Jerry Goldsmith on Poltergeist and NIMH

A Conversation with Jerry Goldsmith by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson

Jerry GoldsmithTwo of Jerry Goldsmith’s most interesting scores were for 1982’s POLTERGEIST and THE SECRET OF NIMH, the former a complex, contrastingly harsh and lyric score for Steven Spielberg’s spectacular ghost horror show, and the latter a tender, lyrical score for Don Bluth’s animated fantasy. Interviewed shortly after the release of both films, on July 15, 1982, Goldsmith described to CinemaScore his experience on scoring these films.

How did you receive the assignment to score POLTERGEIST?
Steven Spielberg called me about five months before it went into production and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing it. He’d long been an admirer of mine, and we had met several times. I said I’d be very interested, so he sent me a script and I loved it. I was very excited about being involved with anything with Spielberg, anyway.

What sort of musical approach did you take on this film?
With Spielberg, probably more than any other director, there’s a tremendous amount of discussion. He’s very articulate about music, and one can discuss for hours about approaches. Anything I did was not on my own volition; it was a joint effort in that we both agreed what we were trying to do with the music for the picture. We wanted a childlike theme for the little girl; Spielberg felt that much of the action in the closet should have a quasi-religious atmosphere to it. There was something definitely non-human about it, yet it was not evil all the way. It was discussing specifics like that which resulted in our approach.

So you worked mainly with Spielberg? What about director Tobe Hooper?
He was not involved at all with post-production. That was all strictly with Steven, and I worked very closely with him.

How would you describe the score’s thematic elements?
Very diverse. A very simplistic, childlike lullaby theme was one, another theme was almost atonal in nature, and another is very impressionistic in quality. It’s various diverse styles that all seem to mesh together very well.

I felt that it nicely blended the lullaby theme with the more dramatic, terrifying musical motifs. Can you comment a bit on your combining of the lyrical with the horrific in this score?
That’s a technical thing, really. One can mold anything into whatever shape you want to, it’s a matter of technique. It’s just one of the processes of composing. Once you get caught up in the creative process, something inside takes over.

I seem to recognize the Dies Irae in the ‘Escape from Suburbia’ cue.
(laughs) You mean just about four bars of it?

Yes.
That’s very clever; you’re the first one to catch it!

What were you doing with that little cue there?
That’s the Mass for the Dead! I thought I’d throw a little inside joke there, since every composer from time immemorium has quoted that! I did it, years ago, before THE SHINING as a matter of fact. I based a whole part of the score of MEPHISTO WALTZ on the Dies Irae.

Did you orchestrate any of the score yourself?
In the physical sense, no; in the technical sense, yes. Meaning that I write it on a nine-line sketch with all the instruments indicated, and then Arthur Morton, who works with me on all the pictures, transfers it to the orchestral scores.

You’ve become noted for your outstanding scores for horror films such as THE OMEN series, MAGIC, THE OTHER, and now POLTERGEIST. Do you enjoy scoring horror films, and are there any special techniques you find useful in these films that you would not use in less fantastic scores?
No, there’s no particular technique in this kind of picture, the dramatic content dictates the nature of the music. I’ve done a lot of horror and supernatural pictures, but I don’t consider POLTERGEIST a horror story at all. It’s an old fashioned ghost story, and there’s only one horrifying moment in it which is very brief. I have done a lot of horror stories, although I’ve been trying to stay away from them lately…

How did you become involved with THE SECRET OF NIMH?
I was called in to do the picture, after POLTERGEIST. I liked the idea of the project, and I had never done animation before. The story, again, was away from the horror; there’s comedy in it, romance, adventure – everything, like a little opera.

Were there any special problems in scoring an animated feature that you haven’t encountered in live action films?
Oh, absolutely. Many, in fact, about fifty percent of the picture was invisible to me when I was writing it, it was either just pencil drawings or ink sketches. In animation, the length of scenes is much shorter than in live action, because every frame is drawn, or every other frame at least. Things just can’t take as long, so it’s more difficult to get a flowing line in the music. One can be broader, dramatically, because of the fact that it is all abstract. There are only really three elements in animation: there’s the visual, the dialog and the music – or basically, the sound, and of the abstract sound the music is the dominant force. There was a very elaborate sound effects job on this picture, a beautiful job, but the majority of the sound is really the music.

I thought your score nicely provided a powerful and a tender and notably non-animated backdrop to the picture. In other words, it wasn’t like an animated film.
That’s very interesting. I was very flattered when we were recording; at the end of the first session one of the producers, John Pomeroy, came to me and was very excited. He said that I had made history in music for animation, that no animated film had ever been scored this way. It had been my intention from the very beginning, as I told the producers, that if they wanted a Disney-like, synchronize-every-cut type of score I couldn’t do it. I wanted to score it as a live action film, and they agreed.

Yes, you didn’t score it as a cartoon, and that had a very notable effect on the entire picture.
A couple of scenes, the comedy sequences, were a little bit more Mickey Mouse, as we say, but if that was done live action I would have done it the same way. That was the fun about it, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done.

How would you describe the thematic elements of this score? You’ve used a number of leitmotifs throughout.
There are about eight different ones, and they go from pure romantic to impressionism, everything. It’s sort of an animated Peter and the Wolf, but it all hangs together cohesively. It’s a much more conservative score than, say, OMEN or OUTLAND or ALIEN or even POLTERGEIST, but it’s still diversely styled, musically, and it all seems to tie together very well.

I thought the use of the choir during the climactic battle scenes was especially striking.
Whenever one is referring to Nicodemus or the amulet I always used the choir, and the whole thing climaxed as the house was being lifted. It was a very emotional experience – belief and faith is really what it’s all about, and when it finally triumphs, that’s it.
I think it’s very interesting – I had never seen the coloration until; actually, we had the answer print, because I was writing it all to pencil drawings which were run at the house every day on a moviola. Then to see it all a sudden come to life – even when we were dubbing it had still been in black and white – it was just emotionally incredible! And it would not have been as effective without the music. It’s a great example of what music can do in a film.

Did you work with the lyricists on the songs, or were the words added after you’d already composed the primary theme?
I worked with Paul (Williams) on the lyrics, we worked together on that.

I would imagine that, since the animation would have to follow your music during the song sequences, you were brought into the project early on?
No. They animated the end title to the music, but it was a rush job. We did a piano version of it with the rhythm and they animated to that. The lullaby sequence was not that closely followed – in other words, I followed the animation there.

How closely did you work with the director and the animators?
Very closely. I was on the phone constantly with them, or they’d come over to the house. My dupe was in black and white, and they’d bring their color copy over so I could see it. They were constantly adding footage, and it was always, you know, “what’s going on here?” and “what’s happening here?”

Were there any such problems in scoring some of the special effects sequences in POLTERGEIST?
Yep. The difference is that in animation the footage is usually not going to change. You have drawings and you know approximately the footage. In POLTERGEIST you never knew. The sequence where the Victorian ghost comes down the stairs was originally blocked to be twice as long. If you hear the album and see the picture you’ll see where it had to be cut for the picture. When the effects came in, there were only half as much of them.

So you had to re-time the entire cue?
It was too late, the music was done and the picture was going to open, so it had to be cut manually.

Does that at all bother you, when you’re scoring something and everything isn’t quite prepared for you? Do you wish you had more time?
With special effects there’s never time! I mean, I’ve gone through enough of them, now; the only one where I didn’t have these major problems was on STAR TREK. The only major problem there was that I didn’t finish recording it until five days before the picture opened. But it was impossible to write, there was nothing blocked out on that one. In POLTERGEIST, at least it was blocked out. Of course, you’d like to have it all there, visually, but Steven’s very articulate and gave me very accurate interpretations of what it’d look like visually. No one really would know what the monster was going look like – there were various versions of it and a lot of things that were supposed to be were cut out; some were lightened, some changed position. It was much later, after the music had been recorded, that the special effects started coming in, but that’s what you’re dealing with when you have special effects.

Something that’s been said about your work previously is that, unlike many other film composers, there seems to be a great variety your composing style. In other words, your scores do not retain distinctive stylistic similarities that seem to characterize scores of some other composers. To what would you attribute this?
I’ve heard that said many times. It seems like it’s me, and that’s that. Certain composers are doing the same thing over and over again, which I feel is sort of uninteresting I don’t find that you grow very much in that way I like to keep changing, trying to do new things. Basically, I’m saying the same thing with a little different twist on it.

Any final comments on these two scores?
Just that I was very fortunate that two pictures in a row turned out to be two of my most pleasant experiences, and I think resulted in two of my better scores.

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