An Interview with David Shire by David Kraft
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Film music afficianados have often found that many unsuccessful, otherwise forgettable films are made worthwhile by exceptional music scores; RETURN TO OZ is a recent example. David Shire’s brilliant gem of a score (Page Cook, the hyper-critical film music columnist of Films in Review, called it the best score of the past several years) stands out in a film that was almost universally loathed by critics and the few people who went to see it. The genesis of Shire’s noteworthy score is discussed in the following interview (held during June, 1986). David Shire elaborates on OZ’s extensive and varied thematic material, in addition to commenting on his more recent projects, such as the score to SHORT CIRCUIT.
The last time we talked you had just recorded your score for RETURN TO OZ and the release of the film was imminent. You seemed very pleased with your music, but, as it turned out, the film failed miserably at the box-office. Nevertheless, I feel the score is one of your finest.
I was glad to have an opportunity to write an extensive, symphonic score for a major orchestra – The London Symphony – a score with a great number of themes. I’ve done a lot of films that didn’t require a great deal of music – I call them “brain surgery scores” – where you have to walk on eggs and work hard to keep the music out of the way most of the time and work, for the most part, on a subliminal level. So, I was happy when OZ director Walter Murch said he wanted a lot of music.
There are nine major themes or thematic groups in RETURN TO OZ, and I tried to compose them so they would work as extended pieces of music in addition to their functioning as themes. I wanted the score to hold together like ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ or ‘Peter and the Wolf’. I felt this would give the film a musical coherence and make for a soundtrack album that would really tell the story of the picture.
I started working while Walter was still shooting. However, only one theme – the Gump’s theme – was written before I actually got to see the rough cut of the film. Well before the spotting, Walter and I decided on certain basic ideas for the score’s tone and texture. We had some ideas based on music we liked – for instance, Charles Ives, especially his work for smaller combinations that can be heard on a wonderful album called Deranged Songs for Theatre Orchestra, plus some Prokofiev and Bartok. We later joked how one cue I’d written was in the style of “Prokofi-Ives”.
I tried to find models for each theme from American music that the character of Dorothy could have heard, since the story is, in a sense, Dorothy’s dream – she’s creating it. I wanted the score to have a truly American flavor and even though symphonic, to employ various interesting smaller combinations within that texture. I also wanted each of the “little” characters to have a characteristic small ensemble sound and pit all of them against the larger symphonic forces that mostly represent the “large” forces of evil (the Nome king and Mombi) that they are up against.
There are three themes that relate directly to Dorothy. The first is the “Home Theme” which represents Dorothy’s feeling about her Kansas home and Aunt Em. It’s hymn-like – much like something Dorothy would have heard at Sunday services. The other two are Dorothy’s Main Theme and the theme for Ozma. Following a suggestion from Walter, the latter two were designed to work together in counterpoint at the end of the movie.
Ozma is really Dorothy’s alter-ego – she’s the imaginative side of Dorothy that Dorothy is trying to make contact with. The subtext of the movie, according to Walter, is that Dorothy is going back to Oz to rescue and thus be able to reconcile herself with Ozma, and somehow find a way to be true to the world of her imagination while living in the real world. The themes play together for the first time as Ozma steps through the mirror and joins Dorothy in the big resolution scene in Oz. They do so again when Ozma appears in Dorothy’s mirror at the very end of the film. Ozma disappears and Dorothy runs outside to play, and the two melodies then really sing together in symphonic counterpoint during the end titles.
I had the Ozma theme early on, and after Walter made his counterpoint suggestion, it took a very long time to get a Dorothy theme that would work with it yet have an equally strong and distinct character of its own. I also gave each of the themes its own instrumental character – solo violin for Dorothy, solo cello for Ozma. I must have written twenty or twenty-five different Dorothy themes until I came up with one I was really happy with! All the throwaways either didn’t work well contrapuntally, or else sounded too much like counterpoints or obligatos rather than distinctive melodies. I didn’t want the climax to be telegraphed at all.
As for the other themes, the “Rag March,” which is first heard when Dorothy lands in Oz, has an obvious reference to turn-of-the-Century American music. Then there’s “Tik Tok’s Theme.” It features a brass quintet which related to Tik Tok’s metallic rotundity. Also, in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were several coronet players who were big musical stars and loved to play these wonderfully silly show-off cadenzas. Walter agreed with me that something like that would work very well for the end of the fight scene between Tik Tok and the evil Wheelers, Tik Tok’s big triumph.
The “Jack Pumpkinhead Theme” is a turn-of-the-Century waltz, again something Dorothy might have heard. I originally wrote it to feature clarinet, but Walter had me switch the melody to bass clarinet an octave lower because he thought the clarinet would be in the same audio range as Jack’s voice and would conflict. Oddly enough, Walter thought of this when he noticed that the bass clarinet (he didn’t know what it was) looked like the character of Jack Pumpkinhead! But he was right about the potential conflict and its solution.
Dorothy’s chicken friend, Bellina, has a motif for nervous high reeds and double reeds, moving quickly in major seconds.
As for the evil forces, Mombi’s theme employs a mandolin, since she plays her own theme on one in the movie. I used a synthesizer for this to get a slightly unreal mandolin sound that I could better control. The Gump has a clockwork-type Vamp, and, when he finally takes off, a big symphonic “movie-music” theme with the four horns triumphantly singing away.
The Nome King’s motif uses shifting whole tone harmonies in the lower end of the orchestra. As he gets meaner and meaner his essentially augmented triad harmonic character shifts to diminished seventh and Bartokian harmony. When he finally disintegrates, the three diminished chords are stacked horrifically a la the 12-tone “Wozzek Chord”. I tried to mirror his gradual psychological disintegration with a gradual harmonic one.
I gave the Wheelers a distinctive sound by featuring metallic percussion. I decided to use only string orchestra (with harp and percussion) for the first three reels before Dorothy gets to Oz, so that there would be a musical delineation between the real, somewhat dark world of Kansas and the bright and bizarre world of Oz. The woodwinds and brass are gradually introduced in the storm sequence as Dorothy is swept away to Oz.
I especially liked developing all the inter-relationships between the themes, such as in the ‘Rag March’, which has a few bars from each of the little characters’ themes threaded through it.
Why do you think the film itself was so unsuccessful?
It was a very dark vision, oddly enough closer to Frank Baum’s writing than the original OZ movie. However, the world knew and adored the other one, as I did.
Walter tried for a more authentic version, the scenic design based on the original illustrations. But the film is often strange and dark and many people, perhaps expecting another musical, compared it negatively to the original. Some critics said the film was too scary for kids, but my own son, who was afraid to see INDIANA JONES, wasn’t scared by RETURN TO OZ at all.
I do feel the film could have used more humor.
What response have you had to the score from critics and fans?
Not too many people saw the movie. However, the response to the album has been very gratifying. It was a long, hard saga to get one out on a picture that was quickly a dead issue. Disney was little help, but Craig Huxley (my electronic collaborator on 2010 and SHORT CIRCUIT and my close friend) liked the score a lot and offered to put it out if I would help financially so he could structure a deal that would allow him to break even. I was deeply involved with this score, and worked long and hard on it – as I was writing the score I had an album in mind and wanted to wind up with something that would sound like a concert suite rather than a collection of cues. To help this, I often made the silence between cuts on the album shorter than they normally are. I got a lovely letter from Page Cook who wrote a whole article on the score for the May, 1986 Films in Review. It was laudatory even beyond my hopes.
Now what about SHORT CIRCUIT, your new score? The music is a mix of synthesizers and full orchestra.
Yes. The film is about a robot who is struck by lightning and comes alive. This gave me the idea to start out just using synthesizer and as the robot came alive to gradually use more and more of the acoustic orchestra. The whole second reel of the picture, where the robot hasn’t yet come fully to life, is scored with a synclavier – melodic yet all electronic, then I gradually bring in a 60-piece orchestra. Craig Huxley and I spent four weeks pre-synthesizing elaborate synclavier cues, some to be used as rhythm tracks with the full orchestra, and some to be used alone.
One of the thematic elements is for the high-tech, modern Army (which is pursuing the robot) and which is all synthesized percussion. The robot’s rhythmic signature, an agitated sixteenth-note running figure, had to be perfectly precise and robotic. We finally came up with six or seven nested sounds on the synclavier. I wanted to make sure that the electronic rhythm section would have a lot of presence and cut through the big orchestra, and that the synth sounds would be exactly right.
Scoring mixer Danny Wallin brilliantly recorded the score with 6-track (boiled down from our original 24-tracks) synthesizer units against which we recorded 24 tracks of orchestra. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The only unpleasant aspect, in an otherwise pleasant project, is that early on the director, John Badham, and I had decided on having a song for the end title that would complete the emotional and musical statement of the picture and be the musical climax of the film. I worked for a month to find a piece of music that would score the film properly yet work as a song at the end. I wanted the song’s verse and chorus melody and its rhythm figure to be the three thematic elements I needed to score the picture with. It took a while but I finally got the material I was after.
Well, in the meantime, the film company, Tri-Star, had commissioned some pop songwriters to write a song for El DeBarge because they wanted a “surefire” hit record and music video, and then they said they wanted that song used for the end title. John Badham stayed on my side all the time since he realized the whole score built up to my end title. Anyhow, the songwriters, who couldn’t come up with anything, finally took a song they already had called “Who’s Johnny,” that didn’t have anything to do with the movie. They slightly modified it to try and make it fit, but it just didn’t work – musically or lyrically – with the film. After John repeatedly pointed this out to Tri-Star, and previewed the film with my song, they let him have his way.
As it stands out, the DeBarge song is only used as a source cue for about two minutes (it is a good pop song, by the way). However, Tri-Star gave Motown Records permission to subtitle the song ‘Who’s Johnny – Theme from SHORT CIRCUIT’. So, if there is any confusion, that song has nothing to do with the reality of the score, only with the unfortunate reality of the all-too-frequent corporate insensitivity to the integrity of film scores. But that’s nothing new, of course.
Next you’ll be working on ‘NIGHT, MOTHER (starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play.
It’s interesting going from SHORT CIRCUIT, a film about the progress from inanimation to life, to ‘NIGHT, MOTHER, which is about going from life to death. We’ve just finished spotting the film and there’s only eleven minutes of music in the picture, of which 6 minutes are the Main and End titles. I’m using solo classical guitar with a string orchestra, after the texture of the Vivaldi D major Guitar (lute) Concerto, which was the sound that Tom Moore, the director, and I fell in love with. At Tom’s request I made temp-tracks using guitar and piano for some early executive screenings, and the theme works really well.
Since the film deals with a very somber, serious subject – suicide – do you think you’ll write a score that underlines this aspect, or will you try to lighten things up with a more upbeat, life-affirming score?
We don’t want to make the film appear lighter or heavier than it is. The music takes its cue from the dignity and moving serenity of a girl who chooses to kill herself rather than live in insurmountable emotional pain. This more “removed” approach, which emphasized the quiet heroism of the main character if anything, seems to be the most effective way to go. Once again, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a really comfortable and pleasurable collaboration with a director.
How is your musical, Baby, doing (not to be confused with the dinosaur film, BABY: LEGEND OF THE LOST)?
Very well. Since it closed on Broadway two years ago, it’s had over a hundred different productions worldwide, including major ones in Japan and Australia, and it’s currently at a big theatre in Chicago for a six-month run. Richard Maltby and I are starting on a new musical show, by the way, and hopefully this next year my time will be equally divided between stage and screen work.