An Interview with Basil Poledouris by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed and Edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.77/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
CROCODILE DUNDEE IN L.A. reunited composer Basil Poledouris with director Simon Wincer, for whom Poledouris wrote one of his most profound and eloquent scores, 1988’s LONESOME DOVE. The director and composer collaborated on another Western, the Tom Selleck vehicle, QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, as well as HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN and FREE WILLY. The Australian director now escorted everybody’s favorite Aussie, Paul Hogan, to Hollywood for the third film in the CROCODILE DUNDEE series, and brought Basil along for the score. Interviewed February 2001, Basil spoke about his approach to the film and also discussed several older scores that are just about to see the light of day on CD.
CROCODILE DUNDEE IN L.A. is a different project for you and Simon to do together, because this is the third in a series. When did you first come into the film?
I think it was March or April of last year. Simon wanted to know if I was available to do the picture. Of course I was very interested in working with Simon again, and the whole DUNDEE / Paul Hogan thing had a special appeal.
DUNDEE takes place, obviously, some years after the events of the original film, and my understanding is that Crocodile Dundee has a son now?
That’s right. He’s got an eleven-year-old son and they are summoned to Los Angeles where they get involved with a Hollywood production that is actually a front for smuggling art. Dundee gets into television shows like NYPD Blue and things like that and he tries his hand at being a detective in real life, and actually ends up saving the day.
When you first saw the picture, was there any thought ever given about using the themes of the first few films?
No, not by any of the filmmakers that I talked to. I don’t know if the thematic material was strong enough to have warranted that. Frankly, I’m not familiar with them, other than having heard them when they came out. I think what they were looking for was very much like what Simon was looking for when I did QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, kind of an American hit on the Australian experience. I think what they wanted was a lot of rhythmically driven, L.A. kind of techno-electronica.
Combined with that ethnic outback kind of sound. Didgeridoo and all.
Right. The signature that Paul wanted to use was the didgeridoo itself, which represents the spiritual side of whatever powers he has over animals and people, and also there are clap sticks that are used in Aboriginal music, and that became a motif whenever the Dundee character appears, it announces his presence. Then I blended that with the modern rhythms; that’s more alternative rock and roll than it is hip-hop or rap.
How much music did you end up writing for the film?
Not a lot, because I think there are six or seven songs in the picture. I think it was around 37 minutes.
Which is pretty light as far as movies go these days.
The film really didn’t need a traditional kind of score. What it needed was more of a rhythmic urgency. I also needed to balance the dramatic situations. This film is essentially comedic, but nonetheless there is a life-threatening element to the story, and my trick was to balance those two things out.
Recently, you’ve done several other recent projects, notably among them a movie for Paramount television, called LOVE AND TREASON (aka DARK TARGETS). Now, I have an interesting story about this. A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, is a composer and he was asked to submit for this project. He called me and said “they want something that sounds like THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.” And he asked me to put together a demo reel for him, because I knew his music, that would sound like RED OCTOBER. He submitted and he didn’t hear anything back from them. And then when you and I were working on a project, I walked into your studio and there you were looking at this very same movie, which proved the old adage, “if you want that score, why don’t you just go and hire the guy!” So how did you become involved in that project?
I think it was because of my association with the executive producers, Bob Rehme, Mace Neufeld, and Nick Grillo. Nick called me and told me he had this project, and was I interested? I said yeah, of course, anything with Bob and Mace and those guys, absolutely. I’ve done some of my best work for them. As producers, they really understand what a composer can bring to a picture, and they really try and create an environment that is conducive to you doing your best work. But then, in the second breath, he told me how much money they had in the budget, and it worked out to about 4 1/2 percent of the budget of RED OCTOBER! So, to say those two things within the same breath, like “well, we really like RED OCTOBER and here’s how much money we have,” l mean, I thought that was impossible. And quite frankly it was. Then we explored it a little bit, and I have a studio in Venice that is completely self-contained with synthesizers, and we do some acoustic recording here.
Which is affectionately referred to as ‘Blowtorch Flats’!
Right. And I was thinking, well, the only way this can possibly be done is practically all synthesizer. I always use acoustic percussion and a couple of key instruments, whether it’s woodwinds or brass or something, to give it life, a human quality. So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to put into practice a lot of the things that I’ve been thinking were quite possible. But the story was more of an internal story about a Navy woman whose husband has been jailed for treason. That’s why I was surprised when Nick had said RED OCTOBER – with the exception of the opening scene, there’s no ocean, and there’s certainly no submarine and there’s no threat of nuclear annihilation! So after exploration of this with him and Alan Barnette, the other producer, we really decided that what it really needed was something a little more contemporary than RED OCTOBER and certainly less slanted toward a Russian-sounding film score. Also, the economic limitations forced me to go to a much simpler and, quite frankly, for this picture, a more effective approach. It’s not really an action film, and that’s the thing that threw me.
How much music did you ultimately write for this film?
I think there’s about 42 minutes all done. It was an hour’s show, on television, and it was pretty heavily loaded with music.
I understand there will be a soundtrack coming out for it on Intrada. I surmise that virtually the entire score will be on it?
Yes, but not all of it. I tend to get a little crazy about over-repeating things, and I think the total plays about 35 minutes. I think it’s a unique kind of listening experience. It’s a strange score for me, in that I don’t think I’ve ever relied so heavily upon electronic loops, I don’t think I’ve ever relied so heavily upon this kind of a percussive propulsion. What I’ve tried to do was blend that with the normal kinds of film scoring techniques, basically the techniques of orchestration and the techniques of motif. It’s an interesting score for me.
That brings me to another project that you and I have been involved with for the Prometheus CD Club, which went back and revisited two very early scores of yours, really going back into the dim, dark past. One was the second-ever made IMAX movie, in 1983, called FLYERS. This was a film you’d done during that period between CONAN THE BARBARIAN and RED DAWN. What are your recollections of scoring FLYERS? How did you become involved?
I had done a number of scores for Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman, the producers.
These are back in your industrial film days?
No, these were back in my surf music days! Greg made one of the ultimate surf movies, called FIVE SUMMER STORIES, long, long ago, and he updated it with a skateboard sequence, back when skateboarding was hot, and I scored that and several other films of his. Then that kind of led to going to the IMAX format. We had both worked on BIG WEDNESDAY – Greg was in charge of all the water photography, and of course I scored it. So our relationship goes way, way back.
When you came into this project, what was their brief?
I think it was the first dramatic IMAX film, if I’m not mistaken – certainly the longest dramatic IMAX film up to that point, with a story and characters, as opposed to purely a documentary. It was much more like a short theatrical feature. They knew they definitely wanted a large, orchestral, impressive sounding film score that also spoke to the action that’s in the picture. And it had some quite extraordinary footage – they have a landing on a carrier, they have stunts over the Grand Canyon, a gliding sequence that is absolutely gorgeous. I think as filmmakers it gave them an opportunity to do a lot of aerial work, which Greg had always been known for, as well as to flex their muscles in the dramatic world.
Did they leave you to your own devices when it came to writing the music?
In those days, yes. That’s sort of how it was done. This was pre mock-ups – pre-synthesizers, even, at least to the extent that we can control them today. In those days, synthesizers were recorded on separate tracks without computer control. It wasn’t until the ROBOCOP era when we could actually control our various instruments from a computer.
In listening to the score, it certainly shows off that melodic gift that you have. It is really a richly thematic score.
I think that’s the way the composers approached scores in those days. The way we constructed our melodies is what gave us our unique individual voices. Mine have always been based upon the great traditions – I mean, I hope! I think they have been! – of Rozsa, of Tiomkin, of Alfred Newman.
When we were working on this album, what was it like revisiting this score? What was your reaction once you heard it again?
Looking back, I can remember things that happened to me when I was writing a particular score. There’s something that occurs when I write that awakens all of my senses. It’s kind of a curse and also a blessing at the same time, because I can not only remember the events but also the emotions surrounding the events. They can either be good or bad or indifferent, but nevertheless it kind of supercharges my awareness, I guess, as I’m writing. So it all comes back – what the room looked like when I was working in, what the last cue was like before I had to jump on an airplane and barely make it to the recording session in London.
FLYERS was obviously written for a very large orchestra with chorus. The other score that’s going to be on the CD, FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, is 180 degrees the other way. It is essentially a chamber work for a television movie produced by Ron Howard and starring Buddy Epsen. The director was a gentleman whom you’ve worked with several times, Donald Wrye, whom you later worked with on AMERIKA, one of your biggest projects. FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN seemed to foreshadow elements of LONESOME DOVE…
It is a delicate example of Americana. Do you have any recollections of that project?
Oh yeah, tons. I remember that it was so hot that the tar was melting off the roof of my home in Encino! It was about 120 degrees outside and I didn’t have air conditioning, and the room inside was 95 degrees! Although it was a contemporary piece, the Buddy Epsen character was very much in the mold of Gus and Call from LONESOME DOVE. He was the guy who was bringing that morality and that kind of mythology into the present. It really has to do more about moral character and strength, and I think that’s what I tried to address in both of those films. I’ve read a couple of reviews that have said “oh, this is Copland, Copland, Copland.” Well, okay. Copland created an incredible sound for what America was in the 1940s, and it is the same place that I draw from – folk songs, basically. He took it to a very sophisticated simplicity, whereas I tend to keep it simple, because the film itself is complicated. You have characters speaking and you have plots and you’re watching things instead of just using your ears to hear them as you do in a concert. I think, by definition, film music can’t be horribly complicated, so I guess in a way maybe it’s time to distil it back to its essential essence, back to that era of simple folk construction. I think both LONESOME DOVE and FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN share that idea.
What was the biggest group on that score?
30 or 35. It was a testament of Greig McRitchie’s ability to orchestrate that he could make that sound as large as it does.
I think the suite that appears on the new album distills the best elements from that effort.
I do too. I’m very pleased with the results of that album.