An interview with Angelo Francesco Lavagnino by Alessandro Panuccio
Questions by Randall D. Larson – Translated by Marco Werba
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Angelo Francesco Lavagnino was interviewed in Rome in June 1984 for CinemaScore by Italian correspondent Alessandro Panuccio, from a list of questions assigned by the editor. Marco Werba translated the printed interview into English. Panuccio’s interview with Italian composer Mario Nascimbene is scheduled for a forthcoming issue.
How did you first become involved in scoring motion pictures, and what musical background led to your career in films?
Thanks to my mother, who always brought me to the movies, I have a strong passion for cinema. The first time I was interested in film music was in a very particular situation: I was in a theatre in Genova looking at a silent movie (LA GRANDE PARATA), and during the production the music was not performed y a pianist (like they usually do), but by a small percussion orchestra standing behind the screen. The musicians, using different kinds of percussion instruments, made a crashing score in perfect synchronization with the movements on the screen. So my serious thought toward music for movies was born from this experience – from a silent movie!
How do you go about providing music for a particular assignment?
It’s due only to preparation. I mean that, when I have to do a film score, I immediately try to imagine it. I always prepare myself spiritually for each movie; if it’s a historical movie, I know that I will write period music, if it’s geographic I won’t do a Turkish kind of music for a film with a Senegal orientation. If I have to do a love story, I study the woman’s and the man’s characteristics; this way I can connect two different themes together. For comedies, I study the situations and the characters, and try to get a global vision of what the music will be. So I already began writing the music in my mind the first time I see the film.
How closely do you work with the directors in deciding the proper musical style and placement?
It depends on the man I have in front of me. If he is sensible and creative I communicate immediately and easily. I worked three times with Orson Welles (on OTELLO, FALSTAFF and IL MERCANTE DI VENEZIA) and we always did understand each other pretty well. It was, of course, a tiring work, but very satisfactory.
You’ve scored films in Italy and other European countries, as well as for American pictures. Can you describe the differences you’ve found in scoring for these different countries?
I worked many times in England with Ralph Thomas, who gave me liberty, respect and confidence. In England, they have more respect for timing. In Italy, sometimes, I had to do movies in three days. Orson Welles gave me just eight days for FALSTAFF. I also worked in France but it was almost the same as in Italy. I worked in Egypt and I did the first movie soundtrack for them (SALADINO). It was their first recording session with a big orchestra in a studio (we used Cairo’s Symphony Orchestra from the opera theatre). I worked easily with the musicians because they worked with passion even without having some of the instruments that they now have today. In the U.S.A. I did work with good directors but the only one with whom I had a great experience was Henry Hathaway (on TIMBUCTU). He invited me to London to see the movie and after I’d seen half of it he asked for my suggestions as to where I would have put music. He was very impressed by my rapidity in deciding the kind of music to use and since that moment we worked well and quickly! He came to see me in Rome and told me that the movie was in my hands and that I had to work well! He came to every recording session and one day he did an experiment with my music. We played back a first recording by the mixer and, at the same time, had the orchestra playing the same music. This way we made a double recording. Hathaway was impressed by my work and told me that even in Hollywood they never did that! Other directors, like Martin Ritt and Nunally Johnson listened to the music once and didn’t show up again.
Do you orchestrate your own compositions, or do you use an orchestrator?
I always consider score writing a victory for my self; it’s a condensation of all my ideas. I sometimes used arrangers for some of my works, but only for movies I didn’t like so much! Sometimes I called my friend Ennio Morricone who did for me a marvelous arrangement that I couldn’t possibly have made for myself! It was a song in the style of ‘Goldfinger’.
Your deep, groaning music for GORGO (1960) was especially atmospheric, as was the pretty ballad written for the affection between the young monster and its parent. Can you remember how you became involved in GORGO and what approach you took at the time in scoring it?
Working for GORGO wasn’t easy because I found myself inside a London invaded by monsters. So, instead of doing themes only for them, I looked for the sentimental side of simple people. The producers wanted to have music everywhere, so I wrote a crashing score, but I think it would have been a better idea to have used just sound effects instead. Putting a score together with voices and effects became a noisy soundtrack that is not always accepted by audiences.
Do you use any sort of special approach to score a monster film such as GORGO?
For this kind of movie I never wrote a “big” score. In that period, science fiction movies were still in the early stages. Today they have big studios for special effects, they make big movies and they also get big scores. The science fiction movie that I did which I preferred was ASTRONAVE SU VENERE, but it didn’t show up!
Your music for THE LOST CONTINENT (Continente Perduto, 1957) was very exotic. Did you find any problems in scoring a documentary which was lacking in dramatic content?
If I talk about THE LOST CONTINENT, I talk about one of my favorites, just because it gave me the opportunity to show myself as a man and as a composer. I was gone for more than six months in Indonesia. At that time, for an Italian, going to Indonesia was like Marco Polo going to China! I found there what I expected to find: in their forests were many bamboo trees with which I created incredible sounds. The bamboo, opened at the middle and laid on the floor, made sounds in “pitch”. Using the “diapason” I made a “scale” out of it! Some children were looking at my funny work, took some bamboos and started playing – it was a really good performance! The same evening as a surprise to my friends, I asked the children to “secretly play” the same music. Someone, listening, told me that it was perfect for the movie. I told him that it was only the work of one day! We used that music for the scarecrow sequence.
I did not have any problem in scoring this movie. I loved the Indonesian music, but I wrote music that reflected my personality. The music took ten days to write, arrange and conduct, and I am very satisfied with what I did. The music I did for L’IMPERO DEL SOLE, which was about Peru, took me eleven days – just one day more!
The final credits list you as co-director. Can you explain your involvement with THE LOST CONTINENT?
They asked me to collaborate as a director, because the producer wanted to have four directors on the film. I substituted for a writer (Ennio Flaiano) and I worked with the director Mario Craveri (for who I had scored MAGIA VERDE). I also worked with Mario Grassi and Giorgio Moser.
During the early 1960’s, you wrote the music for a number of costumed epics – Hercules, Sansone, Maciste. Did you enjoy scoring these types of films? What kind of musical flavor did you try to give them?
That is strictly connected to my Italian personality and musical background. We Italians are influenced by opera and we love it. In cinema, we have more liberty to change concepts and to use mythic heroes as ‘Hercules’. Many battles were frequently used in these movies, and all these elements gave the opportunity to create music different from the traditional music you could hear from a radio.
Many of these films, when released in America, had your music taken out and a new score put in its place. What do you feel about this practice?
At the beginning of sound movies in Italy, some “pirates” had the idea to replace the music for some American-made films (some of them by Steiner and Korngold) with poor “easy” themes that helped the movie be more commercial. One day someone called the Society for Royalties and that stopped the pirates. What is really strange is that after that in the U.S.A., other “pirates” had the same idea! Sometimes composers don’t even know that someone is replacing their music. That happens with some producers that have no respect for others.
In the later 1960’s, practically every Italian composer seemed to be scoring westerns in a style typified by Morricone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. How did you personally approach this type of scoring in the westerns you composed?
I did a lot of westerns, but I did not use a typical music (even though I admired Morricone because he became the Italian “Tiomkin”, and sometimes even better!). But the movies that I did were not artistic but commercial films, so I never scored any “big” westerns.
By the way, I have to say that, many times, the music I did for westerns was similar to other western music by other Italian composers. So, maybe this is our way to imagine cowboys, horses, rainbows, train robberies, gunfighters… Morricone did it that way, in an “Italian” way. He probably did it better because he scored important westerns that had something new to say. Unfortunately, I did not have movies like that to do.
To what would you attribute the popularity of this Italian Western sound? It’s certainly very different from the music of a previous western films, yet it provided a notably characteristic quality to the Italian westerns.
I really don’t know how to answer you. I think it was a surprise. It wasn’t something that was prepared before. It just reflected our Italian personality through instruments like the guitar (and electric guitar), voices, harmonica, ocarina, electric bass and many others. All these instruments reflected pretty well our country and, later on, they were used for pop tunes (including rock & roll).
Your catchy theme for I DIAVOLI DELLO SPAZIO (aka SNOW DEVILS) is a lovely tune, quite different from the more orchestral sound of GORGO, another horror picture. It seems to have more in common with the Italian Western style. How did the DIAVOLI DELLO SPAZIO score originate?
That movie was made with a really low budget and I used the same music for three other low budget movies! So I did this theme that you called “catchy,” but I don’t think it is. I did not work so much to write the theme – in half an hour I arranged it in the studio during a break! It came out that way but it could be better. The other music in the film was only functional.
Having scored so many different kinds of films, do you have a preference for any particular type? Are some subjects easier to score than others?
No. I tried to be careful and write music for good films. I did 282 movies (a lot of them did not have my name on them, but maybe it is better that way!). I always waited for a good movie, one that could inspire me and help me compose good music that the audience would appreciate. Certain kinds of movies are easier to score that others; I did a war movie called COMMANDO (Marcia o Crepa, 1962) with Stewart Granger, situated in Algeria. The executive producer called me and asked my opinion about it, and he told me that his musical idea was to use a Ravel kind of music. I went to see the movie and during the showing I tried to imagine in my mind percussion and trumpet music, but instead I started thinking of a song (‘Concerto Disperato’, a song that eventually became a success). So I told the producer that Ravel wasn’t the right stuff to use! So when I have a good inspiration from a good movie, nothing is difficult.
Which are the films you prefer?
I love all of them! It’s important to believe in what you do, even if the movie is not artistic. For example, in JOVANKA AND OTHERS, when she left the place and touched the machine gun it’s a special moment and I still love the music I wrote for it. For THE LOST CONTINENT I made a strange experiment: to let the audience hear the sound of a razor cutting a girl’s hair, I asked the musicians to play quiet and slow. During recording my conducting baton accidentally touched something, making a noise. But the sound was perfect, so we used the music as it was. For LA CANZONE DI LIMA, I don’t know how, but it only took me a few minutes to write the score! For MAGIA VERDE, I wrote music without strings and horns, only flutes. For L’ULTIMO PARADISO I did a folkloristic score without losing my own style. In LA MAJA DESNUDA, for the sequence when she dies I used a sad theme with a Spanish flavor, which I liked very much. And for VENERE IMPERIALE, the director asked me to write a different theme for each lover. I told him that it was an old idea, and that it would be better to have just one theme changing instrumentation for each situation, which is what I did.
What are your current scoring activities?
I haven’t worked for cinema in almost ten years because I found myself repeating the same music over and over. I am happy with what I did, so now I live in peace without someone telling me what to do. I can write what I want, and this freedom is really important for me. Now that I am old, I am interested in literature, painting, and I have a small garden where birds fly from one tree to another. To be like that with a book in my hands and fresh air on my face is liking writing fine music!