An Interview with Harry Manfredini by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.77/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Along with the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, the FRIDAY THE 13TH horror franchise changed the face of horror films – for good or for bad – and gave young moviegoers plenty of thrills and chills. A cinematic amusement ride that, with the release of JASON X this year, has plied its formulaic intentions through ten feature films and created one of the leading icons of modern monsterdom. With a couple of exceptions, the musical design for the films is the work of composer Harry Manfredini, who defined the series’ relentless musical style with his masterful score for the first film in 1980. On JASON X, Manfredini found himself back in territory both familiar and distinct, as the film’s futuristic / outer space setting brought plenty of opportunities to take the familiar Jason music into new directions.
I’m assuming it was a given that you’d score this film, in view of your history composing the previous FRIDAY THE 13th movies. Was this, indeed, the case?
One would think that this was a sure thing and I guess I did assume that I would be on the project. However, I don’t think there is anything that can be assumed anymore. This was as close to a sure thing as possible, but still nothing is for sure. I have had many experiences to the contrary.
Having created and defined the musical ambiance for the FRIDAY THE 13th pictures for more than 20 years, how has the music and the musical approach evolved and developed over the years?
The music in essence has remained pretty much the same, since the pictures have basically remained the same. I know that there are many “aficionadi” who might say that they are different, but I think the essence is still the same. The elements that have changed in the music have been affected more by the budget of the score – in other words, more money, therefore more players! On some occasions the particular film may have had more of a spiritual or magical twist to the plot. In that case, I have incorporated these elements into the score, but the actual approach is similar. Also, each director seems to have brought his own talents and elements to the various incarnations. Each had their own concept of what they wanted, and of course I responded to their desires, but almost always in the defined Jason/Friday parameters and paradigms.
With its futuristic, outer space setting, how did your approach to JASON X differ from those of previous films?
There were a number of elements that had to be addressed. I don’t want to give too much of the film plot or surprises away, so I am going to have to dance around some of these things. It was necessary to create more futuristic music, but still keep that same Jason / Friday sensibility that we talked about in an earlier question. The use of more exotic and “stomp-ish” percussion changes the overall sound. There is a bit more of a new age slant in some places, evoking a sense of discovery that the future kids are feeling. There is also a reprise of some of the original score that was necessary to the film. The space stuff started out very STAR WARS like, but then [director] Jim Isaac wanted to adjust this a bit, since it’s really not that kind of film. The sound is there, but not as grandiose as it could be. I think that this change was really more in line with this particular film.
There is also more of a Gothic element that is added to the score. This was used in what I might call the Resurrection theme. There is even some sort of metallic 12-tone stuff. There are a lot of new elements in this particular score, in keeping with the film’s new approach. However, I’ve used many of the old reliable elements. I like this film a lot.
How much of the score is horror, and how much is science fiction? How are you merging these seemingly disparate elements?
Good question. My first reaction is that this is not really that much of a horror film. This may not sit well with the “fans”, but the film is more than horror. It has elements of action / adventure, and has a gothic quality about it. It is much funnier than any of the other films. It is more entertaining than any of the other sequels have been. I know there will be some arguments on that statement, but heck, I have my opinion. There is an interesting use of comedy that plays off the “fish out of water” or perhaps better “fish in the future” elements of the plot. The audience is in on the jokes, while the characters are not aware. So, I’ll leave it to you to see how I merged these elements. There is some meshing of styles, but the film did not need as much as one might think. We will just have to wait and see.
How closely have you worked with director Jim Isaac? To what extent did he involve himself in your music?
Ultimately we did get a chance to work together. The picture and the schedule did not make for a lot of conversation at first. We did spot the film together and talked in general about the approach. Jim is more interested in the music setting the mood, rather than always being on the nose, or even being very melodic. This I liked. After a few versions of the film and some screenings, we were able to spend more time analyzing each cue. I welcomed the feedback and the chance to work together toward the same goal.
What was most challenging about this score for you?
This picture needed various styles and sensibilities. There are numerous styles, and techniques used, and yet they had to all be somehow connected and unified into one piece of cloth.
How did you deal with the last-minute changes in the final stages? How much of that affected the music you were writing either negatively (rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting) or positively (hey: cool new idea here!)?
There were some last minute changes… well, there were more than some. But they were little editing elements that only changed the timing and the synchronization of the score. So it wasn’t the re-writing that was the issue, but the re-timing. The changes did bring more positive things to the score. I had the opportunity to look at the picture with Jim, and then take some time to digest the ideas. Then we were able to address the problems and find the creative and positive solutions. Cool new ideas emerged.
The JASON franchise has held its own for twenty years now. Have you found it difficult to come up with new ideas for the series? (You must have welcomed JASON X with its brand new setting and time period!)
I’ll address the second part of your question first. Yes. I welcomed this change. The ideas for the previous incarnations of the film always seemed to have little effect on the essence of the music, as mentioned earlier. The basic tension-stalk-kill or tension-stalk-red-herring was the standard order of the day. Things started to change with JASON GOES TO HELL. But this film is quite different, even though some of these elements playa role.
You scored all the FRIDAY films except PART 8: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, which was scored by Fred Mallin. What happened there?
Well, that is not totally correct. Some of the films were scored with the earlier scores. Part 3, for example, was scored with parts 1 and 2. I did write new music for the first reel and last reel, but the remainder of the score was from the library of the first two films. Also, I did not score Part 7: THE NEW BREED. I’m not really sure what happened on this project. As I remember, I was working on DEEP STAR SIX at the time. I was also offered one of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels at the same time. I’m not one for ghostwriters, and so I like to work on one thing at a time. So, I chose the DEEP STAR SIX score. There may have been something about Canadian content for that particular FRIDAY, but I’m not sure of that. This is a long way of saying I don’t really know. Also, I’m not completely sure about why I didn’t do JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, but I’m sure it is related somehow to the things that occurred on Part 7.
Prior to JASON X you scored THE OMEGA CODE, a speculative biblical thriller about the end times. How would you describe your musical approach to this film, and what challenges did it offer?
The biggest challenge was the schedule. The picture came to me after another score was not acceptable. However, the post-production schedule could not be changed. So, I had two weeks to do the entire score. I have to say I did coax them into three more days, but that was all I could get. The picture required some interesting styles. There was a religious slant, and the use of new technology to decipher old biblical codes. There was some use of mid-east scales and rhythms, and some fun things that I got to do with the violin solos of Rimsky-Korsakov. It was a hectic two weeks, but I did enjoy the score. I think it added a lot to the overall success of the film.
What are your recollections about scoring the thrillers A GUN, A CAR, A BLONDE, HIDDEN AGENDA, and RAVEN? Did you find these scores a pleasing change of pace with no slashers or demons present?
Well, they all have their demons, just different kinds. Let’s start with A GUN, A CAR, A BLONDE. This was one of my best experiences in film composing. There was a limited budget and time, but a picture I absolutely loved. Working with Toni Epperson and Stephanie Ames was such a dream. The film had a super cast, and I got to dust off the cobwebs off my tenor sax and play some smoky film noir licks! I remember telling Tom and Stephanie that this project reminded me of the early days when everyone worked on it for the love of it. Not that other films are not creative and carefully constructed, but it had a feeling of “let’s do this.” It is a picture of which I am particularly proud.
HIDDEN AGENDA was another film that had the original score not accepted, and again I was on a whirlwind schedule. I think I had three weeks to complete it. This was a fun score, because the concept was something like Morricone’s jazzy thriller scores. I said, “Let me at it!” I had to create an American jazzy theme, and some sort of East German theme. The film is set in post Berlin wall Germany. There is a Hindemithian theme for the young German girl, and a Flugelhorn jazzy theme tor the young man. Eventually these come together musically in an E minor 4/4 – G Major 3/4 kind of thing. I am very happy with this score. RAVEN was a Burt Reynolds film – basically a straight action-adventure thing.
WISHMASTER gave you the chance to compose for a supernatural horror film, versus the JASON slasher genre. What kinds of musical challenges did this film pose for you?
This was the first time I had the chance to deal with two musical elements that up until then I had not been required to use. One was the use of Arabian scales and odd rhythms, to deal with the beginnings of the story of the Djinn. Then I had to find a way to get those elements into the main part of the film, which took place in the present. The supernatural part of the story offered some opportunities to use various voices and effects in ways I had not used them before. Some of these did come up in JASON GOES TO HELL, since there were some scenes that were not all that horror, but more supernatural. One of my favorite themes of WISHMASTER was written for the Djinn in the present day. The clarinets in major thirds had a comedic and sort of sarcastic quality, which I thought matched the character. I loved working with Bob Kurtzman. He is a breath of fresh air in this business. He has a project called “Junk” which I hope gets made. I would love to do that music.
AMORE! was a rare opportunity to score a comedy film. How did you get that project and what were you able to bring into it?
I got this assignment from my engineer, Jerry Lambert, who also is a producer and filmmaker. A man of many talents. He was the line-producer, and post-supervisor on this film. He always liked the way I write comedy. He says it’s one of my talents that I don’t get to use. So off I went. It was a light-hearted, old-fashioned love story, almost 50’s-like in its approach. There were many styles of music. Old style swing and big band. Then there were some really funny old black and white films with George Hamilton as a film heartthrob. I scored these in the old super lush style of those films. Since there was an Italian sub-plot, I got to write some European film score music, and managed to get a Barber of Seville parody in there as well. So I brought a lot to it, and had a great time in the process.
What do you have coming up in the future?
At the moment, I am scoring a film called HEART OF A CHAMPION. It is a boxing movie from the producers of OMEGA CODE. It has a great uplifting story, and some really fine boxing scenes.
Next, I have another film from Sean Cunningham called EXTREME CLOSE-UP. This is a really interesting project in that it has three different perspectives and three different scoring attitudes all working together.
There is another OMEGA CODE in the works, called MEGIDDO, but I have not been offered this as yet. As I mentioned earlier, I will not assume that it is mine.
How do you feel about your career thus far? Have the FRIDAY and the HOUSE and the other horror films been a blessing or a curse? Are there other types of films you like to do that you aren’t being offered because producers just think of you as that JASON composer? Where do you want to go from here?
Well, that’s a good one. I guess I would say I am okay about my career thus far. But things could always improve. I suppose if you asked any composer with the exception of a scant few, the answer would be that they would like to get better films to score and larger budgets to work with and more time, and etc, etc.
I have to say honestly that the FRIDAY, and not so much the HOUSE series, has been a bit of a double-edged sword. There is a certain “curse” that goes along with the success of these films and it is a difficult thing to escape. I continue to try. Where do I go from here? I just keep on going. I do the pictures that I am assigned, and give all that I have to them. From the time I was young, all I ever wanted to do was to write film music, and that’s what I do. I remember having dreams about sitting at a keyboard, and having the film in front of me! This was a special keyboard that would be able to play any sound that I wanted. And here we are today: I get to sit at a keyboard with the film in front of me, and can play any sound I want. What more can you ask for?