An Interview with David Whitaker by John Mansell
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.13/No.51/1994
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and John Mansell
David Whitaker is a composer who is familiar to collectors of soundtracks, and also cinemagoers alike. His contributions to the world of motion pictures have been both varied and memorable, and although he has not worked on hundreds of motion pictures he has certainly made his mark on the pictures he has been involved with. I would like to thank the composer for taking the time out to talk to me, and also many thanks to P.R.S. in particular Angie Willard of that organisation for making the interview possible.
Where did you study music and what did you concentrate upon during these studies?
I studied at the Guildhall school of music in London; this was from 1947–1949… I suppose that makes me sound rather ancient doesn’t it. I studied piano, composition and conducting.
Do you also orchestrate all of your own music as well as conducting it?
Yes I do, I think that orchestration is a very important part of the composition process, if you have composed the music, then why hand it over to someone else to orchestrate it, it’s like writing a book and then having someone else re-write it before you send it to a publisher. I have conducted all of my scores with the exception of the Hammer films I worked on which were THAT’S YOUR FUNERAL, VAMPIRE CIRCUS and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. These were conducted by Phil Martell, who was Hammer’s MD at the time.
What do you think is the role of music within a movie?
Well, it should be a perfect marriage, but invariably as marriages are not perfect, things do go wrong at times. I suppose it’s a chance to make things work when you write music for film, I think one of the last big pictures I did was way back in 1983, this was THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, now the film was not that good, but I like to think my music helped it along on its way to being a watchable film. It desperately needed music, I actually wrote 75 minutes of score for that film which ran for just over 100 minutes. But if a film is poor then no amount of music will cover up its pitfalls, and that’s whether it’s written by me, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Jerry Fielding or Ennio Morricone. After all most people go to watch a movie, not listen to its score. I don’t think music should ever overpower a film; it should underline or punctuate certain scenes and support the story. When I did my first score, the producer was very indulgent and also very sweet, but I did make a lot of silly mistakes.
I suppose most of it was due to stress and wanting to get things right. I tended to go over the top a little, thus making the scenes I had scored look silly. Luckily the producer let me go back and re-do a lot of the cues. Today I think that music should not be subservient to a movie, but there are times when I think that there is too little music in a film. Many of the movies that are released nowadays have a very sparse score, and they fill out the soundtrack with songs, obviously this is good for the film company or the record label that is releasing the soundtrack, but often the original score that a composer has crafted especially for a film is ignored and overpowered by the use of songs being tacked onto the soundtrack. Back in the days when composers like Bernard Herrmann were reigning supreme in Hollywood, music would run more or less continuously under a film, but it was done in such a way that you never really noticed, and it was never intrusive above the storyline or the acting. The composers then would even follow the dialogue, but it was never obtrusive and gave the film what I call its flavour.
How many times, do you like to look at a movie before you begin to form ideas about the music?
Well, nowadays everything is different, you get to see the movie with the producer/director etc, and also you get a video/DVD of the film as well, so you have it at hand at all times to refer back to, so this is a lot easier than when I first started to write film scores. We used to sit down with the editor to work out all of the timings done in relation to the footage. Back in 1966 there were no videos, so after a screening one had to rely on what notes you had made and also on cue sheets which were very detailed. I think I would see a picture four maybe five times and then would return to view it on a movieola in the editors office on occasion. So with video and DVD you don’t have as much of the going back and forth.
What is your preferred method of working out your musical ideas; do you use piano or synth?
The piano is my instrument so I use it when composing, I also have a little synthesiser which I use to demonstrate ideas, but I think that the music that comes out of it sounds rather like a zombie, it’s very artificial. I hope that one day there will be no synthesisers left. But seriously I prefer real instruments and real musicians.
How did you become involved with Hammer films?
A lot of years before I started to do things for Hammer, I had contacted Phil Martell asking him if he would be able to conduct one of my scores, I wanted to be in the sound box with the engineer to supervise the proceedings. Unfortunately because of a very small budget I could not afford Phil. But as a sort of thank you for thinking of him he called me and asked if I was available to score a picture for Hammer.
Of course I was thrilled to do this, and the film turned out to be DR. JECKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. I know that the film was being worked on by another composer who had certain disagreements with the producers, but I got along fine with them. I then was asked to do VAMPIRE CIRCUS, I always remember seeing the film for the first time and thinking how camp the Vampire was at the start of the film, but I kept that to myself.
What size orchestra were you allowed to use on VAMPIRE CIRCUS, because it sounds like a huge symphony orchestra?
It is certainly not huge, after seeing the film I decided that it needed a big orchestral score, at that time Hammer’s formula for an orchestra line up was around 120 musicians, and it was up to the composer how those players were utilised. With some guidance from Phil Martell, I spread them out as I saw fit, I think we used about 60 players for each session.
What was Phil Martell like to work with?
Phil did have a bit of a reputation, he however was ok with me, I don’t think we disagreed about a lot of things, and any difference of opinion was always handled diplomatically. He was always quite serious, and although there were not many light moments with him, I think we hit it off both professionally and outside of the studio.
Do you score a film in any particular order, for example do you begin with the main theme and work your way through the movie?
I like to start with the cue that I think will be the most difficult, I leave the smaller cues or music stabs till later on, when I might be wearing a bit thin. I begin with a large size orchestra and then as the sessions progress I reduce this down to fit the requirements of the film. Speaking personally I think it is probably better to start with the composition of the main or central theme, then one can develop this material and it can be used throughout the score. Everything has to be organised, after all you are booking musicians etc, and the film company will not be best pleased if you take up valuable studio time if things are not all in place. Sessions are very expensive, and with music budgets being what they are, everything has to go without a hitch.
What is your opinion of the increased use of electronics within film scores?
I think that electronics certainly have their place in film music, and nowadays technology makes it very easy for composers. But I think that you will find that the films of a better quality will tend to stick with a symphonic score, maybe electronics will support in places, but bigger budget movies do not seem to contain that much electronic material. Vangelis is a composer that excels with electronic or synthesised music, but even he in recent times has begun to utilise an orchestra and choir. I personally would always prefer to hear a real orchestra on a film score.
Have you ever had a bad experience whilst working on a film?
Not a bad experience, but if you mean have I ever had a score thrown out, yes of course, this happens to the best of us. One score that was rejected was BLIND TERROR or SEE NO EVIL as it was called in the States, this was a Mia Farrow movie, the producers had already had Andre Previn score the picture and were not happy with it, so I was asked to score it, I actually liked the Previn score, but mine too was deemed unsuitable and eventually Elmer Bernstein scored the movie. Bernstein told me he did like my score, so I was happy about that.
Are there any composers at all that you find interesting or have maybe influenced you in any way?
Oh yes. There are quite a lot, Korngold for one, I knew his son George very well. I was in Hollywood for about a year, which is where I met him. He sadly passed away a few years ago. Bernard Herrmann is also on my list; his score for FARENHEIT 451 is marvellous. Nowadays there is John Williams, and of course Jerry Goldsmith still has an influence even after his death. I think his best was BOYS FROM BRAZIL, I met him whilst he was on a trip to London, and I was doing some arrangements for him or maybe conducting something for him, he said that he had heard my score for RUN WILD RUN FREE the mark Lester film about a horse, he said he thought it was very Brahmsian work, I took that as a compliment because out of the classical composers I think I did lean towards Brahms more than any others. I tend to go for the more romantic sounding composers such as Rachmaninov, I think that most composers are influenced by classical composers especially Holst and Prokofiev. Maurice Jarre is another composer of film music that I admire, he has written some wonderful soundtracks.
At what stage of the proceedings do you prefer to become involved on a film?
As you probably know, when the rough cut of the movie is more or less ready they are then looking for a date for a fine print. This is because they will try and bring the production in under budget. It is really a question of when I am asked to work on a film, the best time for me is when a rough cut of a movie is more or less finished, I can then sit down and spot the film with the editor, this could take up to two weeks at times.
What do you do musically away from film?
I like to write music for piano, some of this gets published most of it does not. I always have music in my head, I am involved in doing some video material at the moment for a French company, this is a sort of thinking mans rock and roll, but for this I use my little Japanese machine.
Were there any scores that found particularly difficult?
In point of fact I suppose you could say that every score is difficult, But I must admit that when one was given the challenge to come up with a score within a five or six week period I sort of rose to the occasion, when under pressure I never found it difficult to produce music. Although it might not have been the right music (laughs). When I did my first film, which was a Jerry Lewis movie entitled DON’T RAISE THE BRIDGE, LOWER THE RIVER. I went into the studio with my heart in my mouth and my cap in hand. The recording was at the old Shepperton studios, it was 3 track and all that, so if I made a mistake the rewind used to take forever, and I used to get very red faced and very hot under the collar. But after this my baptism of fire in film music I got used to the studios and the routines and the rest of my scores seemed to come to me easily.
You arranged some of your music from VAMPIRE CIRCUS into a suite for a re-recording which was released by Silva Screen, were you present at the recording?
Yes I was, and to be honest I was a little disappointed with this recording, I felt that the orchestra was not utilised in the proper way, and the conductor was probably not the best choice for the recording.
GDI, records in the UK have recently been releasing the original scores from Hammer pictures, and you are represented on various discs with tracks from all three of your Hammer scores, and they have also hinted that DR. JECKYLL AND SISTER HYDE may be given a full soundtrack release, what are your thoughts on this?
It would be nice, but to be honest I do not know who GDI are, as I would really like to be paid some royalties for the music they have released. That’s the thing with film music every one seems to think that they can just releases a soundtrack and pay no attention to the person or persons that wrote it.