An Interview with Basil Poledouris by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Basil Poledouris believes that film composers “collide” with films on certain occasions. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is an example he cites as this kind of career collision: it was the right film for him to score at that particular moment, it gave him the right kind of inspiration and the result was a highly rewarding experience both for the composer and for the film. Now, Poledouris feels an even stronger collision with his latest film, director Paul Verhoeven’s rugged middle-ages fantasy, FLESH AND BLOOD. It’s one of his most ambitious assignments to date, and when Poledouris discussed the film and its music with CinemaScore shortly after its completion he was both excited about the film as well as a little anxious about how it will be received by audiences when it opens nationwide in September, 1985. Paul Verhoeven, the noted director of SOLDIER OF ORANGE and THE 4TH MAN, filmed FLESH AND BLOOD as a very complex and violent fantasy concerning the exploits of a band of mercenaries, and thought the kind of music Poledouris would write, as exemplified in CONAN, would lend itself particularly well to what he had in mind with FLESH AND BLOOD. He screened a rough cut of the film for Poledouris, who found himself completely amazed by the film and was very eager to compose the score.
The picture tells of Martin (Rutger Hauer) and his band of mercenary warriors who have been recruited by lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hillbeck) to siege a castle. He promises them the loot but later goes back on his word and banishes them. Martin and his group, in return, ambush Arnolfini and nearly kill him, capturing and raping the virginal Princess Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the intended bride of Arnolfini’s studious son, Steven (Tom Burlinson). Agnes, however, soon adapts to the ways of her kidnappers and takes up with the rugged Martin. The mercenaries capture a castle of their own, and ultimately Martin confronts Steven, as Agnes herself must confront with whom her own sympathies lie, as the deadly Plague begins to wrap its sinewy fingers around all of the characters.
One of the elements about the film that particularly struck Poledouris was the complexity of plot, character and theme. “It’s a very complicated picture,” he said. “The plot line is not, in any stretch of the imagination, linear. There’s no clear-cut hero in the picture, you’re rooting for as many as three to four people at once in a particular scene! You have this incredible kind of dynamic which is always shifting balance. When you think you’ve got it all figured out the film takes a completely different point of view in the direction. It’s truly brilliant the way he’s managed to juggle all those elements throughout the picture. I guess it’s a little like RASHOMON, in that sense, except the audience is put in the position of being the observer; the characters all have very strong realities, it’s the audience who goes through the various degrees of interpretive alliances that you forge with these characters.”
The complexity of the film proved to be both an inspiration and a challenge to the composer. “I think what Paul responded to very strongly in CONAN was its highly thematic content, and he thought that perhaps if we made use of that we could sort of thread the needle for the audience to follow what was going on in FLESH AND BLOOD. That’s essentially what I ended up doing. Each of the main characters became identified, musically, so that I could try to shift the same emphasis from character to character in the score as he does dramatically; often using one person’s theme as a rhythmic counterpoint to another person’s theme.”
The first theme that Poledouris came up with was a motif for Martin, the leader of the mercenary band, the music for whom also reflected the entire group of mercenaries. “In a sense they seem to come off to me very much like pirates would, except that they’re on the land,” Poledouris said. “Martin needed some kind of swashbuckling yet very monastic kind of theme, because a renegade Cardinal is also one of the main leaders of his band, so I wanted to have something very much like a Gregorian chant, but more the way pirates would sing it instead of monks!” As the themes progressed, Poledouris played his ideas for Verhoeven, who was constantly commuting between Los Angeles and Holland, where post-production was taking place, and the score was gradually fleshed out. “It was a rather interesting way to write,” said Poledouris. “I was given quite a bit of freedom in the interim, without having somebody always checking in, saying ‘how’s it coming, how’s it coming, can I hear this, can I hear that?’ It kind of took its own shape as it went along, instead of my having to force it into something to present to someone.”
Along with the complexity of plot, Poledouris also had to content with a great many fight scenes, each of which had a completely different dramatic thrust. The first fight, the siege of a city, occurs directly after the main titles, before the viewer has gotten to know any of the characters. For this scene, Poledouris scored straight “fight music”; during later battle scenes the music would incorporate themes for the various characters who become the focus of the particular fight, emphasizing the interplay of character and thematic development within the scene itself as the viewer is led to believe in one character until the film switches sympathy to the other side.
The unusual love triangle also adds to the thematic complication of the film, as Agnes is torn between loyalty to her fiancée, Steven, and to Martin, whose life of adventure and complete abandonment of refinement appeals to her, despite the fact that her first introduction to Martin is had when he rapes her during the siege. “But the way it’s done is so fantastic,” Poledouris said, “because she turns it around and the rapist becomes the victim. Things like this are going on throughout this picture constantly.”
Poledouris accentuated these various interplaying elements by lending an “emotional weighting” to the scenes, in an attempt to express a larger scope to the events beyond what is happening on the surface level. “There’s a love theme that starts during the rape of Agnes by Martin, and it grows between them as in fact they grow in love by the end of the picture. It has almost grotesque proportions during the rape, whereas by the end of the picture it becomes very tragic, especially when it looks like Martin may lose her and he may actually kill her because the thought of her going back to her betrothed is more than he can take. So it’s a love theme tinged with this hideous jealousy and this tragic quality.”
Film music fans familiar with Basil Poledouris’ work will no doubt compare the music of FLESH AND BLOOD with that of CONAN, though the composer feels there are certain distinct differences. “In many ways, FLESH AND BLOOD is much bolder than the music for CONAN,” said Poledouris. Also, CONAN was not set in a definite time period, and therefore I could take a lot more license in terms of what I had to do, stylistically. FLESH AND BLOOD is definitely set in the beginning of the 1500’s, it’s very near the Renaissance. Now there are certain styles of music from that time which I suppose I’ve drawn upon but didn’t find dramatic enough for the purposes I needed for film scoring, so I primarily based it on Gregorian chant, giving it a bit of a swashbuckle. The real music of the time just doesn’t contain enough rhythmic or dramatic harmonic change to lend itself to the kind of feeling I think the main characters should have. I did stay basically within the harmonic limits of that era, but I took some license here and there.
“Another difference is in the orchestration,” Poledouris continued. “CONAN was essentially a movie that had very little dialog, so the orchestration had to be very rich in itself to carry a lot of the very lengthy scenes that pushed the movie along. FLESH AND BLOOD is a complete dialog picture, so the techniques of underscoring for dialog require a different kind of density than where you can just play full out orchestral scoring.” The FLESH AND BLOOD score is also “rawer” than that for CONAN, inasmuch as CONAN was set in a mythological landscape with a lot of symbolism, while FLESH AND BLOOD invests its characters with a strong sense of brutal reality. “There’s a real ruthlessness in FLESH AND BLOOD that really doesn’t exist in CONAN. Conan is a very uncomplicated and moral character as compared to the ones that exist in FLESH AND BLOOD.”
Poledouris recorded the score in London’s Abbey Road studios, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in combinations of 75, 50 and 25 musicians. Grieg McRitchie, Jack Smalley and Scott Smalley (Jack’s son) orchestrated the score, while Eric Tomlinson acted as engineer during the sessions. As in much of Poledouris’ music, the score emphasizes the horn section in its instrumentation. “I relied heavily on French horns,” Poledouris said, “because I felt that all the characters, particularly Martin, were noble characters, and the French horn is a great noble instrument. It’s primarily a standard orchestral set up, French horns lead the way along with piccolo trumpets, and I featured low woodwinds a lot. But there’s nothing bizarre. There were three synthesizers playing live, but like most of the synthesizer work that I do, they’re not featured instruments. They just become another color in the orchestra, I’m not sure you can even tell they’re there.” Poledouris also wanted to emphasize the more earthy-elements of the film with acoustic rather than electronic sounds. “I realized that Paul was dealing with, truly, flesh and blood; all of his characters are very robust, very full of life, and the last thing I wanted to use to represent those ideas would be a synthetic kind of sound.”
Listeners may detect in the music for FLESH AND BLOOD, as they did on CONAN, a certain reminiscence, not at all unwelcome, to the work of Miklos Rozsa. Poledouris readily admits that Rozsa has shaped much of his style: “I’m a great fan of Rozsa, and I think he’s influenced a lot of my musical attitudes and my writing attitudes. Also the periods of his films, like IVANHOE, are similar to CONAN and FLESH AND BLOOD.”
“But it’s more than just that. I think Rozsa’s greatest strength is his basing a lot of his material on folk melodies, and to me folk music is one of the great wellsprings of melodic material. I’ve always had a great interest in American folk music, and I used to be a singer in a folk music group when I was in high school. We were very heavily into the Lomax’s and Seeger’s, and of course that traced back to Irish and English airs. My own heritage is Greek and we played a few Greek folk songs. There’s a similarity of melodic expressiveness; the folk song is the simplest expression of the human soul, there’s nothing complicated about them except that they have to convey a rather complicated emotion very simply. I think Rozsa drew from that, and I think Beethoven drew from that, and I like to think that I draw from that same wellspring.”
Finally, in addition to composing the original music for FLESH AND BLOOD, Poledouris also provided the source music for the film, the sounds heard from instruments and musicians seen on the screen. The source music, however, is not strictly authentic to period or locale, only suggesting an appropriate milieu. A few percussion instruments of the period were used, such as bone drums, rattles and some bell-like instruments, but for the most part standard instruments took on the attributes of the period, harps substituting for lutes, flutes for recorders, and so on. “The picture doesn’t need that,” Poledouris said of the use of period instruments. “I think a picture that’s in trouble, either dramatically or in the direction or somewhere else, there you have to gimmick it up and use things that take on severe importance. This picture doesn’t need that, and therefore the music plays a very secondary role in the film.”
After completing work on FLESH AND BLOOD, Poledouris scored three television pilots, the first of which was the “Man From The South” episode of the revised ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. The segment deals with a Las Vegas gambler’s unusual bargain, and Poledouris keyed in on both the locale and the bizarre obsession in his music, providing a mixture of Vegas-styled jazz and symphonic suspense cues. “I actually wrote two main titles,” Poledouris explained. “The first one was very jazzy, it was almost an Afro-Cuban sort of thing with a saxophone lead. We all mutually agreed that that didn’t work, and I came back with another thing which spoke more to the obsessive compulsion of the game itself, with a little touch of the bizarre quality to it.” Poledouris chose to emphasize the strangeness of the John Huston character and his psychotic obsession with gambling. “I approached the score with a sense of the bizarre. We have the old man, who is completely obsessed with the notion of gambling, and we have the kid with the lighter, who during the course of that last game becomes as obsessed with the idea as the old man is. There’s a transference of insanity that takes place between them, and that was really the subtext that I used in scoring it, and tried to set that up early on. The cues were very short, so it’s hard to do that. The longest one runs about four minutes.”
Poledouris also arranged the main title for the subsequent weekly series, based, as was the original HITCHCOCK show of the 50’s and 60’s, on Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionettes. In the process of arranging it, Poledouris discovered an un-used arrangement that Bernard Herrmann had done for the show in the 50’s, in which he had scored it for eight bassoons. “It really looked like it would sound wonderful and I was very tempted to do that, but we decided we should go for something a little bit different.” Poledouris had suggested that an updated version be used, with synthesizers and electric guitars taking the place of Herrmann’s bassoons, but the producers decided to retain the orchestration of the original. The other three segments of the HITCHCOCK pilot were scored by Craig Safan (“Bang! You’re Dead” and “An Unlocked Window”) and John Goux (“Incident in a Small Jail”).
In addition to the HITCHCOCK segment, Poledouris also scored a pilot for a comedy show entitled MISFITS OF SCIENCE, a crime drama pilot, MURPHY’S LAW, and an action film called IRON EAGLE. Poledouris was selected for this latter assignment when the producers heard, and loved, his impressive music for the Imax film, FLYERS.
Despite other working assignments, Poledouris remained concerned about the reception FLESH AND BLOOD would receive upon its release. “There’s a real moment of truth when you first see the final print,” said Poledouris, “because everything has just been conjecture up to then. I haven’t seen the picture dubbed yet so I don’t know if it really works or not. It seemed to work fine when we recorded the individual cues, but I haven’t seen it strung together end to end, so I don’t feel like I’ve had complete closure with this picture yet.”
“Usually it takes me about three years, at any event, to watch a picture that I have scored with a sense that it was truly effective. There are so many other things that you start thinking about, the hassles you had with writing a particular cue, for instance, or performance problems where the tape recorder broke down right in the middle of that cue and you went into hideous overtime. All those things pop up when you’re watching the movie. It takes a few years for them to dissolve themselves into their proper place, where you can just look at the film as an average viewer in the theatre would.”