A Conversation with Brian May by Graeme Flanagan
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12 (Fall/Winter 1983)
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
In memory of Brian May, who died April 25, 1997 at the age of 63
Although noted in his native Australia as a popular conductor of light music, Brian May has achieved a great deal of acclaim overseas for his scores to Australian films such as PATRICK, THIRST and THE ROAD WARRIOR. May was interviewed for CinemaScore in November, 1982, with a basic list of questions assigned by the editor.
Would you describe your musical background?
My background in music started as usual, the little boy being made to learn the piano by mom and dad. I didn’t particularly like it in the early years, but they persevered and made me keep up my practice. When I got to the age of about thirteen I really fell in love with music and was sold from then on. I studied at the Adelaide Conservatorium where I wanted to be a concert pianist, but I also took orchestration, theory of music, and violin-as-a-second-instrument. But actually it was during my National Service that I got interested in the actual writing of music as a career. The Army unit had a little brass band that used to play music for the boys, and the C.O. came to me one day and said, “May, we’ve looked at the records and you go to the Conservatorium, so you are to write an arrangement of some popular pieces for the boys.” But I said, “I’ve never written an arrangement”, and he said, “You must, you’re at the Conservatorium!” So I can always remember this – it was “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas.” After that I fell in love with writing music for an orchestra, and when I came out of the Army I went straight into our ABC in Australia, which is the Australian Broadcasting Commission, like the BBC in England, and got a job as a music arranger. I wrote music for symphony orchestras and choral music for the Adelaide singers, and all sorts of different types of music, and that’s where I really got my grounding in orchestral writing.
How did you get into film scoring?
Film scoring was funny because, while I always liked films and film music, and certainly collected a few albums, we’ve all been at a severe disadvantage in Australia because hardly any Australian movies ever had film scores per se, and in fact lots of Australian movies had scores written by overseas composers. It was considered a professional attainment that was beyond this country, like a lot of things that, fortunately, have changed in recent decades. After the ABC brought me to Melbourne to form a unit called the Melbourne Showband, which was a multi-purpose television and record-making unit, director Richard Franklin, a long time friend, heard music that I wrote for our symphonic orchestra here, a big fantasy arrangement of HAIR, and he liked it so much that he approached me and suggested that my forte should be writing music for films. I was quite surprised at this, but I had his backing and that of an American editor who was going to edit his film, Andrew London, who also has remained a friend of mine for a long period and has had a lot of experience as a music editor. They really gave me a solid platform on which to put my musical expertise.
You have become quite popular in Australia as a leading personality in the world of light music, yet your work for motion pictures seems to be in a totally different vein. How would you compare the two facets of your musical work? Which, if any, do you prefer?
I think I most definitely prefer the film music side. It’s just unfortunate in Australia, because of the smaller population and because we’ve been very late coming into the film business in a professional area, that there’s not a heritage of film composition; in a sense a few of us are really making our own history. So it’s something you’ve sort of got to live with, the fact that most Australians are not aware of the fact that you write film music scores and that they are on records and in films that are shown all around the world. They still tend to think of me as someone who plays nice music on a record that they bought for their mum or something (chuckles), and that’s something that’s going to take a long while to change. It’s the same as if a person had a hit song and then somehow got involved in very avant garde chamber music that became very successful overseas. I’m sure in Australia it would be his hit song that would live on, and the other side being a minority market would tend to be obscured.
What’s your opinion of the role of music as a cinematic entity?
I think it’s hugely important and I feel more strongly now. I think I first gave an interview years ago and I made the point that music is probably underrated by some, but I don’t think it’s underrated by anybody that’s made really successful films, because there have been so many hugely successful films to which music has been a major contributor to its unity. I feel that film in itself being an edited (in a sense, cut together) structure, it needs everything it can get to make it unified, and that’s one of the great benefits of a very good music score. It gives it a wonderful blending and it can underscore in all those different ways of emotion. It can work on people in the cinema even though they’re not aware that the music is working on them. It can be very subtle or it can take your head off. It’s got wonderful variety of use.
What’s your opinion of the current state of film music? Do you prefer or dislike any of the current styles – symphonic, pop, rock, electronic – that are currently in vogue in motion picture scoring?
Brian May: I think that with the success some years ago of what was probably considered the revival of the traditional score in films, some really wonderful scores have been written in the last ten years in the traditional style; and also some very good music has been written in the nontraditional style. But more often than not, I find that there are more scores of either rock music or totally electronic that I find are unsatisfactory as compared with the number of traditional scores. I feel it’s very difficult to compare, but the electronic scores do tend to become clichéd and riddled with gimmicks, and it’s something that has to be watched. I have used a synthesizer a reasonable amount in my scores, but I try to be careful to make it an integral part of the score and try to use it in different ways, to be another flavor of the sound rather than to use it in a gimmicky way.
Would you mention some of the film composers you admire?
Of the present composers, my favorite is definitely Jerry Goldsmith. I think he’s so versatile, and he puts his different stamp on so many different styles of film. I really like John Williams, not only for his wonderful success; I mean, he’s been so successful, undoubtedly the most successful – if you’re talking impact on people – composer ever, so I think that from an industry point of view, he’s got to be really looked up to, because he has done a lot for film composers all over the world. A lot of people in films have seen the impact his music has had, and it’s probably given a strength to what music can do in a film. There was a period when music started to get very hodge-podgy in films, there were little bits and pieces, all sorts of rock music, and bits of old classical records and that, but then when John Williams has a success like STAR WARS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or now, of course, E. T., I think he restores everybody’s faith that not only does the music work in film and helps to make the picture successful, but the recognition factor becomes apparent.
There are a lot of others, too many composers to mention, really. I like Richard Rodney Bennett’s music, I think he’s superb, and there are quite a lot of other modern composers I like. I loved Bernard Herrmann, of course, I thought he was fantastic; and of course Miklos Rozsa, what a career he’s had; and one really can’t go past Korngold, I think he was just superb in his time. What he did in ROBIN HOOD – I’m not saying the music is the same, but what he did in the success of ROBIN HOOD is like what John Williams did in STAR WARS. It’s a similar parallel.
Would you describe your own personal approach to scoring a film?
Well, personally, I like to be very conscious of the objective of the director and the producer and what they are trying to do with their film. I feel that it is the director’s picture, and sometimes he has a very strong idea of how he thinks the music should go. I feel that, as a professional composer, if I can be absolutely sure of what the director wants from me I will be a better job in his picture, so I like to have the time to see the picture quite a lot before I start writing. Unfortunately, much of the time it’s always a terrible rush, and one is often working at a frantic, frenetic pace and there’s not too much time for any leisurely viewing. I like to have time to make sure that I’m happy with the thematic structure, and that it will work right all through the movie, so I tend to spend a lot of time in the development of my themes or motifs. I might change them several times and eventually I’ll become sure that the structure I’ve got is right. Then I like to, very roughly, try and see the whole score of the film in my mind and then I tend to become sure that I have a structure that is going to work. Then I start at the top and do it in the way that any composer does. The only thing that I’d like would be more time, of course, which is the cry of most composers!
You’ve become one of the leading film composers in Australia. How do you feel about this, both personally and professionally? How does it affect your subsequent scoring assignments and concert work?
It’s nice to be considered in a craft like film composition to be amongst the best in whatever your field is, whether it be cinematography or sound or, in this case, music. I’ve worked very hard to pick up the groundings of a film composer in a fairly short time, given that Australia hasn’t got the history of film composition such as America, with their great tradition of the 30’s and 40’s with all those great European composers emigrating to America. They really set up the American composition heritage, whereas we’ve had nothing like that and we haven’t got the teaching institutions like the Los Angeles Universities, where film composition can be studied as part of a degree. So, really we’re very much isolated. A film composer in Australia is a fairly lonely creature. There are only a handful of us. There are a lot of people who write music for films, but they range from people who do commercials and occasionally get asked to do some music in a film, or they might be the nephew of the producer who somehow gets the job of writing a score, but the people who generally love writing film scores and make a career out of it in Australia are literally a handful. I think we all like to be appreciated and certainly it’s nice when one goes to America or the Continent, and to get letters from overseas, as I do, I suppose one a fortnight, from a person in a different country liking my work. That’s quite flattering.
The Brian May Trust was created to provide a scholarship to promising Australian film composers to study film-scoring at the University of Southern California (USC).
Does the process of scoring and recording a film in Australia differ at all from how it’s done in Europe or America?
Well, I haven’t been to Europe, but I have spent a lot of time in America. We do work differently in the sense that – because of how our recording structure has been set up for recording film music since the mid-70’s, and very little was done before then – we do not have anywhere like the great studios of Hollywood, with big screens and big studios where one can put an orchestra and the conductor looks at the screen and the music can be played to the cinematic image in a big arena. What we have done in Melbourne, which has become the home base of film music in Australia, was to record at a good recording studio called A. A. V. The Little River Band (the pop group) records there. They’re set up with electronic screens and the 35mm print is dubbed to video tape in a time code which guarantees sync, and we sync up the 24-track recorder to the visual, and then we can operate the video recorder and the sound recorder in unison. I suppose it’s similar to the States except that we haven’t got huge screens; we’ve got a number of smaller screens. But it can be very fast, and most of the films I’ve done I’ve had to record economically, because we haven’t got anything like the American music budgets – 15 minutes of music in three hours is the rate we must go by to get there on budget – so doing that much music to electronic vision is quite a good pace anywhere, I would say. One has to make allowances sometimes if it’s a towering orchestral sound and a towering vision, but you’re only really seeing it on a little 28-inch screen, so I really love it when I’ve been in the Columbia [Burbank] Studios and seen a big towering orchestral sound and the big screen vision. Perhaps one day we’ll have that.
Do you have any ambitions to work on films in America?
I’d love to. I’ve been close at times, and hope that this will happen one day. I’ve had a couple of offers and one negotiation that nearly came to fruition. I think there’s a lot of trust in hiring a composer to write the music for your film, and when one is ready to extend that trust to a composer that’s when you’re ready to do your film. I’ve found that every director I’ve worked with has always been very happy to come back to me for a second, or third, or in some cases, a fourth film, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Many of your scores, at least those popular overseas, have been from science fiction and horror films. Do you enjoy scoring these types of films, and do you feel any concern over being typecast as a horror or fantasy composer?
I certainly feel concerned about being typecast, because I’ve done a lot in that genre, and if anything is bad in Australia it’s that people love to typecast you. I used to be the king of middle-of-the-road music and people found it hard to accept that I could write atonal film scores; now the boot’s on the other foot. I was so typecast by the industry as a writer of atonal music scores that no one could conceive that I could write a nice, pretty music score. I like to be very, very wide in my technique and so I’d really love to do some films other than horror. It’s not to say that I dislike doing horror movies; I love doing them because the composer’s got a great opportunity because horror and science fiction music tends to be quite forward in a lot of the sequences. It does help to get the audience different ways, so that you have a feeling that you’re really part of the action in that type of film and you’re doing things that are going to tantalize the audience or shock them. I think also that you tend to have the full orchestral resources, which is nice. I think it’s one of the reasons why in Australia I did get a lot of them in a run, because I was so highly experienced in full orchestral writing. In our infancy I was a natural person to turn to in that genre. Yes, I love them but I’d like to do other films and I’d like to be typecast as a composer who can do all sorts of films rather than a terrific thriller’ composer.
How did you become involved with MAD MAX?
MAD MAX was one of those stories that I suppose is worth recanting. George Miller and Byron Kennedy, who directed and produced it, did MAD MAX 1 on a very low budget. At the stage they did it, they were absolutely convinced that there was no way the sort of music they wanted for the film could be produced in Australia, and they had already made some overtures to do it overseas. The sort of score they wanted was the sort that Bernard Herrmann and Co. did in Hitchcock films, because they had a big action movie and they needed a score to propel it along and give it a lot of bite and energy. So it just happened that they were rather friendly with Richard Franklin, and they were at his house for dinner one evening when he played them the music for PATRICK. As they’d been in Sydney and it was before PATRICK had been released, they hadn’t heard it and they certainly hadn’t heard of Brian May other than as a middle-of-the-road music man. Anyway, George Miller said “that’s really terrific, but I can’t place that Bernard Herrmann score,” and Richard said “you’re wrong, it was done here in Australia by Brian May.” George was stumped at that, he just couldn’t believe it was possible! And when it in was proved that this was the case, George and Byron then immediately sought me out and showed me ten minutes of MAD MAX 1, which made me just about fall out of my chair. It was such an action-packed ten minutes that I couldn’t believe it was done in Australia. With the little budget that we had we went ahead and did it, and spent a lot of time on it. George was marvelous to work with; he had a lot of ideas about what he wanted although he wasn’t a musician. MAD MAX has been wonderful for me in a lot of ways, not only for the success of the film and the reaction to the music. Going to the cinema and seeing the reaction of the audience on the edge of their seats and seeing that film work on them and my part of it, was very good on my “formative” years.
The score of MAD MAX is somewhat different than that of its sequel. Would you compare and contrast the two scores?
They are different. I know that sometimes sequel scores are more or less along the same lines, but they wanted a totally different score. MAD MAX 1 was a strongly energized score in the violence/action department, and for that they wanted a totally non-melodic score. It was very jagged and shearing, and George particularly wanted me to antagonize the audience by making them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we had jagged notes going against dialog so that the audience would feel frustrated. It definitely worked, and it was quite a foresight on George’s part to think in those technical terms, not just in the movie but in the effect on the audience. When it comes to MAD MAX 2 [THE ROAD WARRIOR], this was totally a different type of picture. It was an optimistic picture, and it was really like a modern revival of an old Western. He wanted the vastness and the space, and he wanted depth in the sound, so I took out all the jaggedness that I’d had in MAD MAX 1 and thought in terms of soaring French horns. Whereas in MAD MAX 1 I had a jagged brass, very atonal and difficult to play, in MAD MAX 2 I had deep basses, cellos, and lots of short motifs that were not totally melodic but were just enough to be unified. We had one short motif for the grief of the world, and once again, George was very good in his foresight; he knew what he wanted. I have a great affinity for George, he can get across to me what he wants and I feel I can deliver it to him. MAD MAX 1 was jaggedness, biting, shearing, uncomfortable, noisy; whereas MAD MAX 2 had depth, width and generally a much more melodic score.
You’ve also worked frequently with producer Tony Guinane. Was there any difference in the way you’ve worked on his films? The MAX scores seem quite different, stylistically, from your music for PATRICK, SNAPSHOT, HARLEEQUIN, THE SURVIVOR…
Right. Each of those had different directors. Tony was very good in that he does understand the film music heritage and is a very avid film music fan and gives one quite a free rein. I like to think that all the scores I’ve done have had differences. Someone once said that all film composers write the same film score to whatever film they’re doing, but I don’t agree with that, and the film composers that I really admire certainly don’t do that. I’ve always set out to look at a movie and try and see what sort of a score it needs and to not revive what I’ve done in the past. I think there are absolutely vast differences, particularly between SNAPSHOT and THE SURVIVOR. THE SURVIVOR was directed by David Hemmings, and he was very keen for that to be atonal and have lots of things that suggested sound effects and were like painting with music. I feel that quite a lot of it came off quite successfully. I was very happy with the mixing of the synthesizer in with the orchestra. It became an extension of the orchestra rather than the gimmick synthesizer that I think a lot of people are opposed to. I think that HARLEQUIN had quite a love theme, which I know is unusual. I’ve had very few films with sizeable love themes, and I really enjoy writing love themes. I think the three scores (SNAPSHOT, HARLEQUIN, THE SURVIVOR) had a unity that was different, and of course in SNAPSHOT I did have some rhythm section elements in that which is unusual. I very rarely use a rhythm section in scores; I prefer a traditional orchestration.
At what point do you generally become involved during production? Do you find this arrangement to your liking?
If there is time, I like to come in earlier than I usually do. I have benefitted on those films in which I have come in earlier, and I think probably my product has. We’ve had a few very busy years in Australia and in some cases it has almost been a matter of finishing one score one day and starting another the next, which can be pretty hair-raising. It’s nice to have a little break and a refreshing of the battery, and yet I remember one score that I’ve had very favorable reports on, particularly in Europe and from some people in America, the score I did for THIRST. I only had something like 18 or 19 days to do that and no lead-in period whatsoever, and yet they seemed to think it was one of my best products. But I do like to have a good run-in period to really understand the film in advance and perhaps have a bit of pottering-around time. I know that a score I’m going to do in early 1983 will give me a good run-in time, and I’m very happy about that. Being set in the Pacific, it will give me a chance to experiment with some scalure patterns for native music and perhaps I might look at incorporating some of that in the score.
Do you orchestrate your own scores?
Yes, I do, for two reasons. One is that, once again, the music budget situation is very different in Australia than in America, so it’s always part and parcel of a score in Australia to orchestrate. But then, I’m sure that if I had the opportunity for someone to orchestrate my score I would still like to do it myself, because I love orchestration, and I feel that I have shown that it’s one of my strengths. I also like it because it just gives me that last bite of the cherry. Sometimes, when I’m orchestrating it, it lets me double check everything, whereas if you’re just sending the score off to an orchestrator, that’s it.
What kind of television scores have you written?
Well, I’ve done all sorts, actually. I’ve done things like a half hour detective mystery thing to a series of 20 one-hour soap operas, and the best television that I’ve had the opportunity to write was a very good series that Channel 7 here offered me, which was called THE LAST OUTLAW. It was the life of our famous Ned Kelly, who’s sort of an Australian equivalent of Robin Hood in England or Jesse James in America, and that was four two-hour shows, and I had a lot of time to do that. A nice, big orchestra, and the producers were very keen on not having a sort of folk-music type of approach to the music. Ned Kelly has been treated a lot in Australian and it’s always had this sort of “bush ballad” treatment, and they were very keen for Kelly to have a noble approach, and that’s turned out. I had thirteen or fourteen different scenes which I wrote for the series, and I loved doing that. I think I wrote 120 min music for that eight hours, and it was a pleasure doing it.
Does the often rushed pace of TV you any problems as a composer?
I think the rushed pace of not only television but films does cause problems spoken with people everywhere about this, seems to be the same everywhere – because when people make pictures, whether it be film or television, somehow the person who always, chopped when there’s a time problem is the composer. He’s at the end of a great chain of events, and if you’re going to mixing or release and they got bogged down when they were filming and they had problems editing, and the sound had to done, it all seems, in the end, to fall on shoulders of the composer. So the composer who was to have five weeks, a luxurious time write a film score, now finds he’s only got three weeks and four days, because the mixing situation is bought. Particularly in Australia, it’s difficult to get mixing time, and it’s very hard change it, so the thing has to happen on that date. So the poor old composer quite often has his time shortened, and one has to live with it. It’s an occupational hazard. Television, I think, is slightly different because it’s a different budget and a different time span; everything in television seems to be condensed in time.
Would you describe your involvement musical director on THE BLUE LAGOON?
That was a funny one. In my understanding, I was offered this opportunity to via Richard Franklin, who was the associate producer on it, after the Columbia people heard the MAD MAX score and liked it very much. Basil Poledouris was the composer of BLUE LAGOON, and it was decided that as they had shot all the film off Australia, it would be a nice idea to do the music here also. They liked the quality of the music, so it was my understanding that I would be involved as a musical director – in fact, that was my position listed in the published credits. Somewhere along the track, it changed a little, in that Basil did some of the conducting, a music director for Columbia directed a portion of it, and in the end I didn’t do any conducting. I did, actually, produce the music; I sat alongside the sound engineer and actually supervised the sound, and of course I had gotten the orchestra together, in a coordinating capacity. It would been nice to have had a go with the baton, that’s not the way it turned out.
It has been said that you work 80 hours a week in your various musical activities with films and with the ABC Melbourne Showband. How do you survive this exhausting schedule?
(Laughs) Well, I must say that it hasn’t quite as hectic the last month or so! The industry in Australia has been a little quieter in the last month, but normally over the years I did work that and more sometimes. I think it because of not doing the same thing all the time. I think anyone who does the same thing would find it difficult, but while I’ve written a lot of film scores I’ve also, at the same time, remained very active in the concert field. I’m doing concerts all around Australia. I’ve spent time in music education, teaching, giving lectures, and clinics, and having some private composition students, and then doing PR work for my records. So there’s a very wide range of work, it’s not that every hour is devoted to writing music.
Would you describe your current film project and tell us what type of score you are writing for it?
The one I’ve just finished is interesting for me because I hope it’s going to be one of those scores that people will be surprised with, when they see that Brian May’s not writing a thriller score. It’s called KITTY & THE BAG MAN and it’s set in the 20’s, in Sydney. It’s, obviously, a period film, but it’s a good mixture` of qualities because it has some drama, it has comedy, and it has some sort of historical components. We’ve gone for a period score, with quite a small orchestra, and I’ve written jolly, ragtime-type pieces, and a nice, tender love theme, and various amounts of comedic music. I think this film is going to go well, and along with it I hope it’ll be sort of a sign people of Brian May doing other things. I have done other things, but some people are not aware of it!
You mentioned that you’ve got a new project coming up for 1983?
Yes. It’s an Australian adventure film, directed by John Lamond. I’ve got the script which I just picked up today and I’m going to have my first read of. It sounds good because the period is just after the Second World War – you know, plenty of airplanes, underwater chases, all sorts of things that a movie composer loves to do! I believe that they’re looking for a lot of music in the film, so that’s what I’m really looking forward to.