A conversation with Dave Grusin by Sumimaro Yagiyu
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.7/Nos.27/1988
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
How did the ‘Cinemagic’ album come about?
We started out three years ago, trying to get the rights from every studio, talking to the lawyers, so finally we decided to start all over again. I think that’s better, because in some cases the recording techniques have changed so much over a span of 20 years. But I tried to get some of the personality of some of the original players in Los Angeles.
At what stage do you prefer to be brought in? Before shooting begins, or after it’s finished?
Well, before shooting is great. But I don’t have that opportunity very often because frequently they don’t make the choice till after they are into production. I’m working now on a film for Robert Redford (this interview took place in July 1987, Ed.) THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR; he is somebody who likes to get everyone involved all the time. I first had a meeting with him last September, and I’m just now getting ready to score – I’ve done other things in the meantime, but it’s good to get started that early, because you get a chance to think about not only the tune itself, but the attitude of the film as well.
Do you get to read the scenario?
I don’t get much information from a screenplay, in terms of inspiration I mean. I do get inspiration from what a picture looks like. If I were an audience coming to see this picture, what would I want to hear?
Film scoring has changed a lot over the past 20 years…
It’s changed with people like Henry Mancini, Andre Previn and Elmer Bernstein and some people who have brought film music into a more modern idiom. Particularly Mancini, he’s responsible for a lot of changes. And now, another thing’s happening with pop music. There are good and bad reasons. The bad reason is a producer may think he has a way to exploit his film in a better way if he has a hit soundtrack. A good reason is if the film’s about young people – it makes sense to have “young” music. If I see a picture that cries out for a contemporary kind of score, I’m probably not going to do it myself, because I feel it would be better done in another way. I’m interested in writing, and not in making deals for groups.
What about THE GOONIES?
In that case they needed a lot of score, in addition to the pop music. But it’s a good example; the soundtrack album from THE GOONIES has nothing to do with the score of the picture. And there were some good pop tracks which we did not hear very well in the film.
What do you think about using electronic music in films?
Since I first heard electronic music, and we started to use it in the late sixties, early seventies, I’ve thought it can be really effective; it can be like a marriage between film and music. Electronic music has been beat up, because it is very easy to take a synthesizer out of the box, plug it in, and begin to play it. They all sound alike. To change this, you have to get into electronic music, and start to modify it; to make it more human, and then it can be very beautiful.
n the golden period of film music, there were 80 musicians playing film music and today you get one guy doing his thing…
It’s an economic problem; it has serious consequences for the musicians. I don’t like to use electronics in order to save money, that’s not the reason to use it; the reason to use it is that electronics can produce sounds that musicians cannot produce. That aspect of it is really exciting. But if I want a string section, I need to call string players; I don’t want to use a machine that sounds exactly like string players. I’m 52 years old, and I have to go back and learn synthesizers like a child, I have to go back and start all over again. My children are comfortable with computers they grew up with, they understand immediately, but I have to relearn everything. It’s fascinating to do it.
What about Wendy Carlos and Giorgio Moroder?
Wendy Carlos was a pioneer in electronics I recall that synthesizers used to be huge things you had to cart around, now they’re just small boxes. Moroder was a kind of pioneer too, that sequential music in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, I don’t know if he was the first person to use it, but it was the first time I was aware of its use in film music. I like the combination of electronics and acoustic music. I’m most comfortable when I have an orchestra, but I may have two or three players with electronics in the orchestra and I think we can then get some kind of feeling of being in the eighties, but still with the use of real acoustic music.
How did you learn how to score a film?
I wish I knew!
How did you enter the film industry?
I got the chance to write my first film score because the producer knew my work in another area, the area of arranging and performing: he took a chance. The producer was Norman Lear, and the film was DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE.
You’ve done a lot of TV scores…
Well, television was my entree into the film score, I think. Every week there was a show and it had to be scored; and the next week they needed another score for another show. A voracious medium! It eats material.
A lot of American composers like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith learned their craft in television.
The head of the music department at Universal was Stanley Wilson, and he gave Lalo Schifrin, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Quincy Jones and countless others all the chance, he was like the dean of the school. He was very supportive and he helped us. He was very important, like a second father to me (laughs).
The studio system is now gone…
They still have heads of the music department, but it doesn’t work in the same way so much. Actually I think it’s better now, it’s freer! It’s not as secure, though, economic security was better then. The world isn’t a safe place any more! (laughs).
Are there any film directors you enjoy working with?
Sydney Pollack is probably the most enjoyable for me. He really likes music and he also understands that music can really help a picture. The first time I worked for him was a picture shot here in Japan, called THE YAKUZA. The film itself flopped, but the process of working, with him was great. Since then I’ve done may be half a dozen pictures for him. He is somebody that I enjoy working with very much.
Then there is Mark Rydell (ON GOLDEN POND). Mark was a piano player in the old days, so he’s a fan of music as well. I worked with Spielberg – he did not direct the GOONIES, he was the producer, but he was acting like a director the whole time. He’s a collector of film scores. He has a collection of perhaps 5,000 film scores. He knows who wrote every score from every film. He trades scores with collectors all over the world, as a hobby. So he’s interesting to talk to about film music. In fact for THE GOONIES he wanted to use a specific theme from Max Steiner, an old action film with Errol Flynn, ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. The music sounds like the overture to ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. We got the original score from the library at University of Southern California – Steven gave the University a donation, so of course they’re going to let him use the original score.
Are there any types of film you prefer scoring?
I like films that mean something, not necessarily pictures with a message. I like films that make a statement. I feel I’m spending my time more in an adult profession if the movie is an adult movie.
What was the reason to use ‘Mountain Dance’ in FALLING IN LOVE with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson?
That’s a good question. It wasn’t my idea! ‘Mountain Dance’ was an old record by the time they made this picture, and when I came to see the film for the first time, they were using it to “track” the picture. So we had many discussions and the director, Ulu Grosbard, liked the feeling of ‘Mountain Dance’. He told me a number of things and I took them as a guide to write the score. I wrote a totally different score. Then they went to a preview, and one of the stars, Meryl Streep, said to Ulu Grosbard, “What happened to the other music?” She had seen the rough cut with the temporary ‘Mountain Dance’ score. So I got a call, “Could we please use Mountain Dance again?” I didn’t think it was right for the film, I still don’t feel it’s right, but of course it was Ulu Grosbard’s picture so I said fine. He wanted us to re-record, but I said no; I knew what was going to happen; I said, “Look, if we’re trying to duplicate what is basically a jazz thing it’s not going to sound the same! They’re not going to like it as much. You can use the original performance.” We’d just finished a CD. So we took the CD to the studio and took the music direct from it, so there would be no generation loss.
What happened with ISHTAR?
It’s not particularly a big hit; it was a very expensive film. I recorded a great deal of music, not much of it is left in the actual film… I went back to record more music, some of that was left in. It’s a very strange picture. I took the assignment because I enjoy working with Warren Beatty. Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and the director, Elaine May, were a kind of committee that decided what to do. It was a strange experience, but I had a good time.
What about Warren Beatty as a producer and as a director?
Warren Beatty has a different way of directing, he doesn’t play it by the same rules as other directors; sometimes the films that he does turn out to be expensive, but he does have a vision as a director, and everything he’s done up to now has been a hit.