An Interview with Alan Williams by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/Nos.80/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
You may have seen his name on an especially intriguing documentary or a cute family film, enjoyed the spark and flavor of the music that underlined the narrative or the drama. For several years now, Alan Williams has been quietly providing some of the most interesting scores for family films, TV movies, IMAX documentaries, and smallish features, adopting a fluidity of melody and enough varied nuances of texture and style to make his work defy categorization. Alan Williams grew up in Colorado and began studying classical music at the age of 7. He’s been scoring films since1973. Interviewed last October, Alan described his approach and experiences in film scoring.
What led you into film music?
From a young age, I knew I wanted to write music for films. Film and music are the two most powerful mediums. When they are combined there is nothing more emotionally stimulating. I am one of those guys who actually trained to be a film composer. I studied classical piano since the age of 7. I received a Bachelor of Music in Composition from Brigham Young University and then did graduate work in Film Scoring at the University of Southern California.
How would you describe your personal musical style, as it applies to film composition?
I think melody is the most important element to my approach as a film composer. Although I have worked on a varying array of film projects, I approach each one with melody foremost in mind. I feel it important to try and come up with some type of melodic content that embodies the emotional content of a film. Although there might be many different nuances to the drama and emotion of a film, the building blocks of a score come from one or two underlining melodic ideas.
I don’t know if I have a specific “style” because the musical style varies from film to film. I do try, however, to capture the essence of the story with a melody.
What influences do you feel have affected your approach?
I have been influenced by music from a variety of composers since I was young. The music of Vaughan-Williams has certainly influenced my melodic sensitivities as a composer. The use of rhythm by composers such as Stravinsky and Goldsmith has been influential as well.
You have scored a variety of dramas, television movies, children’s films, and documentaries, each of course with their own unique needs. Do you have a particular preference as a composer, or is the variety to your liking?
Variety is a good thing because it forces me as a composer to come up with fresh ideas. I can experiment with musical elements that cause me to stretch as a musician. I think this is invaluable for a composer. Getting comfortable writing the same type of score again and again weakens the music for the film. That having been said, I certainly have films that I enjoy more than others. Dramatic films with good stories are the ones I most enjoy working on the most I find it more rewarding being able to get into the characters and the story and to help add the intangible dramatic and emotional elements from the music that you are not able to do with, say, a documentary film.
How do you approach a documentary, such as AMAZON or the new KILIMANJARO? Is the function of music different in a non dramatic film like a documentary, versus, say, a dramatic feature film?
Although documentary films such as the IMAX scores I have written are not traditional dramatic films, I approach the music as if it were a dramatic narrative. For AMAZON and KILIMANJARO there were not a lot of dramatic elements from characters in the film, but there were many opportunities to treat the river or the mountain as a character itself. By thinking this way, I approach it the same as if it were a dramatic feature. I still work on creating a melody that encompasses the particular location as if it were a character or underlining emotion of a feature story.
ISLAND OF THE SHARKS was an especially pleasing documentary score, rich in melody. There seems to be a John Barry influence here. Was this due to a temp score?
The film was temped with Barry. The filmmakers wanted a romantic theme for the sharks, showing their grace and beauty. It seems that whenever a score has a long, broad melody it’s reminiscent of a John Barry score.
Was the temp a problem for you on this score? Do you find it awkward when a temp score may dictate an approach not necessarily of your own choosing?
Most of the time composers don’t enjoy temp scores. They do serve a purpose however. They can point a composer in a particular musical direction that the director wants to go. The problem arises when the filmmaker wants the temp as their score. A composer can be handcuffed by this. There have been cases when I have felt that all I was asked to do was rewrite a piece of temp music. That is a real problem. A composer should be hired to collaborate with the filmmaker and to compose an original score, not rewrite an existing score.
What kind of musical research have you had to do to create authentic sounding ethnic music for some of these scores such as AMAZON or DEAD SEA SCROLLS?
I try and familiarize myself with as much music as I can. When called upon to write a score with ethnic music, I do a lot of listening to both indigenous instruments and to musical styles.
How closely have you worked with producers or directors on scoring documentary films? Is there a difference in the composer-filmmaker relationship on a documentary versus what you find on a feature film?
My experience has always been that of working closely with the film maker. It doesn’t matter what the film genre, directors have a vision of their film. They have lived with it much longer than I have and have an idea of what the music needs to do in their film. Whether it’s a documentary or an action picture, the director and producer always have taken a collaborative role in the music process. All of them hear thematic material before I proceed with writing the score. Nowadays, they all want to see a demo of the score before we go in the studio and record with the orchestra.
What particular challenges does the IMAX format pose for you as a composer?
I love the large-format venue. For a composer it truly is a dream. First, every single nuance you put on tape, you know you are going to hear in the theater. IMAX theaters have the best sound systems in the world. Also, the music plays a much larger role than it might in a dramatic feature. I find I have fewer car chases and loud sound effects to contend with than I would in a feature. One of the best phone calls I have received was from the dubbing stage of AMAZON. The director called to say that they were dumping the narration for the last 3 minutes of the film and were just playing my music. That never happens with a feature.
How does the need to have a larger than life sound, matching the large scale of the visual image, affect your compositional or orchestrational approach?
It all depends on the subject matter and what the filmmaker wants the audience to feel. Most of the time, the large screen calls for a large sound. Working with large orchestras to achieve this has been fantastic.
At the same time, does the large format or the fact that everything is SO big and SO discernable offer you any logistical challenges in orchestration or recording that the relatively smaller scale of, say, a documentary or children’s film might not present?
Actually, the only consideration is the recording and mixing in surround. Most of the same considerations are made when I record any feature since they are always delivered in surround. The only difference is that IMAX theaters are far superior in their sound systems so you have to be very sure where things are planned and how they are balanced. For instance, on AMAZON and KILIMANJARO, there are some very large drums and when they are played loud; you actually shake in your seat in the theater because their presence and force is so great. It’s pretty cool to literally “move” the audience with your music.
There has got to be a good story behind the score for ADVENTURES OF SPACE BABY AND MENTAL MAN. How do you approach a children’s film, as a composer? Are the needs different than that of an adult drama? Does the younger audience dictate a different approach?
Well SPACE BABY is an interesting film. It’s your not-so-typical story of a boy who fights the evil of the universe and saves the world. As you know, I have worked on a number of so-called “family films”. I like to think of them as this rather than kid films. Kids nowadays are quite sophisticated and I have been able to write scores to these films that are equally sophisticated. These films also have allowed me to write some very fun yet intelligent music. I have found myself sometimes trying to convince directors that their story is appealing to a wider audience than just kids and the music should also reflect this. In almost every case, when the music can be dramatic rather than cute, the story is better and the audience, especially kids, react better to the story. I think music knows no age limit.
What can you tell us about your latest fairy tale score, THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA? What kind of score did you write for this film?
I am very excited about this project. About 3 years ago I was approached to write the score and songs for this animated feature. After reading the script and then seeing the character designs, I was very excited about being a part of a great story that I knew would appeal to a wide audience. I began by writing 7 original songs with lyricist David Pomeranz. Since the songs had to be written first so that the animators could animate to the actual singers, the songs have been completed for nearly two years. To date, they might be my best work as a composer. I am very proud of them. The songs are for character solos, choir and orchestra very much in the tradition of musical theater. I’m finally beginning to work on the score that is a very traditional symphonic score. Lots of big dramatic and emotional moments along with fun, whimsical, and action-packed sequences. You might say, there’s something for everyone in the score.
What was your toughest assignment so far?
I don’t know if I have one toughest assignment. I have however had a couple. First, writing the songs for PRINCESS was especially challenging since I had no real prior experience writing songs for musical theater.
SOUL ASSASSIN was also a challenge for a couple of reasons. The director and I have known each other for quite awhile. He came to me and said he wanted a techno-action score. He knew I didn’t have much experience in this genre, but he said he wanted me to do the film. It was a tough project – a 90-minute film that had almost 85 minutes of very intense action music. It was a very fast-paced film and the music had to do a lot of things.
When working on a score that includes songs, such as PRINCESS & THE PEA (albeit you wrote those songs) or SOUL ASSASSIN, what’s your approach in linking / skirting / accentuating / contrasting the songs with the instrumental score? Obviously SOUL, with its heavy techno rap approach is going to be a far different thing than the surely more gentle songs of PRINCESS, but I wonder how you approach a film that uses songs when it comes to employing your instrumental score.
The songs in PRINCESS are very different than the typical use of songs in movies. They help the plot unfold while further developing the characters. All of the songs are from the same musical tapestry. They belong to the same whole. Thematic material finds its way throughout the songs and also the underscore. The songs could be thought of as large musical montages. In a film like SOUL ASSASSIN, the songs are used in amore typical way. The filmmaker will say, “You don’t need to score this because there will be a song here.” I hardly have any input as to what songs they use. Sometimes a song is a great choice. Other times it simple disrupts the musical flow of a score. Sometimes, as in the case with SOUL ASSASSIN, some of the score is replaced with a song simply to facilitate a soundtrack deal. The soundtrack for SOUL ASSASSIN, interestingly enough, contains 85% songs and about 15% score, yet in the body of the film, the songs comprise maybe 5% of the total music, not counting the end credit-song.
Which project has been the most rewarding for you, either in its final result or in the experience of working on it?
All of the films I have worked on have had rewarding moments. I look back at each of them as scores that have their own unique story. I would have to say that AMAZON was one of the most rewarding ones. There’s something special about a first. AMAZON was my first IMAX score. It was the first opportunity I had to record a big orchestra at Sony. And finally, I had less than 2 weeks from spotting to dubbing to write the score. The film then went on to receive an Academy Award Nomination. AMAZON will always be a bit special.
Are you comfortable in your current niche, or would you like the opportunity to score larger films or more big-budget features? Where would you like to be in another five or ten years?
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had so far. I do wish to have more opportunities to work on bigger films. That is where my heart and passion are. I hope to meet new directors and have more opportunities to collaborate with them on a larger scale. Those opportunities seem to be getting closer.
What type of film would you especially like to score that you haven’t yet been given the opportunity to do?
I would love to do a big, epic picture. I would also like to do some type of a love story.