loose, slowly, very slowly.
Now we come to a sequence which I as a fellow composer and colleague do not envy you as having to tackle – the famous rape sequence in STRAW DOGS. And since we are under an obligation to the FCC and practically everybody else to be circumspect, can you say something to us about the music of the sequence we are about to hear?
We spoke of the ‘Main Title’ to STRAW DOGS fulfilling a requirement – to have portent, but not to say what it is that you portend, which I think the ‘Main Title’ successfully does. This scene is what is portended. This is the ultimate horror, as a result of which we move to the other subsequent horrors. And I must say, this scene is really a nasty business and not really capable of sustaining too much discussion of this kind. Anyone who saw the picture knows it, and there are two versions of this film, and one of them – mostly the European version with the mag track – is considerably longer than the American version was. The music you are about to hear is for that version. It was fore-shortened mechanically to satisfy the requirements the censor’s scissors caused. In its full form, what it is meant to do is to portray the thrashing back and forth between the horrors and the euphoria, and the subsequent horror and the double-horror, which is the dynamic of the scene. It goes from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other and back again. The pretty part, the euphoric part, is going to be easily recognizable in the strings and those wide chords and fifths, which are not original with me. The sicker portions are done with a unique device which is worthy of mention because there are some instruments that are sliding around in a very high register, and there are no instruments that do that. And the way we got that sound was to use three trombone players on three different lines, playing at half-speed; we then double-speeded it, closed it up an octave, and then we overdubbed that on top. It is a marvelous device. I first used it back in ADVISE AND CONSENT. It is a difficult thing to do.
As far as I am myself concerned, I often wonder how it would be possible for a man like Peckinpah, gifted man though he is, to sustain in films this hellish vision of the world he has, if it were not for your talents.
Well, thank you. Those are very kind remarks. I don’t know how valid they are. He’s a very heavy director, and I don’t know really to what degree people are that moved by music or even notice it. I hope they do. As a result of these discussions, maybe they will.
Jerry, a good part of what we propose to play consists of main titles – those peculiar overtures which begin films and set the scene for them. And they are all main titles of different character and different quality, and we now go to a totally different kind of main title, and l would like you to tell us something about that.
Yes, this is an entirely different ambience. The next two are films of Michael Winner, an English director. THE NIGHTCOMERS is the story which is purported to have occurred prior to the actual play, THE TURN OF THE SCREW. In other words, it is the events which are implied and are mentioned or suggested by THE TURN OF THE SCREW. It is the story of the characters Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who are ghosts by the time we get to THE TURN OF THE SCREW.
This is before the new governess comes on the scene.
Yes, and it deals with the fact that these kids actually did murder these two people. It is a period English picture – it’s a very English score – and you’re dealing with a story about two kids who are sweet… but, again, you have to imply something’s not quite right with these two. This actually develops later on into more of a twelve-tone score, a rather melodic one, I must say. But the main title of this simply sets up – it’s really kind of a cover piece – it’s like a still frame of a greeting card of “where it is”. What you see here is a bunch of kids running through the territory on the estate – they are very wealthy – and Quint is chasing them. It’s a game they’re playing. It’s very English, and it’s very Olde English countryside. It’s happy and it’s jolly and there’s not a hint of any trouble yet, because that has to develop later. This same piece that you hear now as the ‘Main Title’ of this is extremely well played by the orchestra in England which I absolutely revere. I think those people are superb musicians, and it’s recorded in an entirely different style than we use in this country. The philosophy actually I happen to prefer is one of stepping back from the orchestra more. You get a feeling of more air in the room, the way the orchestra would sound live to you, which is really what l prefer to hear. And it’s just a nice pleasant piece to listen to, and it prepares you for much. But again, it doesn’t really tell you – it withholds.
We now are going to play a sequence called ‘Bedtime at Bligh House’. I presume that ‘Bedtime at Bligh House’ is not the same as bedtime at your house or my house.
Not quite – but on the surface of it, it looks a little like that. ‘Bedtime at Bligh House’ is another piece of exposition. It’s atmosphere. It’s setting up the place and what it feels like, or felt like at the time. It’s a large country manor house in the winter landscape of England. The music is very much that – it’s simply the real estate, the ambience, the time, the feeling about the place – the dust-free, very well organized kind of baroque atmosphere, and very proper, by the way. It isn’t often that any of us become all that captivated with a work of our own that we love to sit around listening to it time and again. Usually we get so surfeited we can’t wait to shut it off. But this piece introduces the one exception, I think, in my whole life. The little waltz which occurs as the camera drifts in the window and you get your first look at these two children, who are going to be revealed as murderers before we’re finished. And they look like sweet little kids. And the little girl is in bed with her hand across the face of a doll. And she removes her hand and you see that the doll has no eyes, and then you know, “Well, there’s something very strange about these two”. But it’s kind of a left-handed, very subtle little thing that has to grow slowly, and the little waltz which is introduced in this piece and occurs many other times through the picture, in many ways, for is one of the nicest things I’ve ever done. One of these days, if I ever obtain the right to do so, I would like to make a serious piece out of this. Unfortunately, it is frozen in the vault of the studio which owns this music. It’s one of those cases, though, for those ‘detractors of film music fellows’, where there is the seed of something that has a great value on its own, and it is deserving of seeing the light of day in that way…
We come now to a sequence which you have called ‘The Big Swim’, and I cannot resist the obvious, and say to you, Jerry, this certainly has nothing to do with the sort of thing for which Mark Spitz became notorious?
Oh, not at all. Actually, the title is a facetious, almost tastelessly facetious misnomer. This scene depicts the murder of Miss Jessel, who is the little children’s… was the little children’s nanny. They do that by chopping a hole in her little rowboat. And then she gets in to row out to meet her lover, Peter Quint, and is overcome when she sees that the water is leaking in, and she can’t swim, and she screeches and goes into the ice-cold water and she drowns. Stephanie Beecham did this sequence, and it was really a difficult thing to film, because the water was actually quite freezing. She almost died. It’s a very dramatic piece, and calling it ‘The Big Swim’, I guess, was one of those irresistible breeches of good taste, where you think, “Why, it’s a funny thing to call it, so I’ll do that.
Yes, sardonic is the word. We now turn to a quite different kind of film, which moves me to inquire of you, Jerry, about this special affinity, this relationship you have with directors who are among the most distinguished of the new breed of our time: Sam Peckinpah, Karl Reisz (for whom you did THE GAMBLER), Michael Winner, Clint Eastwood, Michael Ritchie, and a number of other people. Now this film, THE MECHANIC, which starred Charles Bronson no less…
And no more…
And no more, of course… and the director of this film was…
Michael Winner was one of the ‘new wave’ of young directors who came up by way of pictures that I didn’t do called I’LL NEVER FORGET WHAT’S ‘IS NAME and THE JOKERS, which was a marvelous film. He made a name rather quickly, and made a string of films in England before he came here. THE MECHANIC – well, as everyone knows – I think everyone knows that in the parlance of the nether regions, a ‘mechanic’ is a killer, a hired killer. It’s a very impressive ‘Main Title’, and the thing I like most about it is that nothing is said. It’s pure sensual transmission. You only see the image of a blank screen on a downtown seedy Los Angeles street, and into the frame stands up a very, very ruffled and disturbed-looking, wretched, reprobate of a man, who is our hero. He walks into a flop house on Main Street or somewhere, and settles himself in a room, and begins to make preparations for something. What he is about to do is to assassinate a man who lives across the street. He goes through this elaborate business of taking out this expensive equipment and going across the street into the empty quarters of the man he is about to do in, and setting up a piece of explosive in a book in his shelf, and then rigging his stove so that at a certain hour something snuffs out the pilot light, and the room fills with gas, and then later in the night he simply ignites it, and blows the victim to shreds. But it’s a long sequence, and you can’t visualize the thing – It runs about 17 minutes before the first words are spoken, and it’ s interspersed with certain cuts away to him in his other life, which is as he poses to the world – a cultured man listening, as a matter of fact, to the ‘Kreutzer Fugue’ of Beethoven. Now this, because it’s a modern day experience, and it’s something kind of removed from everybody’s average run of acquaintances – we won’t often hang around hired killers all day – it’s dealing in a very hairy area. This is an entirely different form of music. It’s non-melodic entirely. It’s a series of orchestral effects and colors and extreme dissonances which I think are for today’s world. I frequently use the term “ear pollution”, which is a conditioner, you know, that gets us ready for this. And I think if there’s any music which really speaks for the time in which we presently live, it’s this kind of music. It’s not really pretty. By the same token, it is exciting.
For me this kind of music is very difficult to write. You’ve got to really be careful when you construct this kind of music for an orchestra, because in the upward extensions of these things, all kind of cacophony can break loose if they’re not terribly well constructed. Now, to the untrained ear some of this may sound like a lot of noise… I hasten to assure you that this is put together with such care and with such meticulousness that it took me all of about five weeks to do the whole 17 minutes. There’s a little break in the middle you’ll hear; pay no attention to that. It’s just where I cut out a piece. As it gets into the back part there is a lot of ticking and clacking; we did it with a thing called a pizzicato and col legno situation, where all the lower strings are hitting the strings with the wood of their bows, and it actually is a complicated contrapuntal thing. The effect, however, is just a series of “unmusic” music – that’s ‘clicks’ that are meant to blend in with the sound of Bronson putting his death weapon together… the gun. It’s extremely tense and it builds and quietens down, so that the screen is virtually empty of all sound just prior to the big explosion, which is the contrast you of course want. I think it is a very arresting piece. Of all the things I’ve done in my whole life, this to me is my favorite. I know that you can’t walk out of the theater whistling it, that’s for sure. But I think it’s the heaviest thing I’ve done. I must say that I’m not the first composer by a long shot to deal in this idiom. Certainly, a lot of present day serious composers are writing this way. One of the reasons I include it here, though, is because it is an example for people to know the kind of things we are called upon to do the broad spectrum we have to cover, as opposed, say, to a guy who is a serious composer who has a style he writes in. We, everyday of the week, are called to jump from this to hard rock to classical to old Western, and it’s really kind of what makes life interesting for us. But I don’t think that the average public really realizes how broad a vocabulary it’s necessary for film composers to have.
We turn now to SCORPIO, which is one of the films you scored for Michael Winner.
SCORPIO is a picture about the area that’s become known to us as the Intelligence Gathering community. It’s a spy picture, in other words. Not like James Bond, however. It’s very real. It deals with the CIA. It had a marvelous cast: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Paul Scofield. It opens up in Paris, and the opening sequence again tells you where you are and gives you some feeling about it. The picture has very many aspects to it. It’s full of intrigue. The music was recorded in England, incidentally, in a marvelous performance, all the way through.
Yes, and you used that orchestra you always use in England. Well, we now come to a sequence which you call ‘The Vienna Wheel’, which refers of course to the very famous ferris wheel in Vienna, and gives me the opportunity to spring a mite of trivia on you. Do you have any idea who it was that designed the ferris wheel?
In Vienna? That was our colleague, Max Steiner’s, father. He was an engineer and a builder, and he did a lot of other things. It kind of amuses me. That is, you’ll forgive the sort of semi-pun; we have now come ‘full circle’. Will you tell us something about the next sequence?
This sequence and the one which follows, which we are also going to play – they follow each other in the picture as one, and are all part of the basics – this is the stuff of which spy pictures are made. It’s the setting of the stage. It’s in a way you might say a cliché, but if it is, it’s a delicious one. It’s the whole thing without which spies become as uninteresting as accountants, you know. Our hero, the CIA agent, in this case Burt Lancaster, leaves Washington for Vienna; he is going to seek out and have a confrontation with an old friend of his from the Spanish Civil War days, who is now a Russian agent, played by Paul Scofield; it’s necessary to take Burt Lancaster from the Washington ambience into that one quickly. The reason you know you’re in Vienna, assuming that everyone has seen THE THIRD MAN, is that marvelous shot of that wheel. You see that – it’s like the Eiffel Tower to many people. The music that takes you there sets you down at twilight on a cobblestone street in some very picturesque portion of Vienna, just as the streetlights go on, and that time of day has all that conspiratorial smell to it, and you sense something very dramatic is about to happen.
Then a little theme enters, which is a kind of imitation Spanish Civil War song, and the catalyst agent appears, pushing a trash barrel, whistling, and then he takes the man with a series of one-line code messages – he takes our hero through the darkening backstreets of Vienna. A parade of them beautifully shot, by the way. One of the nicest sequences that I think Michael ever did. Through a series of trucks and conduits of all kinds, into a seedy and seedier portion – a reprise of the main theme, and then finally the music takes an obvious turn towards the Russian – something happens in the violas which can only be Russian music. It simply signals that we’re getting close to the man we’re looking for and it evolves onto a square, and fades away, as he opens the window upstairs.
Yes, at this point, the dark quality of the Russian soul…
It isn’t dark, really. It’s kind of ballet music, in a way. It’s a little zesty, but it has that Russian flavor about it. It isn’t ‘Volga Boatman’, you know.