An Interview with Alan Silvestri by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.10/No.37/1991
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
In a very short time, composer Alan Silvestri has risen to the ranks of America’s best contemporary film composers, with standout scores to films like ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE and its sequels, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and THE ABYSS. We covered Silvestri’s ROGER RABBIT and MAC & ME scores in Soundtrack #31 and 32; this time we’ll take an in-depth look back at his earlier days in film composing, his experiences scoring his first blockbusters and his use of electronics, and his overall views on writing music for the movies.
This interview was conducted in June, 1987
Would you describe your background in music and how got into film scoring?
I started with an interest in music when I was about three or four years old. I played music all the way through my school years, I’d actually started as a drummer, and when I was somewhere around the age of 15 or so, I gave that up and started playing the guitar. I did some writing in high school, I had small bands – you know, 2-horn bands, 3-horn bands, and started to take a liking to it. From there I went on to Berklee School of Music in Boston for a couple of years, but I decided not to finish school. I wanted to go out and play, so I went on the road with a band – that was I guess back in ‘68 or so.
I wound up in Los Angeles by mistake. I never had any thoughts of scoring music for films; I was here with my band on a record contract which turned out to be a fake. We were literally stranded here in Los Angeles not really knowing anyone. As luck would have it, the first person I met here was a lyricist named Bradford Craig, who had had some success as a songwriter, but he certainly was not a film scorer, he wrote mostly lyrics. But someone had seen his name on a music credit for a film and they had made the assumption that he had scored it, so they called him up for a picture. He knew how to write beautiful lyrics but he didn’t know a whole lot about music, so he asked me if I could do it. We were pretty desperate at that time, so of course I said yes, and proceeded to go get the Earle Hagen film scoring book and the Carroll Knudson timing book and in about two days I learned the mechanics of scoring a picture, so I went in and saw this film. It was a little thing called THE DOBERMAN GANG. I went in and wrote about 60 minutes of music for it and the next thing I knew I was a film scorer! So we have composer-by-default here!
Now where were you from originally?
I was born in New York and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey.
What was the name of the band you were in?
I was with a band called Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders.
Your first main film music assignment, the one that really brought you to recognition, was ROMANCING THE STONE. How did you get involved with that project?
ROMANCING THE STONE is a very interesting case, again. I had just done a hit television show called CHiPS for four and a half years. I’d not really spent a great deal of time making any kind of contact with the film side of the industry, I was working this show and it kept me very busy and of course when it folds it goes all at once. So there was a dry period, and I got a call one evening from a music editor who was working on ROMANCING THE STONE, and from Anthony Stone who was having a scheduling difficulty. They apparently had lots of submissions of music, from lots of people, and they hadn’t found anyone that they were happy with yet. So I got a call from the music editor asking me if I would put something together to send over at which point he hands the phone to Bob Zemeckis. Bob and I met on the phone that night, and Bob explained one of the scenes in his film, and it was the scene of the gorge in ROMANCING THE STONE where they’re running away from the police and being shot at, and finally swing across this big gorge. He’s explaining this to me on a Friday night, and the close of the conversation is “can you do about two or three minutes and have it here by lunchtime tomorrow?”
I had just started to put a studio together in my house, and I had a limited amount of electronic equipment. I stayed up that night and I put together a three minute cue, just kind of a very rough demo to give him an idea what I’d do with that scene. I went in to see him the following day, and they were very happy with the whole thing, and next thing I knew it was a call from Michael Douglas and we started to put the deal together, and the rest was ROMANCING THE STONE.
Would you explain what your approach was to scoring that particular film?
ROMANCING had a couple things going that we needed to include in the music. One thing that we all felt strongly about was that it had to have, obviously, a Latin feel to it, and that translates as a very highly rhythmic score. The other thing was, it was a show that we were all calling from the very beginning an escape picture; it was going to be a fun, entertaining kind of film, so we were wanting the music to always have a kind of lightness about it, even though the bad guy is dead, he’s still kind of a caricature, Zolo was his name, kind of like, he’s almost too bad. So we knew we wanted it to be a romp, and that meant keeping it moving, whenever possible. We also had some fairly grand backdrops, in terms of the jungle, and panoramas of cities, and all that, so we also wanted some size to it. So we basically combined this kind of rhythmic undertone with a good size orchestra on the top, in order to try to handle both of those requirements. There’s really only one theme in the entire picture, and it’s used for just about everything. We didn’t need so much a great variety of central material; it was more to keep this rompy feel alive throughout the picture.
Where there any challenges that you found in scoring a large film of this type, basically, for the first time?
There was a different kind of pressure, but there’s just about nothing as pressurized as a weekly television show, where you score a show in the morning, and that afternoon you see the next one, and then a week later you score that one in the morning, and you see the next one that afternoon. So in terms of that kind of pressure, I’ve had tremendous training by being in television for four or five years. Obviously, when you start to work on a project like ROMANCING, and it starts to shape up and have an exciting look to it, you know that it could be a tremendous help to your career, so that starts a kind of internal pressure – you want to do a good job, you want to give everyone what they need.
Another kind of pressure we had working was that we used quite a great deal of electronic instruments on that show, and, to my knowledge, it was one of the first times that computerized sequencers were used on live sessions along with the big orchestra. Just working out the logistics of putting the entire score in the hands of a little black box, and if this thing goes off, great; and if not – you’re dead! As it turned out it all went just fine, but we really stretched in terms of experimentation and it paid of, but not without some rather tense moments on those sessions.
Moving back to CHiPS just for a second, I’m curious as to what kind of approach you had to take with that, for example, incorporating the film’s main theme into the episodes. Was that your theme, or someone else’s?
The main theme of the show was not mine. I re-arranged the theme when I came onto the show at the start of their second season. But the producer never asked that I use that theme, so I think maybe out of a hundred and thirty episodes, there were only two episodes where he ever specifically asked me to use that theme in a cue. Otherwise every week we would play the theme over the main titles, and then they’d have a prologue after the commercial where they would run their titles, with their actors, producer, and director and so on. I would introduce my theme for the show during that prologue, and then use that theme to score the episode.
Did you write a new theme for each episode?
That’s a LOT of themes!
Yeah, it was a tough one.
What kind of orchestra were you able to use on CHiPS?
You’re limited with television for budgetary reasons, but I used about 22 people. One of the things that was always first and foremost in concept on that show, was that it be a rhythm section score. It was really the forerunner of the MIAMI VICE concept; we didn’t use record acts, but certainly the idea was to always play the show from the point of view of montage. We never wanted to be playing background music, as such – it was like, if we’re going to play, we’re in with both feet and we’re playing this strong rhythmic music through whatever is going on. There was no real underscoring of dialog in that show; it was all just action music for action sequences.
Did you do any other TV work outside of CHiPS?
A little bit. I did a few episodes of STARSKY AND HUTCH, and that’s really pretty much it.
Moving back to your film work, when ROMANCING THE STONE became a big hit, how did that affect the kind of assignments you were getting?
You cross into a new world once you hit upon a successful film, then all the sudden you have film work that’s being presented to you, which is almost impossible until that happens. There is definitely a lag. You do a successful film like ROMANCING THE STONE; you don’t start getting the calls the next day. It takes a little while for things to start to happen. So we kind of had a relatively slow beginning, after ROMANCING. But you could feel that it was coming, and it took about six months or so before things started to happen, and right after ROMANCING THE STONE, I did a picture for Dino De Laurentiis called CAT’S EYE, and then I did FANDANGO for Steven Spielberg…
FANDANGO was interesting in that it had a large symphonic orchestra. What kind of approach did you take in that sense, in terms of a different orchestration than you’d done before?
FANDANGO was interesting. The director, Kevin Reynolds, had a very extensive temp track for that film, and when I went in to see the picture with him, he was very clear about what he wanted, which was his temp track. So he had his film temp tracked with all kind of things from spooky to the Shostakovich 8th Symphony, and he was very specific about wanting these kinds of things. I had never written an orchestra score before this, and now the time had arrived. There was no escape! I had to sit down and write this kind of material, and it was a tremendous experience for me, because my whole musical past had revolved around rhythm section oriented music. I was a rock-and-roll jazz drummer and a be-bop guitarist and now somebody throws the Shostakovich 8th Symphony at me and says “you have to do this now, AI,” and that’s it!
I have to be quite honest, up until that time I’d never ever dreamed of writing a score like that. ROMANCING the stone was kind of the synthesis of what it was that I did, it was a very highly rhythmic score and the rhythm carried the material. The material was based on the rhythm. Now I was confronted by having to write an orchestra score, where none of that could be relied upon. Aside from making me have to write in a new way, FANDANGO showed me that it was possible for me, because I had never had any dream in this lifetime of doing a score, for instance, like BACK TO THE FUTURE. I mean, I just thought this was somebody else’s life, there are people out there who know who to do that and they do that, but it’s not me, I’ll never know what that is! And next thing I knew, a whole new world of music was opened up for me through that project.
Let’s talk about BACK TO THE FUTURE for a bit, a score which I like very much. What was your approach to that score, particularly that it had a very strong use of rock music which, in some cases, would tend to dominate the soundtrack. How did you deal with that?
That was a case of having a good deal of source music, but the source music was considered environmental, in a sense. We needed all the help we could get in that film to create the ‘50s environment, and we knew we could depend on source music to help us there. We didn’t want to confuse the dramatic side of the picture with what was, for all intents and purposes, the set. We were looking at the rock and roll in that picture as part of the set. So, early on, we threw out the idea of doing any rhythm section, rock and roll period score. The fact was that the picture was ultimately looked upon, from the point of view of the music, as an epic-hero time-traveller scenario. The difficulty of course, in playing anything that could sound so grand with orchestra, is that it starts off in a small town, and as the picture goes on, the town gets even smaller. We go back to Mayberry, and then we shrink it down by, like, twenty years!
So it presented kind of an interesting problem, and it was one that Bob Zemeckis was very aware of early on and expressed concern about. He expressed it very clearly in his comparison with ROMANCING THE STONE when he said, “Al, I don’t have any jungles here, I don’t have any big pictures in this whole film. So I’m depending on you to somehow give me a big movie, because I don’t have one, in terms of visual size.” People who had read the script couldn’t for the life of them figure out what I was doing, because there was no way you were going to have a 98-piece orchestra for this little town picture! But we opted to go for a big orchestra approach, and I think it worked, in terms of trying to give the story an adventurous, magical feel…
Yeah. While the rock music is providing the environment, whether it’s the present day or the ‘50s, your score just brings up this sweeping heroism, and this whole concept of time travel.
Exactly. And the relationship between the Professor and Marty, and relationship between Marty and his Mom, and between George and Biff, you know, you’ve got a little of this gang-type vibe there it’s like the old nerd story. There’s a lot of material in there that’s bigger than the picture, and we were happy with the way it ultimately played. It seemed to help the story come out but always remained separate from the source music.
How did the runaway success of BACK TO THE FUTURE help you as a composer? I understand you got some Grammy nominations for the album…
That’s right, there was a Grammy nomination for the album, and there was one for best instrumental from a motion picture. And that kind of puts a keel on something, if I could put it that way. Everybody’s entitled to one stroke of luck, and that’s what ROMANCING THE STONE was for me, it was the one shot where you do it and for whatever reason, things worked and okay, there you are. BACK TO THE FUTURE kind of let me have a sense of consistency in the market place, as it did for Bob Zemeckis too, and so it was different, I mean, aside from the fact that the picture was such a huge success, it was also the second success we had both had together, and that begins to really speak strongly in the industry, and so that kind of put my name on a parking place. That was definitely a big step, career wise.
Interestingly enough, most of your scores that immediately followed BACK TO THE FUTURE, particularly CLAN Of THE CAVE BEAR, DELTA FORCE and NO MERCY, were shifting totally away from large orchestra and were purely synthesizer scores. How did this approach come about?
The exciting thing about CLAN Of THE CAVE BEAR was, first of all, you have two hours of film where nobody’s going to say anything, no gun shots, no car screeches, and the material of the picture is so exotic that there are no real conventions that you have to start from. And so the decision ultimately was to have an electronic approach to this film, but at the same time, not have it be an electronic-sounding score. That’s when I became heavily involved in the use of the Synclavier, which I have remained with ever since. What’s wonderful about it is that there is a lot of room for making your own instruments through the use of this machine, and doing a lot of things that you couldn’t do by conventional means.
CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR needed to have an epic feel to it and it still needed to have action, but I was looking for a sense of an exotic environment through the music which the Synclavier lent itself beautifully to. As I said earlier, I try to find challenges for myself within the context of the project, since I really believe that in order for me to get energy on the screen, I have to be digging, and in order to dig, you kind of have to be up against the problem, at least that’s the way I find it. I think that’s where a lot of it comes from.
DELTA FORCE was more from the point of view of what the director wanted, he wanted a very hard-hitting, rhythm-oriented score for that. Now when we did AMERICAN ANTHEM we were back to a large orchestra – that was done with an 85-piece orchestra and electronics. So it depends. I feel free about moving back and forth between the two mediums, or standing in the middle, which we did on PREDATOR. So it seems it’s just what the film needs.
How did you get involved with PREDATOR?
I met the producer, Joe Silver, while we were dubbing BACK TO THE FUTURE, and Joe is a friend of Bob’s. We hit it off very well, and we had been looking since then for a film together, and when PREDATOR came up, the call came, and it was the one. The schedule worked and all and we decided to do the picture together, and for me whenever it works out that it’s as much my relationship with the people as it is the film, and I’ve wanted to do a show with Joe for a long time and vice-versa, and this one came up, and we went for it.
How did you determine the approach you were going to use on this particular film?
After seeing it and after having some talks with the director and producer, we wanted to somehow have it have the feel of an old-time horror movie, suspense-horror film. We knew we wanted a large orchestra for it, and that there was going to be a lot of music. As it turned out, I think in 147 minutes running time there are 135 minutes of music. Once again, a lot of action, space, monsters, we needed the orchestra in this case to really give us the size, and we used a great deal of electronics for a lot of percussion-type work, a lot of effects, so it was a combination of the two, really.
Would you describe PREDATOR as a more of a thematic score or an ambient/atmospheric score?
PREDATOR had four themes. There was a kind of martial-military-based main title, which had to do with the fact that these guys were a commando squad; we used another theme for the menacing physical presence of the monster, and then there was a third theme for what we called the legend, which kind of addressed the mystery side of the monster, because for most of the film you don’t see the monster. The theme was used whenever there was dialog going on about what this could be and this old Central American legend about this being that comes down and kills the young men of the village and all. It was addressing that. There was one other theme which was used in the middle of the picture and the end, which played more on the emotional side of the loss of the men, one case in particular when one of the guys’ buddies is killed and he’s there at the graveside, and it’s kind of a taps-type of sound. It’s just a little piece of material which plays there, and it closes out the picture before the end credit, it’s just kind of a little emotional statement about the fact that these guys have been through some horror here.
It reminded the audience of the human aspect of what’s been going on.
What kind of orchestra did you use on this one?
We used a good size orchestra; I think we had about 87 players, and then the Synclavier running along with them.
I like the combination of the two, especially in the first scene when they touch down in the jungle and they’re marching through it, you have your military theme and there’s this little electronic feel behind it, kind of tapping away and it leant a neat texture.
That’s right. There’s different little effects like that you can do that Just make it a little bit different.
You’ve used the Synclavier quite a bit. How do you feel, in a technical sense or whatever, that it lends itself to film scoring?
The thing that, aside from all the technical facility that they have now developed, I think a composer, especially for films, is constantly looking for colors, constantly looking for material. Even Berlioz, who is considered the father of modern day orchestration, was motivated through extending the coloristic palette of the orchestra, so from that point of view the Synclavier is a tremendous addition to the coloristic possibilities, and PREDATOR was really the first time that we did an extensive use of programming on it, locked up, so that it was actually playing while this large orchestra was playing.
So the range of coloristic possibilities has just been greatly extended. Some of the things where we’ll be playing in the orchestra, and there’ll be a bass drum in this military march type material playing, we’ll also have on the Synclavier (the sound of) a basket ball in a large gymnasium, and somebody else hitting a two-by-four on a wood saw-horse, and all those sounds mixed together give us the quality of this low-end, which would normally just be played by a bass drum, now we have a different twist to it. The mix-and-match possibilities are fantastic.
How does the Synclavier help you in a technical sense, as far as getting things done on time, within budgets, etcetera?
Well it depends to what degree I’m using it. On certain kinds of films I never go to paper, for instance, NO MERCY and CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR were done exclusively on Synclavier, I never wrote a note of music down on paper. A great deal is figured out the way I would normally compose, because the Synclavier is a keyboard but there is also the possibility of doing a great deal of improvisational work, which is interesting. The Synclavier will deadlock to a video machine, and what you can do is literally on certain kinds of cues, you can sit and watch and actually move and be recording while you’re watching the film, so you can do things that have spontaneity about them that are impossible to achieve through conventional means.
What do you feel about the overall world of film music these days, what with frequent clashes between scoring and songs, rock music soundtracks and things like that?
There is no doubt that the commercial aspect of having hit songs in a film, in the right marriage, is tremendously lucrative. Every film has to start with the money once the creative side of it is there – it requires a great deal of money, so this is a conflict that has never stopped and it’s as old as the hills. There are filmmakers who are very serious about having their picture work first and foremost, and from those folks you get a fair shake in terms of how underscore is handled. But it’s the motion picture Business, and so it’s an on-going conflict. Some people have no taste and they just cram songs into a picture, not even good songs, so you get a musical Frankenstein; and then there are other people who tastefully handle the situation and get the benefits of both. I don’t really have any axe to grind about it. Guys out there who hire me and make films, are they’re trying to make money and make business, the only thing you can really say about it is that your audience has the vote – the dollar has the vote, so if people pay to see a musical Frankenstein film, they’re going to make more of them.
Are there any composers who have influenced your own work, particularly as you were developing your own style, and learning to do orchestral work?
Oh, absolutely. I listen to the same people everybody else does. I think Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams – although they are two names we can put them together – have single-handedly rejuvenated the public’s awareness and interest in the large film score, and I think the scoring community has to recognize the contribution of those two guys in that area. Certainly studios don’t want to spend the money they have to spend to hire that size orchestra, and yet those two guys have consistently shown both the public and thereby the film makers that there’s just something magical and emotional and fantastic about good music with a high profile in the film medium. You can go back to the Bernard Herrmanns and the Alfred Newmans and all, but speaking just of the contemporary guys, the likes of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, these guys have done a great deal for keeping good music in vogue, and that’s what you hope for, and certainly I’ve been influenced by all of them.
You’ve scored many different types of films, from horror movies such as CAT’S EYE to giant heroic fantasy like BACK TO THE FUTURE to very action-packed things like DELTA FORCE and NO MERCY. Is there any particular type of film that you enjoy doing more than others?
I think actually they all have their interesting side to them. Of all of those I couldn’t say one style is more interesting than another. OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE was a rompy type comedy. What might be fun to do now is a love story, something very, very soft. It’s kind of an area which has not appeared for me yet, and it’s something I would very much like to write for, because I’m pretty much always having to come in swinging, and it would be nice to have an opportunity to write something with a much softer side to It.
I think there was a little bit of that, at least I got a little bit of that out of CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, which is a very moving score in many ways.
That was a case where there wasn’t really a great deal of action and there were opportunities for very light emotional moments, for instance between Ayla and her mother. Even Ayla’s theme, which had a large feel to it, also had moments where it could be very intimate. I would say that I’d be interested in doing more of that, but not to the exclusion of the other. I have a great time on the hard-hitting action material.