An Interview with David Shire by Matthias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.14/No.53, 1995
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Matthias Büdinger
There’s no business like show business. It’s a business of glamour, of stars and rainbows, of money and dreams come true, but above all it’s a business, with all its rules of supply and demand. Although Hollywood has always been famous for its greed, its superlatives, its appreciation and its perception of talent has sometimes been quite narrow. The rules that dictate the market aren’t necessarily related to quality and talent. People are not concerned about who might be the best person to score their movie; they are more concerned about who is the “hot cat” in town to provide a musical background.
David Shire is a wonderfully sensitive and imaginative composer but not really a “hot cat” in film music circles right now. Every career has its ups and downs, and David is the first person to admit that he is “inside a valley in my career in terms of feature films.” Although he scores about half a dozen TV movies a year, he hasn’t scored any big features in recent years, and the one that he was supposed to score and even finished recording finally went to Bruce Broughton – HOMEWARD BOUND: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY.
Yet David Shire is the composer of scores as varied and distinct as THE CONVERSATION, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, THE HINDENBURG, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NORMA RAE, “2010”, RETURN TO OZ, SHORT CIRCUIT, NIGHT MOTHER and PARIS TROUT.
Along the way he has earned an Oscar (NORMAE RAE, Best Song), two Grammies and four Emmy nominations. I don’t want to sound maudlin, nor would David want me to become sentimental. It’s not like him to be sitting in his lovely studio in the garden (not unlike Gustav Mahler’s hut at the lake…), waiting for the one phone call. There’s plenty of work to do. Besides all the TV scores, David recently wrote the music for Talia Shire’s directorial debut, ONE NIGHT STAND, an erotic psychological thriller, and a full-blown orchestral score (85 players) for a 40-minute lmax spectacle called THE JOURNEY INSIDE. David wrote 37 minutes of breathtaking, thematic action music. As he was writing the separate cues he was conscious of the way they would go together as a suite of continuous music. No soundtrack album, of course!
Apart from his TV and film work, David Shire has always written for the musical theater as well. BABY, CLOSER THAN EVER, STARTING HERE STARTING NOW all benefitted from his eloquent melodic skills and Richard Maltby Jr.’s mature lyrics. Each show, after respectable New York runs, has had hundreds of productions all over the world. David and Richard are now working on a musical adaptation of Tom Hanks’ screen hit BIG. The $7,000,000 show will go into rehearsal for Broadway in the spring of 1995.
I have been looking forward to meeting David Shire ever since I saw him in Munich, recording HOMEWARD BOUND.
David, what could be the reasons for that “valley” in your film career?
I’m not perceived by a lot of potential employers as being the best casting for the kind of scores that I would like to get asked to write more often, big symphonic scores like RETURN TO OZ. Most producers looking for a score like that don’t think of me. More often, they call on me for what I call “brain surgery” scores.
A lot of my best work doesn’t have soundtrack albums. So even for the collectors I’m a little bit of a maverick.
Also, there’s a certain cyclical turn-over in the industry. Fresh faces, fresh sounds are very much in demand. It seems like there are more and more talented people who are coming up and scoring feature films. There are more musical avenues open to more people. But there are also more people who want to write film music and study it actively. Sometimes I wonder where the jobs are for all of them.
I lost a big feature some months ago to another composer and was very disappointed, except that the other composer is one of my favorite new composers, Patrick Doyle. He’s done some sensational work. I was annoyed that his score for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING didn’t get nominated this year. Anyway, picking him over me means that they are not going to get a score that’s less good than the one that I would do. I can’t say, “I’m better than he is. Give me the job,” because I don’t feel that.
What about your agents?
My agents work very hard. We talk about this regularly. They try to be encouraging. Ultimately, you get work because of your previous work. An agent can constantly put you up for projects. He can say, “Listen to this guy,” or “Have an interview with him,” but he can’t make someone hire you. The final decision is out of the agent’s hands. You know that Catch-22 effect: When you haven’t done a big picture for a while it gets harder and harder to get one. But you need a recent big picture in order to start getting others.
My situation is not unique at all. When I first came out here in the early Seventies, I started meeting some of my film music idols. I remember very specifically meeting David Raksin, having grown up playing LAURA in cocktail piano bars, night after night, year after year. I was shocked by the fact that he was hardly scoring features any more. By that time I was doing mostly TV movies, though his powers were not at all diminished. I realized the other day that I’m probably close to the age now that he was then (David turned 57 in July 1994 – MB).
You just finished recording your score for Talia Shire’s directorial debut, ONE NIGHT STAND (this interview was done in March 1994). Talia is your former wife and Francis Coppola’s sister…
I was very happy to have done that film. It’s a low-budget feature, but an excellent one. Who knows what other feature work it could lead to? When I did THE CONVERSATION I thought that I would get no work from it because it was a piano score. Instead, it was a breakthrough picture for me. I thought THE BIG BUS, which had a big orchestral score, would establish me out here. Five people went to see it…
Wasn’t it kind of delicate to work with your ex-wife?
We have one of the better ex-marriages. We are both intelligent and caring people, and although there are scars that itch now and then, basically there’s a good relationship. Talia has always respected my work as a composer, I have always respected her work as an actress, and we’ve raised a wonderful son.
As a matter of fact, Talia was one of the stars of the last large orchestral score that I did, BED AND BREAKFAST, and her late husband, Jack Schwartzman, was the producer. It was recorded in Dublin, and there’s a soundtrack on Varese Sarabande that I’m very proud of.
Your score for ONE NIGHT STAND called for two synthesizers, cello, flute, oboe, guitar and two female voices…
That’s typical of the chamber instrumentation that a lot of us are forced to use these days, because of ever-diminishing music budgets. If it’s a film that requires a chamber score, that’s fine, But often we are supposed to simulate orchestral scores with a handful of players. Some producers hope that eventually a synthesizer will give them the London Symphony Orchestra. In ONE NIGHT STAND I used two keyboard players as the nucleus of my “orchestra”. One of them played almost exclusively string parts. The other one did mostly harp, keyboard or percussion parts. I also used an EWI, an Electronic Wind Instrument, and as many acoustic instruments as the budget afforded. There are certain things that synthesizers can simulate better than others. If you use the synthesizer strings basically as an accompaniment and have a real acoustic voice in front of it, your ear tends to forgive the more artificial synthesizer sound. That’s a common trick. You find more and more ways to skin the low budget cat. But it’s not idiomatic writing; it’s faking an orchestra, faking another kind of ensemble with different forces. And there’s a certain curse: The better we get at creating lower budget scores that sound like higher budget scores, the more many producers think: that they can decrease the music budgets.
Although your score was involuntarily chamber-like, you did the best creatively with the forces you had, which is one of the capabilities of good composers. Let’s discuss HOMEWARD BOUND: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, which ended up with a score by Bruce Broughton.
For me it was truly an incredible journey. I worked as hard and lovingly and with as much enthusiasm on that score as I did on RETURN TO OZ. It was the best opportunity I had had since OZ to do a full-blown, multi-themed symphonic score. I was thrilled to get the project. I had almost weekly meetings for a couple of months with the director. He sat on that couch many Monday mornings while I played him themes and reworked them until we both loved them. The producers also were very enthusiastic about the material. They sent me off to Munich to record the score and we had to leave after 3 days because the orchestra played so poorly. I’m not totally sure why, but I had the feeling that we got a lot of substitutes. I know for a fact that the concertmaster and the lead trumpet were subs. We then re-recorded the whole score in 2 days at the Burbank Studios with a smaller orchestra (60 pieces) because of the diminished music budget. It was about 80 minutes of music. Before he left for Cannes, Jeffrey Katzenberg (the former Disney chairman – MB) wanted to see the picture in whatever state it was in at that time.
I was at the screening at Katzenberg’s house and he seemed to be pleased. A couple of days later I got a call from my agent saying that my services were no longer required. Katzenberg also fired the stars doing the animal voices and almost fired the director. Then Bruce (Broughton) was called in which surprised me, because I think that we have similar musical sensibilities. I thought that perhaps they wanted a very different style.
People who have heard the score feel it’s as good as anything I’ve done. I think: the cloud of Munich hung over it. It was a double disappointment. When you lose a picture like that, you don’t just lose that picture. You lose all the pictures that that film might have generated. Anyway, one amusing story came out of it: My son Matthew who was 17 at the time is a great fan of mine, very defensive of his father. He went to a dance after this happened and found himself dancing with Bruce Broughton’s daughter. Matt said, “I hear your father scored INCREDIBLE JOURNEY.” “Yes, he did,” she said, “Well, mine did too!” he shot back.
But luckily you do have another career, another life as a composer of musicals, for instance BABY, STARTING HERE STARTING NOW, CLOSER THAN EVER and soon BIG. They had respectable runs in New York, and they have become repertoire musicals constantly being performed in the US and abroad…
That work is very important to me – working on one project for several years, writing foreground music where dramatic decisions are being made because we are telling a story that we chose to tell. You have the time to really let your musical material evolve, and the work is your own vision. I want to write at least three or four more musicals before I hang it up. I grew up with the Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers tradition. I wrote theatre music long before I thought I would be writing anything for films.
But there is certainly a connection between your film scores and your song writing.
What may help a lot of my film writing is the songwriter’s sensibility. I usually go for the long, singing line (e.g. THE HINDENBURG, RETURN TO OZ, BED AND BREAKFAST). I had to teach myself more about writing non-melodic action cues. That’s what the real challenge of movie scoring was for me, and it gave me a great opportunity to work on my orchestral writing. But the fact that I come out of the theatre tradition gives me the dramatic sensibilities for movies. There’s a lot of overlap. The same basic aesthetic that applies to writing theatre music often applies to writing a movie score. Films often make bigger demands in terms of compositional and orchestral technique.
I always wonder what comes first, the lyrics or the melody…
Richard Maltby Jr. more often than not likes to have the music first. As soon as he hears a melody – no matter how complicated it is – he hears words in it, and usually he writes a lyric that people then compliment me on having set to music so well. On the other hand, when I did ‘It Goes Like it Goes’, the song from NORMA RAE that won an Oscar, Norman (Gimbel) delivered a finished lyric to me, told me not to change a word and went off on a skiing trip. I set it word for word. It surprised me how successful that song was, because normally I have to work very hard at setting something. I can fall into musical constrictions because of the lyric instead of seeing its possibilities. That lyric just happened to set itself beautifully.
You arranged, accompanied and wrote songs for Barbra Streisand. I think you got to know her in the early sixties.
Everyone wanted to write for her. Oddly enough, some of the songs of ours she recorded weren’t written for her. ‘Starting Here, Starting Now’ I thought of as a Robert Goulet song. She saw it on the top of my piano one day. I played her some other things that I thought were “Streisand songs”. She said, “What’s that?” I said, “That’s not for you.” – “Well, let me hear it, anyway,” she said. So I played it for her and that’s the one she wanted.
‘What About Today’, for which I did the lyrics too, was written for Peter, Paul and Mary at a time when I was dating Mary. When I played it for them they thought it was “too Broadway”. I got it to Barbra. She loved it and recorded it.
What are the ideal working conditions for considering a film score, where you are not your own master as you are when you do musicals?
Working with real collaborators like Francis Coppola (THE CONVERSATION), Walter Murch (RETURN TO OZ), Glenn Jordan (ONLY WHEN I LAUGH), Talia Shire or a number of other directors I could name is ideal.
It’s interesting that I worked with Talia in much the same way that I worked with her brother Francis Coppola on THE CONVERSATION, where instead of them finishing the movie and then calling in a composer to look at it and then run home with a limited time to do a score, they had me read a script in an early form so we could start talking about the score early on. The music then had a chance to evolve as the picture was evolving. Almost any composer you ask would like to work that way. You have a chance to have your subconscious work on the project, maybe while you are even working on other things.
Once I have my basic material and I know it’s right, I can write the cues relatively quickly. Each cue leads to the next. There’s an inner logic about it that carries you through. Subsidiary material starts being generated by the principal material and vice versa. The material reaches a critical mass and starts to explode with possibilities.
But as my orchestrational and compositional skills have gotten more and more fluent, I’ve been increasingly able to turn out a hack score with the best of them, and that scares me. That’s a special danger of going a lot of TV work. You get too good at doing something in two weeks, often by recycling your favorite ideas and techniques and doing what comes easily.
What’s exciting is when a film asks you to do something you’ve never done before, like THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1.2.3. I eventually realized the way to get the sound I wanted was through serial techniques. It was a style I wasn’t fluent in. So I had to bite the bullet and spend many weeks down here giving myself composition lessons, so to speak! I think any artist does that. With any new project you are a virgin to some extent. You have to initiate yourself, and give yourself the time to discover.
You’ve mentioned TV, what about that medium?
I’ve been able to do some feature quality work on some very good projects, but in TV, it’s often “Hurry up, write it,” and then “Hurry up, record it”. Even if you manage to write something terrific, you usually can’t realize it totally on the scoring stage. And often you have to commit yourself to themes before you have a chance to live with them as you’d like to.
I like to see a picture a couple of times, write some material, put it away for a week, come back and if I don’t like it, throw it away and try something else. There’s usually no time to do that in TV.
I’d like to ask you about the infamous temp tracks…
Often producers or directors don’t want an original score. They want a score you’ve already written or somebody else has already written. They don’t realize how constricting it is when they show you their movie for the first time with somebody else’s music on it. It doesn’t allow you to come to it with a fresh sensibility.
But I have to add that on certain TV jobs, I have asked to hear the temp score when they haven’t played it, because I realized that the director was trying to describe something rather specific to me that I knew was somebody else’s score. And when you only have two weeks to do your own, you are sometimes well-advised to take the specific leads they can give you. You often just want to get the job done and make them as happy as possible in the little time you have.
Incidentally, I also have to be very careful about listening too much to music I really love. In a way it’s a curse. The other day I put on James Newton Howard’s THE FUGITIVE in my car. I really enjoyed it. But I realized I had to put it in my closet because if I listened to it again, I would start absorbing it so much that I’d start writing it. That’s why I tend to listen to more classical music than film scores. I try to nourish myself by listening, say, to Ravel, Mahler or John Adams. And I still study scores and keep trying to teach myself. It’s a way of refreshing myself between gigs.
Ravel and Mahler are two of my favorite classical composers. I sense their sensibilities concerning harmony, color and melody in your film scores. THE HINDENBURG, for instance, had a very nostalgic, late romantic, Mahlerian or Straussian texture.
Trying to come up with a musical metaphor for the Hindenburg itself, I used Richard Strauss as a model. The Main Title was based on one of his ‘Four Last Songs’. The dirigible and Nazi Germany got so overblown that they ultimately had to collapse. And the exhaustion of tonality in the thick, oversized late Romantics seemed like a good musical metaphor for what was going on politically.
That’s what I miss most about scoring big projects: in features the music is a real player, able to create subtext. In TV you often have to underline what’s already there or hang some wallpaper around it.
Being a film music aficionado, I often wonder what minority I am a member of. I guess many film music buffs listen too exclusively to film music and are constantly surprised – when they happen to listen to people like Mahler, Strauss, Prokofiev – that these gentlemen wrote real film music, so to speak, setting standards for film composers…
I hate to think of some film music fans listening to nothing but soundtracks all the time. I hope that once in a while they put on the music that so much film music is derived from.
As far as film music being derivative – in the best sense, all art is derivative. T.S. Eliot wrote a seminal essay saying that every work of art created modifies the entire history of perception of every work that preceded it.
Yes, no artist can start from scratch. You seem to read a lot, David.
I tend to read a lot more than I listen to music. It makes me fresher for writing music the next day.
We talked about the ups and down of artistic life. How do you feel right now?
It’s easy to feel victimized. You’ve got to fight that and keep your energies up, whatever job you are losing, whatever job you are getting. Certainly the scenario of my life is not anything I could have predicted. So who knows what the future will bring? For instance, my wife Didi and I adopted a new-born boy two years ago, and he’s been a source of joy and inspiration to me. Maybe it’s a natural function of growing older, but I find myself much more able to integrate my career with my personal life. And I’ve never been more curious about so many things. That’s one of the reasons I read so much.
For instance I just became fascinated with astronomy, bought some books and equipment and have suddenly become an avid star-gazer. Also, Didi’s career, as an actress, is as important to me as my own, and I’ve been able to help her more, both professionally and around the house.
As corny as it may sound, I have an incredible amount to be thankful for and to keep me occupied even if I never score a big feature film again. And when I do start scoring them once more, which I’m pretty sure I will, I’ll just have one more thing to feel good about.