A Conversation with Bruce Smeaton by Philip Powers
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Through his superior scores to films such as PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, Bruce Smeaton has become one of Australia’ most prolific and respected composers, especially by American and European audiences.
Born in Melbourne in 1938, Smeaton developed his interest at an early age from music heard over the radio, an inclination he began to pursue through means of the upright piano stored in a neighbor’s garage. Much of Smeaton’s early musical interests during this childhood period centered on jazz. “Eventually we took an old red leatherette wind-up gramophone that we had with the 78-rpm records, and they used to have a speed lever on them so you could change the speed,” said Smeaton. “We took some of these boogie and early ragtime piano things over on 78 records, and because they were too fast we used to slow them down so that we could try and play along with them. When eventually we could do that we sped them up, which meant we had to change key.”
Smeaton grew up with this interest in, and knack for, jazz music. He played in the Air Force band and wrote, among other things, 132 woodwind quintets and acres of piano and string compositions. At one point, he was ordered to arrange the whole beginning of The Rite of Spring for military band! “It was played once,” Smeaton said, “and the director of music looked at me and said, ‘you’re an animal,’ and that was the last it was ever used!”
Smeaton did not receive any formal music training, instead picking up the basics of composition and orchestration through personal study and experimentation. “I’ve always been a fairly awkward person in some sense, because I really wanted to learn music off someone who actually had some practical knowledge of writing, and I couldn’t find anyone,” said Smeaton. “All the people who were teaching at the conservatoriums were lecturing in all sorts of things that they didn’t seem to be able to do themselves.”
“I did seek out a composer called Robert Hughes, who I thought was a really fine composer. I still think that, incidentally. He was very helpful. I used to bring stuff along to him – whatever the latest things I’d written was. He used to go through them and in the very nicest way he’d say, ‘I can see you like thick voicings,’ which was a very nice way of saying ‘you don’t know what you’re doing here,’ or ‘you can’t hear it’ or ‘you’ve done something because the lines are forcing you to do it rather than imposing some order on them.’ That’s how I really began, I suppose.”
“I once asked Robert Hughes why he wrote music and he gave me the most splendid answer, one that can probably stand for my attitude and perhaps the attitudes of other people. His reply after a lot of thinking was, ‘of all the things I hate doing, and I hate writing music the least.’”
The first part of Philip Powers’ interview with Bruce Smeaton covered Smeaton’s background in music and his early experiences in film scoring.
When did your interest in the combination of music and film first begin?
Oh, that’s a very easy one to answer. I’d always been interested in film. Apart from certain juvenile things like going along to see BAMBI and being very moved, or being frightened by the witch in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, the first film which gave me the same feeling that I used to get out of books like Les Miserables or Toilers of the Sea or Oliver Twist was NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. I had always in my mind put books up very high and films down very low. I had always thought that films were too simplistic, and although they were sometimes fun if they were action films, they really didn’t deal with anything. What I didn’t know, of course, was that the method of distributing and exhibiting films denied Australians an enormous amount of cinema that had existed. We were fed a diet of fairly crappy American films, and that whole classic era of American films, I think, is fairly crappy when compared to what was happening in Europe.
But then I saw NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, which I later found out was made by a gentleman named Fellini, and the music had been written by a bloke named Nino Rota. That film hit me with such impact. It gave me the feeling that I got out of literature. I followed that film around. I used to get on my bike and go from one cinema to another and it wasn’t shown at a lot of them because it had subtitles, which was almost the kiss of death in Australian cinema.
But I didn’t make the link until I was doing Marlboro commercials (I think I did over 100 arrangements of Elmer Bernstein’s MAGNIFICENT SEVEN music, which Philip Morris had the rights to for Marlboro) and certain things became obvious. They tended not to use a lot of words (it was mainly music and vision), so if the film was organized in certain ways, if the horse was galloping and was supposed to move fast, and looked like it was moving fast on a mute moviola, then the music could do other things. However, if the shoot was disorganized, if there wasn’t something the horse was galloping up against, like a grove of trees, if it was isolated and they were just panning along with it, then it looked like a Portuguese Man of War with four little wrigglers underneath it – it remained perfectly static although it was galloping flat out. It suddenly occurred to me that the first function of the music was to try to get the horse to move. So it didn’t matter what theories I had about music or what ideas I was bringing to it. What I really had to do was to see what was there and pitch in as part of a team. I had to learn to solve lots and lots of problems, and do them terribly fast in the context of commercials. Once again, in my normal sort of Neanderthal way, the electric light globe glimmered and I thought “gosh, this would be much more fun to do if you were doing it on films that really mattered.”
Of course, they weren’t being made in Australia at that stage, but I got a chance to write the music on a kids film called A DROP IN THE OCEAN which was being made by the A.B.C. (Australian Broadcasting Co.). The director, Barry Sloane, who now lives and works in Los Angeles, had only ever met one person in his life who had sheep dogged him into a corner and bored him silly about the relationship between film and music – and that was me. So when he was transferred to another section of the A.B.C. and given the chance to make a film, he approached me to do the music.
That brought me to the attention of an American producer, Charles Russell, who only died quite recently. He had worked with most of the greats in America, including Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle, Lalo Schifrin, and people like that back in their early television days. He was the producer of some of THE UNTOUCHABLES and things like that. He persuaded the A.B.C. not to do Ethel Turner’s book, Seven Little Australians, as a cheap black and white production, but to do it as a color production and do it well enough to be able to sell it overseas. He saw DROP IN THE OCEAN and liked the music, and once again I seemed to be the only person who was around who as actually enthusiastic about doing this sort of thing and he asked me to do the score. In the process of doing that he made me aware of so many things that I didn’t know in terms of relating to the film emotionally and dramatically.
As a result of that I decided I had to go overseas and look for information about how to synchronize better and how to get things to work better. I made that trip and Charles Russell organized an introduction with Jerry Goldsmith, which was in 1973. Incidentally, I applied for a grant and couldn’t get anyone to support me – no one was interested in the whole of Australia. They just thought it was a useless activity that I should want to do such a thing, and I had to pay for it myself, which took years to pay off.
But I went to America. I went to England and to Germany. Almost everything that was of any value to me I found in America and I found it in Los Angeles. I should mention that Jerry Goldsmith was extremely nice. I met Arthur Morton and we had lunch at Universal. He took me to a spotting session. I never had actually realized that composers weren’t told to do things, and that in fact they may be able to contribute something. This was for a Don Siegel film called THE DON IS DEAD and that was fascinating for me. I also saw Lalo Schifrin scoring at Glenn Glenn – the score for a film called GOODBYE MARSEILLES, which was an excellent score, and I also saw Henry Mancini doing some music for a film called OKLAHOMA CRUDE.
They’re all good experiences, and once again it’s good to see luminaries like this at work in a very practical down-to-earth manner, and that helped me. It has also made me aware of our lack of equipment and facilities out here, which has also made me a very awkward person. I mean, in 1985 there is nowhere in Australia where you can put a large orchestra into a room and record it. It’s just not physically possible because we don’t have a room large enough to get a good orchestral sound. So even if we do get the budget to have a 130-piece orchestra, it’s not going to sound very big because you haven’t got a room with the proper acoustics. We don’t have the equivalent of a Stage M or an Evergreen or an Anvil or a CTS or an Abbey Road.
So, coming back to Australia after seeing the wonderful conditions over there, what was your next step?
SEVEN LITTLE AUSTRALIANS, I think, was a very seminal production in terms of Australia. The A.B.C. was terribly nervous at what they’d done. They’d never dared so mightily. The show did terribly well and in fact is still running somewhere in the world at any given point. I really think that in some ways SEVEN LITTLE AUSTRALIANS was one of the beginning points of Australia starting to move out and realize that the thing we had to do to interest the rest of the world was not to try to be second rate Americans or second rate French or second rate English, but to try and be first rate Australians.
The lesson has always been there. What has always interested the world hasn’t been a Brian Cadd, for example, who really only sounds like a pale imitation of Leon Russell. What interests the world is someone like Rolf Harris. It doesn’t matter whether we think they’re good, bad or indifferent. In other words, the more we can be uniquely ourselves, the more interesting we’re going to be. It would be impossible to imagine Jerry Goldsmith trying to make himself write like someone else. What you admire about Jerry Goldsmith is just the fact that he’s Jerry Goldsmith. What you like about Max Steiner is that he’s Max Steiner. You wouldn’t admire Max Steiner any more if he suddenly started to try and write like Stravinsky. I mean, Stravinsky does that pretty well.
One of the difficulties working as a composer in Australia is that we don’t have a musical tradition. We’ve inherited a lot of the inhibitions of the Anglo-Saxons. We’ve always felt guilty that we weren’t someone else living somewhere else, and I think we’re gradually starting to overcome that. In fact, as with all things, everything is interconnected and I think Australia’s growing sense of its own identity is going to bring greater forcefulness to the music writers, the painters and everybody else.
I mean, music has always traditionally been behind the visual arts. I think it’s a healthy sign that such a stunning painter as Russell and the Heidelberg school and people like that, started a whole movement of Australians looking at their world in a very special way. It’s never been done anywhere else in the world, and they’ve developed a whole school of painting. Without those people I doubt whether you’d get a Sidney Nolan and I doubt whether you’d get a Brett Whitely or a Fred Williams and I think that is happening at the moment in Australia.
I think we’ve got to stop looking for the king-hit composer in the same way that the film industry’s realized you’re just not hoping to have a king-hit movie. Everyone would hold their breath and say “is this the Great Australian Film?” The answer is that you can’t do that. What you do is you make a whole lot of Australian films as well as you can at the time, and every now and again one of them will be good – maybe it’s not the ones you expect. And I think in music we have to produce a body of work. Unfortunately, we don’t have a viable music theatre like they do in America that spawns so many writers, but I’m sure we’re getting there.
Do you notice any Australian sound in music which is particular to Australia and not inherited from overseas influences?
Sure. I think the most Australian thing ever written is THE ROAD TO GUNDAGAI. I’ve often wondered why, and I can’t analyze it. For some reason it has an incredible Australian thing about it – much more so than something like ‘Waltzing Mathilda’. I’m aware of all the different stories – they now tell me ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ was in fact a 14th Century German guild song.
I think it’s a healthy sign when some of the Australian pop bands are singing in an Australian accent. I find it terribly refreshing to hear people sing songs to me in a language that I wish to hear. In the same way that I like to hear radio announcers and people on television speak to me with their own voice. I hate them sounding like half-arsed poms or Americans, and that on television we speak like this. And in fact no Australians speak like this; it’s just this horrid tradition of thinking that that’s the proper way to speak.
You see, these are the divisive things that tear us apart. I don’t see that it’s healthy that rock groups just copy American rock groups. I mean the Americans don’t want it. What are we doing it for? Why are they singing in an American accent or yelping and carrying on? Maybe it’s part of the developmental stage. But when you get bands like Redgum that sing very Australian songs in an unashamedly Australian way, I think that’s fantastic. And that used to be the case here with Jack O’Hagan, who wrote ‘The Road to Gundagai’, and I don’t know how many hundreds of other songs, to be sung by Australians, for Australians. I believe that the thing that’s going to interest the rest of the world is that type of music.
I think it’s important for all of us to stick here and do things here and build an industry. I think that it’s of no advantage or interest for us to rush off somewhere else, because we just become ex-patriots and we lose our way. That doesn’t mean that we need to be a big fish in a small pond. It means that we’ve got to stick together. That’s the reason we formed the Australian Guild of Screen Composers, the reason we all kick up a fuss about having better recording conditions, and eventually we will build an industry here, whereas if we all rush off to different places, we won’t. We’ll just help to nourish other people’s culture and water down our own.
Charles MacKerras and Malcolm Williamson are in fact not Australian. They wish to be Englishmen and they’ve achieved that, but every now and again they rush back and inform us in interviews that they really are Australians. They’re not. They don’t live in Australia and they don’t work in Australia and they don’t think like Australians, and they’re not making any contribution to Australian culture. Any one of the kids in Redgum or Men at Work has made a much better contribution to Australian culture. The very fact that when the America’s Cup was won, “Down Under” was associated with it is a terrific thing. So perhaps what’s happening, and what I’m trying to say, is that the very Australian things are occurring more at the popular culture level than at the so-called important culture level, the official culture level.
We’ve got dreadful examples around us of the Australian Ballet never doing Australian ballets, the Australian Opera never doing Australian operas. Why are we supporting these turkeys? All we’re doing is training performers so that they can rush off overseas or stay here to perform European works. They’re not even learning how to do new works. They’re gaining no expertise at how to even approach new music. There’s got to be a reason why the session musicians in Los Angeles and London play so well and can approach new music so easily – that’s because they’re doing it all the time. It’s an exciting thing, whereas over here, perhaps as you’ve found yourself, they’re not used to doing it. They are gradually getting used to it but they’re not getting used to it thanks to officially supported serious music. They’re getting used to it thanks to doing jingles, pop music backings, middle-of-the-road albums, film music, and all these sorts of things. So I think that the very fact that we’re all working, the very fact that you’re doing this interview, are all part of our growing self confidence and trying to strike an Australian style.
Moving back now to your actual beginning in the industry, after SEVEN LITTLE AUSTRALIANS how did you get your first feature film assignment?
I did a couple of documentaries, an audio-visual film or two, a few more television series and individual television things (mainly for the A.B.C., not the commercial stations) and I can’t remember how it happened, but I met a bloke named Peter Weir, who was making a film called THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS. That was the first feature film I scored. I’ve subsequently done 27, I think.
You’ve worked with Peter Weir on a couple of occasions. How do you actually find him in terms of what he wants musically from you for the film?
Peter is always very unsure, but he’s a very nice man, and very vague. He’s also very affected by what he hears on the radio, or he was in those days. I find it very difficult to work with him, very frustrating, as once again I think Peter wanted to do everything in those days. He wanted to write the script, he wanted to look through the camera, he actually wanted to act. I think he perhaps didn’t realize that film was a collaborative act. I’m sure he realizes that much more now – he’s such an effective director.
But it made it very difficult working with him. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t difficult or hard to get on with. He’s a lovely man, but it was very confusing because he had no history of knowing how to brief the music (this is part of us all growing up together). He would play records all the time. These may range from Palestrina, which is what he did in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. He played some Palestrina and the next minute he was playing some Pink Floyd, then he’d play some Mozart, and so on. He was just sort of, from my point of view, chaotically stumbling around. Or perhaps it was my lack of being able to give him some direction as to what he wanted, but I don’t think he was really looking for you to give him something. He wanted you to be a spanner in his hands rather than a collaborator. I worked on two movies with him, THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.
This actually shows then in the different musical elements which make up PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, what with your original background score and the Ghoerghe Zamfir pan-flute music.
That came about in an odd way. Peter decided to give the film the look of Australian impressionist paintings, and I think he ended up down at the Melbourne gallery with Russell Boyd, and they looked at a few things. I’m not sure whether it was a Tom Roberts of a Fred McCubbin painting they decided to use as a fix on trying to get a visual style to give a certain look to the film – a tonal balance, that’s what I’m trying to say. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to think so easily in sound. Peter’s always been proud of his ability to think in sound, but I don’t think he’s all that good at it. Not in the way that a Polanski is, because I think Polanski uses sound in a particularly stunning and a very effective way. But then again that’s perhaps just part of everyone learning how to do things. I’m sure Peter would be the first one to admit that PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK made a year before or a year after may have been a failure. My own private name for it, incidentally, was THE WAY WE WISHED WE WERE, and I think that the film came along at the right time and struck a chord. That’s called good timing. Peter’s always had good timing with movies.
With that film he kept on sending me all sorts of different kinds of music, but he said “because of the Australian impressionist thing, why don’t we use French impressionist music?” So I dug some out – some Faure and some Ravel and some Debussy and said “there you are, have a listen to that,” and he said “yes, that’s the sort of stuff I’m after.” Then he said, “No, it’s not really. Do you have something like that, but not so sophisticated. Something more pagan.” So I sent him Afternoon of the Faun by Debussy and he said “yes, that’s fantastic.” Then he said “no, it’s too sophisticated still. I need something much less sophisticated, much more pagan and rougher.”
And I remembered seeing Zamfir on ‘The Nana Mouskouri Show’ – he was one of the guests. I’m afraid I don’t like Nana Mouskouri’s style of singing, but I used to watch her show because I liked the guests. There would be symphonic steel bands from the West Indies and so on, and one of these guests was a chap playing the pan-pipes. That’s how we got into Zamfir. He was originally supposed to come to Australia and we were going to write some music, but there was one of those mysterious, murky foul-ups that occur in the film industry, and the next minute nothing happened, and in fact I believe they didn’t even send a tape. They had to take it off the record.
Peter didn’t see any inconsistencies in wanting to go from my stuff to Prelude No. 1, Book No. 1 of Bach, and in fact my music was an attempt to join the Zamfir to the Bach, which is why I wrote it in 17/8 almost like a two-part invention. There were also bits of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and everything mixed up. But whereas film-makers are in film because they have a great sense of visual style, they’re not necessarily quite so sensitive to aural things. I don’t think Peter would have jumped from one visual style to another. That stayed of course because you had that fairly dreary mess that was GALLIPOLI where you went from the yelping synthesizers of Jean-Michel Jarre and then suddenly going to Albinoni. I find things like that either disturbing or ludicrous, but obviously Peter doesn’t. Maybe I’m wrong to think that. I’m looking for more continuity and something more planned than that.
The second part of Philip Powers’ interview with Bruce Smeaton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.10/No.39/1991
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
This second and final instalment covers in more depth Smeaton’ s association with directors like Fred Schepisi , Peter Yates, and his more recent film compositions.
You’ve worked a great deal with Fred Schepisi, even to the extent of going overseas to score his American films. How did this association begin?
Fred formed a company, The Film House, and supported himself by doing commercials. He started off, I think, scrounging around advertising agencies. Eventually, with the aid of some friends, he raised enough money and started a production house. What he really wanted to do was to make feature films. But at that stage the only opportunities or possibilities were to work at commercials, of which he made lots.
I was a failed serious composer, I suppose, in the sense that I couldn’t interest anyone in my music. I’d written music in my spare time, but I couldn’t seem to make any of my music “stick”. Nobody seemed to be really interested in it. Maybe with good reason. Maybe it was awful. And I decided what I really had to do was try and support myself. Maybe I was making a virtue out of a defect, if everyone had loved my music r might have rushed in and attempted to get a job at a university or get someone to support me.
Nevertheless, I suddenly made the link that perhaps I could write jingles, and I started doing this. I was at very low ebb. I had no money. My head wasn’t together. I suffered five months of hepatitis. Much of that time I spent in an infectious diseases hospital, and I had lots of time to think with what brains I had left. I decided, either through necessity or because it was really important, that I would like to make a go of it and try to support myself as a composer. And if that meant writing jingles, so be it. That’s what I did. And as a result of that I met Fred Schepisi. I did over two and a half thousand jingles.
There’s an odd change that occurs here, Philip. In most countries it’s the other forms of music that support jingles and things like that. Over here it’s the exact other way around. You wouldn’t have any studio facilities at all if it wasn’t for jingles. In other words, the advertising industry, which we hate because it interrupts all the programs, has supported almost everything. Because of them, I certainly learnt almost everything I know about music production. I certainly learnt how to write fast, how to cost, how to budget, how to schedule, how to synchronize, and the first glimmerings of pondering the relationship between film and music.
It started with this, and Fred Schepisi was a part of that process. He was a very difficult bloke to work with because he did things that weren’t easy. I think in retrospect he was probably preparing to launch himself. He was like a flea. They cock their legs up, I believe, ready for the big spring. I think he was cocking his legs up for a big spring which resulted in THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND. Advertising agency people certainly found him difficult to work with. I only found him difficult, not in the sense that he was incompetent or stupid or arrogant, but that he was always looking for extra special things. I found that very helpful. In fact I’m not so sure that everyone should do quite so many commercials, but even George Dreyfus did commercials. He’s one of the few composers in this country that’s ever written anything that’s actually “stuck”, and that is the theme from the TV series RUSH. Maybe we need another Aaron Copland out here, or maybe George got close to it with RUSH. It certainly struck something in the same way that PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK did. As I may have mentioned before, my own personal name for it is THE WAY WE WISHED WE WERE.
So when Fred moved into features with THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND was that just a matter of you coming across from scoring commercials that he had been directing to scoring his features?
Nearly. There were a couple of intermediary steps which you may or may not be interested in. I never had the idea of remaining in commercials. It was a stepping stone for me but it was a very important one. As I remarked to you, the very first thing I did was a thing called A DROP IN THE OCEAN. So by the time THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND came along I’d already done THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS and worked out my own unbelievably Heath Robinson method of synchronizing music with films. As a result of working with Charles Russell, the American producer, who worked for the A.B.C. on SEVEN LITTLE AUSTRALIANS, I’d done the trip overseas, so I was, if not very competent, at least very aware of trying to get music and film to work together. I don’t just mean as a mechanical sense, because that’s not terribly difficult, and often you don’t want it to work together anyway – you don’t want to be hitting everything on the nose. My favorite film for that is THE RETURN OF DR X where Humphrey Bogart plays a zombie.
… with a white streak through his hair.
Absolutely. You know it. And Max Steiner’s score does everything [RETURN OF DOCTOR X was in fact scored, sans credit, by Bernhard Kaun, not Steiner, albeit in a similar style – rdl]. It’s almost as if the whole dialogue and effects side of the movie doesn’t exist. If someone turns around and gives an odd look, the music goes erebh arahnnn. If someone puts a glass down, it’s Woomph. Someone runs down the steps, Bom, bom , bom , bom, bom. They start a car, dick-a-dick-a-dick-a-dick-a, and so on. I don’t think those things are desirable. In fact, one of the functions of a computer, such as I use – the Fairlight – is to know exactly what’s going to happen where, so that I can avoid achieving all those things. If a girl’s going to pull her pants down and show her bottom, or someone’s going to get shot, or an ape’s going to leap onto the top of a car, I don’t necessarily believe the music should do it with them. I believe the audience needs space to think about things and the effects are pretty good, and the music’s got to work with the effects. I don’t see that I it has to necessarily hunt with the effects all the time. It can work around them. The music can do sly things, such as if the girl pulls her pants down, the effects may be the sound of the material coming down on her, but maybe the music’s going to tell you something the visuals can’t do. Maybe she’s got a bad attack of wind, she’s not being sexy, and you’ve got to look out. If the ape’s going to jump on top of the car, maybe it’s possible to turn the scene slightly by engendering sympathy for the ape. Because you always assume that if an ape is going to leap on top of a car then there’s danger for the people within. Maybe there’s danger for the ape. You can always use the music, but this is up to the intelligence of the filmmaker and his commitment to the film at that stage of post production. Not all directors are actually interested in the film in post production, which has perhaps brought about that Situation in America where the director is phased out of post production. Some directors really are action people who like directing films, and they like production – they like being kingpin, and they loathe post production. Post production’s like a cow with four stomachs, the cud is vomited back into the mouth and carefully chewed over, then dropped back down into another tummy for a bit of a vomit up and a chew later. And they don’t like that. They find that terrible.
Did you find that Fred has very strong ideas on what he wants musically?
He had very strong ideas, and Fred is one of the very rare filmmakers who knows a lot about music. I don’t mean that he knows enough to be able to go and get a Doctor of Music degree. Fred plays the clarinet and he plays the flute – both badly, but with great enthusiasm! He has a good ear. He listens to an enormous range of music. If you went through his record collection you’d find stuff by Nielsen, Palestrina, Hiroshima, Randy Newman, and Beethoven. I mean it’s a totally eclectic thing. Part of it is that Fred likes enjoying life. He likes being alive, he likes doing things. He doesn’t avoid things, which is one of his great strengths.
I suppose that can make him confrontist in some respects, but he does that with music. Milton Babbitt, Webern – Fred will listen to anything, and if he doesn’t like it he won’t necessarily see that as a fault. Now that’s very rare, when you compare him to a soft character like Peter Weir who wants some sort of emotional flux to bring him to precipitation. Fred’s prepared to listen to something and say, “That’s odd. I don’t like it. I must listen to it again.” He’s not frightened by the intellectual side of music. When he comes to brief you it can be a very irritating brief because he also gets hang-ups, Fred doesn’t like pianos. He has this fantasy that every other score has a piano in it. I thought that perhaps the score for PLENTY should have used a piano, but he was violently opposed to that.
As a matter of fact, in THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND I chose the piece of Satie which the priests play, because I thought it was the most neurotic piece of music I could think of. I used that as a jumping off point for the music in DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND. The music is two totally discreet themes. One of them is in D flat, the backing is In A flat and the counter melody is in the key of C. And I spent an enormous amount of time organizing those. Fred took great pains with DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND to not say that the Catholic Church are a bunch of bastards, they muck up kids. He wanted to say that kids who are growing up have joys and fears and problems and hopes, but they’re going one way. There’s a separate logic, which can be quite beautiful in itself, which is the Christian sort of thing as interpreted by the Catholics. One tends to grind the other one away. One’s not fit for the other, and I felt that when I wrote the music one of the things I had to do was instantly communicate that idea to the audience and set them up. In other words, the music I was writing at the beginning of the film had to perform the same function as an overture. I wanted it to be two lines of logic that sound okay but sort of grate against each other, and yet they both seem to be perfectly logical.
Fred loved that idea. I had great difficulty in coming to grips with it, and I used the Satie piece of music as a springboard for striking the first melody. The first thing I tried to do was to imagine the poor old bloke sleeping in his hammock. In other words, I tried to divorce myself totally from the film and decided to do a fix on Satie. I wrote it and it’s a very Satie-like thing. Then I threw away the idea of Satie and tried to bring forward the idea of the film and I rewrote the thing until I got it working fairly well. Then, either by chance or mistake, I started to look for another element, and that’s when I came across this C major counter melody which I wanted to push through the horns and the violas against the other melody. I also wrote them as an invertible counterpoint so that they could work in any way – which I was terribly proud of, too.
That’s one of the things that attracts me to film music. It’s one of the last bastions of being able to practice the actual craft of composing that is left in the world. The sole source of Judgement in pop music is to make hit records. There are certain artists who survive, and I think Randy Newman’s one of them, Paul Simon’s certainly another one, who do very sensitive things within that area. Mostly I have to agree with Andre Previn, that it’s junk. One of the attractions of listening to Jerry Goldsmith music is not that he does something which is attractive or terribly accessible, but that it’s fascinating. You feel as if you’re coming to grips with people who are actually composing music and trying to wrestle things out of an orchestra or out of synthesizers. In the same way that sometimes when you see great contemporary graphics you get this feeling that people have come up with new ideas and new representations for things. I don’t get that with rock. It’s just an endless stream of business music that’s designed to make money.
Taking for example a film like THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH, was the romantic style of music influenced by Fred, or was that a mutual decision?
Oh, that’s an Interesting one. It’s exactly the same as the relationship that occurred on DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND. Fred influences everything because he’s a filmmaker in the true sense of the word. He’s interested in everything and he’s all pervasive. I think that’s a very good thing, and it can also be a slightly inhibiting thing. But it certainly defines the relationship of the music writer who is a collaborator in the service of the director – in the same way that you might work as a designer on the space shuttle, but everything that you do will be judged in terms of its ability to fit into the overall concept of what the thing’s designed to do.
Well, Fred is certainly the director of NASA when he makes a film. But he’s not a dictator. He’s not a stupid man and he doesn’t have venal or profane aims. It may sound like an odd thing to say but many people do. You work on a movie and the director will say to you “what we want to do here is really get a bit of music which we can get on record and make a bit of bread.” I wonder why the bloke isn’t trying to produce a record or something like that. I wonder what the function of the music is. Sometimes it’s possible to write a terribly attractive piece of music that also fits the movie very well, but sometimes those two things are not compatible and then you’re left with the unpleasant thing of, “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to fit the movie or am I supposed to make something that’s exploitable?” Those things never arise with Fred because he’s got a very clear vision of what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, and how he wants you to achieve it.
You often see the film as a total and then, as result of having fixed that vision, come down to look for things that will describe it, or will creep around the periphery of it, or cut through it. You don’t just sort of say “I’m going to write this sort of music,” or “this is what I do.” Everything that Jerry Goldsmith does sounds like Jerry Goldsmith. I’m not so sure that that’s a fault but when you get Jerry Goldsmith to do a score he’s going to do a Jerry Goldsmith sort of thing. That wouldn’t necessarily suit Fred. You’ve always got the option of using a Jerry Goldsmith for a Jerry Goldsmith sort of thing. And if you’ve got a film that doesn’t need a Jerry Goldsmith sort of thing, you go and get something else. Fred’s attitude is to explore other aspects of people and to help them explore those things as he does in the films himself.
One of the first things that came out with JIMMIE BLACKSMITH was that Jimmie Blacksmith wasn’t an aboriginal. There was no place for black music. It was a matter of working out where was the film going. The original character that Thomas Keneally based the book upon was a bloke called Jimmy Governor. Now unless he hated the word “governor,” you had to ask why Thomas Keneally changed the name. And if he changed it, why did he choose the name Blacksmith? Well it doesn’t really take an Einsteinian leap to come to the fact that half the word is “black” which means aboriginal and the other half is “smith” which is the archetypal white word. Half black, half white. We were looking to show something else. One of them is that he committed these appalling crimes and yet we were attempting to build sympathy. If the film had a fault it was perhaps that Fred did the killings so vividly that most people thought, “Bugger him. Nothing he’s done can ever condone this. Let’s hang him.” And one of the functions of the music was to try and build more and more sympathy for Blacksmith as a person.
And this was done through adopting a sweeping romantic style, an early Twentieth Century style of music.
No, it’s not that, because it is in fact quite dissonant. The intention of the music is almost operatic, but the method by which it’s achieved is certainly not very early Century.
This music was recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, which must have been a first for an Australian feature film. How did this happen?
Easy. Working backwards as often happens with filmmakers – they work out when they have to have the film finished by (in this case it was in time to be entered for Cannes) and when they get to the point where they’ve actually stopped shooting it, then they start to work out: when can they record it? And how can they record it? It meant that it had to be recorded in mid-January. Now, that was an inconvenient fact of life, but almost all of the conventional orchestral musicians who play on Australian film scores were not available because they were on holidays. There is also another problem that there is not a studio in Australia that has a big enough ceiling or enough floor space to accommodate a large orchestra and make it sound like a large orchestra. If you took a STAR WARS orchestra and put it into an Australian studio it would sound like a rat pissing in a can. They’re just not big enough.
So for all those reasons, the important one being Cannes, it was Fred’s decision that we should go and record the music overseas. I thought it was a terrific idea because I’d never recorded overseas before. In fact, the National Philharmonic is, in one sense, a fiction. It does record, but it is in fact players drawn from the other orchestras and it’s put together by an English fixer called Sydney Sax. It was a good orchestra and it also gave me the opportunity to record in the old Anvil Studios at Denham. The Anvil Studios, which have unfortunately been bulldozed, was one of those magic places like Carnegie Hall that had good room acoustics.
STAR WARS had been recorded there. It was recorded on 4-track, which most people don’t realize, because the studio hadn’t gone to the highly sophisticated and desirable 8-track at that stage. A lot of the equipment in English studios, apart from the rock studios which are always equipment intensive, was far below that of Australian studios. But still the Australians don’t get the point that it’s room acoustics that counts with orchestral instruments – it’s not putting in more and more equipment. If you’ve got low ceilings and you’ve got wall cladding which is going to act as an unpleasant sort of filter, you’re not going to get a good sound. This, in fact, came up during the recording of ELENI in England which we recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes. The percussionist was a little bit late because of the bad weather, and the timpani sounded dreadful. They really sounded like someone dropping jaffas on a tom-tom, and I said to the engineer when he asked me if I was happy, that I was except for the timpani sound. Then he said to the timpanist, “Play a few notes.” The guy did, and he said, “Good heavens. Oh, would you mind pushing them out.” The timpani were under the lip of a sort of general percussion booth, and once they’d pushed them out about four or five feet from the lip and reset the microphone, there was the sound. It wasn’t anything terribly sophisticated. It didn’t require enormously complex microphone placement, or anything else, it was the fact that it needed that length of reflected space.
Recently Brian May testified to the excellence of the English and American orchestras after scoring CLOAK AND DAGGER. Did you also find this to be the case?
Stunning, stunning. I would say that the standard of session musicians in Los Angeles and London is the highest in the world. I think that the London musicians can sight-read better, but I think the Los Angeles musicians probably produce a higher standard. The other thing about Los Angeles is that because of the nature of Californian, if not American, society, you have the ability to pick up absolutely virtuoso players to play odd instruments. Emil Richards, the percussionist, is a very famous example. Emil can play anything. But in ICEMAN I worked with a young man called Kazu Matsui who played the shakuhachi, and he was one of the finest musicians I’ve ever worked with. The music editors suggested that I ring up a couple of blokes, and he was one of them, and he turned up with a bag full of shakuhachis and started to honk away on them, and they were terrific.
You were in England scoring PLENTY for Fred Schepisi when ELENI came about. How did that opportunity arise?
Fred has an agent called Sam Cohn, of ICM, International Creative Management I think it’s called, in New York. Sam is also the agent for Peter Yates and Sam’s always said that he’s liked my music very much. (I’ve always enjoyed people saying they like my music very much, rather than telling me that they hate it or have them put their fingers down their throat and vomit on their shoes in front of me!) Sam, I would say, persuaded Peter Yates to make contact with me. The contact was odd. From my point of view I didn’t know any of this. I was working on PLENTY and going through the last stages of madness getting ready to record when the phone rang and it was Peter. I had the idea that some time in the distant future he would like to work with me on some mythical project that may happen. And I was totally unprepared to find that in fact it was a film that they had shot, and that they were in the last stages of preparing a sort of fine rough cut, or a rough fine cut, or something, and that they needed someone to score it.
As a result of that I said that I’d love to work on it. I knew of Peter Yates’ work, although I must admit, to my undying shame, I didn’t know he’d done quite as many things as he had. He was such a nice bloke, and we had a meeting. He was a bit cautious, which I didn’t mind in him. One of the things that stands out about him is that he doesn’t effuse. He never allows himself to be led into saying things that he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t promise that you’ve got the film if he’s not sure. He spells everything out, and I think that’s one of the skills that has to be learnt in the Australian industry. In the Guild of Australian Screen Composers we find that there are three blokes supposed to be working on the same film. I don’t think it’s necessarily deception on the part of the film producer, but I think they just get carried away and they don’t quite know how to behave.
I became very excited about the idea of ELENI and I worked out some material. I rang up and got Peter to come down with Steven Tesich, the writer, and played it to them and they liked it very much. Then the line went dead, as often happens with films, and I thought I’d committed some unspeakable crime, and that perhaps the film had floated away. Such as after ELENI, when I was asked to talk to a couple of blokes about YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, which is of course now out and finished, and that seemed to be going along well until it sort of just floated away. Then all of a sudden Peter Yates rang and said that he’d been thinking about the material I’d played him, and that he loved the music that I’d done for other films, and that he’d really like me to do ELENI. So I was very flattered.
So how Peter Yates was to work with?
Oh, fantastic. Lovely. It was a great experience. He likes filmmaking in the sense that a potter likes the feel of clay. Composers like mucking around with sound, and painters like the physical act of shoving paint around, and Peter Yates at the physical level with film likes it to be a collaborative art. It was a revelation to me how Peter liked the editor. He didn’t see the editor as a threat to him. Lots of filmmakers resent the editor. The Americans sometimes use the denigrating term “cutter,” which suggests that perhaps they’ve got it all right and the bloke just cuts bits and pieces together. But Peter likes the fact that another guy is going to contribute. He likes the idea that someone else is going to write the music. He never expects everything to work properly, but he wants it to, and there’s enormous enthusiasm for the project in hand. And at the same time he’s devastatingly honest – “Oh dear, that doesn’t work. What on earth are we going to do?” Just like that. No dramas. No deep moods. He just comes to these conclusions. He invites comment from people so you get drawn into the feeling of working as part of a team. It’s a most exciting feeling. At least, I found it exciting. I suppose by inference I’m suggesting that all the other experiences I’ve had with filmmakers haven’t been as good. And, in fact, that’s probably true in one sense. I’ve never felt that sense of being drawn in. I’ve never felt the sense of a filmmaker who understands the entire filmmaking process at the dirty hands level, or the craft level, as well as the aesthetic level and the conceptual level, so much.
Something that has become particularly noticeable in Australian films is that well over half, if not 70 or 80% of them each year, have been scored with synthesizers, and so frequently with disastrous results. This is not to say that synthesizers themselves are the cause, but rather that they encourage the type of person who can’t actually write music, but can sit in front of a monitor, play some improvised music on his synthesizer along with the film, and record it. There’s no planning to it, and it often muddles along taking very little notice of what the film actually needs the music to do. Is this something you’ve noticed?
Well I’m delighted you’ve taken a stand rather than me. I always seem to be shooting my mouth off. They’re your words that they’re disastrous results. I don’t necessarily see that the use of a synthesizer or the lack of a synthesizer makes a good or bad score. I think one of the interesting things about life is that everything’s different, and I think the interesting thing about film scores is that everything’s different. As soon as trends start to develop, like things become punk rock, or things become this, or things become that – I find them boring. It probably means that one person got a bright idea and a whole lot of rats came in with second rate ideas to try and exploit it. The same way that when The Weavers produced their folk songs, they did it with enormous sincerity. Then all of a sudden you’ve got The Seekers, and Peter, Paul and Mary – it’s all insincere music. I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in what The Weavers did. When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did ‘Scarborough Fair’ it was nice to hear a bit of modal music for a change, or hear a few modal changes anyway. All of a sudden there was a huge spate of it – all second rate stuff. And I think the thing with synthesizers Is that they’re not being used because synthesizers are a better way of doing the job in many cases, it’s because they’re a cheaper way. Jerry Goldsmith uses synthesizers with orchestras and gets fabulous results – at least I think so. But the score for RAZORBACK by Iva Davies was just terrible. I suppose I shouldn’t say that – the bloke might want to join the Screen Composers Guild. When you get to the stage where people are watching the screen and attempting to ad lib on the synthesizer while they actually watch, which is happening with a few television series, I just can’t believe it. I’m not sure whether that’s actually what the producers want, or whether they don’t know, or whether they don’t care, or whether they’re only prepared to provide enough money to earn that result.
However, if a person’s capable of working with multi-tracks and synthesizers, and putting together totally satisfying music, I don’t care how it’s done – I want the music to be satisfying, whether that’s concert music, or whether that’s music in relationship with film. I treat the film as part of the music, I might add, and which may sound like a little bit of an odd thing. I don’t want to listen to the soundtrack LP. I want to hear that music in relationship to people moving their arms and seeing trees sway and dialogue and so on. That’s the real function of the music -not to sound good on an LP, but to sound good on the film.