An Interview with Carl Davis by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Although born in the United States, Carl Davis has become a notable figure in the world of British film music, having scored an impressive variety of television plays which have benefited from his delicate and careful scoring, so unlike the pop commercialism of much American television.
Davis was born in Brooklyn in 1936 and began formal music training at the age of seven. During his teens he studied at Queens College, New York, and the New England College of Music, and at 18 was appointed piano accompanist to the famed Robert Shaw Chorale for three nationwide tours. Davis began to compose music for theatre productions while studying at Bard College in New York. In 1960, Davis decided to try his luck as a composer in Europe. After spending time in Denmark and Vienna, Davis arrived in London in 1961 and soon found himself writing music for radio, live theatre, films and television. Among his scores are THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN, THE FAR PAVILIONS, the British version of Abel Gance’s reconstructed NAPOLEON, and recently, CHAMPIONS, the moving story of horse jockey Bob Champion’s determination to overcome cancer and win the Grand National Steeplechase.
How were you chosen to score CHAMPIONS?
CHAMPIONS was directed by John Irvin. In the early 60’s, when I first came to London, John Irvin was the founding member of a group of young film-makers called “Mithras” and I did several documentaries over a five to six year period for him when we were both at the start of our careers. After this I did not hear from John for many years. He went on to direct two highly successful television series, HARD TIMES and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY; but, in the late 70’s, I did some music for him for a sequence of dramatizations of the bible for a series called THE NEW MEDIA BIBLE. Again, many years went by and, in the meantime, I had great success with my score for the complete version of Abel Gance’s silent film, NAPOLEON, presented in London and Paris. It may be that John sensed this heroic style that I used and asked me to do CHAMPIONS.
At what time during the production were you brought in?
I was brought into the production at a very early stage. They were three-quarters through the shooting, but had not yet done the racing sequences. This is an ideal situation because it allows time for the score to gestate. This is an underestimated aspect of film composition. One may be lucky to solve something instantly on first sight, but if you have a chance to brood over something–especially if the subject is not superficial–you are at an advantage.
What were your initial impressions of the film, and what musical approach did you choose to take in scoring it?
My first contact with the film was from reading the script, and I found Bob Champion’s story intensely moving. John was very emphatic that the scoring be on a grand scale, i.e., full symphony orchestra. At the same time, because of the personal element, I decided to feature piano solo as one of the important elements which, if sensitively played, would move you from the epic to the individual.
What were the thematic elements of the score? What elements of the film were you trying to emphasize, musically?
John saw Bob Champion’s story as on an epic scale. It was not so much the story of winning a race, but almost a quest for a grail. At the same time, in his quest (the aim of which is victory at Aintree Park) he undergoes many trials, i.e. the cancer and the near destruction of the horse. The first important thing was to have a central theme that expressed this grail-like element and this is first stated on the horn and then later accompanied by the piano, to which is gradually added the entire orchestra. There were other motifs: one for his relationship with the girl, Jo, who later becomes his wife–again expressed as a piano solo. There is also an important theme for his despair, and then later a theme for the sympathy of the nurses and doctors and then, at a later stage in the film, a motif for his recovery, which is subsequently expressed most forcefully during the race.
The score is quite varied, going from eerie string passages, busy action music and broad symphonics. In this sense it’s somewhat reminiscent of the grand-ness of THE FAR PAVILIONS. How would you compare the two scores?
Curiously enough, both the scores for CHAMPIONS and THE FAR PAVILIONS were composed simultaneously across the summer and autumn of 1983. I would say that the difference in theme is that whereas CHAMPIONS is trying to tell a true story and universalize it, THE FAR PAVILIONS is basically a highly colorful romantic thriller set in the exotic locations of Northern India during the height of The Raj. This immediately implies the use of Indian instruments and, with that, Indian modes (scales) as an integral part of the score.
How closely did the director and producer work with you in establishing the placement and style of music for CHAMPIONS?
I worked very close with the director on the score for CHAMPIONS. I played him all the pieces on the piano and we re-did cues several times during the course of our discussions. Later, during the dub, we had an extra session for new sequences and changes of decision on the character of the music required.
Were there any particular difficulties you encountered in scoring the film?
The major difficulty with this film was trying to overcome the overpowering influence wielded by the success of the CHARIOTS OF FIRE music–also a film about winning a race. This tended to put an unnatural stress on the composition as if one had always to measure up to it and one had to guarantee the success of the project before one had even had a chance to work on it. It is very important for people in the film business to know that when a producer says to any creative person, “I want another…” he is almost begging for failure. I countered this simply by trying to do what I thought was right for this particular film, and in this I had the total support of the director.
What film music projects have you worked on since CHAMPIONS?
I am currently [October 1984] working on the on-going series of complete orchestral scores for silent films that has been commissioned by Channel Four. At this present time there is a series of four going out, led by what was, after NAPOLEON, our greatest success of the 1983 London Film Festival -MGM’s THE WIND, starring Lillian Gish. I am currently working on THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., for live screening at the 1984 London Film Festival on December 1st and 2nd. At the same time I am composing music for the Paramount film, KING DAVID, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Richard Gere.
Would you describe the music you are writing for these projects?
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is going to make use of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, developed freely as a film score. KING DAVID is another kind of project. My chief aim at the moment is to avoid sounding like what would be characteristically “biblical” music. The film has been shot in a quasi-documentary style and I am endeavoring to match this quality.