An Interview with Bill Motzing by Philip Powers
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Bill Motzing was born in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in 1937. Coming out of a highly musical family, his real interest in music developed at the age of ten when he began taking violin lessons, soon graduating to other instruments. He studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he earned a B.A., and received a Masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music, later studying privately with a number of people in New York. Interviewed in 1984 for this issue of CinemaScore, Motzing illuminates his career and his views of Australian film scoring.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a professional musician?
I decided, I suppose, when I left high school. I was torn between two things, music and also electronics, which I was very interested in then. The deciding factor was that I had auditioned for the Eastman School of Music and once I was accepted, it was assumed from then on that I would be a professional musician, in one capacity or another.
When did you first develop your interest in composing?
I think I developed an interest in composing probably as soon as I started to play an instrument. I wasn’t very good at composing in those days. I really didn’t know anything about it, and everything I did was just off the top of my head. And finally I had one music teacher who got me started studying harmony and so on – actually two different teachers started me on that – and through them I finally began to realize what was necessary to become a composer. When I went away to music college I got more into those areas. That interest in composing has always been there, even from the earliest days when I started on the violin.
What were your first professional engagements as musician and composer?
As a performing musician, even during high school, I had a dance band of my own that I played in, and those were I suppose semi-professional musicians. Then I joined the Musician’s Union in America when I went to Music College and started doing professional engagements as a performer then. As a composer I did very little professionally until I came to Australia. I’d done quite a lot of arranging in America for recordings, theatrical shows, backings for singers, and so on, but it wasn’t until I was in Australia that people started approaching me to pay me to compose things. Some of the first things I did were for the A.B.C. Radio [Australian Broadcasting Co.]. I wrote some jazz pieces for a largish ensemble which were played on A.B.C. and also sent to Europe where they played on radio.
Would you describe some of the aspects of your early music career before you came to Australia?
I started in the 1950’s. I was involved in jazz music in America and played with quite a number of well-known jazz groups at the time – Gerry Mulligan, Kai Winding, Bill Russo’s band. I played with Charlie Barnett’s band, Larry Elgart’s band, a whole lot of those sort of bands. Then in the 60’s I was primarily a classical musician: I played in the Eastman Rochester Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic; I spent a few years with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I spent the rest of the 60’s in New York playing at Radio City Music Hall, and with various ballet, opera and symphony orchestras.
Then I started doing arranging. There was a show called JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS, and I arranged about half of the original score, and various things like that. In 1969, wanting to go back and study some more, a friend of mine who was a trumpet player with Blood, Sweat and Tears — the American group — knew I wanted to get away from doing so much performing, so I was offered a job with them as sound mixer on their live concerts. So I did that for the next three years as I continued studying and writing and so on, and gave up playing for those three years. In 1972 I moved to Sydney, and just plunged into things here.
Is that when you began scoring films for the first time?
Not immediately, no. The first film scoring I did was in 1978 — that was NEWSFRONT. I started in Sydney by playing. I played in a rock & roll band in Coogee at the Oceanic Hotel for about a year, and at the same time, for about the first three years I was here, I did a lot of work with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust Orchestra in Sydney. So I was playing opera and ballet and rock & roll and a small amount of jazz with various people; gradually I began teaching at the Conservatorium and eventually started doing a lot of arranging for recordings and television, A.B.C. things and other television channels. By 1974 I stopped playing again, and since then it’s been just writing and teaching and conducting.
Did you have a specific interest in writing for film?
I’ve always had an interest in writing for films. My uncle was a cinema projectionist in America and I spent many hours of my youth in the projection room watching the same movie over and over, learning to splice film that broke, and specially noticing the music and listening to that over and over on all those films. During the late 40’s and early 50’s I spent a lot of time doing that.
How did you break into film scoring?
I tried for a long time to get into films here, and it was very difficult because I was very busy with arranging and teaching. I met various people but never really got a break until a friend of mine who was involved with someone at the Film and Television School put my name in to do music for a student video project there.
While I was working on that – in fact I as half-way finished with it – I had approached Jane Cameron’s management here in Sydney and told Jane that I was interested in getting into film scoring; she really hadn’t any film people on her books at all, but she said she’d give it a go if I didn’t mind starting from square one, which I didn’t mind. I said I’d start anywhere just to get a foot in the door. So I was halfway through this Film and Television School thing when she rang up and got me NEWSFRONT, which wasn’t exactly starting at square one. It was a good starting point, and she has been my agent ever since.
Did further film work follow immediately after NEWSFRONT, or did you have to work in other positions as well?
I’ve always worked in other areas. I still do recording — not nearly as much as I did at one time — but not long after I did NEWSFRONT Jane got me CATHY’S CHILD, which was a true story of something that happened here and they made a feature film about it. That came out the following year. Then in 1980 I left Australia for thirteen months, so I didn’t do any films during that time at all. But immediately after arriving back in 1981 I was contacted to do DEAD EASY, which still hasn’t been shown in Australia, but from there on it’s been pretty consistent. I’ve averaged about two pictures a year since coming back in 1981.
What is your actual approach when you begin to score a film?
The approaches change because the needs of the films are different. Often times there’s pre-production music involved, which means music that has to be played back while they’re actually filming. Either people have to sing to it or dance to it or both. Often times that are very hard to do because all you have to go on is the script and even the director might not know how these scenes are going to end up once he’s actually shot them. We usually just do skeleton music tracks for that. They film to that and then I fill it in later depending on what the picture looks like in those moments. That’s pre-production music. The normal way of working, though, is that at the end of the film when it’s finally edited, I go back with the director and we look through it and decide where the music is needed and where it will go. From then on, I run a video tape of the film over and over at home. I compose it to that video, then it’s scored and recorded and fited into the film afterwards. Of course, you try and get all the subtleties and all the right emotions to fit exactly what’s needed in any particularly scene that the director wants music in.
Do you set yourself a certain amount of music to write each day, depending on the amount of music required and the time available?
I don’t set myself a certain amount each day, because some days you get less usable music that others. Some of it may be good on one day – you might have a really good streak and end up with a lot of music you’re happy with – and another day you might end up with a lot you’re not pleased with, and you might have to scrap the whole lot. I know pretty well how fast I can write, how quickly it will take me to do the overall amount of music for the film, and I give myself a certain number of weeks to write that amount of music. Some days I might write only for a few hours; other days I might write from morning into the evening, so the working hours vary.
Do you work at the piano?
I work at the piano when I’m looking for things, when I’m trying to explore and discovery different things. Once I have them, I usually don’t use the piano except to check over things. I might try a certain chord progression; I might try a certain voicing occasionally, but often times after I have the basic material I just write it at the desk. I’m fortunate in that way because I can hear things in my head and I know pretty much what they’re going to sound like once I have the basic material that I need.
Do you work with an orchestrator?
I’ve only worked with an orchestrator once, and that was on a film where I was brought in on very short notice, and we needed a half hour of full orchestral score. So in that one I engaged an orchestrator, Mark Isaacs, to do about fifty percent of it, most of which I gave him n very detailed short score form. So I knew what I wanted. Mark has since gone on to do his own film scores.
Do you find the actual writing an enjoyable or a miserable experience?
Oh, both. Sometimes when it’s going well it’s very enjoyable and when it’s not going well it’s agonizing. But also I know it’ll come good eventually. It’s just frustrating sometimes when you sit and you really can’t get a clear view of what it is you’re after. But I wouldn’t be in any other business – I wouldn’t know any other business, for a start. I’m stuck with composing, but I love it. I’ve always wanted to do it and I’m delighted to be making a living doing what I love to do.
Of the directors you’ve worked with, have you developed any ongoing film relationships with them?
There are three: Phil Noyce, who directed NEWSFRONT. I’m now working on a television series, COWRA, half of which is being directed by Phil. John Duigan, who I did ONE NIGHT STAND with – I’m now working on a television drama with John. And Sopha Turkiewicz, who directed SILVER CITY; I’m working on an ABC drama with her. So I have worked twice with each of these directors.
Do you find that directors in Australia are musically aware and able to articulate their ideas?
Some directors are musically aware. I don’t think a director has to be technically musical. It would be nice if they could tell an electric guitar from a contra bassoon, but even if they can’t I think that it’s more useful to me if they can say what effect they want the music to have at a given point — if they can tell me how they want the music to function, what music is supposed to do at any given moment. In other words, you don’t just put music in to put it in. It has to be there for a reason, or there’s no use wasting time and money putting it there. So if they tell me what they want it to do, and then they have a good chance of me being able to give them what they want.
Some of them have just said that the music starts “here” and it stops “here.” They haven’t said for me to do anything, so I’m left to my own devices, and of course if they don’t get what they want, it can’t be helped – it’s just that they haven’t been able to articulate what they did want. But I’ve generally had pretty good relations with the directors here. Most of them have been pretty articulate about what they wanted.
Do you see any major differences between the ways films are scored in Australia as opposed to overseas films?
Differences only in the sense of how we actually record the music, and so on. I think the way directors and composers work is basically the same anywhere. But in the actual recording stage of it, we don’t have nearly the facilities here. We can record to video sync, here, but not to actual large screen film, and there are certain things you can do with actual film projection that you can’t do on video that would make it better for film scoring here. So only in that aspect of it do I see any differences, really.
Do you find that because an Australian film composer doesn’t have a music editor, and often doesn’t have an orchestrator, and is also left the task of organizing the recording sessions and booking the musicians and the studio, that this becomes a problem, the composer being expected to do more than just write the music?
I do appreciate having a music editor. I’ve had one once and that is a good thing to have. They take a lot of the load off your mind in the recording studio and looking after timings and so on. It can be a great help. Orchestrating – I don’t mind not having one because I like to orchestrate myself, and I’m fairly quick at it. In fact when I compose I’m usually orchestrating in my head at the same time, and normally I have enough time to orchestrate on my own. I do usually have my orchestra leader, Robert Ingram, who almost invariably books the musicians for me. I tell him what instruments I need, when the sessions are, and he comes up with the musicians for me. As for studio bookings – I almost always record at EMI Studios and they’re always very helpful getting me studio time. In fact they’ve bent over backwards on most occasions to enable me to do my work there, so that’s not been a real problem. I usually sort that all out in advance and then get on with composing.
Are there are film composers you particularly admire?
Oh, there are a lot of composers I admire. Composers like Erich Korngold who I think was really the greatest film composer. He was a great composer anyway, and he had a dramatic sense and a real originality in his composing. In the older style, the big orchestral score, I think he was really the greatest composer. Among living composers, I admire David Raksin, who I’m also happy to say is a friend of mine, people like Richard Rodney Bennett. Carl Davis is also an acquaintance of mine and I think he is a marvellous composer. Jerry Goldsmith is a terrific composer, John Williams. There are some film composers who I enjoy very much.
Are there any Australian composers whose film work you like particularly?
There are people like Bruce Smeaton, George Dreyfus – I like their work. Who else? It’s hard to pull out names… those two primarily. They’re very experience people and I think of them first when I think of Australian film composers. Patrick Flynn I thought was a very good composer. He doesn’t live here any longer, but his first film here was, I think, SUNDAY TOO FAR AWAY, and then he did CADDIE and MAD DOG MORGAN. I loved the music he did for those three. In fact, I’ve listened to those three very carefully and I’ve learned a lot from Patrick’s use of music n those films.
Being familiar with the work of these composers and overseas composers, as one of Australia’s busiest composers, are you aware of a particular Australian sound and approach to film scoring which differs to that of other countries – especially America, Britain and Europe?
In film scoring I don’t think that I’ve heard anything particularly Australian. It’s a bit too early to think in terms of a distinctive Australian film scoring sound. We don’t even have what I’d say is a distinctive Australian musical tradition here, and we’d have to have that before we could apply it to film scoring. There are sounds that you hear on certain records, especially pop groups – Men at Work and people like that – who have a distinctive sound which is, I suppose, Australian. But a lot of that hasn’t carried over into film scoring. It depends on the dramatic situation in the film that is going to determine what sounds Australian. I don’t necessarily think that just using a didgeridoo makes an Australian film score.
Are there any films which you have worked on that have been particularly rewarding for you, musically?
Yes. I think that NEWSFRONT was very rewarding. I also have a great sympathy with SILVER CITY, the film itself, with the characters in it and what they go through, and I think I’ve written some of my best music for it. I like the score I did for DEAD EASY. Musically it was a chance to write some music that was a little closer to my own composing style which is basically a sort of post-minimal type of composing. The director of that film, Bert Dealing, at the time was very much listening to Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and various people like that. He asked me if I thought that sort of music would work in that picture, and I told him that I thought we could use things like that. That was very rewarding to be able to use something that was not quite in the mainstream of film scoring at that time. I’ve enjoyed those films from a musical point of view; I got to explore a few things that were very close to me personally.
You recently scored ONE NIGHT STAND, the Australian film about the outbreak of World War III. What approach did you take for this film?
There are several musical elements in it. There’s the band Midnight Oil which is shown doing a concert, which I really didn’t have anything to do with. There’s some pop music, like “It Might As Well Rain in September” which we re-recorded to fit the film. We did an exact copy of the original Carole King recording of that. There was also the old Easy Beat song, “Friday on My Mind,” and I added some orchestration to that to build it up into an orchestral piece as well. Then there’s the background score which I composed, which is fairly conventional in he sense that it follows the action and ties things together; it also adds a bit of emphasis and de-emphasizes certain things in other places. But again, I discussed all that music with the director and we worked out what we wanted the music to do.
Do you have the desire to work on films other than Australian made?
I’m particularly interested in the German cinema at the moment. I’d love to do a score for a German film. I’d do a score anywhere in the world – at the South Pole if necessary.