An Interview with Chuck Cirino by John Mansell © 2005
Composer Chuck Cirino, has carved out a career for himself composing the scores for movies with low budgets. Many of these productions do not actually make it to a theatrical release in cinemas, but in 99% of cases are issued straight to video or nowadays DVD. This however does not mean that these movies are in any way inferior to some of the productions that do make it to the big screen, and composer Cirino’s music is as vibrant and striking as anything that has been written by some of tinsel town’s best. Chuck’s talents are manifold, he is a writer and also a director as well as being a composer, so he knows more than one aspect of the filmmaking process. Mr. Cirino was born in Florida in the United States. “I am a thirteenth generation Floridian” the composer told me. “My family can be traced back to the early St.Augustine, which is America’s oldest city”.
So did you come from a family background that was musical?
Both my parents Raymond and Delia Cirino were and still are accomplished musicians. Even now in his 80s my father still maintains and composes jazz in the studio that I built for him, and my mother directs her Church’s choir on a weekly basis.
And what musical education did you receive?
What musical talent that I might have, was I think inherited from my parents, plus when I was a youngster I collected soundtracks. As a child when I really liked a TV theme or something from a movie I would be able to meticulously figure it out on the piano, and I mean every single part of it. So to answer your question truthfully, I suppose I would have to say that I had two years of piano and also trombone lessons, and I also played in my Jnr high school band, other than that I am self taught.
Was writing specifically for TV and film something that you set out to do, or was it just something that happened as your career progressed?
When I set out on my own during the 1970s one of the first things I purchased was a small synthesizer. I worked at a TV station which was in Pennsylvania, so I had the use of all of the equipment there. This included the video system and tape machines. I would use these to do sound on sound recordings of my synth music and end up with some pretty wild stuff. It was at around about this time that I met Jim Wynorski who was a filmmaker. Jim lived in Long Island and he really liked and appreciated the work that I was doing at the time. Many years later after both of us had moved to L.A. And carved out niches in the entertainment system, Jim approached me and asked me to score CHOPPING MALL for him. At the time I was directing TV commercials; to be honest I’d had enough of pitching corporate lies to innocent bystanders, so I took him up on his offer.
I know that Jim Wynorski is a huge soundtrack collector and a big fan of Italian film music. When you worked on his movies did he have much involvement on the music side of things, i.e., the placing of the music, maybe what style of music that he thought the film needed etc?
Jim always took an active role when it came to the music for his movies; he liked to be a part of the scoring process. As you rightly said he is a very passionate soundtrack collector, so he knows exactly what he wants when its time for the score to be put in place. Most of the time he would listen to the main themes that I had written for the film, and if he was happy with that he would often leave me to my own devices, I would then go ahead and develop the remainder of the score, without him.
You worked on a number of film sequels, such as GHOULIES 4 and 976-EVIL II, did you ever listen to or study the scores for any of the previous movies in these particular cases, or maybe included a theme or a hint of a theme from them within your scores?
No, not really, in fact in the case of the two titles that you mention, I did not even see the original movies, but on the other hand if I was scoring a sequel to a film that I had written the original score for of course I would ensure that themes from the previous production would prevail within the score for the sequel, as on the MUNCHIE movies.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music, or at times have you employed orchestrators to do this?
I orchestrate everything myself, although there was an exception which was 976-EVIL II, where I had Tim Simonec orchestrate, other than that I do all the orchestrating, mixing etc. This is mainly due to the budgets I get for scoring are not big enough to stretch to hiring orchestrators etc.
Do you feel that any composers have influenced you at all?
Definitely, John Barry was a big favourite of mine, and it was probably his music that I noticed first. Also British composer Ron Grainer had a big influence upon me with his scores for the TV series THE PRISONER and his excellent score for THE OMEGA MAN. The Sergio Leone Dollar movies also made me an instant fan of Ennio Morricone, and later I came to appreciate Jerry Goldsmith. There are obviously others that I have enjoyed listening to but the individuals that I have mentioned are my favourites.
As you mentioned, the budgets on the films you have scored in the past are not exactly huge, so has this ever affected or maybe suppressed your creativity in any way, Or maybe has limited you in the range of instruments that you have been able to utilize etc. Or maybe working with a low budget just made you more determined to create something that was special?
The budgets and schedules I work with have always been a limiting factor, but I would never say that I let them squelch my creativity – on the contrary the more limited the budget the more creative I would have to be to achieve the sound that I wanted.
Do you conduct any of your scores?
I am sorry to say that I have never had the pleasure of conducting an orchestra; I can only imagine how wonderful that must be.
Your score for Jim Wynorski’s TRANSYLVANIA TWIST, is great, it contains so much variety and diversity. How much time were you given to complete this particular score and how much music did you compose for the movie?
Well I took about four weeks to compose, record and mix the score. As for how much music I wrote for it well, its all on the movie. I don’t remember any being thrown out, so I suppose when you watch the DVD you get to hear it all. Sometimes though, I do come across little tit-bits of music that were written for a certain movie and I never used them, for example I recently found some test cues that I had done for GHOULIES 4, which I will definitely be re-using in one of my own movies.
Many of your scores have been for horror or sci-fi movies; do you feel that you have been typecast at all as a composer who works predominately within these two genres, and do you ever think to yourself, Oh no, not another horror?
Not really, I always look at these assignments as fortunate endeavors, especially in hindsight. I’m sure that you know within this industry its either famine or feast as far as work goes, so at times there are huge gaps between assignments, having survived many of these gaps, has taught me to appreciate every movie I work on.
With the exception of TRANSYLVANIA TWIST, which was issued in the form of suite on a vampire films soundtrack compilation in the UK on Silva Screen Records, much of your music remains un-released, why is this as I am sure that there is a demand for it?
You think (laughs). Like our current President (George Bush), this will all change in the near future, I’ve been holding out because first of all, the right offer has not been put on the table, and secondly I am now directing my own movies and I have had little time to prepare the older scores for release.
So you have the master tapes for your film scores?
Yes, I have retained and archived them all digitally; as a matter of fact I control the copyright to the majority of them. I insist on this deal when I sign up to do a picture, because I am scoring it on a low budget.
What is the largest orchestra that you have utilized for a film score?
That’s hard to say, you see when I work on a project the players often show up in sections, like when we recorded 976-EVIL II, so I would say the largest number of players I have worked with is around twenty or so.
Have you ever declined an assignment for any reason?
Nope! Work is work, money is money and fun is fun.
When you are working on a score for a film, how do you arrive at your musical solutions, piano, synth, etc?
Well, lets just say in the words of Indiana Jones, I MAKE IT UP AS I GO ALONG.
Have you ever written a score under an alias, or have you ever been asked to do this?
No, never felt the need for this. But there have been a number of movies that I have scored where my music has been removed and replaced with other music, and its stuff that I would not want to be associated with, but my name has not been removed from the credits, THE ALIENATOR for example which plays regular on cable, it was re-scored by the distributors but my name still comes up on the credits as composer… OUCH…!
Do you think it’s possible for a good score to save a bad movie?
That’s a good question, it depends on how you mean bad movie. There are some movies which may seem awful to most people, but then can be loved by others. Does that take it out of the bad movie element? I don’t know, however I am of the opinion that a good score can elevate a dull movie and make it more enjoyable or endurable.
You said you are now directing movies yourself – will you score these or will you be employing a composer to do this?
It depends totally on how large or small the budgets are. If I end up directing a big movie in the future, I think I would prefer to hire a composer to help enhance my original vision. I have scored all of the low budget movies I have directed, but this was due to finances.
So is it easier to write the score for a movie that you have directed, or do you find it even more difficult than usual?
I’ll tell you that after I have done a few more.
Many thanks to Chuck Cirino for his time, and also thanks to Jim Wynorski for his assistance in the setting up of this interview…