An Interview with Bill Conti by Tony Buchsbaum
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.71/1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Tony Buchsbaum
A man walks into a major New York City museum and walks out with a Monet as casually as if he were leaving an ice cream parlor with a cone topped with two scoops of double-fudge chocolate. Of course, the trick is that one doesn’t just take a painting like that off the wall and stroll out with it. One must arrange such things. It takes imagination. Courage. Help. And most of all, precision. Now imagine the soundtrack. Jazz? Sure. A great beat? Maybe. Melody? Okay. Tap shoes? Tap shoes?! Okay, tap shoes. Audacious? Yeah… or maybe just inspired. It‘s the work of none other than Bill Conti, in the new film THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.
Conti, the composer of the ROCKY theme, winner of an Oscar for his score for THE RIGHT STUF” and frequent conductor of the Oscar telecast, is back. And he‘s back in a big way, with a big film, and with a terrific score. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR is a composer‘s dream: Pierce Brosnan stars as Crown, zillionaire extraordinaire. His business is Wall Street. His hobby is art… collecting it and stealing it. And not just stealing it, but stealing it with style. Renee Russo co-stars as the insurance investigator who sets her sights on Crown. They‘re a pair, these two, and they re made for each other: They‘re fearless, gorgeous, smart as hell, and funny. To say that sparks fly between them is a gross understatement.
The basic story – thief meets girl, thief gets girl, thief loses girl was made into a film of the same name back in 1968, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. (Heck, it was also made into that early-summer snoozer ENTRAPMENT, but that’s a different story.) The original CROWN boasted a score by Michel Legrand and the song “Windmills of Your Mind, ” which won an Oscar and became a huge hit.
But is the new film a remake? Not quite. Change the name of the film and the title character, and you’ve got something fresh and new and lots of fun. Conti’s score is wonderful, but not because it shows his virtuosic use of an orchestra or his gift for melody. In an age when some composers opt for texture and others opt for big orchestral bombast, Conti has instead taken a jazzier route. He’s even hired a tap dancer and put five pianos together with an orchestra to create the kind of score that just makes you smile. It literally carries the film along on a whirlwind of snappy playing with cool instrumentation. It gives Crown’s character an important layer, and it gives the movie a voice that says “I’m gonna show you a good time.” The score is complex, it’s simple, and it’s going to be something every one of you will want to have in your collections. (Bummer alert: Only 15 minutes of it is available on the Pangaea Records soundtrack. But better to have that 15 than none.)
As luck would have it, this was a good time to speak with Bill Conti, because in addition to THOMAS CROWN, there’s also FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, which is seeing its first official release on CD from Ryko shortly. (The CD is said to have extra tracks, but a call to Ryko yielded no details.) In a way, the CROWN score is a continuation of the EYES score. They don’t sound a thing alike, but they’re both tilled with plenty of good spirit and fun. They’re similar, though, in that Conti made choices for each that made the music stand out. Bill Conti is not a composer whose music shrinks into the background. His scores are in your face, they’re as much a part of the film as the actors and the sets.
Maybe you don’t know the EYES score. It has a real funky tone to it. There’s a whole lot going on, stylistically: Great synth rhythms and amazing brass for action and chase scenes. There’s a track for one chase that has lots of strings and brass falling down the scales all over the place. Lots of weird electronic sounds interspersed with strings. It also has a really romantic feel for softer scenes with the Countess (the late Mrs. Pierce Brosnan) and in the Cortina scenes. And finally, it has a mysterious, suspenseful feel for the scenes up in the monastery and underwater, when Bond and Melina are in the submarine, including a watery sounding synth version of the Bond theme.
While EYES launched James Bond into the 1980s with a driving beat and a cool new voice, Conti’s THOMAS CROWN score gives a distinctive voice to a film that’s very much like a Bond film gone wild: exotic locales, an unforgettable villain (or at least anti-hero), a girl who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go get it, wordplay, and sex. His score is a blend of intricate melody, jazzy piano lines (for those five pianos), and tap. He uses two or three basic motives throughout the score: one for the robberies, one for the budding romance, and maybe another for incidental stuff. As simple as this sounds on paper, on film it comes across as a very sophisticated score that doesn’t need to scream to get your attention; it’s there, patient enough to let you find it. That, I think, is its magic and that’s why it’s the musical personification of Thomas Crown himself.
On the telephone, Bill Conti is one helluva guy. Talkative. Lots of stories. Funny. Focused. I thought EYES would be a good place to start. I was curious: Did he consciously walk away from the sound John Barry had established for the Bond pictures, or was something else going on?
I kind of learned a lesson. John Barry recommended me for FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. For some reason, he was not available to do it. Couldn’t do it. But he did recommend me, which I was always thankful for. I wrote it in England, spent three months there. I had come off one of the ROCKY movies where I had a disagreement with the powers-that-be about the music. It seemed like everyone knew the ROCKY music better than I did! And when I was trying to do something new and different in later ROCKYs, everyone was saying, “No, you gotta play the same music, you gotta do the same thing.” Which of course is not much of a challenge for a composer. You know, “Didn’t I do that once?”
So here’s the strange thing, and the lesson: I end up doing FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, and here I am, sitting with John Glen the director, and Cubby Broccoli, during a spotting session. And they say – Cubby said it actually, apologetically. “You know, Bill, this is the place where James goes into action, and so if you wouldn’t mind, we’d really appreciate you using his theme.” And to me it was like a natural, because at that point there had been at least 20 years of James Bond movies, and I thought, well, of course. I wouldn’t think of using anything but James’s theme. And it dawned on me only later that that’s what they were doing with the ROCKY thing. When ROCKY is running up the stairs, what’re you gonna do, play another tune?
I would have played another tune, but as a James Bond fan it just made total sense. So I was restricted in that very apologetic sense that they said, “Use his theme when he goes into action.” We made a couple of experiments [too], to try to do something different, at their request. In one scene he was in the country, riding in this funny little car, and they thought, wouldn’t it be neat if was a country western-type thing? So I did that, by request. And we all looked at each other after it was over, after the cue was over, and said, “Oh, no, we can’t do that.” They said, “Thank you, Bill, for trying, but no. James has got to have the other kind of music.” Now, this other kind of music I always thought was mine. I didn’t have anyone else in mind when I did my version. I don’t think that the other composers have, either.
It doesn’t sound like Barry.
I would hope that it sounded my way rather than his way. Not out of intention, but out of that default thing of: “I see it my way, and that’s the way it comes out.” There was no trying to imitate John or stay away from John. I just kind of did it the way I would do it.
I could make my own connections between FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, but do you see any connections?
Definitely. I did Pierce’s first movie. Well, one of his first, but it was definitely John McTiernan’s first movie.
Was that NOMADS?
You got it. That’s how I met John. And he called me [for THOMAS CROWN]. I was on the road doing a concert in Atlanta, and he said, “I only thought of you for this movie. Would you do this movie?” And I said, “Of course.” John and I got through it. Trading ideas. Normal stuff. It was a pleasure. I like John. I spoke to Pierce on the phone a couple of times. He was the producer, so in that sense we spoke.
I have to tell you that THOMAS CROWN is one of the most interesting scores of the year, if not the most interesting.
Thank you. I had five pianos (laughs). And a tap dancer in my percussion section. The tap dancer was a reach. The reasons may be silly, but I thought Crown was like a tap dancer. He was kind of cool, you know. And he can tap dance his way out of everything. My orchestrator Jack Eskew and I were talking, and Jack says, “What if it was part of the percussion session…?” And one thing led to another, and I presented it to John. John thought it was a good idea.
To me, the tap dancing is really wonderful. If you think about it, it’s really a courageous thing to do, using a distinctive percussive sound that has no melody. It’s one of the things that makes the score so great
The tap dancer wasn’t really in the middle of the percussion session, he was overdubbed. Actually he was pre-dubbed, and we put percussion after the tap dancer. But the five pianos came about due to the titles. There were three title houses vying for the main title design. So they presented something to John and the editor. And John says, “There’s one that I think is okay. I don’t know. Come and take a look,” I did not see all three; I just saw the one that is in the movie now. And it was just a snippet of what I thought was really lyrical, flowing lines.
I said, “Wow.” And it doesn’t always happen this way, but I heard it. I said, “I’ll be back tomorrow.” So I came home. And I set up the sequencer. It evolved by [playing] five pianos in that minimalistic style of each guy going dunk-dunk-dunk-dunk-dunk. And another guy going duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-deh, so the next day I came in with this. And it wasn’t the main title at all yet. It was just a snippet. And John liked it. And it kind of went from there to say, “Man, what a cool sound, nobody will get it, because it’ll sound like one big piano. It won’t sound like five piano players.”
You could never get one person to really play it.
It’s impossible to play with one piano. But the resultant sound… To the lay person, it’s a piano. But if you’re hip enough, there are five pianos. And a big orchestra.
You seem to be having so much fun with this score. It has a really infectious playfulness.
Well, that’s the point.
I don’t know if you’re ever on the Internet, but in film music chat areas, people are really talking about this score. They’re saying it’s a lot of fun, that it’s really cool and jazzy.
You know, McTiernan didn’t want to get heavy at all. It was always light. In other words, “Let’s not tell everybody this is the biggest heist in the world.” It’s a light movie. We’re doing this as a wink. And I guess that’s why he also liked the idea of a tap dancer.
You gotta know I was nervous about presenting it. Cause I didn’t do a demo for him. I said, “I think it’s gonna really be cool if you hear a tap dancer in part of the percussion.” He said, “Well, try it.” He wasn’t part of these pre-records, he wasn’t the type of director who sat with you every minute and says, “What about that or how about that?” But during the sessions, of course, he heard it and did have suggestions which we implemented. Doing it was fun, I must admit.
You used Michel Legrand’s ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ once during the score.
You know, it’s the same kind of a wink that Faye Dunaway is. [Dunaway appears in the new
film as Crown’s shrink.] It’s an homage. People who have not seen the other film don’t get it. But a couple of people that remember the old picture say, “Man she was the sexy lead. She was hot stuff in that movie. And so was Windmills.”
Was it your idea to use Sting to sing the song over the end credits?
It was Pierce’s idea; Sting is a personal friend of Pierce’s. Pierce was staying in Sting’s apartment in London. And he said wouldn’t it be a great idea? It got to me, and everyone said, “Hmm.” It became one of those humming things. I don’t think anyone but Pierce liked that idea. Again, it was just a wink. An homage. The song did win an Academy Award, and Michel’s score was brilliant. Sting’s performance of the song is interesting; it if had appeared anywhere but the end credits, it would have been wrong. When I first heard it, I wasn’t even sure it was Sting. It sort of sounded like Harry Gonnick, Jr. Come to think of it, it sounds like Sting trying to sound like Harry Gonnick, Jr!
Are you happy with the direction the art of film scoring is going?
As long as I’m grossly overpaid, yes (laughs).
I was thinking more about song scores, and about composers who are less interested in melody than they are in creating a loud texture.
If you’re qualified in music, meaning if you actually know how to write music, that’s an elitist idea. But does that mean that a very talented person who knows where to put music and doesn’t know how to write it, but can move that loop or put his finger on a note on a keyboard, and have it go whatever it does- and have the director smile – is he less valid? Well, he’s less valid in that elitist world of real music, but he is as equal to me as anyone is in film composer land. I don’t think he’s less than me as a film composer at all.
Like I know that there’s five pianos. Who cares? I knew the counterpoint was good counterpoint. There’s gonna be four people in the world that know that. That’s the difference between Penderecki and Benjamin Britten. Benjamin Britten was a composer for society, he claimed. He wrote for the people. In other words, if the people didn’t like it, it wasn’t any good. Penderecki wrote for 2000 people in the world. In the entire world, for 2000 people!
There’s two ways of looking at it. If you’re gong to be an elitist film composer, you got big troubles. So how can you put down the people who are making the same effective results – to producers, directors, and the audience +as you are? Technology has let in much more of the people who are to the “real composer” to those hummers, those fakers. But those hummers and fakers – some of them are really good at what they do. And some of those elitist composers, I don’t want to hear a note!
I read somewhere that Andrew Lloyd Webber composes melodies, then saves them for use when they seem appropriate. Do you do that?
I used to. When you work so much, you use every one of your melodies four times. There’s no more trunk. Lloyd Webber is wonderful when he’s wonderful. And when he’s not, he’s not. But is he ever Puccini? When you go see ‘La Boheme’, you don’t confuse that with ‘Phantom of the Opera’. I mean, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is great, but… You notice when you hear Johnny Williams’s concert music, how it’s not accessible to you?
It’s a little different, yeah.
It’s more than a little different. You can say Johnny Williams is very melodic and very accessible, meaning he takes you down the road musically, and you understand it, and he moves you emotionally. Then you hear his violin concerto and his bassoon concerto, and you go “Wow, what is this?” He’s writing for those 2000 people. But he knows the difference between how to write for those 2000 and how to write for people that are going to the movies. He’s wonderful. But he has the ability. All people who have been schooled in it can do that. And some people who have been schooled in it try to do it for the movies, and then they don’t work very much.
What’s your favorite of your own scores?
A PRAYER FOR THE DYING was pretty good, but no one ever heard it. GLORIA was pretty good, but no one ever heard it. UNMARRIED WOMAN was good a long time ago. THE RIGHT STUFF was okay, too.
Do you like ROCKY?
Yes, I like ROCKY. How could I not like ROCKY or FOR YOUR EYES ONLY? I thought the first KARATE KID was pretty good. THE BIG BLUE is really good, but no one saw it.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
There are a couple of things, but I can’t say. I do that – and it’s the curse for me. I don’t even mention it to my wife.
I’ve been thinking about our conversation. When Bill Conti started out, after his time at Louisiana State University and Julliard, did he want to be Britten or Penderecki? Lloyd Webber or Puccini? Williams or… Williams? Don’t know. Didn’t ask. But his work for THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY prove that he made the right choice, whatever it was. – TB.