Henry Mancini on Scoring Lifeforce

An Interview with Henry Mancini by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson

Henry ManciniWhile the name of Henry Mancini is most often linked with the light pop-jazz music he composed for films such as CHARADE, HATARI (remember the Baby Elephant Walk?) and the PINK PANTHER films, he has recently emerged with a pair of strong symphonic scores which demonstrate effectively that Mancini is no slouch when it comes to the thunderous John Williams school of film scoring.

The pictures are Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE, a broad, surging score performed by more than a hundred members of the London Symphony Orchestra, and SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE, a more lyrical though equally complex composition. While Mancini dabbled in a few fantasy film scores over the years (fowl genre offerings like NIGHTWING, CONDORMAN and TV’s insubstantial version of THE INVISIBLE MAN), these two 1985 releases are Mancini’s first real return to full-blown fantasy films in thirty years, and in a sense it’s drawn him full circle, for this is just where he started when he first began working in Hollywood in 1952.

Mancini came to the attention of Universal music department head Joseph Gershenson when he did some arrangements for a short subject with the Mello-Larks, a popular singing group of the early 50’s in which his wife was a member. Gershenson was impressed by Mancini’s work and hired him to compose some music for the Abbott and Costello film, LOST IN ALASKA (1952). Other projects quickly followed and Mancini found himself spending the next six years as a member of the Universal music staff, working with other contract composers and arrangers such as Hans Salter, Herman Stein and Frank Skinner.

Unlike some of the other studios, the films cranked out by the Universal factory of the 50’s were usually scored by a team of composers, most of whom usually received little screen credit for the work they had done. In addition, the music they did compose was frequently kept in a music library and used repeatedly in subsequent films – many of the Universal b-movies of the 50’s were in fact scored with nothing but library tracks. [See Herman Stein interview in CS #13/14 for more details.]

Under the supervision of Gershenson, composers were assigned to score various segments of the film (usually divided up by reels of film). For example, for IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, Herman Stein was assigned to compose the main thematic material for the score, and collaborators Mancini and Irving Gertz utilized his themes in the segments they composed. The practice was a frequent one in all of Universal’s b-movies of the period. “I used to say to Herman, ‘you take reels one to five, I’ll take reels six to ten and I’ll meet you at the pass!’” Mancini recalled. “If I had a theme I would give it to him and if he had one he would give it to me and we would just exchange the themes. The idea was to get it done as best we could.”

What it resulted in for Mancini was an amazing apprenticeship where he had the opportunity to compose all types of music, learning through experience the necessary crafts of arranging, adapting, orchestrating and fighting the restrictions of rigid deadlines and lean budgets. “Those years at Universal were like taking a doctorate in film scoring,” Mancini once told film music historian Tony Thomas. “It prepared me for just about any assignment that would come up in the years ahead.”

Mancini contributed music to hundreds of Universal films during the 50’s, including many of their notable science fiction efforts. He composed short segments of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THIS ISLAND EARTH and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS, scored nearly all of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, and had earlier music re-used in TARANTULA and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE. (This habit of reusing music in new films hasn’t ended for Mancini, either. One of the strongest moments of Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF – that stirring music heard when John Glenn’s orbiting space capsule reveals the gorgeous sunrise over the planet Earth – was in fact the very same music Mancini had written for Kaufman’s 1974 Arctic adventure film, THE WHITE DAWN, re-used intact).

THE WHITE DAWN was one of the few opportunities Mancini seemed to have to write a symphonic score for large orchestra; having been popularized by the PINK PANTHER and similar films, most of the assignments he received were for that kind of music. So it was somehow gratifying to hear his full-blooded score for LIFEFORCE during 1985s summer. Mancini hadn’t worked with Tobe Hooper before, but the director had wanted him to score the film and Mancini accepted, finding himself composing for the same kinds of fantastic moments that he did when he started thirty-five years previously.

There was no feeling of déjà-vu, however. “It’s been so long since I did those early ones, and my head has changed so much since then, that it was going in pretty fresh,” Mancini said. “At Universal we only had thirty-five men on the staff, and when you go from there to the 100-piece London Symphony Orchestra it’s quite a change!”

Mancini’s music for LIFEFORCE is characterized by a strong, driving rhythm heard at various moments in the film but brought to life during the lengthy end title segment. It’s music that gives the film a force that propels it onward and gives life to the strange behavior of its characters. In a very real sense, Mancini gives the film much of its emotional life force through the strength of his music. “The canvas I used was large orchestra,” Mancini said. “I didn’t use many electronics — there were some in there for some very special effects, but not very much. I just wanted to do it orchestrally, but I didn’t want to step on Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams or other people who had done those kind of pictures before. I was very conscious about not getting into their areas.”

In addition to the orchestra, Mancini used a female choir to provide an especially dramatic quality to the apocalyptic scenes near the film’s end. The voices were fed into a Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument — a digital computer which offers endless variations of sound) which synthesized them; the Fairlight sounds were then combined with the real singers to provide an unusual harmony and musical texture which was used sparingly throughout the film. “The score was approached tonally,” Mancini said. “There was nothing atonal, really. There was a lot of dramatic writing, but I just took a romantic, classical approach without going too far out. I wanted to have it make sense to everybody concerned.”

Mancini was also involved in the musical effects that comprised much of the film’s overall sound design, working closely with director Tobe Hooper. “Tobe is a director who likes to have a lot of material to work with, effect-wise, so there were a lot of things we did. We went into a studio one day and recorded sounds — piano-string sounds, rubber-ball-on-the-gong sound, all of that stuff. We got a whole back-log of that which he cut in, more or less for effect purposes.”

Mancini composed and recorded an hour and forty minutes of music for LIFEFORCE, including a twenty-minute sequence that became something of a tone poem for the opening of the film. Unfortunately, much of the musical sensibility of this sequence, and others, was distorted when the film was edited by Cannon Films prior to release. “I scored to the full length picture, but when it was finished the distributors from America got in with their axes,” Mancini said, without a whole lot of pleasure. “The original first twenty minutes of the film were like a ballet to me — that’s one of the reasons I was so interested in doing the film — and it was just beautiful. There were some lovely effects. But the picture ran two hours and five or ten minutes, and the distributors here got into it and started truncating. They eliminated almost all of the beginning.”

By the time that happened, Mancini had already started work on SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE and was unable to go back and make the necessary adjustments in the score to fit the new length, which was reduced from more than two hours to only an hour and forty minutes. Cannon then hired composer Michael Kamen (THE DEAD ZONE, BRAZIL) to adjust the recorded Mancini material. “I don’t know what he did,” Mancini said. “I was so upset about the cutting that I just walked away from it. I haven’t seen it and I don’t think I’m going to, because I’d like to remember it as it was.” Fortunately, Mancini’s score does remain intact on the Varese Sarabande soundtrack album (also released as a compact disc in Japan). “The album is an exact representation of the score that I did. I’ll be content to stay with that.”

Mancini had better results with the score he wrote for SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE. He was called into this project by the Salkind company and director Jeonnot Szwarc, and provided a light, melodic score for large orchestra (85-pieces of England’s National Philharmonic Orchestra) and choir. “I think these two pictures are good bookends,” said Mancini. “They’re both symphonic but they’re poles apart as far as style and content.”

Right from the start, SANTA CLAUS provided a challenge inasmuch as Mancini had to decide how he was going to handle the obvious problem of incorporating Christmas music into the score — something he felt he couldn’t avoid. “One thing we had to satisfy was that you can’t have a picture about Christmas or Santa Claus and not touch on the traditional,” Mancini said. “I decided that it would be a good idea to get all of those numbers in one place, rather than spotting them here and there throughout the film. So on Santa’s first flight I used them in a piece by itself, and it all worked out well because the montage was well conceived and it made sense. But from there on we went to original music.”

Mancini also had to decide how he wanted to musically depict the red-suited giftgiver of modern myth. “I had to decide what my feelings would be and how effective they would be. You can’t fool around with Santa Claus, you know. So I put my melody hat on. The melodies — the march of the elves, Santa’s theme, Patch’s theme — they were classically oriented, I think, but toward the more melodic things of that period.”

Mancini enjoyed scoring SANTA CLAUS, certainly more so than what became of LIFEFORCE, since nothing was edited or “adjusted” in the Salkind movie. “The overall score was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever been involved in, and one of the most challenging, said Mancini. “There were long sequences of flying that needed a lot of music. I think the picture was an hour and forty-five minutes long and there was over an hour and twenty minutes of music in the picture.”

Mancini, while most popular for his breezy, light-pop melodies, claims to have no real preference over any particular style of music, whether pop, jazz or symphonic. “I like whatever is called for. I spent a long apprenticeship at Universal and I learned a lot about all kinds of things. It’s the approach rather than the style or the number of players in the orchestra. We didn’t have a huge symphony orchestra at Universal, but we did write symphonic scores. That gave me a very solid footing. All that experience has made it easier for me to think of the music rather than the technical means of getting it done.”

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