An Interview with Jeff Beal and Ed Harris by Tony Buchsbaum
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.77/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Tony Buchsbaum
Let’s get something straight from the get-go. Jeff Beal is not John Beal, the noted trailer-music composer. Nor is Jeff related to John Beal. Rather, Jeff Beal is the composer of music for eleven films and several television projects, including part nine of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON and FAMILY LAW. He is also a well-known jazz trumpeter – seven CDs of his music have been released, the most recent of which, ‘Alternate Route’, appears on the same label as his first film score on CD, POLLOCK.
POLLOCK is the directorial debut of actor Ed Harris, known far and wide for his roles in THE ABYSS, APOLLO 13, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and ABSOLUTE POWER, among many others. Beal’s score for POLLOCK is an exuberant, passionate tribute to the tortured, brilliant artist Jackson Pollock, who changed the face and nature of contemporary art with his drip paintings in the 1950s. One could make a fairly convincing argument that just as Pollock’s most effective paintings were composed of countless drips, dots, and splashes of paint, Beal’s music for Harris’s bio-pic is composed of notes, swirls, flourishes, and mad rushes of melody.
The score jumps effortlessly between Pollock’s two primary moods: the thrilled, inspired painter and the introspective, angry drunk. Pollock (played by Harris) was manic-depressive, to be sure, and the score follows this pattern, blackening Pollock’s darkest moments as well as brightening his electric bursts of brilliance with his paints, brushes, and canvases.
Listening to the score, I heard many apparent influences: a bit of Bill Conti’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, a touch of Thomas Newman’s AMERICAN BEAUTY. I don’t mean Beal lifts anything; what I mean is, the score brings these others to mind, the former because both films are about men who love art, the latter because in many ways POLLOCK is another intense, sad tale of a terribly dysfunctional family (the film chronicles Pollock’s long relationship with and marriage to fellow artist Lee Krasner, who is portrayed in a searing performance by Marcia Gay Harden).
The standout sequence in the film and the standout cue on the soundtrack are one and the same, what Beal calls the drip scene, in which Pollack has started a brush-stroke painting and then accidentally drips paint on the floor. In just a few seconds of screen time, Harris shows a light bulb going on in Pollock’s mind. Suddenly, painting doesn’t mean strokes; suddenly, it can mean drips.
Beal’s music here moves from light-hearted introspection to full-out percussive dance music, as Pollock realizes the breakthrough hers made. A moment later, Harris directs his camera at the wet paint, and his own reflection dances there; clearly, this is Pollock dancing with Pollock – a brilliant way to illustrate, using music and filmic subtext what’s happening inside the character’s mind.
I spoke to both Jeff Beal and Ed Harris recently about POLLOCK. For starters, I wanted to know about Jeff’s background.
Jeff Beal: I started on the trumpet in grade school. Although I had classical training and played in orchestras, etc., playing jazz was what really got me excited about music. I grew up in the San Francisco area in the 70s, which was a very vibrant and eclectic scene. I then studied trumpet and composition at the Eastman School of music.
You’re primarily a jazz musician. When did you make the jump to film scoring?
Jeff Beal: I’d always been fascinated by film and visual arts. By the time I went to Eastman, I was interested in film. Luckily, they had a great film scoring program there, as well as arranging and composition. I studied with the late Rayburn Wright, who was amazingly resourceful and encouraging. Although I’ve been lucky enough to release many solo records as a jazz artist, I’ve also been slowly building my film career ever since I left Eastman. My first film was a small independent movie, CHEAP SHOTS, which was produced by some people I met while still living in Rochester.
Why is film scoring so attractive to you? I mean, jazz is so fluid and free and (apparently) unstructured, whereas film music – in the most general sense possible – is all about structure and form and function.
Jeff Beal: Aha, that’s the irony. The artistry of both is creativity within limits. The myth of total freedom, being a pure jazz musician, is just that. I actually find the challenge of dealing with a collaborative and constraining art form sometimes as rewarding as letting loose on a trumpet solo. It’s a challenge to transcend the limits of film, in a way. Every once in a while a film comes along like POLLOCK in which you get the great feeling you get when you play with amazing musicians. And there’s also a personal reason: I rather like the anonymity of being a film composer, as opposed to the burden of performing. It seems to suit my loner writer personality better.
Were you influenced by some of the early jazz scores? ANATOMY OF A MURDER, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM?
Jeff Beal: I remember my dad had an old cassette of some of the early Mancini stuff. I remember listening to it over and over again when I was maybe 11 or 12. I’m sure it made an impression, and I know I loved it. Later, I gravitated to many other composers – Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and two of my all time favorites, Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota. It’s interesting that many of my favorite film composers have a certain jazz sensibility about what they do. By this I mean harmonic and rhythmic sophistication – and their best work always has an element of surprise. I would single out one film that really got me excited about the whole art form: Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL. The way the music, script, and amazing visual imagery created a world I had never seen or felt before. It blew my mind. I also remember being a kid watching 70s TV and thinking about the guys that wrote that music, and thinking it would be cool to do that someday. There was a lot of great music underscore in the 70s, I think.
How did you two get together on POLLOCK?
Ed Harris: Jeff was the third composer on POLLOCK. I’d met a lot of composers and made an early decision. That didn’t work out. Then I made another, and that didn’t work out. Then I got a tape from Mark Isham. And I really liked it. Then it was just intuition. There was something about the coherence and control – a classical aspect. I wanted the score to have some root in classical sound.
Jeff Beal: My good friend and fellow trumpet player and composer Mark Isham had told me about it and recommended me to Ed. As I recall, Mark was touring with his small jazz group that summer. By the time I had heard about it and submitted some materials, I heard someone else was scoring the movie – for the second time. I kind of forgot about it, which was hard to do, because I really wanted to do it. Out of the blue, my agent called me and told me Ed wanted to meet with me. Ed is a real gentleman, and for whatever reasons explained the other two musical approaches hadn’t worked out, and he wanted me to take a stab at it.
So you watched the film and then spotted it?
Jeff Beal: There is kind of a funny story here. I went over to Ed’s to meet him after I had seen a tape. Although this was just supposed to be a meeting, we had a great conversation about a lot of issues: Pollock’s work and what we felt the film needed. Ed had such a rich understanding of the subject matter that really jived with my own feelings. I guess we hit it off pretty well because we ended spotting the film that same afternoon.
What were you looking for, as a director?
Ed Harris: With all the different notes in the world and different Instruments – I didn’t want to be overly sentimental. I wanted it to be coherent music, from beginning to end.
How do you work, Jeff? With punches and streamers?
Jeff Beal: I write at the piano and at the computer. The demands of a fully mocked-up demo never really bother me. I’d rather know sooner than later if I’m going the wrong direction. POLLOCK was a great example where this working style gave Ed and me the chance to refine the writing over a period of weeks. I also like the ability of computer writing to capture spontaneous ideas that happen, and foster an improvisatory process. A perfect example of this might be the first painting sequence in POLLOCK. It’s a three-minute scene in which Ed recreates Pollock painting a mural for his patron, Peggy Guggenheim. That scene was not unlike scoring an action sequence or something. There was this wonderful balletic and compositional arc to that scene. I use digital video, so as I worked on different sections, I’d plan ahead and work out a meter map as I went, constantly checking the flow of it. There are also times when I like to turn the film off, and get a musical structure working as well. Because the POLLOCK score is so rhythmic — and the budget was modest – I decided to produce it as overdubs. I feel this really paid off, because a lot of the syncopations and odd meters would have been impossible to bring off otherwise.
Instead of composing themes for each character, you chose to compose for the two sides of the Pollock character. The result is that the score has two distinct sounds: a jazzy, almost flighty, optimistic voice that plays when Pollock realizes he can dribble paint and not just do brush strokes, and the darker, melancholy stuff.
Jeff Beal: Exactly. Ed told me he thought the story was a tough one, but he wanted the score to really celebrate his painting, i.e., the vibrancy and originality of his work stand in bitter contrast to his personal life, and ultimate surrender to alcoholism. There were some connective ideas though. Because the painting themes are very much about movement and gesture, the sad stuff also has motion and repetition. But it’s almost a caricature of the more frenetic material, playing so slowly. For me, it was as if this guy’s mind was always churning about something. On an emotional level I tried to express his joy of creation, without being sappy or sentimental. There is also a certain manic state of mind which accompanies such breakthroughs, I suppose.
As far as theme relationships, I tend to prefer scores that are a bit more idea-driven. I guess this stems from my feeling that film music is most moving when it somehow connects various ideas within the structure of a drama. Not every movie can sustain this concept, but in the case of POLLOCK, it seemed a natural fit. One other idea J held in my mind was that of a progression from European modernism to a uniquely American approach. The two key scenes for this were the painting montages. The first is a little more formal and uptight; the second – the drip scene – is more flowing and organic.
Some of my structures were modelled on the minimalist composers, like John Adams and Steve Reich, whose work I enjoy. Pollock was ahead of minimalist music in the sense that he used a very repetitive visual rhythm in his paintings in the 40s and 50s. He was also influenced by folk art, and painted his most distinctive works on the floor of his Long Island barn.
To this end, I tried to use some of the Americana dialect with a more modern spin. Like the banjo plays this frantic ostinato in 7/4, etc. Maybe frantic is the wrong word; maybe it’s graceful. This is one of the things that fascinated me about Ed’s performance of him, these incredible extremes of grace, intelligence, and pure energy, and of course anger.
Ed Harris: Jeff really got the film. He seemed to penetrate the film itself in some way.
Jeff, were you a fan of Jackson Pollock’s work before you got involved with the film?
Jeff Beal: Not specifically, but I am a big painting fan. I remember seeing his works at the Guggenheim Museum in New York many years back. I would say the paintings themselves were as much a key to the musical choices as anything else in the film. I think this might be because it’s obvious in Ed’s performance that Pollock was very stifled in expressing himself. His art was the only place where he could transcend the alcoholism, frustrations, manic depression, etc. Even though they are all recreations, the paintings in the film are strikingly beautiful. There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the film where the camera slowly moves through a series of canvases at one of Pollock’s final shows. It was a very challenging scene to score, because those images express everything he couldn’t in the film, and do it so beautifully. Ed and I spent a lot of time refining that cue to get the tone just right.
Ed, how did Jeff’s music change your vision of the film?
Ed Harris: I think it deepens Pollock’s experience, the music. It also increases the depth of his isolation. I think it’s beautiful without being intimidating or overly sentimental. I know it in my gut when it’s right and wrong. Jeff got it right.