An interview with George S. Clinton by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 18/ No 70; 1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven & Rudy Koppl
It’s approximately 3PM at the 20th Century Fox Scoring Stage as the orchestral scoring session for the new Austin Powers film THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME is winding down. As the wild images of this film pass through the multiple video monitors, George Clinton commands the orchestra playing the final cues. From his laid back romantic lounge music of Austin with his babes to the over-the-top, crazy, and intense symphonic cue when the camera pans out of a giant head to further reveal that it is a structure on a remote island, this composer’s style puts its signature on each scene it supports. A little Barry, Mancini, and Goldsmith with a twist, but in the end, pure George Clinton. After the orchestra had left, George pulls out a bottle of Martell Brandy and toasts the success and hard work with his scoring team. Austin Powers is a spy lost in an era of Go Go dancers gone by first brought to life in 1997 when Michael Meyers imploded onto the big screen as The International Man Of Mystery Parody and satire are the words that describe these films best, while absurdity is the order of the moment. However composer George Clinton has ingenuously brought this mod madness to life. It’s the contrast of his score combined with the on screen drama that creates a hysterical psychological reaction to many events in THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME.
George S. Clinton came out of Nashville, Tennessee with a degree in music and drama, working his way through college by doing country music sessions. He took the California plunge in 1970 with the intention of becoming a rock star. A staff songwriter at Warner Brothers Music for six years, he had songs recorded by Joe Cocker; Diana Ross, and various other rhythm and blues artists. “All along I kept my arranging and classical music chops up just out of interest,” Clinton said. “After my last effort at a band, which was in 1976, I decided to take some of the offers I’d been getting to get involved in film music seriously.”
His first score was for Cheech and Chong’s STILL SMOKIN’ The comedy duo recruited him for their next film, THE CORSICAN BROTHERS, and Clinton went on to score a variety of films throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, including the AMERICAN NINJA series, Zalman King’s RED SHOE DIARIES, PLATOON LEADER, MOTHER’S BOYS, BRAINSCAN, MORTAL COMBAT I and 2, BEVERLY HILLS NINJA and WILD THINGS. Scoring the first AUSTIN POWERS in 1997 allowed Clinton’s scoring versatility to really shine.
Just before we started our interview, Clinton looked at the cup he had drunk the brandy from and said, “I don’t want to scare anybody but the brandy ate up the bottom of this cup. “A couple of us laughed at the thought. As Clinton and I proceeded to the interview room at the side of the scoring stage I thought, “Wow, that was powerful stuff.”
Explain the details and logistics involving your latest Austin Powers score?
I had about two and a half weeks to write the music and then another few days to adapt it, but the movie was continually changing so I likened it to “flying to fit clothes on a running man.” It’s very difficult, but that was part of the job, so I had about two and a half or three weeks. There is between 45 to 50 minutes of score, which involves 47 starts or cues. The shortest cue is 4 bars long – about seven seconds – while the longest cue is about two and a half minutes or over 100 bars. My first day of scoring was at O’Henry Sound Studios in Burbank. This was a double session that lasted six hours with ten pieces, a rhythm section and four horn players. There were two more days of scoring sessions, May 5th and 6th, here at the 20th Century Fox Newman Scoring Stage, two double sessions each day that add up to a total of twelve hours. The A Orchestra that was here for three sessions included 80 pieces, while the B Orchestra was here for three hours and included 55 pieces. In total time my scoring sessions lasted about eighteen hours.
Could you tell me about your Barryesque influence when scoring this and the first AUSTIN POWERS film?
One of the great things that Barry went for is what he called the “Wall of Steel” sound, those wonderful big brass and percussion hits that you hear in those movies. That was an element I was going for, this “Wall of Steel” effect. This is very heavy low brass, so I used five trombones and a tuba, one of them was bass trombone. You emphasize that part of it and keep the low brass very dark and sinister sounding. He does that a lot too. Another thing he does, which I really like, is he’ll find a pattern and repeat it over and over again, he just keeps adding to that pattern. It’s almost like a minimalist approach towards composition where it doesn’t change tonality or even rhythm that much, it just collects instruments along the way. What started out as simply timpani and double basses ends up as this huge piece of score. I really like that effect and it works great in this type of movie.
You seem to be influenced by the atmospheric brass style that John Barry did so well. In GOLDFINGER there area lot of cues like this.
Absolutely. Also I like to underscore some of the dialog with just harp, vibes, and I added electric organ. I don’t think Barry used electronic Hammond organ in his stuff. He used the twangy guitar, but not in some of the suspenseful ways that I use it. What I try to do is take elements from his music book, especially the atmospheric and big stuff. Also I take elements from Mancini as well. I blend the two of them together and add elements to this that they may not have used. Mancini was doing comedies with the PINK PANTHER series, but Barry wasn’t doing comedy in the James Bond films.
Your scoring style here is like a cross between tasty or romantic type lounge music and the over-the-top Bond suspense type scoring.
Yeah, that’s a good description. The Mancini part of it is this sort of lounge music or romantic type of scoring. If you see TWO FOR THE ROAD or some of these things Mancini did, when you hear his music against the picture it’s perfect. It resonates exactly what it needs to resonate under what you’re seeing in the movie. To me if the music does that, then it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. If it serves the film and makes you believe AUSTIN POWERS is really a secret agent, even though you know he’s not. The music’s saying, “Yes he is. Yes he is,” but he’s going, “No I’m not. No I’m not,” and you’re thinking he’s just this funny goofy guy, but the music’s telling you, “Hey, this guy is a real serious spy. Pay attention!” I like the juxtaposition of that.
How do you score absurdity? What comes to mind to connect with it?
When I was hired to do this film they had temped it with things like THUNDERBALL and THE PINK PANTHER. The same way that the set designer was careful to use colors and designs and the art director from the era to make it look like the sixties. The costume designer, everybody was very careful to draw from the period and genre, elements that said, “This is when it is.” I did the same thing with the music. The challenge was to take those pieces of temp music and come up with something that was my own and yet retain the elements of the John Barry, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith. Jerry Goldsmith, talking about absurdity, there’s a good key for scoring absurdity. IN LIKE FLINT, to me this is a good lesson in scoring absurdity. I think that was my inspiration in terms of some of the really absurd stuff.
One of the things we developed in the first AUSTIN POWERS, that we have taken to a new height in this one, is where the music will be going really strong and really big and suddenly it will stop because Dr. Evil has forgotten his next line or because there’s some joke that has to be told at that particular moment. The joke is told or he remembers his line and he goes on and then the music comes back in full blast as if we were waiting for him to do this. You get this sense that the orchestra is in the pit and they’re waiting for the actor to get his cue so that the guy can go on doing it again! It gives this nice kind of interplay between the orchestra and what’s happening on the screen that makes it seem immediate because it’s like the whole orchestra’s in on the joke.
Did you score THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME from an intellectual or purely emotional reaction from what was going on, on the screen?
That’s an interesting question because it’s hard to say in a comedy. I still laugh really hard seeing some of these jokes and I don’t know how many times I’ve seen them. In regard to the first AUSTIN POWERS, it was purely a reaction to the comedy that was there, there was not very much intellectualizing about it all because it was the first film. In the second film you had things to consider. You had themes that you had developed that you wanted to build on. You had aspects of Austin Powers and Dr. Evil and a new character Fat Bastard who needed a theme, also Mini Me who’s this little person about three feet tall. Dr. Evil early in the film is informed by the Robert Wagner character that they had tried to clone him, but there had been a problem and that they had come out with this guy that was only one eighth his size. There is actually this little guy, a three-foot tall guy who Dr. Evil names Mini Me, who is with him for the rest of the film. There are elements here that suddenly you have to think about, so to that degree you are intellectualizing. How am I going to build on what I did before and yet go beyond it? Have it retain the feel, the atmosphere of the first film, and yet not have it be redundant. There are more intellectual things or considerations other than just emotional reactions involved in doing a sequel. Also on the sequel I built on themes from the first film and they evolved into new themes, not overusing the old ones. I didn’t want to be lazy about it and sit back, I wanted to take it to a new place.
Did you orchestrate and conduct AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME?
On films like this I work with a couple of orchestrators, Suzie Katayama and Rick Giovinazzo. I give them very specific sketches in terms of what I want the brass, strings, and percussion to play. They realize this on their computers with tile music notation programs they have and create the actual large score paper that you see. Then they give that to the copyist who copies the individual parts for the scoring stage. I write the music and orchestrate it initially in sketch form before I give it to them. Also I conduct my own scores because I don’t know how many chances I’m going to get in life to stand in front of great musicians and conduct my own music, so I take every opportunity I get to do that.
What is your biggest challenge in scoring films?
One of the biggest challenges is the time pressure that a composer has on him now. People edit the picture digitally now. There used to be another week of post production where they were getting their opticals back, but now you’re in a situation where people are editing on Avids and they’ve already loaded in temp scores from all these CDs so they have this incredible sounding music under their film. You’re coming into a situation where a lot of the musical discussion and decisions have already been made or a lot of options have already been tossed aside for whatever reason, usually between the editor who is temping the movie and the director who’s saying, “I don’t like the way that sounds,” or whatever.
A lot of musical discussions have already taken place which you’re not privy to. That’s an interesting situation to come into and there’s less time because of the fact that they’re able to change the movie so instantly. They’re continually changing it up to the last minute. Like I said, “Trying to fit clothes on a running man.” If they’re not changing it, you’ve got a shorter period of time anyway because they can do a lot of the dissolves or what used to be opticals right there in the Avid.
To me, a lot of creativity is trial and error and trial and error takes time. If you don’t have time to do trial and error, unfortunately you’re going to start depending on things that you know work. And if you start depending on things you know work, that means you’re not trying to find new things that work. This means you’re repeating yourself, you’re being safe and you’re not challenging yourself. So I think the biggest challenge is finding the time. I get up at 4:30 in the morning and go out to my studio. Then I have breakfast with my wife and child after they get up at 6AM. Then I go back to the studio again. At 7:00 PM I have dinner with my family and then go back to my studio and work till 11 PM. I’ll do that for the two and a half to three weeks that I have to write. That’s simply to give myself enough time for the trial and error aspect of creativity. You have to say at a certain point, which we did on THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, the version we are scoring to as of this date is the final version. If there are any changes after this point they will have to be made by music editing because we can’t accommodate them.
Is there any type of film you would like to score most?
I think it would be fun to do a romantic comedy, but do it in the style of a sixties romantic comedy. Like TWO FOR THE ROAD, because people respond to that style of music. The players respond to it and the people listening to it respond to it. It would be fun to do, it would be fun to take a modern romantic comedy and musically approach it in the style of the sixties.
How do you feel about your career in film scoring?
I feel good about it, the last few years have been real good for me. I’ve had some hits and have been able to work with some really good directors. I’ve been able to do a varied kind of film score from MORTAL COMBAT to WILD THINGS to AUSTIN POWERS, so I don’t feel like I’ve been pigeonholed and yet l don’t feel like a mainstream guy either. I like being a little peripheral, it gives you a little more room to maneuver.
What are your future plans?
My future plans are to continue on the career path that I’m on. I’d like to be doing bigger movies more often and continue doing that as long as I can physically and emotionally. Ultimately I don’t have any designs to write symphonies or concert music. If somebody wants to hear a suite of some of my movie music, I’d love to do that. I’ve written some musicals, ones being produced in Tennessee at the big regional theater there this fall. I like writing musicals and that’s about it. I just need to help see my daughter through college and take care of the family.