An Interview with Bruce Broughton by Randall D. Larson © 2009
What were some of your first experiences in scoring TV?
Bruce Broughton: In the early 70s I was working for CBS Television in the music department. Though I wasn’t hired as a composer, I did get the opportunity to do a lot of writing, and so my earliest scores came from that time. The first credit I ever had in television for a score was on an episode of GUNSMOKE called “A Quiet Day in Dodge,” which was what was termed a “partial score,” a live score combined with tracked cues from the library. It was great for me because it’s part of the GUNSMOKE 20-year compilation DVD and I’m on screen playing the piano in the episode. My first complete score was a HAWAII FIVE-O, which was also done during that time. So for a couple of years I wrote scores in addition to my real job, which was to manage the music department. When I left CBS and decided to go freelance, I was fortunate enough to get busy over at Universal with QUINCY, and ended up doing four or five years of that show. I was the primary composer by the time I got on to it, and I guess I composed 65-70% of the entire series.
Meanwhile, the people who had been producing GUNSMOKE moved on to do other series, and one of them, John Mantley, went on to do HOW THE WEST WAS WON. Jerry Immel, whom I had worked with at CBS, was the composer. Jerry asked me if I would orchestrate the opening episode of HOW THE WEST WAS WON, which of course I was happy to do. And then after he got offered some other series, I ended up doing most of HOW THE WEST WAS WON. One of the other producers who had worked on GUNSMOKE, Len Katzman, went on to do a couple of series including LOGAN’S RUN. Jerry and I did some LOGAN’S RUN, and then Len went on to work on DALLAS, for which Jerry wrote the theme. Through that association I started working on DALLAS as well. So it was sort of like a big family. Although not literally, Jerry and I had sort of grown up in the business together. He was in the CBS music department the same time I was in the music department. He left before I did to go freelance, and then I eventually left to do the same, and we would cross paths since some of the people we worked with were the same. It was always a nice association. There was also Ken Harrison, whom I had hired at CBS to replace Jerry, and then he quickly left CBS the same way we had to become a composer. So we often all ran across each other working on various shows.
At that time I was the new kid on the block, and I was doing mostly QUINCY, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, and then DALLAS. Often I would be working on two shows a week. QUINCY was usually done on the weekend because it was spotted on Friday, scored on Monday, and aired on Wednesday. It was always my primary job to be done. The other shows would be filled in around that. Eventually I got into television movies, and from there I got into mini-series, and then from mini-series I got into features. So it seemed to have been a natural progression. But the people who worked in one medium didn’t necessarily work in another. That is, the people who worked in series, I learned, most often didn’t go on to do TV-movies, and the people who worked in TV-movies didn’t always go on to do features. I managed to get from one to another, however, usually through a recommendation or a stroke of good luck.
Why is that that some composers can’t or don’t? Is it just due to the conditions or the nature of the networks?
There are a lot of reasons people do what they do. Some of it has to do with access to people. Some of it is access to the jobs. Some of it is – I hate to use the term – good luck. Or bad luck. A composer and director work together on a TV series, and the show becomes a hit. The two people continue working together because they’re friends, or they’re creatively in synch or perhaps only because they brought each other luck. When the show isn’t a success, it’s harder to maintain the relationship. If a producer or a director has somebody he likes and trusts, however, why change it? Every composer is going to bring in something a little bit different. Producers and directors tend to work with similar writers and similar people, because they know what they’re going to get, they know what to expect, they like the quality, and they get along.
Sometimes people don’t make those connections, or the connections don’t pan out. Maybe a director or producer will suddenly retire, move to Kansas, or worse yet will die, and then suddenly everything changes. I’ve seen composers who suddenly stopped working, either because the people they worked with were no longer working, or styles changed and theirs didn’t. I think the longest careers probably were those in which people were able to associate with a production partner, and that sometimes happened in television. But I did notice years ago that the people who were in series tended to stay in series, and when their series came to an end they didn’t move to another kind of medium; they basically stayed in series. There were some exceptions, but for the most part series people remained series people and TV-movie people were that, and feature people were that.
You’re one of the exceptions.
I would say I benefited from that, although it didn’t always work out well for me, and for the same reason. I would very often try to go with people who would move on to other jobs, but if they didn’t move to other jobs, I wouldn’t go on to other jobs either. It happens like that. I was fortunate, however, in that I found many of my jobs in the “next strata” by being recommended by someone, often a music director. THE BLUE AND THE GRAY came about that way, as did my move into features. And I found that my agents were often helpful, as well. That’ll be news to some.
How would you contrast, creatively, what were the needs of scoring television back in the mid- to late-70s, early 80s, with what we have today?
One thing that has stayed constant has been problems with budgets, problems with time, and working conditions. Those have always been very, very difficult. I think if you went back into the history of movies fifty or sixty years ago, you’ll probably find people having the same problems. There wasn’t enough time, there wasn’t enough money, the demands were crazed, and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s pretty much just the nature of the business.
I think the biggest difference between the music that you hear now and the music you would have heard twenty years ago – certainly thirty or thirty-five years ago – is that the music now is much more generic for the most part. I think that if you look at the scores both in television and in the movies thirty or more years ago, there is much more personality in the music than you’ll find now. I began working at a time when there were no videotapes, CDs or digitalized pictures to refer to. Everyone worked with a pencil, a stop watch or click book. With the change to digital technology and the availability of synths and computers, I now occasionally work with a pencil, but I always work with a computer, synths and sequencers. Mockups were never required. Now digital mockups are de rigueur for not only movies but television series as well.
Thirty years ago, directors and producers didn’t have the options of creative control that they now have, and not only in scoring, but in all the areas that have become digital, which is to say right across the board. I read once that Korngold never played a theme for anyone before the score was recorded. You can’t imagine that happening now. The entire score as it’s being created is now subject to change, conversation and creative collaboration from the first note to the last.
Creatively, the music has become more generic in large part because of the element of risk. No one any longer wants to gamble with the creative maunderings of an independent composer. It’s simply too chancy, so much of what we hear is what we’ve already heard somewhere else. Music has to a large degree been forced into the middle.
I’ve noticed a lot of the new up-and-coming composers, as opposed to the very classical, academic background that folks of earlier generations have, seem to be coming out of a rock/pop idiom, and even though they’re writing orchestral film music, the basic tone seems to have more of a rock influence, say, than a classical influence.
Yeah, that’s a fair thing to say. But if you look at classical music right now, it’s very different than what it was a few years ago, too. So are the methods by which music is taught in schools. My oldest son is studying music at Berklee College in Boston. Each student gets a Macintosh laptop when he begins his studies there. That’s very different from buying a couple of books on theory or orchestration. Younger composers don’t have the access – nor even the need – to work with acoustic musicians, but they all have the ability to make music technologically. They also have access to much more music than people my age had when we were in school. We had to go to the library and check out discs. Now music is available at home as a download or stream. The good/bad thing about technology is that some decisions about who the composer should be has to do with the technology and not the music. Technology is readily available and is perceived as being a way to save money. It’s not the best way to choose a composer for your next film.
Having said that, there are some really good composers out there. There are some people working who are really good and who write interesting scores, with a lot of ability and a lot of technique, and they can write some pretty inventive stuff. Many of the younger composers are comfortable combining pop/rock elements with what they perceive as “classical” elements. It’s been my observation, however, that in many cases their musical education, if they have any, skimmed over and through the “classics” and focused in large part upon the type of music they could easily imitate themselves.
The first bit of music of yours that really put you on my roadmap was your first miniseries score, THE BLUE AND THE GRAY, which had a theme that just knocked me out, and is still one of my favorites. Do you recall your initial impressions as to how to deal with this large canvas of history, of the West and the Civil War, and the kind of music that was needed for that story?
Larry White, the executive producer told me exactly what he wanted the day we met. Larry said, “Look, I don’t want one of these big scores. I want a really specific score.” I asked what that meant. He said, “Well, when they’re sitting around a campfire, I want to hear a guitar or a Jew’s harp or a banjo or a fiddle or something like that. I don’t want to hear an orchestra playing all the time.” I thought, “Uh, okay,” because what I heard was that he wanted the music to be very small and very specific. That made me very nervous, because I took him literally. This was a big job for me, so I had a lot of anxiety and I wanted to do it right. But I kept thinking, “God, he wants it small!” So we looked at the picture and it was anything but small. It was big! We had the Battle of Bull Run and stuff going on like that – how was I to do that with a Jew’s harp and a fiddle?! So I wrote this theme, which was in the style of mid-19th Century themes, something that Stephen Foster or George Root or one of the songwriters from that time might have written. It was a long tune, and I eventually hired an orchestra. I did have cues with just fiddle and harmonica and all that, but I also had a lot of this sweeping stuff, and I really worried about that!
On the first day of recording (in those days we didn’t have synths and we didn’t do mock-ups; so the only thing he had heard was a recording of me playing the theme on the piano, and you can’t tell too much from that) I’m standing there with the orchestra in front of me, and I put up the Main Title. I was really nervous, because I was starting off with trumpets and drums followed by the whole orchestra! I’m rehearsing the theme, and fortunately in my headset, in which I could hear people talking in the booth, I heard one of the producers say to the other, “God I just love this stuff!” And then I knew I was home free. That was actually what he wanted – he wanted the big stuff but he also wanted these very specific things. So other than that, it wasn’t really a hard show to do, because I knew the style really well. 19th-century American music was something that I had grown up on. It worked out well and I continued to have a really nice association with Larry. We went on to do other shows like THE FIRST OLYMPICS and MASTER OF BALLANTRAE.
THE FIRST OLYMPICS was a big score for you also. It was recently released on CD by Intrada.
By this time, Larry and I were pretty solidly a team. When we spotted it, it turned out that there wasn’t as much music as we expected there would be. For that matter, even in THE BLUE AND THE GRAY, there wasn’t as much music as we had expected. I was always concerned that there was not enough music in THE BLUE AND THE GRAY, although it turned out okay. It was similar with THE FIRST OLYMPICS. We were going to record it in England, and we had budgeted for an orchestra of about 36 or 37 people, which was pretty standard for television at that time. But when I saw we had so little music to record, I realized that we could maybe thicken up the orchestra. So I asked Larry. “Look,” I said, “since we don’t have that much music to record, can I use a bigger orchestra?” And he looked at me and asked, “How big?” I said, “Well, instead of 35 maybe like 60.” Right away he said “No!” but then he looked at me and thought for a second, and he said, “Well, OK.” His first impulse was as a producer – this is going to cost me money! And then he thought, well, I’ve already budgeted, so what the hell! So actually it was my first fairly big orchestra score.
It has a much different quality than THE BLUE AND THE GRAY with this sweep and excitement of the first modern Olympics. There were some references to Greek music and I remember sitting in a library in London researching Greek music so that I could be as authentic as I possibly could, but I didn’t need to use it a lot. It was mostly the big sweep of the Olympics and the personal drama of all these guys who were involved in it. I also had a lot of band music to do. One of the biggest problems I had was that every time the US team would win the band would have to play “The Star Spangled Banner” over and over, and how do you do that without making everybody nuts? So I devised three or four different ways of being able to do that in shortened versions. It was interesting because at the time the story was taking place “The Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t the national anthem; it was just a tune associated with the United States. I had a lot of extraneous music to record, as well. It was a good score to have in the box, however, because about shortly afterwards, when I was getting ready to go to YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, I remember putting the earlier score on a demo for Barry Levinson, and he ended up using some of its music as temp tracks. It’s the same orchestra, the Sinfonia of London, and the music has some similarities in style – not musically – but the styles are a little similar, particularly the stuff having to do with England.
SILVERADO in 1985 almost did what STAR WARS did for science fiction; it really rejuvenated the Western film which had kind of fallen into disinterest, aided by a prominent musical score. What was your approach to that score and what did Larry Kasdan have in mind when you came onboard?
What Larry had in mind was something very specific. He wanted to make a Western for people who had never seen Westerns. And I said, “Well, who’s that?” “Think about it,” he said. “Kids. Westerns have been gone for so long, kids haven’t seen a Western. You and I grew up with them, but kids don’t know anything about them at all.” So he had in the story just about every element of the Old West – he had the gunfighters; he had the white hat/black hat; he had the cowboys and the farmers, all the traditional stories. He and his brother Mark, who co-wrote the script, looked at all of the classic Hollywood Westerns in preparation for this, and – because he was making the Original Hollywood Traditional Western – he wanted the score to fit that. I said, “You mean you want a big traditional Hollywood Western score?” He said, “Yeah.” So I said, “Oh, okay.” I knew what that was. And that pretty much defined the style, overall. It wasn’t based on anybody else’s style, however. It was based instead on what I remembered as “the big Hollywood Western sound.” If you look at the early Western scores of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Westerns were pretty perfunctory. But Jerry Moross brought Broadway to Hollywood with THE BIG COUNTRY, and Elmer Bernstein picked that up right away with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and that sound became the big Western style. What SILVERADO had in common with those scores was a very big, aggressive tuneful approach.
SILVERADO was very straightforward and what it needed from music was pretty much defined – it was white hat/black hat, good guy/bad guy, this happens/that happens, and although it was all very well worked out and integrated, the story was just very straight-ahead. So I wrote a score that was for the most part pretty straight-ahead. All the energy and all the enthusiasm in it was partly because the movie was so good natured and so optimistic – I mean everything about it is good: these are four good guys; they’re concerned about the safety of their families; they’re four strong friends; they can’t be separated, and even at the very end, the very last thing you hear is, “We’ll be back!” So the music was sort of the same way, and it just came off being a very optimistic, feel good kind of score.
Also the other thing that I guess that I brought to it was that although I was born in Los Angeles I was raised in the West. I lived in places like Seattle and Wenatchee and Walla Walla, Denver and Phoenix. As a kid, I took many, many trips through the West, and I loved the desert and I loved the mountains. So it was sort of like a movie about what I came out of – the West. My people, you know? I wrote a straight-ahead score with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of optimism, and it worked out great. People don’t realize this, but the movie wasn’t that big a movie. It came out during the summer with another western, PALE RIDER, which had one thing that SILVERADO didn’t have: it had a star. It had Clint Eastwood. The biggest star in SILVERADO was John Cleese. All the other guys, Kevin Cline, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, they really were not well known then. The movie did OK, but it was no big blockbuster or anything like that. The thing about SILVERADO was that it never went away. Once it came out on video it became a great rental and then it started appearing on television, and it’s probably more due to television than anything else that it’s become a really Big Western. But it is a really well made picture. It probably represents the contemporary western as well as any other film in the last thirty years. The westerns since that time, for the most part, have been sort of parodies of westerns, or odd westerns with the girl as the good guy, or something like that.
You revisited the Western almost eight years later with TOMBSTONE, which had a lot of real history and cinematic history behind it.
I guess by that time Westerns had sort of taken hold. At the same time, Kasdan was doing WYATT EARP, and I ended up not doing WYATT EARP, but I got called for TOMBSTONE, which is the same story. TOMBSTONE was supposed to be the B-movie; WYATT EARP was the A-movie. When I first saw TOMBSTONE I only saw half of it because they didn’t have it ready, and they were struggling like crazy to finish it. The original director had been replaced at the last minute and George Cosmatos was brought in with very little time to prepare; so it was a real quick effort. I saw about half the movie, and they’d temped it with SILVERADO – and I thought it made the movie look just awful. George came out of the screening, all smiles, and he said “So, what do you think about the music in the film?!” I said, “I love your music, George, I just hate it in this movie!” The reason was that SILVERADO was so optimistic and TOMBSTONE wasn’t. The music didn’t fit! But when I started working on the picture and the temp track wasn’t there any longer, the more I got into it the more I realized it was a really entertaining picture. I was left pretty much to my own devices on TOMBSTONE. I saw this very big, very dark, very over-the-top picture, in which the good guys are all bad guys. There was hardly any redeeming quality about anybody in TOMBSTONE; but it was just really entertaining, and I thought: I’m just going to pull out all the stops and do everything! So my score for that one is really unrestrained: it’s really over-the-top. It gets very dark, it’s very melodramatic, and it’s very moving and very exciting and very big. It’s very different from SILVERADO, which was very well defined; this one is just like one big, walloping ride.
Shortly after SILVERADO, you were associated with a couple of Spielberg produced films; the first was YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, which is another concept that has such a legacy of cinematic and film musical history. What were your initial impressions of scoring that?
I’d just gotten off SILVERADO and I was really tired. I badly wanted to do YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, but we only had a month to work on it, and it needed more music than SILVERADO had had. It also needed more intricate music, because the story was very detailed. It was about this very sharp, intelligent boy with his very interesting friend and his smart girlfriend, and this big, big story with so many layers to it. Also the movie itself was done in a way in which everybody moved very quickly. It was paced almost like an animated film. The film just ran from scene to scene as a really long narrative. The story’s like one single projectile just shot out of a cannon and the music’s sort of like that.
There are a lot of different musical styles in SHERLOCK HOLMES. There’s a lot of very contemporary stuff, with a lot of strange notation that my orchestrator and I had to come up with to get the effects that I wanted. There are a lot of musical effects kind of stuff like you’d find in Penderecki or Henze; there’s old fashioned music; English music reminiscent of Elgar; there’s some swashbuckling music along with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s also very tuneful, and it gave me the opportunity to really exploit the orchestra, which I couldn’t have done before with SILVERADO, which was a straight-ahead movie. The YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES score has a lot of complexity because the picture has a lot of complexity. I had probably more fun recording that movie than any movie I can think of either before or since. It was just a lot of fun, because everything we recorded just started to sound better and better and the movie started to really come together. Everybody was very excited, very happy and very relieved. It was just a lot of fun.
The other Spielberg-produced movie was HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS, which was more light-hearted and contemporary in its tone.
HARRY’s different in one respect, in that it’s a very opulent film visually, with a lot of the Spielbergian characteristics of bigness and drama and dazzling energy. But the thing that is confusing about HARRY is that the character himself, the Bigfoot, is a very simple, very straightforward, childlike character; and yet all this stuff around him isn’t. There’s a lot of complexity around him, but the theme for him is very simple, like Harry. The movie is an odd combination of stuff; but it’s also a very emotional movie, with a lot of heart. And so the tune gets very big and very passionate, which I think probably expresses more how the family feels than how the Bigfoot feels. Whenever you see Harry, you just sort of melt over his simple charm, which is a big element of the story.
You also scored several episodes of Spielberg’s TV series, AMAZING STORIES, which was a return to the anthology format that hadn’t been done that well in about 20 years, and at the same time, you had notable movie directors and notable movie composers coming in and taking their turn as opposed to having one or two composers doing the whole series.
That was Steven going into television. Steven was really great at being able to help out other directors. He brought up a lot of young directors. One of the guys that I worked with on AMAZING STORIES was Todd Holland, who is now a very successful director doing a lot of television. But Todd’s first show after graduating from UCLA was AMAZING STORIES. So Steven was able to recognize young and new talent like that and he would use them, along with older, more established directors. He did the same thing with composers, and he got guys like John Williams and James Horner, Alan Silvestri, and Georges Delerue to do episodes. All the A composers who were doing films at that time were working on AMAZING STORIES. I ended up doing four of them, which was more than anybody else. All the stories were very, very different. I did two with Todd, one with Donald Petrie, and another one with Norman Reynolds. And they were all very different. It was a nice show to work on because the shows were very different, they were going to get some attention, and there was some buzz about it.
THE MONSTER SQUAD was a fun movie because it brought back these classic movie monsters!
Fred Dekker and Shane Black put together the script, and Fred got a chance to direct the thing. That film brought me into contact with Peter Hyams, who was producing it, and from that I ended up doing a couple of films afterwards with Peter, so it turned out to be a nice thing. MONSTER SQUAD was a traditional adventure score, with some horror elements in it. It was fun to do.
You scored THE PRESIDIO for Peter Hyams. How did you establish the right tone for this contemporary action/mystery thriller?
Peter’s films tend to be very dramatic; he’s very good at action things. So it had to have a lot of energy. It was a contemporary picture, and then of course it had the military. I thought I would write a score for an orchestra that had all those elements in it, so I had an orchestra of trumpets, horns, percussion, strings, and keyboards. I was happy with it and think it has some nice moments. It has a nice tune in it, which never gets the chance to be heard until the very end. I found Peter really interesting to work with because he’s very specific and he’s very focused. He’ll let you know very quickly what he likes and what he doesn’t like. There’s no beating about the bush with him, which is frankly something I like. And each picture I did with him was very, very different. PRESIDIO was very different than NARROW MARGIN, which was very different from STAY TUNED, which was, in some respects, even more fun to work out because I had all these different styles.
What was the experience like working with Michael Jackson on MOONWALKER and what were its musical needs? On the one hand it’s a music video and yet it sidetracks to these fantasy pieces that the orchestra accompanies.
It’s a really weird film! It came out over here as a video, and in Europe it went out as a feature. But the experience of working with Michael was actually very pleasant. He was very nice. For someone with so much energy on stage, he was surprisingly gentle in person. The first time I met him was on the phone; we held our creative discussions very briefly over transcontinental phone lines, and then when we recorded it, he came to L.A. Up to that point I had worked only with the director and some of the producers; I hadn’t even met Michael yet. Michael came to the recording, and he was very friendly in an unassuming, almost shy way; very quiet, but very firm – he wouldn’t let anything get by without him saying yes or no. He couldn’t have been more polite. But he was no wimp. There was no question as to who was in charge. He made comments, we made a few changes, and he acted like a regular producer. It was, all together, a really pleasant and memorable experience. Both of my daughters met him. The youngest one, Candice, immediately broke into tears afterwards, she was so nervous.
Moving into the 1990s, I believe that ROLLER COASTER RABBIT, one of the Roger Rabbit shorts, was your first animated film score, is that correct? After that you did RESCUERS DOWN UNDER and started a whole legacy of scoring animation.
Actually, to be really exact, my first animated effort was on a thing for Epcot, my first Theme Park score. It had a one-minute animated sequence and it was directed by Glen Gordon Caron, the creator of MOONLIGHTING. That was actually my first animated gig.
What show was it?
It was called THE MAKING OF ME, with Martin Short. It was at Epcot for years and years and I think it just closed recently. I can’t remember how I got the call for ROLLER COASTER RABBIT, but it turned out that the stars were aligning with me towards animation, because at the same time I had gotten a call to do TINY TOONS over at Warner Bros. All of this was like the culmination of a boyhood dream. When I was a boy I had wanted to be an animator and my biggest hero at that time was Walt Disney. Fortunately, I didn’t become an animator, because the animators are a lot better than I would have become, but I got to work as a composer on some of the absolutely best animation ever produced. I think the Roger Rabbit film was the last hand-drawn cell animation film, so it was sort of a historic moment. It was just stunning animation. And from that I went to RESCUERS, which was done the same way. RESCUERS is an extraordinarily well-made movie, and here I was working at Disney! I was like a boy in a candy store!
I ended up doing two of the Roger Rabbit movies, and they were both fun. I love that kind of music because it gives me a chance to be really silly and to be very energetic. I can do things in animation that I couldn’t do in live action or in any other kind of music. You have to skid on two wheels, making quick musical turns, and a lot of that technique became even more intense doing TINY TOONS, which was a different style altogether. On TINY TOONS they wanted to recreate the Carl Stalling style. Well, Carl Stalling wasn’t as well known at that time as he is now, but I’d already figured out what a master he was. So when I got a chance to work in that style, I said, “Yes, absolutely, I’d love to do that!” So we had all these different kinds of styles from Disney and from Warner Bros., and along the way I learned some other things. One of the composers I hired on TINY TOONS was Fred Steiner, who used to do the old PERRY MASON show, as well as ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE. Fred’s a terrific composer, and his favorite cartoon composer was not Carl Stalling; it was MGM’s Scott Bradley, who used to do TOM & JERRY. So because of Fred I would look at Scott Bradley, and then at Winston Sharples who worked at Paramount. There were all these different guys doing different styles of music for different houses that were doing different kinds of animation. So it was a really great time, scoring all that animation from ROGER RABBIT through TINY TOONS.
As supervising composer on TINY TOONS, my job was to select the composers and Warner Bros would hire them. If somebody had a problem with what was going on with the music, I would get the call, and often the call would come from Steven as much as it would come from one of the line producers, because Steven was really the executive producer. It was a big family affair, and it was really a very good time; very tiring but a lot of fun. We ended up with something like 27 composers doing 100 episodes, and in that I found Richard Stone who said all he wanted to do in his life was to write like Carl Stalling. He did a great job, and stayed at Warner Bros after I left.
Another film you did around that time period was a sequel to HONEY I SHRUNK THE KID called HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID. What was your take on that? It’s a fantasy and yet it’s a family type of film.
It may have been because of what I was doing around that time, but it was a very silly movie, so I basically treated it like a cartoon – not so much with mickey-mousing, but with the same kind of energy, because the kid was so big and the story was so wacky. That score turned out great. It has an enormous amount of energy, and the people on it were a lot of fun. There was one emotional downside on the picture, and that was that the day before I recorded it my mother died. I think there was a certain amount of “blowing up the kid” that went on personally, and as a result there’s a lot of energy that went into that film that was probably coming from another part of my life. But much of it went into that film and came out as an enormously energetic score.
Then you did, in 1993, the remake of a classic Disney picture, THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, called HOMEWARD BOUND, which generated a sequel which you also scored. Here’s a film that is very sentimental, you’re dealing with animals, and it’s such a heartfelt film and score. What did you feel it needed when you first came into it?
The film had been done before with different voices, which made it a very different film, oddly somber and serious. So when Disney decided to make a change, they changed everything: they changed the voices, they changed the music, essentially throwing out the baby with the bath water. So I got the score, and they brought in a producer from animation, Don Ernst, whom I had worked with before. Don had been one of the producers on the Roger Rabbit short and later went on to produce FANTASIA 2000. What Don contributed was the production of the voices, and because he revoiced the whole thing, they did it from a completely new script. Much of the movie was animals basically looking at each other with voice over; it was very similar to what happens in animation in which characters are created vocally. Animation guys know how to do that ñ they will sit there with a voice track and go over and over and over again, doing 500 takes until they get the right one. And they know how to work with the actors that way. That was the primary thing Don contributed, so in a sense it was an animated film. Visually it wasn’t, because Duwayne Dunham, who directed the picture, was not an animation guy at all, but Duwayne’s got a very big heart. He contributed the visuals and the animation guy contributed the vocals and I contributed the score. By the time they changed the voices it was really a very different film than the one I saw originally. This new version with Michael J. Fox was very buoyant, with a lot of energy in it and a lot of heart. So when the animals started taking off, it was sort of a slam-dunk: just come up with a good theme and just let the sucker play! The second film had a different director, David Ellis, and by that time they were pretty much in familiar territory where they knew where they were going. The second film was not quite as successful as the first one. But the HOMEWARD BOUND films are among those that I get a lot of comments about from people who saw it as kids. “You made me cry,” one girl recently said to me. When they see Shadow come back at the end, everyone breaks into tears.
Another film you did in 1998, which doesn’t seem to be that well known and yet has this vast canvas, is a TV movie called GLORY AND HONOR, about the North Pole expedition. Coming into that project, how did you decide on the direction the music should go in?
Lots of ice! Seriously: lots of ice! Because it was so unrelentingly like that, even though there was an emotional human-interest story in the middle of it, I initially thought the music should reflect that frozen landscape. The music that I was listening to at the time was Olivier Messiaen, the French composer, who has these big, static harmonies with a sometimes beautiful icy resonance, and that was what I thought I was going for. When I got into the film, I realized I couldn’t do just that. I had a big theme that was adventurous, patriotic and grand; I was discovering the North Pole while dealing with major social issues, personal emotions and physical struggle; and surrounding all this was lots of ice and cold. The drama was inherent in all of that. I won an Emmy for Best Music on that film, so something nice came out of it! The theme came out well and people seem to have liked it, even though it hasn’t come out on CD yet.
Emphasis on the word “yet” I hope!
Yeah, we’ve had some conversations about that score possibly coming out on CD, so it may show up.
Another period drama you did shortly thereafter, JEREMIAH, a biblical drama…
That was interesting. Harry Winer was the director on that. Harry had gone to Morocco to make this thing and I was blown away by what it looked like. It just looked spectacular, and he had a great cast. Patrick Dempsey played Jeremiah. The only problem with that for me was that he looked sort of like Jesus, and that was a little confusing! But I knew the biblical Jeremiah story, and I thought it was a really well made drama. Klaus Maria Brandauer was a perfect Nebuchadnezzar! Anyway, I thought the film looked great and had this wonderful stuff in it – God with an Italian accent and all that. It was just a fun thing to do. I really enjoyed it.
This was at a time when there were a series of biblical dramas coming out of Italy.
Yes. The score was sort of half synth and half orchestra. We went to England to record the orchestra part. It was an interesting experience, totally budget-driven.
Was there a need to evoke a specific history with historical music?
Yes, but it’s all faux Hollywood Middle Eastern music, written by this WASPish composer in L.A.! We used the duduk, a Turkish instrument that gives that Middle Eastern wail. It’s been used a lot in movies since, over drones and things that sort of evoke Middle Eastern sounds. I used a lot of Middle Eastern percussion to give it that flavor, but otherwise it’s basically a straight ahead dramatic score with that color added to it.
In more recent years you seem to have come back to a lot of TV movies, such as THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE, which, again is a historical drama in the 1850s, but is a very intimate score and intimate story.
There was no budget, so it was easy to figure out what to do! That one was directed by my friend Jeremy Kagan. It was a Gold Rush story and I included a couple of Gold Rush tunes in the score. I was committed in the story to using “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and I found another song called “Joe Bowers,” an old Gold Rush song, and I used “Golden Slippers” as well. So I had a bunch of actual music from the Gold Rush times, around which I built my own themes. One of the interesting things about the score was that a couple of years before this score I had remarried. I married a violinist, a girl who I first saw on the SHERLOCK HOLMES session, ten years before. She’s from New Zealand, but she’d worked for years and years doing movies in London until she moved with me to L.A. So as Jeremy’s in production, he called me, wanting a scratch track for a barn dance he needed to film. I said, “Okay, I’ll write some country music. I’ll have Belinda do a scratch track and then we’ll replace it afterwards with a real country fiddler.” He was fine with the idea. So I did this little thing with a synth accompaniment and had Belinda come in to record it. She’d never done country music before, but she knew Irish music, so she started playing it and before you know it, she’s cookin’! My friend, Ed Kalnins, was mixing it, and turned around and looked at me and said “You’re going to replace this?!” And I said, “No, I guess not!” So the fiddler in all the fiddle solos in LUCY WHIPPLE was my Kiwi wife! I have a particularly soft spot for that particular score because it just worked out really nice. A lot of it was synth with a few instruments added to it to give an orchestral feel, and although it was not a big score and it was not a big budget, it came out with a nice feeling to it.
And yet the time period is one you’ve obviously been familiar with, going all the way back to THE BLUE AND THE GRAY – the mid 1800s.
Well, I’ll tell you, I get a lot of comments about my Americana stuff. Actually I’ve done a lot of films having to do with that theme, beginning with GUNSMOKE continuing through THE BLUE AND THE GRAY, O PIONEERS!, LUCY WHIPPLE, ROUGHING IT, SILVERADO, and TOMBSTONE and some others. But if you actually listen to the scores, they’re all somewhat different musical takes on that experience and that time. I don’t consider them all Americana, necessarily. LUCY WHIPPLE, for example, is essentially a period piece, as is much of THE BLUE AND THE GRAY, but TOMBSTONE and SILVERADO are different styles again, and so is TRUE WOMEN. So it’s been an opportunity to do variations on a theme. As I said earlier, I’m from the West and when I write music of this type, I always bring some of the West with me. You can’t travel anywhere else in the world to find anything more stunningly dramatic than what you’re going to find in the American West, whether you fly over it or drive into it. Some of the hallmarks of the West are its vastness, its bigness, its energy, its variety, and its enormous drama. I bring some of this into these movies because I’m one of the few composers who actually comes from the West, who knows the West, and who gets the chance to write about it. I know the tunes and I know the styles, and that part I’ve been very happy to be associated with.
It’s like the Western as a genre, there’s so much you can bring out of it, story wise, visually, and in music. You can say “I’m scoring a Western film,” but that doesn’t mean that obviously they’re all the same. There’s so much you can bring out of it, especially when, as you say, it’s in your blood.
It really is an essential American experience. I think just about every American, whether intentionally or unintentionally, brings some part of the myth of the West with them. This whole thing of the Old Frontier, the good guys, the bad guys, the white hats, the black hats, guns, the standoffs, the risks, the way problems are solved for better or for worse – for better and for worse – the Western experience is really part of what Americans bring to the world stage. It’s very different in Europe, and sometimes Europeans will laugh at it, and sometimes Europeans are appalled at it. But whatever it is, it’s a very big part of what I identify as being American. In fact, years ago, I was working on a TV show called MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, and the director, Doug Hickox, was an English guy, a really fine fellow who was lots of fun. Doug, who had worked with Elmer Bernstein, another composer very identified with Western music, at one point said to me, “Oh, it’s so great to have an American score again!” And I looked at him and asked, “What do you mean by “an American score? One that has lots of energy and is over the top?” He said, “Oh yeah! One that just keeps going and is very aggressive. I love to have these American scores!” And, you know, when you think of an American score, traditionally – I don’t know if it’s so true now – but there was a time when you thought of American scores, you expected something big and very aggressive, with great melodies, very specific and inventive; there was something that identified the American style. If you’re American born and you come from the West and you’ve got all this stuff pumping through you, if you get the chance to exploit it now and again, that’s pretty good. You occasionally take your knocks for overshooting, but who cares?
There was a time, in the 60s, when you had this other influence of Italian Westerns, which is a genre I thoroughly love, and yet it always seems to come back to the more authentic American folk tradition of the American approach to the Western film music.
Yeah, I think so. The Morricone take on it was really, really, really interesting, because it was so different, and I would think that that had a lot of influence on the scores that are done now because people are trying to find new ways of doing old things. But there’s still that basic quality that says, this came from the USA. I don’t mean that in any jingoistic way. The American score was very influential in establishing what was considered to be “movie music.” I was having dinner at a friend’s house in Berlin several years ago, and she put on the recording of SILVERADO. “Sounds American,” one of her German friends said.
You did a couple of very charming scores for TV, ELOISE AT THE PLAZA and ELOISE AT CHRISTMAS TIME, based on books I remember reading back in the 2nd Grade. What type of music did those films require?
Kevin Lima was the director on that, and Kevin has an animation background. He came from Disney and was one of the directors on Disney’s TARZAN. At our first creative conversation, Kevin was a little tentative as he began to talk. “Well, I sort of think of Eloise as being a little like Bugs Bunny at the Plaza,” he said. And I said, “You mean, you want a cartoon score?” And he said, “Yeah.” “Hey!” I said, “This should be fun!” So the first one, ELOISE AT THE PLAZA, is sort of like that – it has a lot of this Bugs Bunny at the Plaza thing; he also wanted it to include, as much as possible, a feeling of New York in the ‘40s and ‘50s. So the harmonies are a little richer and the tunes are a little more sophisticated, maybe, but there’s this underlying sense of energy throughout. It was also partly a result of the budget. They didn’t have enough money to have a full orchestra of 35 people, a usual TV group, for the entire show, and so I ended up using the orchestra for about half the score, and then a small group of 8 or 9 players for the other half of the score. Well, when you have 8 or 9 players, you’re going to get a lot of energy out of that. When you listen to the score, it’s basically an orchestra with a smaller ensemble mixed in so well that you’re not really too aware of which group plays what. A lot of the little-girl-Eloise shtick was done with the smaller group, so it really gave her a lot of energy. It was a very good project for me. I liked both the shows. The second one, the Christmas one, was a little more heart-felt, a little more emotional, and though I kept some of the energy from the first one, the film was a little different. I decided to write it in the style of Tchaikovsky, because the Nutcracker Suite was so heavily identified with Christmas, and one or two of the pieces from the suite had been used in the temp track. I thought, “Why don’t I do the whole show in that style? We can go in and out of it?” Some of the cues even refer to Tchaikovsky. The main title, for instance, is a combination of the Nutcracker overture and the Eloise theme. It was a lot of fun to do and it turned out well. I enjoyed them both.
A TV film you did in 2002 called THE LOCKET gave you some opportunities again for some very intimate, heart-felt music.
Yeah, that was a nice show with a pretty score. I can’t tell you too much more about it. The director, Karen Arthur, and I had worked before on TRUE WOMEN. It was a Hallmark show, so there was enough money in it for an orchestra, which was nice because there was a very pretty love theme in it.
Another interesting film you did was a docudrama about Lucille Ball called LUCY.
That was interesting because it was a three-hour bio about Lucille Ball up through her marriage with Desi Arnaz. It started in the ‘20s and ended in the ‘50s, and there’s a lot of Desi’s band in it. Lucy also had a big musical background, so I would say about half the score had to do with different band styles, from the ‘20s through the ‘30s and ‘40s, up through I LOVE LUCY, where we had to recreate the actual title music – and the other half was the dramatic score. I needed help on that one, so I called in Bill Elliot, who’s a spectacular arranger, because I knew there was no way I could do all the band arrangements as well as the score. There was just too much music to do. I wrote all the tunes and Bill arranged them for whatever style we needed in the show, and then I focused on the score. It turned out to be a really nice drama. Again, however, there was a budget issue. The band was live; the score was mostly synth.
You did a score for the Billy Graham organization, World Wide Films, called LAST FLIGHT OUT.
I did two scores for Billy Graham. The first movie I ever worked on, called THE PRODIGAL, was for Billy Graham. That one came about because of my agent knew Ken Wales, the producer. This last one, THE LAST FLIGHT OUT, came to me from Jerry Jameson, the director. I had worked with Jerry a lot about ten or fifteen years earlier doing TV movies. We’d done several of them together, and we’d had a nice working relationship, and then for some reason around the time I got into movies I didn’t see Jerry any more. We ran into each other at a school event a few years later, because our kids went to the same school. Sometime after that, I got a phone call from Jerry. “Look,” he said, “I’ve just finished this movie for the Billy Graham organization, and I wanted to talk to you about a composer.” He was basically looking for a composer and he was asking me if I knew somebody who would do it. I told him I’d be happy to take a look at it, which was a surprise for him. I told him I had worked with the company in the past and had enjoyed the film and the association. And I was curious to see what Jerry had done. So I looked at it and I thought, gee this is a pretty good movie, and I said to Jerry, “If it’s okay with you, I’ll be happy to work on it myself.” He was a little surprised, but said, “Well, yeah, that’s not what I called you for, but if you want to do it, that’s great with me!” So I did it. It was a straight-ahead drama. Billy Graham, obviously an evangelist, had a motion picture company that produced movies with evangelical themes, the best-known one being THE HIDING PLACE. The one that I worked on twenty years earlier also had been a drama with an evangelical theme. This one was more of a dramatic story about missionaries in South America, so the score has lots of strong South American elements in it. I think it’s been played on TV lots of times since it came out.
Finally, another animated film you did in 2006 was BAMBI II, obviously a sequel to a much beloved film.
You might call it a midquel. It’s not really a sequel, because it takes place right after Bambi’s mother dies. I often say to people, “If you watch the original BAMBI up to the time his mother dies, then put in BAMBI II, watch that to the end, and then return to the original picture, you have one very long BAMBI film.” That’s essentially what it is. And along those lines, what they were looking for was a film that was as much like the original BAMBI as possible. It’s probably the prettiest film that group at Disney ever made. The director, Brian Pimentel, had been an animator as well as a visual designer. He has a wonderful eye, and he did a stunningly beautiful picture. He also wanted the music to be as much like the original BAMBI as possible. So I did it as close to the style of the original score as I could. Two or three times in the movie we referred to themes from the original BAMBI, where it was felt we just absolutely could not do without them. It certainly didn’t hurt because Frank Churchill’s themes from BAMBI are charming. But other than that, the score is entirely original.
You’ve done relatively little in science fiction outside of LOST IN SPACE and the BUCK ROGERS series, but no actual horror scores that I can tell. In terms of sci-fi/fantasy, what would you say in your experience has been challenging or unique about scoring those particular kinds of films?
Actually, LOST IN SPACE and BUCK ROGERS were mostly straight-ahead dramas. LOST IN SPACE, at least the way I did it, really wasn’t that different from a Western; it was just a very big drama. There weren’t any story elements that were particularly bizarre, at least none that hit me as being so! In general, I haven’t had a lot of interest in horror or devil movies. I don’t like them, and find them mostly silly or intellectually cheesy. I don’t watch them, unless prodded by my son, Oliver, to do so. He knows which ones are worth watching. Occasionally there can be something that can be really terrifying and dramatically worthwhile that might be fun to work on, but I think the films that you mentioned, the science fiction movies, were pretty straight-ahead dramas, familiar themes projected a thousand years or so in the future, but still basically human dramas. I think the thing that I look for in a film is what the characters are about. I remember when I was working on DALLAS that initially I had a hard time knowing how to play the scenes because the characters were so unrelentingly awful – I mean it was part of the show’s shtick: the men were so disgusting with the women, and the women were so disgusting with the men, and the marriages were all awful and terrible. I couldn’t figure how to play any of it until I got into the characters in order to figure out why they were doing what they were doing. I think when I get into these shows I tend to think of them in terms of what people really are, and if the characters are too far away from reality, like if they’re too good or too bad, or too un-human, I sort of tune out. Cartoons are different, of course, because the situations are so silly, you can just go for it. The one thing that I haven’t done that I would like to do is a movie that was a realistically serious drama. The ones that I’ve done have either been comedies or they’ve been stylistic movies, but a lot of them didn’t get into the real human issues of life.
I guess the closest you’ve come are some of those Hallmark TV movies.
I guess so. But even those are a little watered down for television. The one I think I enjoyed the most was ROUGHING IT, because ROUGHING IT was just so good-natured. I had a good time doing it, the people were good to work with, and the story was good. But in the movies, like TOMBSTONE, for instance, the story is based on reality, but has been made so melodramatically and so pushed for a dramatic purpose that somewhere you sort of lose the reality. You play to the more outrageous aspects. So it would be nice to get a really good drama.
You’ve had a chance to do different kinds of films in all sorts of genres, all types of styles. Looking back on all of that, how do you evaluate your career and the opportunities you’ve had?
I think in a lot of respects I’ve been very fortunate. I think I was fortunate to start in television, because television offers you, or at least offered when I began writing, 35 years ago, an opportunity to do a lot of composing in a lot of styles. At the time I needed that practice. I needed to learn how to write music. Television does that when you’re doing it day after day for months at a time; you get a chance to practice. And then because it was TV and I was busy in it, there were lots of different styles to work on. I had the anthologies and I had the westerns and I had science fiction and I had police dramas and soap operas and all these different types of stories to try out in different styles. So by the time I got to features I’d had a pretty good background behind me. The features, then, gave me an opportunity to do things I hadn’t done before, a chance to gain a lot of orchestral experience, and the ability to work with longer form comedies and dramas and whatever. The animation was a thing that I’ve particularly liked, because I had a big interest in animation growing up, so I’ve been very fortunate that way.
In addition to that, I got hooked up with the Disney theme parks, and I’ve done a lot of theme park work for Epcot and Disneyland and the parks in France. They provide a different kind of outlet because you do different kinds of music for that. You never know what kind of music you’re going to do for a theme park, whether it’s going to be a film or a ride, or whether it’s going to be live or recorded – you don’t know. As a result, there are always a bunch of different creative and logistical problems to work out. The people you work with are often spectacular. They do very, very creative work and understand in minute detail the practical and creative needs of the project they’re working on. Then after it’s finished you get a chance to actually walk through it and hear it with millions of other people, and that part’s been exciting, as well. At the same time, through the years, I try to keep my concert music up. I try to be as complete a composer as I possibly can, so when things get slow in films or television or theme parks, I concentrate on the concert music, and try out ideas that have to do with music and only with music. If there are things that are left undone that I’d like to do, other than serious dramas, it’s probably more along those lines, because it’s an area that I don’t know as well as I’ve known film or television.
Where I think I’m really fortunate is I have a terrific diversity of things to work on. When I sit and look through my own music, there’s so much variety in it with so many different styles and techniques, things I would never have been able to predict when I first began composing. I have so many opportunities to work in different styles and kinds of music, with so many different people, each with different tastes and creative ideas. One score that may work well with one person doesn’t work so well with another person, and it always keeps you moving to try and figure out how to solve this problem for any of them, and how to solve musical problems for yourself, as well as personal problems and political problems and dramatic problems and problems sometimes of simple communication.
From the beginning I’ve never known very far ahead what I was going to do – I could never tell you what I was going to do two months down the line, whether it was going to be a movie or TV show or a vacation. And it’s still the same way today. I rather like it, to be surprised and then throw myself into a project when it happens, trying to figure it out. I’ve met and continue to meet a lot of really interesting people. Some of the creativity that you run into is really rather amazing. There’s just no ceiling on the way you share ideas and the way you learn things and the way you get things done. It’s a very exciting kind of work to be involved in. But the work, as I see it, is basically the work of music, however you find it; whether it’s dramatic music or animated music or concert music or theme park music or occasional music – whatever it is – that kind of work I find to be really very interesting. And if you get a chance to teach it, which I have done from time to time at various universities doing seminars and the occasional residency, you realize that you arrive with a lot of stuff, because you’ve learned a lot. You also know how to learn some more because you now know what to look for and you know how to make your work even better than it was. So at the moment, I don’t have too many complaints about where my career’s been or where it’s going.