A Conversation with Alex North by David Kraft
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.4/No.13/1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Alex North has always been among my favorite composers, so I eagerly looked forward to meeting him for this interview. I had heard that he was a shy, modest and soft-spoken gentleman. In fact Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin recently wrote that North is “reticent to a fault”. Now that I’ve met and talked with him I can report all of that is true, yet his lack of pretension and easy manner is refreshing, especially for someone of such talent and experience. Mr. North doesn’t concern himself with filling his social calendar with parties and meetings, which can perhaps partially explain why he hasn’t written many scores over the years (compared to many other film composers). After all, in the film business “contacts” and meeting the “right” people are often necessary facts of life. Yet North doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that he isn’t churning out four or five scores a year.
This year, however, North has been rather busy with the film score to John Huston’s UNDER THE VOLCANO plus composing music for the major Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN (starring Dustin Hoffman) and a Los Angeles production of Miller’s AMERICAN CLOCK. Although North has had health problems with cancer and arthritis in addition to an unfortunate auto accident in late 1983, he was bright and eager to answer my questions.
The following interview was conducted in late June, 1984, at North’s beautiful Pacific Palisades home in the hills above Sunset Boulevard overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He has lived there since 1970 with wife Anne-Marie (whom he met in Germany in 1967 while scoring AFRICA for which she was the orchestra manager) and their 14-year-old son Dylan. North has 2 grown children by a previous marriage; Steven, a film producer (who produced SHANKS, which his father scored) and a daughter who lives in Scotland and is a guitarist and songwriter.
Let’s first talk about your most recent score, UNDER THE VOLCANO. Since the film takes place in Mexico, did you and director John Huston decide to use a lot of “source music” to evoke the “feel” of Mexico?
I lived and studied in Mexico in the late 1930s, just at the time this picture takes place, so I associate with that particular period and lifestyle (and I’ve been back to Mexico on several other occasions such as VIVA ZAPATA with Elia Kazan to pick up some authentic folk music.) I tend to use a lot of folk music in my own style, but a lot of the actual “source music”, played “live” at an outdoor festival in the film, never made it into the final dub of the picture. They didn’t use a lot of the “source music” I had written.
How much dramatic underscore did you write as opposed to music meant to be used a “source music”?
There was very little dramatic underscore. I think the chief gratification I have out of this movie is having written a good, “sparse” score – perhaps 15 to 18 minutes. I adapted the kind of folk music I know well into my own style. I feel that the music is not only authentic to its time and place, but also reflects the conflict between the characters. It’s the kind of thing I did back in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, where Brando first encounters Vivian Leigh, where source music is emanating from a nightclub (The Four Deuces) but also has an underlying sensual feel for when they first meet.
Does the underscoring in VOLCANO have a Mexican flavor to it?
No, it is more of a romantic quality plus a troublesome internal quality to bring out the struggle Albert Finney (who plays a drunken foreign consul) is going through. The music is sympathetic to his character, I could identify with him. I think the main title is one of my most exciting – pizzicato strings and a very sad, distant muted French horn playing rather solemnly. “Ghostlike”, as critic Arthur Knight put it so well. I use it again during a long 4-minute end title. The body of the score is ten or twelve minutes.
This is your third film with John Huston (MISFITS and WISE BLOOD prior to VOLCANO). How is he to work with?
Oh, he’s marvellous. As opposed to the younger directors who tend to know everything about all aspects of filmmaking, John is an old pro, and I’m an old pro. He says to me, in a sense, “Alex, I know you’ve been around and know what you’re doing. I trust your judgement and approach about what is right musically and what is wrong.” The relationship is an ideal one.
When were you brought in for this film, before or after the shooting?
Well, I read the Malcolm Lowry book of UNDER THE VOLCANO to get some general ideas. Sometimes one phrase in the book can give you an idea. But I really didn’t start writing the score until the film was edited.
You haven’t written many scores in recent years – although the few you have done have been excellent. I know your goal isn’t to crank out four or five scores every year, but why don’t you do more films?
I’ve been reluctant to take on many assignments I find to be distasteful, whether it is because of sex or violence. Throughout the late 70s and after DRAGONSLAYER I’ve turned down several pictures. I even complained about one scene in DRAGONSLAYER I found too violent – where the princess is being eaten by the dragon. I said to the filmmakers they should cut that scene out. I told Matthew Robbins, the director, that he had such a good movie he didn’t need that scene. But he felt he needed to give the audience what it wanted. I think that attitude only compounds the miserable situation that exists. My 14-year-old son asked to see FRIDAY THE 13TH but I said, “No way”. I turned down scoring a recent X-rated film.
I know what film that one was – BOLERO with Bo Derek. My brother Richard was music coordinator on that picture. Bo wanted a veteran composer like yourself.
Well, I had to be very tactful and diplomatic, but I had no interest in scoring BOLERO.
Something I’ve always wondered about is whether you were regarded as a “groundbreaker” or even an “upstart” when you started scoring films in the early 1950s. After all, up to that time scores were all rather traditional orchestral music – the kind of thing Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin were doing at the time. Then you came on the scene and started using jazz elements, small orchestras, and tended to use music much more sparingly and not wall-to-wall. How did your peers at that time react to your scores?
I had a tough time here. It was a “closed shop” and if it hadn’t been for Elia Kazan who pushed for me to do STREETCAR, I wouldn’t be out here. You must remember I started in New York scoring many documentary films, had done a lot of ballet and theatre plus was in the Army for 4 years working myself up to a captain, so I never came out to Hollywood to be a “groundbreaker”. I only did what I became accustomed to doing all those years. I always preferred to work on projects involving personal conflicts as the theme and that reflected itself in the films I did.
But what was the reaction you got in your first years as a composer for films?
Well, I was lucky to first work for Ray Heindorf at Warner Brothers. He was a marvelous, innate musician. He made me feel very much at home in Hollywood, as opposed to other composers and studio music heads who felt I was some guy coming from some attic in New York suddenly doing major films. I did feel very much out of place. The only one besides Heindorf who befriended me was Hugo Friedhofer.
Were you criticized by other composers?
They asked me why are you using only 8 or 10 musicians or a chamber style when we have 50 musicians under contract? I said I only need 2 guitars, or a flute, or whatever. Wall-to-wall music, as you called it, doesn’t pinpoint the contribution music can make. I try to avoid using music under dialogue, for example, if the performance comes off in its own right.
Which younger composers do you admire? Are there any new Alex North’s coming into the scene?
I really can’t say. I don’t see many new films and don’t know the new names. I’d rather read a book. I recently saw FANNY AND ALEXANDER because it’s a personalized film.
Do you get cable TV? I know a lot of composers keep up on movies by watching cable services like HBO or the Z channel here in Los Angeles.
No, we can’t get cable TV up here on the hill yet. I’m not anti-films, I just haven’t kept up.
Are you aware of composers like Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder who use a lot of synthesized electronic music?
I know CHARIOTS OF FIRE. I saw that on TV recently. As a sort of humanitarian thing I feel it’s unfair to all the musicians here who get put out of a job by synthesizers. I try not to record out of Los Angeles in order to give our people here work. But film is a business, not art. As for CHARIOTS OF FIRE, I felt it was a superficial, automatic approach to scoring. It needed more depth. I’ve used synthesizers, but in combination with the rest of an orchestra. I felt the one theme played when the runners were on the beach was effective, but the scenes involving the relationship between the two runners could be much more profound and dramatic if legitimate instruments were used.
Are there any film genres you’d like to score that you haven’t? You did WILLARD, but would other horror movies interest you?
I was offered a horror film not too long ago… I’d like to do something dealing with the social aspects of the troublesome days we’re going through. I’m very proud of having just done the revival of DEATH OF A SALESMAN with Dustin Hoffman now on Broadway. I extended and re-orchestrated the music from the original production and re-recorded it here in Los Angeles.
What exactly is the difference between your music for the original 1949 production of SALESMAN and the current one?
I scored the original production for 4 instruments – trumpet, flute, cello and clarinet. The new director, Michael Rudman, called me and said he wanted me to write a march for the new production. In order to do that, I needed a new combination of instruments – trumpet, saxophone, oboe plus Ian Underwood and his magical synthesizer, which does fantastic things. But in the end they never used most of the march music that Rudman insisted be used. The original score was 22 minutes. (If over 24 minutes of music is used, then the unions get paid a higher scale.) I extended a lot of themes that were very short. Thematically, things are the same, but I just used different instruments. However, when I saw the play on opening night I didn’t hear most of the music.
I had a review by theatre critic Brooks Atkinson I’m very’ proud of about my original SALESMAN score. He says, “Alex North has composed a witch’s chorus that is pithy, practical and terrifying. Give Mr. North a theme and he goes straight to the heart of it without any musical pretensions.” I’ve tried to adhere to those words. If I ever write an autobiography, I would start out with that.
Another interesting thing, now that I’m thinking of it. My score for STREETCAR was attacked at the time by the Legion of Decency as being “too suggestive” and “carnal”. I had to rewrite 2 sections of that score. Now that incident is in law books dealing with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution of right to free speech and expression.
What scenes did you have to re-score?
One scene was when Brando is at the bottom of the steps yelling, “Stella! Stella!” I had originally written a sensuous piece with several saxophones, which I rewrote for strings and French horn. It wasn’t an obvious sex-jazz kind of thing…
Do you get asked to score many TV mini-series? You did RICH MAN POOR MAN, which was one of the first.
I did RICH MAN under some bad circumstances. I was being treated for cancer at Stanford University of 7 or 8 weeks. I did the first 2 shows, then found out I had to go for treatment. I rented a Fender Rhodes and during my radiation and chemotherapy I would write the music and ship it back to my orchestrator in L.A. and then they’d record it.
But yes, I’d like to score more mini-series if the subject appeals to me. But I hear so many stories of how little time is given to composers…
You said you’ don’t know many of the younger composers, but which ones do you know on a personal level?
I see the two most successful composers socially quite a bit – Jerry and Johnny. Goldsmith is coming here to dinner next Saturday and Johnny sees me as a “father figure”. He asked me five years ago whether he should do the Boston Pops. They look up to me, and I admire their work.
Besides Goldsmith and Williams, whose music do you like?
I don’t want to leave anyone out, but I respect Larry Rosenthal and Lenny Rosenman – and Ernest Gold. There are many others…
Have you heard of James Horner?
I read an interview with him in the magazine you sent me, but I don’t know his scores. I don’t doubt that he’s a talented guy. Harve Bennett (who produced RICH MAN POOR MAN) called me about doing STAR TREK III, but I didn’t want to re-use music from the earlier films.
What are you working on now?
I’m putting together something for Andre Previn, who’s coming to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I’m going over my score to CHILDREN’S HOUR which he might use. I’ll re-write and re-work it. I might work with John Huston again. I just got a nice fan letter from Jackie Bisset, who liked the music I wrote for her character in UNDER THE VOLCANO. She felt the music was “unpredictable”!
I assume you get a lot of letters from fans. What do they ask?
Yes, I do, and my wife says I should get a secretary to help answer them, which I’d really like to do. They ask for pictures and autographs and since I did a lot of the old standards like STREETCAR which show up a lot on TV, they ask about them. I also like when they write that they got a certain feeling or warmth from my music. It’s very flattering. It’s one of the compensations of doing film music.
What was the most difficult film to score?
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, for a lot of reasons. I had to deal with first-time director Mike Nichols, who had me on the phone day and night. He kept saying things like, “Can’t we score the film with Beethoven’s Opus 132, or how about just using a bass fiddle,” and things like that. It got to a point where I called music department head Ray Heindorf and told him although I liked Nichols personally, I couldn’t handle all his ideas. Heindorf called Jack Warner, who in turn called me and said I could do what I felt was right. Poor Mike Nichols was barred from the recording sessions. Mike then got a tape of the main title from the editor, which he loved, and then asked me to forgive him for all the trouble he’d made. We’ve been friends since.
That was a great score. A more recent score of yours I loved was CARNY.
I enjoyed working with Robbie Robertson – he really knows music and filmmaking. He gave me free reign, which was really unusual for a guy with his rock music background – I’d go to his house, where he has 40 Gold Records on the wall… He cried when he heard the main title. I’m glad to hear you say you liked that score, David. It was a case of working with a guy who inspires you instead of being critical, as opposed to DRAGONSLAYER, where two-thirds of my score wasn’t used in the final film!
Which logically leads to my next question: What happened on DRAGONSLAYER? First, tell me the story about how you got the job.
I heard this story from John Williams, who heard it from Steven Spielberg. It seems Spielberg was friends with Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, who made DRAGONSLAYER; they were deciding who to get to score the picture. As you know, Spielberg is a big film music buff. He played 3 records for Matthew and Hal, which he felt were good examples of the kind of music that would be good for the film. As it turned out, Hal really liked one, Matthew liked another, and Steven said he was partial to the third, but in any case Alex North had composed all 3, and he was the composer for the job. But, as it turned out, I can only be happy with the album of the score.
Robbins seemed so overjoyed and excited with the score at the recording sessions. It was so dramatic in both sound and interpretation. I wrote a very lovely waltz for when the dragon first appears, with just a slight indication that this may not be a bad dragon. I didn’t want to tip the audience off that this might be an ogre. That waltz would get more and more distorted as the dragon kept appearing. Well, they cut out the whole waltz concept. They substituted other music I had written for another scene for when the dragon first appears. They chopped up a 4-minute cue to 30 seconds, a three-minute cue became 20 seconds…
Who was responsible for all these changes? Was it Robbins?
He was part of it, but that special effects group up in Northern California had a lot to do with it. Walter Murch and a couple of other people, I don’t remember their names.
You have 14 Academy Award nominations. Which film do you wish you could have won the Oscar for?
Well, I most like my scores for CHILDREN’S HOUR, THE MISFITS and MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, but to answer your question, I have certain favorites like VIRGINIA WOOLF. However, I don’t take full-page ads out in the trade papers. A lot of people seem to have to do that to win the awards. I seem to favor my scores for the smaller films I’ve done, as opposed to the “biggies” like AGONY AND THE ECSTACY and CLEOPATRA. I liked SPARTACUS, because I identified with the underdog there. I had something to say personally in terms of good vs. evil. SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN had a good message too, that if the Catholic church is so concerned about the poor it should distribute its own wealth.
Film music buffs like me are keenly interested in the score you wrote for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I’m dying to know what that score is like. (Frank Cordell adapted Mendelssohn music for the score prior to North being brought in).
Kubrick had been working on the film for 4 years. I went over to England and he showed me the picture, which at that point was temp-tracked with the classical music he finally ended up with. It’s not unusual for a director to get used to hearing the temp-track and get accustomed to it.
So did Kubrick ask you to use the temp-crack as a guideline for the kind of music he wanted, or did he tell you to go off and do what you wanted?
He told me to go off on my own. (But I find it’s often advantageous to a composer to get an idea of what the director really wants from his temp-track.) I wrote a contemporary sounding score. It was the most frustrating experience of my whole career. The music was on its own with no sound effects, an ideal situation for a composer. Kubrick was at the recording of the score at Denham in England and said he liked it and gave me some suggestions for a few minor changes – a few changes in percussion and such – but he ended up using his original concept.
Where is your music now, do you have tapes?
Well, I have the scores of it, and have been reworking it, taking out the “stuffing” and cutting it down for a symphony work. It was not written originally for a conventional symphonic combination. When the Boston Symphony did sequences from CLEOPATRA, I had to reduce it. It loses something. So what I’m doing with this “2001” thing is trying to get some approach to it where it will fit a conventional size orchestra. I’d like to submit it to Andre Previn for a performance.
What size orchestra did you write your “2001” score for?
About 110 players, with two organs and 8 percussion.
You say the score was “contemporary” and mentioned to me earlier it wasn’t anything like the John Williams type symphonic “space/science fiction” score…
No, it was more like DRAGONSLAYER. Very dissonant and contemporary.
So, for example, how did you score the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequences with the apes, at the beginning of the film?
Mostly percussion and brass. Kubrick didn’t use any score, as I recall, in the final version. I scored the whole opening.
How did you score the long space station docking sequence, where Kubrick ended up using the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz?
Strange woodwinds for that, plus floating strings. It had a very strange quality. If I recall correctly, I also used a scherzo, a fast-moving dissonant piece with moments of purity and then clashes. I recorded music for the first half of the film, 40 or 45 minutes. Then I didn’t hear anything from Stanley until I went to the opening of the picture in New York, where I heard all the classical music instead of mine.
So other than being shocked, what did you do? Did Kubrick ever explain what happened, or apologize to you?
I thought this is the end, I’ve had it. It was really one of the biggest disappointments of my career. Kubrick never apologized.
Do you have tapes of the music you recorded?
No, I wish I did. I’ve been trying to find out from MGM where those tapes are. I suppose Stanley is the only one who has them.
You did music for over a dozen 20th Century Fox movies. Were you ever under contract to them?
No, but Fox music head Alfred Newman always respected my work, and probably due to him I worked there so often. I resisted moving to L.A. permanently and still regret having moved here. I miss the stimulus of the East and the variety of exposure to film, dance, theatre and opera.
You’ve worked with some great directors in your career – William Wyler, Tony Richardson, Daniel Mann and Martin Ritt several times, Raoul Walsh…
I worked with Walsh? What film was that?
A film called THE KING AND 4 QUEENS in 1956…
I have to get this information from you, David. Who directed PONY SOLDIER?
Joseph Newman. But what I was getting at was what some of these directors were like to work with. For example, the infamous Otto Preminger for whom you did THE 13TH LETTER…
I only had one meeting with him. Thank God he didn’t come to the recording sessions. That was in the early 1950s and he didn’t have a lot of say.
What about Richard Brooks? (BITE THE BULLET, 1975).
That was an exciting experience. Brooks won’t allow a composer to attend the final dubbing, and the musicians couldn’t look at the film during playback. He didn’t want anyone to get an idea of what he was doing.