An Interview with Bill Conti by Steven Simak
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
In 1976 Bill Conti earned himself a place in film music history with his celebrated score for ROCKY. Inasmuch as that score launched him to the forefront of film composers’, it also had the effect of labelling him as a pop musician in the eyes of many critics. “Everything in Hollywood is based on a hit,” he recalled. After ROCKY, “I was receiving a lot of assignments and the opportunity to do more things. Not every one of them were uplifting projects, but there were a lot of them that I’m really proud of.”
Having studied the keyboard at an early age, Conti began playing in clubs by the time he was 14 years old. He performed in both his high school orchestra and band in the hope of attaining a music scholarship. Upon graduation he was led to believe that it was difficult to win grants for the keyboard, so he took up the bassoon and began practicing ten to twelve hours a day. Of the three scholarships he was awarded, he chose Louisiana State University where he became a composition major and pianist. He continued his studies in composition while at Julliard, where he finished his formal education.
Conti then travelled to Rome and studied for eight years while continuing to play in clubs at night until he was 28. While there, he did some ghost-writing (including writing the score for the celebrated IL GIARDINO DEL FINZI-CONTINI, which was credited to Manuel de Sica) and soon became the music director for the Italian version of Hair, after which he started doing films under his own name. In 1973 he returned to Los Angeles at the urging of the producers of his first film, BLUME IN LOVE, for which he acted as music coordinator.
In the 13 years since then, Conti’s abilities have covered a wide range of musical styles. The Oscar winning score for THE RIGHT STUFF and his magnificent music for NORTH AND SOUTH clearly illustrate that he is as comfortable in front of a symphony orchestra as he is with his work in the pop vein. The following interview was conducted after winning the Oscar for scoring THE RIGHT STUFF, while Conti was preparing his electronic score for NOMADS. We appreciate his taking the time to discuss with Cinema Score his perceptions of film music as both an art and a business.
While you were studying music, did you ever have the perception that you would become a film composer?
I was always interested in dramatic music, so therefore my major field of study in composition was opera. I did an opera, but I found out that the only place to do dramatic music and really get paid for it was in films and television.
Were you at all concerned about the stigma academicians apply to film music and film composers?
Quite the contrary. Michelangelo performed his function as a means of eating. Some of my colleagues there said that my music was wonderful, but no one hears my music outside of academia, even if they hear it in academia. I feel that a person, who calls himself a composer yet has his music heard by no one, is the tree falling in the forest. I was not aware of anything negative about writing music for a living when all the composers previous to the 20th Century did that. So that’s what I’m doing.
My only source of income is from composing music and it can be from all levels of music. I won’t deny the fact that “Oh baby, I want to hold your hand” or something is music. It’s certainly not on the same scale as writing a symphonic piece with an orchestra, which I often do. Right now you’ve caught me doing a score totally electronically. I won’t say it’s not as exciting as working with a symphony orchestra. I just came back from Australia where I did work with 120 musicians in a totally symphonic score. But I just make music. I’m composing music whether it’s three chords or totally electronic.
What factors run through your mind when you’re trying to decide how to approach a film?
Generally, the people who have brought a project to the point where it needs music have some thoughts of what they would like to hear. I’m a musician, and seeing the goal they have, I will now say it in my terms. No one will say “this is the tune” or “this is how to do it,” but they will say “we really want it to sound like this,” or sometimes even “what do you think?” If they say that, then I can make the choices. Every composer can do it three or four or five different ways, but he chooses the one he feels would be best for the movie.
Some composers object to producers or directors temp-tracking the movie. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s a wonderful indication of what they are hearing. If they heard a certain kind of music that they didn’t like, it wouldn’t be in the movie. So when they put in a piece of temp-music, it’s some kind of direction which tells me that this style, this feel, something about this temp-track is right because they would never leave it in if there was something wrong about it. So you’ve got to take it as a very positive indication, otherwise you just have words to use: “I think the scene should be blue” – that says a lot to a composer!
You’ve demonstrated a wide range of styles in your music. Is there any that you prefer to work in?
I think every composer, and I personally, like working with a large orchestra writing symphonic music, because making music deals with people and musicians – the more of them the better! Not all projects require a large orchestra, of course, but I think that’s the most fun for the composer.
I’ve noticed you have done a lot of films about the hero overcoming the odds to reach the unreachable goal, such as THE TERRY FOX STORY, THE KARATE KID and even THE RIGHT STUFF.
I think the ROCKY success is an indication of how film and television work. If we have a STAR WARS and it makes a hit, then how many more STAR WARS movies come out? A zillion of them. So if I’m the guy that might have been typecast after ROCKY as the composer who can do that kind of thing, I don’t think it means that I can’t do other things. But it’s like wondering if it’s bad to be nouveau riche or not riche at all. I’d rather be riche! (laughs). But, I mean, if I had never done ROCKY then I would not have any of the things connected with it. So now I’ve got a bit of a label in some areas, as maybe John Williams or other composers who’ve had a hit. I think it’s okay.
Many consider the James Bond films to be John Barry’s musical domain. With that in mind, did you have any apprehensions over scoring FOR YOUR EYES ONLY?
To begin with, John [Barry] recommended me for the job. For one reason or another, he couldn’t do that particular one, and I eternally thank him for the recommendation to [producer] Cubby Broccoli. They were wonderful, and when James Bond went into action they would very, very nicely ask if I would use the Bond theme which I totally understood and didn’t have any problems with. I even did it on my own a few times, using the theme when I felt it should be there. But I think it comes out in my style, rather than just the way John would have done it.
How would you compare your approach to James Bond with the traditional Barry approach?
I think I’m probably more brassy, but not totally. I happen to like brass and probably used them more in the picture than John traditionally does.
You’ve been involved with a lot of projects where songs are used as part of the scoring of the picture. As with other composers, the current trend in soundtrack albums is to feature only the vocals and none of the score (such as BAD BOYS and THE KARATE KID). Do you see this as a continuing trend for the future, and for better or worse?
You’ve said it initially, it probably is a trend. When STAR WARS was happening we had big symphonic scores and now we’re doing this. It probably will never go away as an element. Sometimes there will be scores done like this, sometimes there will be scores done like that. There’s a lot of money to be made from the record. But I’m not talking as the composer. I just want to be flexible enough to do it when it comes down the road. In other words, it doesn’t really matter. The score I’m doing now is all electronic because electronics is in. I’ve made myself…
No, it’s a pursuit of knowledge. It’s not flexible, I’m not bending. I’ve increased my musical vocabulary. You know, I’ve got a 25-30 thousand dollar synthesizer sitting in my house and it goes “beep” and “boop” and it has nothing to do with music in the traditional sense. But when my shingle is out as a professional film composer it behooves me to know a little bit about electronics. Now I can’t tell you that I would be Vangelis, but then Vangelis is not going to stand before a symphony, either. If you wanted Vangelis specifically you’d go to him. But if you come to me and say you want an electronic score, you’d get a good one. I’d do the best that I could.
You’ve done a lot of work in both film and television. How would you compare the two mediums?
In television the priorities are a little different. It has a lot to do with time and money: less time, less money. Television consumes energy at an enormous rate. When I do television, you’re probably referring to themes. In that minute or so you must really grab the attention of the viewer and convey the message of what’s happening or what’s about to follow.
The theme you composed for DYNASTY is especially popular. What was your approach for that particular show?
In television they don’t have time to temp-track, so you’re dealing with a producer or director. In this case the producers were the writers of DYNASTY, Richard and Esther Shapiro, and they had this script that was originally called Oil and they were looking for scope. They knew that it was television but they wanted to give you the feel that this was a big picture here – big, expansive, sophisticated, on the level of these high money people – their world is different from our world. Those were the words they used, and I came up with that music. That was my idea of what they meant.
Each one of the themes has its own little priorities. I also did CAGNEY AND LACEY, and the directive from the producer at that point was: “I don’t want to tell people it’s just another cop show following a comedy program. I want to make sure I can hold the people.” This is in the very beginning when you don’t know if you’re going to get the ratings or not. He says, “I want to hold the people who were watching that comedy and I don’t want to tell them it’s a cop show.” So I came up with whatever I did.
You were brought in when they were revamping the show for a second season. I understand they wanted a totally different approach from that of the first season.
I hadn’t seen the show, but they told me that they had something they didn’t think worked and they wanted to change. So in the changing what I told you is what they told me. The producer didn’t say “I don’t like” or “I like,” he used these other words. Interpretation, the psychological element of understanding someone and being in tune with them is a very important part of what I do.
You composed the ‘Power Sports Theme’ for the 1984 Olympics. How did you become involved with that?
Two things happened. Columbia put out a tie-in record where they asked so many composers each to do an event. I was one of them. When ABC heard it, they hired me to do some of their Olympic coverage, so there the ABC theme is mine.
What were you trying to capture in the ‘Power Sports Theme’?
I really didn’t do my job in terms of just thinking about power sports. Like all the composers who did it they probably had this idea of some Olympic theme – it’s such a big event. I felt the grandeur of it all and I injected the power that I felt worked for power sports, but I ended up looking at the whole ball of wax. Instead of staying in one groove from beginning to end, I had a fanfare, then it got kind of busy, then rock’n-roll for a while, then it slows down a bit and got pretty and then I had a big ending. I felt I had a little bit of everything in mine.
You won the Academy Award for your score to THE RIGHT STUFF. How did you approach this motion picture?
I always felt that the film had a lot of scope and that there were certainly a lot of personal stories being told, so it really functions on many levels. The key was trying to make it big when it was supposed to be big, but then keeping some of the humanity in there – not letting the big picture be the only picture. So people had themes, Yeager had a theme, the astronauts had a theme, other things had themes, but the trick was to make it all work. It was so much music that it was just endless music. Not only was there endless music, but the whole opening of the movie I did on synthesizers and recorded the effects: the sound of wind, the sound of rockets. There were two weeks of electronic recording that had a lot to do with effects but nothing to do with music. We created many of the effects for the score.
What about the classical music that was used in the score?
In a lot of places source music and all different kinds of music were used that we felt worked. We were right sometimes; sometimes we were wrong. But the production schedule was a real panic.
How much time did you have to write the score?
I saw the movie and then two weeks later I began scoring. I’m not going to say I finished the score in 2 weeks, but I began it and then I would wait. I would write for a week and then I would come back in.
How much freedom were you given?
The same amount of freedom you’d have on any picture. There was a director and a producer and people had input. The director had been living with that picture for four years – you’ve got to have some thoughts about music, and he did. We agreed sometimes, and sometimes we disagreed, all the normal stuff.
Initially, Geffen Records had announced a soundtrack album. What happened with that?
My understanding was that the Ladd Company had a deal with the Geffen Company for the album. So when I finished recording I immediately mixed an album and did a single so that the package was complete. In other words, there was an album and a single all ready to go. Then the film opened and it didn’t do great numbers, and I heard that the Geffen Company backed out.
Are you interested in composing concert pieces in addition to your work in film music?
I do. I’ve been commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for a piece, so, yes, I do that too. When someone says music, I do it. So I can’t paint your house but if you want music I’m prepared to do that. That’s what I do.
When you really think about it, if I say I’m a musician and if I say, “oh, I’m just into this kind of music and like, oh man, this is really heavy and that’s my bag,” well that’s kind of specialized. When the phone rings and someone wants music, I feel that I can begin making music in many, many areas. I think Country & Western is as valid as punk and as valid as Stravinsky. My kids are 14 and 15 years old and the kind of music they play on the radio interests me a lot. When it’s good, it’s good, and when the music makes you cry or laugh or happy there’s nothing like that.