An interview with Basil Poledouris by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Among Basil Poledouris’ latest scoring assignments was the controversial television mini-series, AMERIKA, which told the story of Americans living in a near future after a peaceable takeover of their country by the USSR. Poledouris wrote some five and a half hours of music for the series, in a schedule so hectic that the final recording session took place barely 24 hours before the broadcast of the series’ final segment.
Interviewed 3 weeks after the broadcast of AMERIKA, as he was preparing to write the music for ROBOCOP, a futuristic thriller directed by Paul (FLESH & BLOOD) Verhoeven, Poledouris describes his views on AMERIKA and his experiences while scoring it.
I understand you wrapped up AMERIKA just in the nick of time…
Yeah, I think we had a half an hour to spare! Literally. The last scoring session for the last night that went on the air [on Sunday] took place on Saturday. We were mixing the picture all that afternoon and evening, through the next morning, till 3:30 Sunday afternoon, at which time it had to be fed to New York so they could make their 6:00 broadcast. So it was really hairy. The closest one I’ve been on!
What do you think contributed to that kind of a hectic schedule?
The vast amount of work that needed to be done. Also, the schedule was so truncated, even from the beginning, it was obvious that it was going to be shy by about four months, just in terms of the amount of work that needed to be done. As it was everybody involved was working 20-hour days, sometimes more.
How did you deal with some of the challenges the project created?
They just have to be met. There’s just no six ways about it. There wasn’t time to do anything except charge ahead. Fortunately being set early on helped that, because there was no time to ponder anything, there was no time to make any kind of tortured decisions, all that needed to be done was to make a quick decision and stick by it. Fortunately I did work out some of the main thematic ideas early on, as sketchy as they were, so that served me in the end when there just wasn’t time to edit or reconsider them.
Did you have any assistance in orchestration?
Oh, sure. Grieg McRitchie started on the project and he left after night two, Jack Smalley did some of the orchestrations, but the bulk of them were done by Scott Smalley. Jack and Scott stayed with me from night three to the end. When you’re trying to come up with ten minutes of music a day…
How much music, all told, did you write for AMERIKA?
Five and a half hours. That’s the latest figure, it tends to change. I know the cue sheets were forty-three pages long! Although, some of the cues were used over again.
Did you have any problems with your music cues being shifted around and used where you didn’t intent them?
Oh, problems! I wasn’t on the dub stage, which is unfortunate I feel for a lot of reasons, but oh yeah, a lot of music was shifted around. If they came across a scene that we hadn’t scored and the director decided he wanted music there, there’s not much you can do when you’re not on the set. But I can say that it was handled brilliantly by Tom Villano, the music editor, who made sure that the score remained as close to the way I intended it. Tom works with Segue, Dan Carlin’s group, and that whole place just jumped in.
You have to realize something, when I put together the music for the last night, I had 12 hours to score it – literally to write the music for the entire 2-hour segment, and the music editors had another 12 hours to prepare it for dubbing. That’s like scoring and dubbing a feature film in two days! That’s when all the music editors at Segue really pulled together and they started using cues that I had written for other things on other nights, and they did a very splendid job.
And you used as large as a 65-piece orchestra?
Basically I used two size orchestras, one was sixty-five and the other was fifty-six or so.
Can you say anything about the instrumentation of the score? Was that fairly standard or did you use electronics as well?
I started off with electronic instruments, using two synthesizers complementing the orchestra, but then the director really felt that they were giving it a kind of cheapness, that’s the word he used. He thought some of the musical solutions were too easily solved by using the synthesizers, and he wanted it to have more substance. To him, the synthesizers represented a kind of fakery that he didn’t want in the score, to the point where we actually went back and rescored scenes that had synthesizers, and took them out. There still are some electronic sounds in it, but they are blended in. So it’s a traditional kind of orchestration. I used the woodwinds quite a bit, because they add such a human quality to it, and that’s basically what the picture was about. I also had brass complementing them.
When did you start working on that film?
Poledouris: I started doing pre-score last summer , at that time I wrote the music for scenes that had to be shot on camera, like the Heartland ceremony scene, the New Miss Amerika scene, and a couple of playback scenes where we used some Duke Ellington, like “Satin Dolls,” where they’re dancing, a medley of Rogers and Hammerstein. They had already done The Fantastiks (the stage production) before I was on the picture. But I really started scoring the thing for real in November .
How did you initially get the assignment?
I’ve done a few pictures for Donald [Wyre] before, I did THE HOUSE OF GOD, which was a feature that he directed, and then I did the television movie FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN that Donald directed, so we’ve worked together before.
How did you approach a mini-series of this scope, musically?
Well, once you get over the terror… The idea of it is just crushing, in terms of the amount of work that’s needed. The approach definitely came from a strong feeling I had for the material. I read the script about a year ago, and I knew that it was a very powerful script with some very powerful ideas contained in it – notions about what freedom is, what the citizens’ role in society is, no matter which kind of society or which kind of government, and what kind of responsibility you have towards being a citizen. Those kinds of ideas were very profound, they bring up all sorts of interesting musical notions.
The other thing that I went on is that in American music, there is no tragedy. We don’t have anybody who’s written the Pathetique Symphony, or the defeat of the American army at Waterloo, that sort of thing. You listen to Copland, you listen to Roy Harris and Carl Ruggles, all this is very optimistic music, Copland was writing at a time when the country was on an incredible surge. In a sense, RED DAWN touched upon it, a kind of possibility of a tragedy, although there’s a lot of disorientation in the score to RED DAWN because it was supposed to represent a society turned on its head and a group of kids decided to turn guerella, whereas AMERIKA really, I think, presented the opportunity to write or at least hint at what an American tragedy might be. You really think about it, the only real tragedy this country has suffered since the Civil War was Vietnam, and nobody has yet written a tragedy for Vietnam. So that was exciting, as was the idea of writing something that speaks to the land and speaks to the idea of freedom, without getting Jingoistic about it. It wasn’t all marches, by any stretch of the imagination.
You seemed to invest a lot of feeling for the people, and link the diverse characters together.
The flow chart on this film was quite interesting. There were so many characters, and just trying to thematically connect them, it’s actually very interesting, because a lot of them overlap. Rather than give the Russian guys a balalaika theme and the Americans a piccolo and snare drum theme… They were all talking about the same thing – the two main Russian characters were very similar to the two main American characters, so I had to go for a much broader kind of musical representation for the ideas. So I was scoring the ideas of what those people were representing, and that’s what Donald [Wyre] did with the writing.
And the other thing, I started seeing dailies in August of last year, the images were just gorgeous, and very powerful, very dynamic, and that fired my imagination.
Did you at all get involved in any of the controversy over the film AMERIKA?
No, I just read about it with great interest and I was trying to figure out of it was just a brilliant publicity ploy by ABC! But I don’t think it had to do with ABC. I think it was incredibly unfortunate because so many people pre-judged the movie without ever seeing it. There was a real hysteria in Hollywood about what they thought it was going to be like, and there was a big move to make sure that it never got aired and people were calling for all sorts of censorship, to the point where it scared off Chrysler and it scared off quite a few advertiser. I don’t think the movie was seen so much for what it was but for what it should or shouldn’t be politically, and that’s really unfortunate because the same, I don’t know if you read any of the L.A. Press, but there’s one jerk in particular in the Los Angeles Times who was the chief proponent of decrying against the hideosity of what this thing was going to be, but at the end of the broadcast, he apologized and said this was exemplary television, in the end, and it’s unfortunately because these same critics who talk about the mindlessness and the vacuousness of television and how nothing is ever put on that has any kind of substance or has any real provocation for the viewer, then they go off and spring at this thing because they thought it was some kind of right-wing fantasy instead of saying “all right, this is a piece of drama, and it’s well done.” So they kind of destroyed a shot to improve what kind of content is there, by scaring off all the advertisers and the public and creating this kind of environment of complete misinformation, when they hadn’t even seen it.
Did any of that controversy affect the actual production, or was that all after the fact for you and the filmmakers?
I don’t know. It might have affected the schedule, or the decision to get the thing out as fast as they did, but I’m not really sure. This is just conjecture on my part. Donald Wyre was affected by it. I don’t think it affected his work, but he certainly had to do an awful lot of interviews to try to dispel a lot of the notions that were so mistaken. I mean, as a director, he was protecting his work, it was really being unfairly attacked. It might have affected the people working in it, getting them to start talking about that instead of really concentrating on their work. I’m sure it crept in to everybody. I don’t particularly take criticism, bad or good, very seriously anyway.
That’s probably the wisest attitude!
Well, I think most of it’s done by people who have no idea what goes into the production.
So I guess after a well-deserved rest on your part, you’re ready to start on ROBOCOP – next week is it?
Actually, I started yesterday.
Do you know yet what kind of music you’re writing for that particular film?
Not yet. My original idea was synthesizers with some kind of drug-addict lead guitarist, but I don’t know! [Director] Paul Verhoeven loves symphonic orchestration, so I have a feeling it’s going to be a combination of both. it’s probably going to be synthesizer rhythm and sounds, because I personally like synthesizers, and this is the kind of film (it’s an action-adventure picture set in the future) where I think a large score would be nice. But I’m not really sure yet.
Any final comments about AMERIKA and your experiences therein?
I loved it. I loved doing it, I really loved being involved in a project that long. I did several projects in between the time I started pre-scoring AMERIKA and the time I was on it exclusively, but somehow being involved on something that allows you that much time to develop the ideas is so rewarding. In my own experience, a lot of that happens subliminally, it just takes time for an idea really to come to fruition and to really get some interesting variations. The kind of a schedule we had on AMERIKA, because it really did go on and on, allows for this.
The other thing that I enjoyed immensely, was that there were something like 30 recording sessions! It would normally take seven feature films to get that many recording sessions, and I probably do three or four features a year, so the experience gained by working on something that’s that intense was invaluable.
Also I liked the largeness, the whole idea of the large scope of this thing – it was gnarly, as they say in Malibu! Very gnarly. Somehow you kind of keep beating back your fear and coming closer to it. Everybody on the project – and I think we all felt it – got this sense that there was something so much bigger than all of us put together and we were going to win. So there was kind of that going on as well, which is very unusual on a film, very unusual.