Craig Safan on Scoring Comedy

An Interview with Craig Safan by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.67/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Craig SafanCraig Safan started out in film music while in college in the early 1970s. Once he made the break to Hollywood with THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK (1976), he was off composing a number of teen-oriented comedies, including THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING, and CORVETTE SUMMER. On the other side of the coin, he also gained notoriety scoring trendy horror films like FADE TO BLACK, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, LADY BEWARE, and television’s DARKROOM and AMAZING STORIES. A broad, orchestral score for the science fiction adventure, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, gave Safan the opportunity to dabble in large orchestral works like REMO: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS and WARNING SIGN. The majority of Safan’s work for thrillers has been for made-for-TV movies, while in features his work has tended to be for lighter, comedy pictures. With a background in song writing, Safan is currently working on a pair of musicals – one, LOLA, was part of the Eugene O’Neil Summer Musical Theatre Conference in Connecticut and a feature musical called CHEEK TO CHEEK for Nick Castle and Laurence Bender. His latest film is a comedy called SPLITSVILLE.

We spoke to Safan last August and asked about his new score for SPLITSVILLE and the challenges of writing music for comedies.

How did you get involved in SPLITSVILLE?
I got that through my agent. The director, Lynn Hamrick, heard my music, and really liked it, and felt it was right for the movie. The movie is a remake of a French film about children of divorced parents who form a club, and in order to join the club you have to get your parents divorced. So it’s very French!

What kind of approach did you take for the music?
The film was fairly low budget, so we couldn’t do a big score like a MR WRONG, where I had a huge orchestra. I used guitars, and synth sounds, a lot of percussion, and mainly soprano sax. Very low key. It’s energetic but it’s not big. I didn’t want to overwhelm the kids’ characters.

What kind of thematic interplay have you used in this score?
I have a theme for the kids. When they’re scheming, whenever they get this ridiculously great idea, this music would play. That was the main theme, and then I had a second theme which was the love story between this boy and this girl. There were a lot of sub-themes, but basically it was a 2-theme movie. I don’t believe in having lots of themes.

What was toughest about scoring something like SPLITSVILLE or MR WRONG?
The toughest thing about MR WRONG was the politics. I’m very close with the director, Nick Castle. I’ve worked with him a lot, on MAJOR PAYNE, THE LAST STARFIGHTER and THE ASSASSINATION GAME. We have a great relationship and a real trust. We had temp’d the movie with a lot of Henry Mancini. We figured out the way to go on MR WRONG was to do that sort of style, only update it a little and make it fit the movie. And it fit really well with this sort of black humor. But it was tough dealing with the studio – they were very antsy about the movie. For good reason, since it really flopped! But it just felt like everybody was worried all the time, which is a very difficult environment to be working in, when nobody has any faith in anything – not the movie, not the director, not the composer, not the editor. You just feel that, and it’s difficult. There was a subplot in that movie where the girl gets kidnapped, and there was a big question as to how dark to make that. I knew exactly what it needed to be, but I can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from everybody, explaining all their fears about it, and “it’s going to be too dark, they’re going to think they’re going to kill her.” Nick and I knew if we made it too light, then we’d just make it silly. I knew that I could make it really dark but with a little bit of humor, which is what I did, and it worked and everyone was really happy at the end of that movie. SPLITSVILLE was a lot easier, there was really very little tension. Once we got over the themes being played for the executives, everybody left us alone.

When you’re doing a comedy, how do you particularly approach a comedy or a comic score?
It’s all in the timing of the music. The music is leading you into a joke, but it can’t lead you too strong. You have to be careful not to make it sound like a cartoon. So there has to be a little darkness, and a little twist to it. It has to have a little more edge, and you have to hold back a little. But comedy is all in the set up of the joke. There’s always something a little pathetic about it! The CHEERS music always sounded sad, which it was, and I thought that was better than just “Wow! Here we are! In the bar!”

You speak to what’s going on behind there.
Yeah, the bitter sweetness. Comedy needs a little bit of bittersweet behind it to make it funnier and more human. Even MAJOR PAYNE had a certain soul to it, and certainly MR WRONG did.

Do you prefer playing with or against the comedy?
It really depends on the comedy. If it’s a dark comedy, you might want to just emphasize the weirdness of it, or you do both. It’s all timing. For part of it, you might just want to play against it, to trick the audience a little bit. But, if there’s a really strong visual joke, you don’t necessarily need to repeat that musically, if it’s obvious. You may want to drop out and let the visual play. There are many ways to do it.

You’ve maintained an interesting dichotomy in your career; doing a lot of comedies and then doing thrillers and horror films. How did that happen?
I tend to get hired for the darker and also the more dramatic things for TV movies and mini-series, but in features, certainly in the last 4-5 years, I seem to be getting mostly quirky comedies, like MONEY FOR NOTHING, the John Cusak film. That was a really, really quirky score; it’s all voices and percussion, and very off-the-wall, big, brassy orchestra, a lot of female vocals.

How would you contrast some of the working conditions between the TV movies that you do and the features?
There’s a lot more pressure when you’re doing features. Everybody’s more worried about everything constantly. The stakes are higher. On a TV movie or mini-series, they’re not worrying about their opening weekend. They don’t know what the ratings will be, but they know pretty much how much money they’re going to make. And also the time frame is so much faster that they don’t have the same opportunities to get as involved as they would on a feature, where there’s a lot more consideration, a lot more people involved, and much more worried about it. I like doing features because I have more time and more resources, and I find you can do deeper work. A lot of my best scores are features – and there are at least 2 miniseries that are as good as the features…

One of them that comes to mind is certainly SON OF THE MORNING STAR… It had a totally sweeping, grand scope to it…
That’s certainly as good as any feature work that I’ve ever done. I had the opportunity to write a dramatic score. I really like that. The other one was called SEDUCED BY MADNESS, with Ann-Margret, and that was a thoroughly ambient score. It was a lot of fun to write, basically, a sound score rather than dramatics, and it was all orchestral and percussion.

Did this film have a temp score? How did you deal with that?
It had very little temp score, which was good. It was minimal. MR WRONG had a big, major temp score, and so did MAJOR PAYNE. I find temp scores helpful, in one sense, because they let you know, not only what works, but what the people are looking for. They help communication. But they don’t give you freedom. They don’t ask you “what do you think? How do you see this?” You can only really see it one way – you have to see it the way the temp score is, or else they’re going to get really nervous and you’re probably going to get fired! You can go and say “this kind of score sucks, totally,” but the thing is, by the time you’re in there, the temp score has been heard not only by the director and the editor, but by the producer, the executives, the studio people, by 15 or 20 people and it’s probably been screened a couple times, and everybody developed a stake in this temp score…

And has an expectation.
Yeah. When I was starting out they didn’t do temp scores quite so much, but they would temp a song somewhere, and it was inevitably some incredibly big hit, and they’d expect that you were going to come up with a hit as big as this. Or they would temp it with a famous classical piece, and then you would go and score it, and of course, gee, what a surprise, in two weeks you didn’t write the ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ or Beethoven’s 9th! There’s a lot of examples of that.

You experienced that yourself, with WOLFEN…
WOLFEN was the only score I’ve ever had thrown out, but that was because the director was fired. They let the score go, and they cleaned house. That was just a changing of the guard.

Do you generally orchestrate your own scores?
I used to, but I haven’t for a while. I used to have a thing about it – I orchestrated WOLFEN, which was a huge, complicated thing to orchestrate. But I finally came to the point where I learned how to sketch on 6 or 8 lines so that people can really understand what I want. That’s much faster. When you’re really writing a lot of music, you don’t have the energy to write something and then go back and spend 6 hours orchestrating it.

What can you tell me about SON OF THE MORNING STAR?
I’ve done three pictures with Mike Robe, and they’ve all been really enjoyable experiences. SON OF THE MORNING STAR was just such a beautiful film, and it had such huge opportunities for music. I think it had at least 2 hours of music in it, for a 4-hour miniseries, and that’s a lot of music. The problem was budget. I wanted it to be sort of like an elegy, sad and playing it against the action. Occasionally I’d play with the action, but a lot of the action I just played against with very slow music. I wanted to use all strings, with almost no other instruments, but then I put the trumpet in because it’s a nice solo instrument. A lot of the score is just strings and solo trumpet, or strings and one trumpet and one horn.
The funniest thing about that was that I ran into one of the producers at a Hollywood Bowl concert one summer night, and he said “Oh, Craig, I’m so glad you’re doing SON OF THE MORNING STAR for us! You know, that music we just heard, that Rimsky-Khorsakov, maybe that would be good. Something like that.” So I said, “Well, with the budget you have, we’ll get Rimsky but we won’t get Khorsakov!” And the next week they were able to double the budget!

How do you approach something along the lines of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, especially when it has three films ahead of it which have already defined a musical style?
I went in my own direction. It was totally electronic, that was obvious. I used the original theme that Charles Bernstein wrote – they really wanted that theme. I liked working with Renny Harlin. He did a more extreme visual picture than the first one, so I made the music really, really extreme. Huge sound, very colorful.

What are some of the toughest challenges about doing the TV films, other than low budget and not enough time?
Keeping your interest – I find a lot of them really boring! And finding new ways of doing them. I try to find some new way on each one. The budgets are less than they were ten years ago – they’re almost half. And so now, to really make any money, – I mean, you’ve got to make some money – you end up doing them with four players and a synth, so they end up sounding even more all the same. That’s why they’re not usually very memorable.

Any temp track issues on TV films?
Very few. They don’t temp track it as much. They’re temping really only for two reasons: to have a rhythm to cut to, and to show the executives. But they’re not temping to show an audience, like on MR WRONG, where there must have been ten screenings with audiences, and each time they’re trying this, and moving this, and finessing it. With a feature, you have one or two music editors who do nothing but temp. On a TV movie they usually can’t afford that, and the film editor does the temp. They’re not going to put in a John Williams temp score, because if they do, they’re not going to get him!

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