An Interview with David Michael Frank by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.65/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Although for some time he was known for scoring martial arts action films like CODE OF SILENCE, ABOVE THE LAW, HARD TO KILL and SUBURBAN COMMANDO, David Michael Frank’s background in classical music and his extensive experience in New York theater music has served him well in a 20 year career that has spanned far more than the simplistic action films which for a time he seemed locked into, An earlier background scoring TV sitcoms and recent opportunities to compose a poignant dramatic score for A THOUSAND MEN AND A BABY, inspiring, majestic music for the IMAX film COSMIC VOYAGE, and gentle, intimate music for the forthcoming THE FAMILY BLOOM, Frank’s gifts for melody and large symphonies have been nicely displayed.
Interviewed at Burbank’s O’Henry Studios during the recording session for UNDER WRAPS, a Halloween family film made for the Disney Channel, Frank described his recent work and his thoughts about composing for film.
You’ve seemed to have made a mark with the Steven Seagal and whatnot action films. Do you feel like you’ve gotten pigeon-holed with that?
I did. Now I’m almost purposely avoiding them and doing other types of stuff. But before that I was doing sitcoms, so if I had to be pigeon-holed, it was better with action films than sitcoms! My first real job was the BAD NEWS BEARS TV series. After that, I met a director named Andy Davis, who was doing this movie called THE SILENCE with Chuck Norris. Once I had that, I was viable doing action pictures, and then I got hired to do another action picture, and then another one, and another one. So then all of a sudden I was doing all the karate movies, and I worked with every non-actor there is!
I used to joke that I didn’t want to win any Academy Awards; I just wanted to work with a real actor sometime! I finally had my shot when I did A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, because it was written by David Mamet and it starred Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick, so I finally got a good actor!
What’s toughest about scoring an action film like that?
Don’t try to compete with the effects! I hate it when directors insist on playing chases and gun battles and fights – a lot of times it’s much better to play up to that. You can build suspense and build it and build it and as soon as the guns start, just get out of there. I find that the best, but unfortunately sometimes the directors don’t have any confidence and they just insist on wall-to-wall music.
What about the sitcoms you scored? What kind of music did they require?
They’re really hard. People don’t appreciate it. I’m so glad I’m not doing it, because it’s so hard to try and do something and make any kind of musical statement in something that’s only five seconds or ten seconds long. It’s not that easy. Of course, it’s a whole different world now with digital music and digital recorders, because you can go and cut-and-paste like hell, and build up libraries. When I was doing those shows, every episode got scored.
How did you approach this new Disney TV mummy movie, UNDER WRAPS? The music I’ve heard here at the sessions sounds great.
David Michael Frank: The music needs to be cute. I always keep in mind that it’s for kids, so it’s not really scary, and yet I didn’t want to make it cartoony. It’s something in-between.
Sort of spooky but not frightening?
Yeah. If I had to say what it would be similar to, I’d say it was a HOME ALONE approach, maybe, or THE GOONIES. I was very rushed because I was late in finishing a project called THE FAMILY BLOOM right before it. That was too important a project for me, so I pushed this one back. UNDER WRAPS was done in not much over a week!
But the big challenge was this: we spotted this at my house. Usually it’s just myself and the director, maybe the producer too, and that takes care of the spotting session. This movie had ten people! This was spotting by committee, music by committee, everything by committee! There were a million producers and network executives and other people who had an input into this. The problem is that not everybody has the same ear, and it wasn’t a question of what they liked or disliked, it’s that this one thinks the style of music should go in this direction, and this guy wants it in this direction, and so it’s hard that way. Who do you listen to? Usually television is a producer’s medium and you have to please the producers more than the director. I wanted to please the director since he’s the one who requested me, but it’s tough when they disagree, when he wants something and they want something else. Ultimately I go with what I think is right and go with the way I think it should be played and then if someone disagrees I’ll argue it.
What can you tell me about the IMAX film you recently scored, COSMIC VOYAGE?
COSMIC VOYAGE was great. It was my chance to be Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein and write beautiful music. The thing that struck me about the movie, and why I think the approach was right, was that the movie was a science lesson. The music needed to be totally the opposite. It needed to be emotional music, dramatic music that would really make you feel something emotionally. That was a challenge. And they did a great thing in not getting one of those big booming type speaker voices to do the narration, they got Morgan Freeman and he’s got a real warm, human sound. The combination of his narration and my music, I think it made it more emotional. It turned a science lesson into an emotional experience.
The promotional CD included music from a project called BOEING 777. What was that all about?
That was a show to mark what Boeing calls the rollout. When they build the first of a new series of planes, they put on a little show. They built the 727, the 737, etc – this is the 777, the newest airplane they’ve built. They put together a 10-minute show, and Boeing spent $3.5 million on it. That’s a lot of money, but when they spend $4 billion to build the airplane I guess they can afford it!
So they did this roll-out and they just wanted to make it the most spectacular one they’ve ever had. That was a lot of fun, because the one thing I never get that I miss from my New York theater days is the live audience. Although we pre-recorded the music, the Boeing thing was done for a one-day presentation with 105,000 people in the largest building in the world. It was done in an airplane hangar in a room that was 1,000 feet long by 400 feet. There are 16 of these rooms in this building, that’s how big it is! It was just thrilling. Hearing the music from 80 speakers in the room and 3 million watts of light, and all the sound. They did one show an hour and kept shuffling people through.
How did you get involved with THE FAMILY BLOOM?
FAMILY BLOOM was just wonderful. Jeff Kaufman, my agent, found out about the project and called the director, Craig Saavedra, who said he was looking for big band music. I have a CD recorder in my house so I can put together CDs specifically for projects, which I think gives me a little advantage over other composers who do cassettes. And then I have a big advantage in that I have a very talented, artistic wife, and she makes up a cover that looks like it would be something for the film. And so I made this up and it just caught the director’s fancy, and he invited me to a screening, I didn’t know it, but there were other composers at the screening too. We had a talk a few days later and I got the movie. Out of 25 or 30 films and 50 TV movies that I’ve done, this is the best one I’ve ever had. I’m not talking necessarily the music; I’m talking about the quality of the movie. It’s just a great movie, and I have huge hopes for it. It’s sort of a romantic comedy and it’s also very poignant and touching.
What sort of music did you write?
Mostly big band swing music. It wasn’t my idea – Craig temped with it. Towards the end of the movie there’s some dramatic moments and some sweet underscoring, but a lot of it is swing music. Even some of the most romantic scenes are played with some big band stuff.
Is this a period story?
No, it’s totally contemporary, but for some reason, the swing music just works, and it works good. We recorded two weeks ago here, and just had an absolutely stellar big band. Some of the best musicians in the whole city.
How about A THOUSAND MEN AND A BABY [aka NARROW ESCAPE in Europe]? What kind of project was that for you?
It’s a true story about a half-Korean/half American infant who was abandoned when he was a few days old, right at the end of the Korean War, and adopted by the crew of an American aircraft carrier. This doctor on board, who was a commissioned officer, decided to adopt the baby, and gave up his commission, because a commissioned officer can’t do that. It’s a true story, it’s a very warm story, and it was so well done. Normally I wouldn’t score a TV-movie this way, but it deserved to have a beautiful, big lush score. It needed a huge, gorgeous sound. I couldn’t afford it here, unfortunately, but the producers were willing to go to Prague to do it, so we recorded it there. It turned out terrific. I was there for the dub, every day, and they really featured the music, and mixed it just beautifully.
Speaking of swing music, you provided some of that for THE MASK, didn’t you?
I was asked to do the big band music that they play when he puts on his mask. Every time Jim Carrey puts on the mask, it went into swing music, and that’s my music.
What was it like doing BORN FREE: the TV sequel? That must have been a daunting assignment, coming into something with a long established musical theme.
It was, but I only used the theme once. I got the idea for the whole score from a sound on a synthesizer. It sounded like a kind of metallic harp sound, and it was a little more interesting than a real harp, and it kind of played this pattern. I thought of all these John Barry kind of themes, beautiful, lush, landscaping kind of themes, against that pattern.
I’II tell you what was the most interesting thing about that, I had the spotting sessions, and then the scoring sessions, and none of the producers or directors came to the scoring sessions, and nobody heard a note in advance. I was left totally on my own, and that was unusual!
Have you ever shared the experience of so many composers – getting a score thrown out?
I’ve never had a whole score thrown out, but I’ve had most of a score thrown out for a COLUMBO TV-movie. It was the worst experience ever; and there was nothing I could do about it. Patrick McGoohan directed it and I went to the spotting session. He wanted a certain direction – it took place during a political convention, and he wanted to score it and use a lot of that Dixieland music that you hear at those conventions – ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, and that kind of stuff.
The producers absolutely didn’t want that they wanted a very dramatic score. And I’m sitting at this spotting session saying, “what do I do?” and Patrick McGoohan said, “They’re the producers, do what they want.”
So I did that, and he came to the scoring session and he wasn’t happy because it wasn’t what he wanted. But the producers liked it and they dubbed it into the movie, and after it was all finished, he went to Peter Falk, who’s his good friend, and said “I’m not happy and I want to change it”, and he started taking out my music and putting in the Dixieland. The biggest scene in the movie is a 5-minute scene where he plans this murder, and he played it totally without music. There wasn’t a line of dialog, and he played it totally dry! Terrible experience, but I don’t know what I could have done differently. I was in a no-win situation!