An Interview with Craig Safan by Steven Simak
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Craig Safan has received both critical and popular acclaim for his score to 1984’S THE LAST STARFIGHTER. His prolific career, however, includes a variety of different projects for film, television and theatre. Like many young composers his first major film came through New World Pictures with THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE. Since then he has gone on to score such projects as FADE TO BLACK, NIGHTMARES, and episodes for CALL TO GLORY, CHEERS and the revived ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Interviewed for CinemaScore in August, 1984, Safan discussed his work for THE LAST STARFIGHTER, as well as film scoring in general.
What is your background in music?
I took piano lessons when I was seven years old; my mother was a piano teacher. The first kind of music I learned was ragtime, and then I got into cool jazz in the 60’s, Bill Evans, Art Tatum and those. I also got into musical comedy and Broadway-type shows and most of my musical experience comes from working in Broadway shows. I went to Brandeis University but was an art major; I’ve never formally studied music which is sort of unusual in my profession. I think I took one semester of orchestration at Brandeis, but that was about it.
But I’d been writing songs since I was in Junior High School and playing in jazz and rock bands and I was always fascinated by how these things got written down. I was one of the few people in the late 60’s in Boston who could write music and do rock and roll. I started getting involved with arranging records for people because I was the only guy who could write down string parts. I also wrote four original musicals which I wanted performed, so I learned how to put together small orchestras for those productions. While at Brandeis I got very interested in electronic music and began working on summer stock shows at Brandeis and also with the Good Speed Opera House. When I graduated in 1970 I was given a fellowship by the Watson foundation to go to England and write an original musical, which I did and got even more into pop and theatrical music. But I never really know I was going to be doing film music, although I kept buying soundtracks and sort of figuring out how these wonderful orchestras were put together.
Did you have an interest in film music while in college?
I had a minor interest in them in that in college I did two student films, pretty much electronically. But they were ten-minute 16mm silent films and I just did them because people asked me to. I always loved film music but I never thought that I could do it. It never crossed my mind that this would be a possibility for me.
How then did you eventually become involved in film scoring?
When I left England I came back to Los Angeles and got involved in the record business. I was a singer, wrote songs, and arranged records for a number of years. I worked for Elektra/Asylum for a while and one day friends from Brandeis came into town to go to the American Film Institute. They had made a cheapo super-16mm horror film (THE DEMON’S DAUGHTER) and called me up because I was the only one they knew in L.A. who knew music. They asked me if I knew anyone who could write music for their film, and that they didn’t have any money. I said I’d do it, and that’s sort of how it all got started.
At the same time, another old friend of mine, a man named Walter Parks, had been working on a documentary called THE CALIFORNIA REICH (1975) and he suddenly needed music for that and was desperate because he had to get the film finished very quickly and hadn’t anticipated needing any music. He called me up and I wrote the theme music for that film. It was nominated for an Academy Award; it’s a very interesting film, it’s been on PBS and gets shown at a lot of art houses; it’s a documentary about the California Nazi party, and it’s really chilling.
How would you describe the music you wrote for that?
A main and end title was all I really wrote. I used a string quartet and a flute mellotron (with the mellotron we would record a group of instruments and make a loop out of the tape; each note would be on a different loop and then as you pressed the keyboard each key would activate a loop. You could get some pretty weird effects from it. The Beatles used that a lot. Now you can do it digitally, but at that time it was all on tape.)
The company that was financing that (New World Pictures) was also financing an exploitation film called THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE. They liked what I did for THE CALIFORNIA REICH, and I met Michael Pressman, who was directing THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, his first film. One thing led to another and suddenly I was in the film music business.
What do you see as the role of music in film? What do you want your music to say?
I think that my strongest attribute as a film composer is that I come from dramatic music. I’ve never really wanted to write a piece of serious concert music; I’ve always been involved in music for plays. So my whole background is very dramatic, and I feel that it’s nice if the music is also good and listenable. But I feel that the first object is for it to work in the film, and if you want to do concert music that is what you should do. There are a lot of people who are frustrated doing film music because it isn’t concert music, and you have to work with a lot of other people, you have to change things in your music, your music isn’t always heard in the movie; it’s a pretty brutal experience if you’re used to being the center of attention as a concert composer is.
Also, film music is often not accepted as serious concert music.
No, it isn’t. It’s looked down upon which is silly. Philip Glass is doing a film right now. I met John Corigliano when he was out here doing ALTERED STATES and I really had a good time with him and learned a lot. There are a lot of excellent composers doing film music. It’s very hard to make a living just doing serious music. There’s only a handful of people who do it and then you really have to become a teacher in a college and that’s not a life everyone wants to lead.
The kind of pieces you tend to get done as a classical composer are very small pieces. It’s very rare that you are going to get a whole symphony. For THE LAST STARFIGHTER, I had a symphony orchestra for five full days.
What was your approach to scoring THE LAST STARFIGHTER?
My feeling when I saw the film was that it was very romantic and that the adventure would take care of itself. What the film really had to offer that was unusual was the girl going into outer space with the hero, it had that really romantic heart-felt aspect to it. I also think that Nick Castle, the director, is very good when it comes to human relationships and very deep emotions; that was the strength in this film.
I tried to portray that in my music. I had one theme, the main theme, that I used over and over. I occasionally used it as an outer space Holstian march, but then toward the end I put it in 3/4 time and it became Alex’s wandering theme. When Alex goes into outer space, it’s really huge and romantic and gutsy, but I always thought of it as a heart theme, and I played it very softly occasionally. That’s what I was going after, to emphasize Alex’s desire to do more than he was doing at home, to go somewhere. I wasn’t really going for any particular historical feeling although I agonized for a long time over the style of the music. But everyone involved with the music agreed that we should go for a very large, orchestral, late-romantic style and there was almost, to my mind, no other approach that would have worked with this film.
What was Nick Castle’s involvement with the score and how much freedom were you given?
I was given tremendous freedom, really. Nick’s input was just about what the approach to the music should be. Other than that, occasionally I would get stuck on a scene and not know what to do so I would call him up and we’d get together and I’d play through some ideas. In one instance he recut part of the picture because there were musical problems which reflected cutting problems and it worked a lot better after he changed it. I think his main involvement was trust. He really trusted me and believed I was going to do the right thing for the picture.
How long did it take to write the score?
About six weeks. It had a very generous budget. We had five days with an 85-piece orchestra. We took great pains so that the recording sounded good. It was all very complicated to record because it was mixing electronic instruments with a big orchestra and that can get very muddy.
Were there any difficulties in scoring the special effects sequences in the film, especially in light of the fact that they were all computer generated?
Not really. The only thing is when you score a film like that you have to realize that every time a rocket goes by, your music is going to be drowned out by a laser blast or a retrothruster or something like that. Sometimes you write around that, just like you would for dialog. You avoid it and hit the in-between spaces, or sometimes you just go with it and figure you’ll be reinforcing the sound.
When Alex first flies into space with Centauri, for example, the first thing I had was a very simple line-animated drawing, and as the final animation came in they would make little trims and change the order of whether you see a planet first or the space ship first. All that stuff keeps changing and that makes it difficult for a composer because you’re having to rewrite a lot. Any movie with special effects is notoriously difficult because it takes so long before you see the effects. They’re always late because they’re so difficult to do.
One of your earlier assignments was a score for WOLFEN, which was not used. Would you describe the music that you wrote?
It was aleatoric, very weird. It was a large orchestra, very sound-oriented, very percussive. It was very mythological, and it had some Indian motifs in it. Very weird–it was a wonderful score. The movie was originally more mythological.
What happened on the movie was that the original director was fired and along with him they cleaned house and started all over again. I was one of the people who got cleaned. That’s the simple explanation of the story; it was an unfortunate incident. But, as Miklos Rozsa said, “the mark of the maturing of a young film composer is having his first score thrown out.” That was quoted to me by my agent who also represents Rozsa, so I think it’s a pretty valid quote. I don’t think I know of a composer who has not had a score thrown out.
Do you see a trend in film scoring, at least in terms of what you’d like to do?
I don’t see any particular trend. I think what’s happening is that everybody wants song scores, and everybody wants electronic scores, that’s the general trend. I don’t have a particular thing that I especially want to do. I just like finding the right sound for the picture, and whatever it is I try to do it; I don’t have any particular preference. In CALL TO GLORY I used a big, very Americana orchestra with some electronics. On DARK HORSE I was very, very synthesized. On some other things I’m very pop. I don’t think of myself as going in any particular direction, only at getting better at writing music and writing melodies. I feel very melodic these days, so lately I’ve been enjoying writing melodic scores, and what I hope is that I can do movies that move me in some way, that allow me to express something and help them musically.