Bob Cobert on The Winds of War

An Interview with Bob Cobert by Randall D. Larson © 1985/2008
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson

Bob Cobert’s association with producer-director Dan Curtis began in 1966 when the composer was hired to score Curtis’ new Gothic horror soap opera, DARK SHADOWS. Cobert went on to Score all of Curtis’ subsequent TV movies and features, including genre favorites such as THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and the award-winning THE LAST RIDE OF THE DALTON GANG (1980). Their professional collaboration reached a major pinnacle when Cobert provided a moving sRobert Cobertcore for Curtis’ massive, expensive television mini-series, THE WINDS OF WAR. Eighteen hours in length, and based on Herman Wouk’s novel tracing the first few years of World War II as experienced by a large cast of intertwined characters, the mini-series is reputed to have cost more than $35 million, the most expensive show ever done for television.

Perhaps understandably, executives at the ABC television network and at Paramount Pictures, the production company, had initially wanted a bigger “name” composer to score their costly project, but Curtis eventually convinced them that Bob Cobert would do as good a job as anyone else. The approach to the music came about as the result of a 20-minute promotional reel of THE WINDS OF WAR made by ABC during the summer of 1981, which they presented to prospective sponsors. The promo reel was given a temporary music track to enliven the visuals, since at that point no original music had been composed. A standard practice in the industry, temp track music is usually compiled from records of other film scores, classical and popular music, and such sources. “A temp track is the nightmare bane of every composer,” said Cobert. “It’s the first music that anybody’s ever heard with the picture, and it always makes it come alive, and they always fall in love with the temp track. So they come to the composer and say, ‘Okay, we don’t want this music; but we want something like it’. Half the time the composer wants to cut his throat because it’s not right for the movie, and he doesn’t want to sit around echoing somebody else.”

This is precisely what happened on THE WINDS OF WAR. ABC’s temp track took the main theme from a successful feature film (“There’s no point in my saying what it was,” Cobert added. “It was an excellent piece of music, but I felt it was totally wrong for this project – it made it seem as if it were taking place in 1890 or World War I!”), and executives wanted Cobert’s music to sound like what had impressed them in the temp track. After a number of “highly emotional discussions” with Curtis, Cobert was finally allowed to write what he felt was appropriate, in addition to a set of musical clones to please the executives. “Composers have to do this all the time,” Cobert grumbled. “You write something that sounds like the temp track but which is not actionable. This is cheesy and cheap, and everybody’s had to do it at one time or another. It’s not a legal rip-off, but it really is a rip-off. I’ve had to do it and I’ve had it done to me – I’ve turned on the TV and heard things that I know I wrote, and I realize it’s because somebody had them in a temp track someplace. It’s one of the hazards of the trade.”

But Curtis gave Cobert the opportunity to fight it. Cobert went to Palm Springs for six weeks, and spent nearly twelve hours a day writing melodies. “It was marvelous, because I was given complete reign to my imagination, and I could do what I wanted to do,” said Cobert, “including six or seven clones. I was still convinced that we were going to wind up using one of the clones for the main theme.”

When he finished, Cobert had about forty-five full-blown themes (“I’m not talking about two-bar motifs, I mean thirty-two bar, forty-eight bar compositions. Huge melodies.”) which Curtis wanted to play against the film to see which ones worked. Cobert had pianist John Berkman play all forty-five themes, which he recorded on tape and brought in to Curtis. “I went in, and Dan was there with the moviola, his assistant producer Barbara Steels was there and a couple of music editors, just for technical reasons. It was pretty scary, because it’s such a big project and no matter how often you do this there’s nothing as dreadful as auditioning.”

Each of Cobert’s themes was played against various scenes in the film (there are many pivotal characters and several major love stories going on throughout the picture), and as it turn out Curtis loved all forty-five themes. He eventually pared them down to twenty, from which he and Cobert had to decide on five to use in the film. Unable to select five themes from his favorite twenty, Curtis told his composer to ha all twenty pieces recorded with a full orchestra feeling that was the only way to properly decide on which five to use. “This was fabulous!” Cobert recalled. “We got a sixty piece orchestra, and recorded every one of the themes. Within week he knew what he wanted, and fortunately they were all of favorites, and not one of them was anything like that temp track, which was never heard from again! I had the greatest vindication!”

The film contained approximately three hundred individual music cues, a staggering amount, and Cobert composed and recorded nearly seven hours of solid music (not all of which was used in the final mini-series). “It was jus vast, vast thing,” he said. “When you do a movie you’ve got a love theme, and you’ve got an excitement theme and all of that; but here, there we four major love themes, with some of them needing’ sub-love themes for the early love, and then the more mature love. There was Nazi music, action music, and all sorts of ethnic music, Polish and Russian and Jewish.”

Winds of WarCobert also acted as the musical director on he project, which meant that, outside of composing all the cue music, he was responsible for more than a hundred pieces of source music heard being played from bands or radios in the background of various scenes. This not only entailed arranging and recording many specific pieces of music, but doing considerable research into its election. “If you’re doing a luncheon party at Hitler’s you have to know what Hitler’s favorite music was. His favorite light music was Franz Lehar, so I used ‘Merry Widow’. He loved Wagner and Mozart, and I thought of them for larger Hitlerian gatherings. Wagner didn’t work, so I recorded ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ and some other things to use. For people dancing; you have to find out what tunes were popular in 1939, like ‘La Conga’, which was a Latin American dance craze hat swept the country. I redid Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and all those late 30’s pop songs like ‘Glow Little Glowworm’. The only thing the script indicates is that the orchestra is playing. It’s up to the musical director to decide what is being played.”

Cobert began to plan the source music during re-production in early 1982, when filming had finished and Cobert was battling against the temp rack used in the 1981 promo film. It was May, 982, by the time Cobert presented his forty-five themes to Dan Curtis, which meant a hectic seven months of arranging the selected five themes into a specifically-timed and completely orchestrated score in time for the dubbing in early January. “There are seven individual movies involved,” Cobert said. “Four of them are three hours, and three of them are two hours. The last two three hour shows I wrote in sixteen days – that was an hour and a half of music!” Interviewed shortly after the recording sessions on January 29, 1983, Cobert added: “It was exhausting, and I’m still exhausted. I’m going to sleep for two weeks!”

The score was recorded with two types of orchestras, a small one of about forty-five musicians, and a larger group that varied between sixty and sixty-five musicians, depending upon the requirements of the cue. Cobert orchestrated the source music, but did not have the time to orchestrate the score on his own, as he prefers. “When that whole business came up about Dan wanting to record twenty pieces to make up his mind about the theme, I could see the handwriting on the wall, and I thought there’s no way I’m going to be able to do all this composing and the orchestrating. So I called in Jack Hayes, who is absolutely super, and he did a magnificent job on the orchestrations. Nobody could have done them as well – including me.”

The mini-series was broadcast during the second week of February, 1983, and Cobert’s highly thematic score did much to lend a strong degree of continuity to the varied characters and events. While the film documents the early incidents that led up to the 2nd World War, it remains essentially a story of people and their relationships that are bound up amidst the turmoil. Cobert’s score zeroes in on that, and he accentuates the relationships with a variety of emotional and melodic themes while at the same time embellishing the visual action. The score pleased even the executives who’d demanded a temp track clone a year earlier, much to Cobert’s delight. “I was at a party after the world premiere”, he said, “and I was talking to Brandon Stoddard, the head of the whole ABC film division, and he told me, ‘Boy, did you have a job. Everybody loved that temp track, but you’ve made us all forget it.’ That’s not only a victory for me; it’s a victory for every composer in the business.”

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