Jerry Goldsmith on Scoring Basic Instinct

A Conversation with Jerry Goldsmith by Daniel Schweiger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.11/No.42/1992
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Daniel Schweiger

Jerry GoldsmithJerry Goldsmith’s just turned 63, and one of the world’s most respected composers is still hesitant to explain his music’s primal force. With a résumé that includes CHINATOWN, PATTON, and POLTERGEIST, the sheer amount of legendary film scores that Goldsmith has generated would seem to mark him as the Mozart of his craft. But while that composer wouldn’t hesitate to show off his abilities, Goldsmith won’t boast about his hundred-plus soundtracks. Composing for him is like a quest to touch the creative Id, and Goldsmith flies from one score to the next in his unrelenting search. He shifts uneasily about his chair during the interview, glancing at the electric consoles that occupy his two-story studio. Goldsmith’s just dying to get back to work, speaking like an average Joe who’d just as soon be discussing baseball. But this is one workaholic who wouldn’t be doing anything else with his life.

Goldsmith has impacted on the preceding generations of film composers with the adulation of Bernard Herrmann, carrying the master’s unrelenting perfectionism and slicing opinions for over 3 decades. Along with such compatriots as Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini, Goldsmith would screw up Hollywood’s romantic clichés with daring instrumental experiments for PLANET OF THE APES and THE BLUE MAX. Weaning his talent on such golden age video as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Goldsmith would get his first Academy nomination with 1962s FREUD, going through a myriad of Golden Globe and Oscar chances before finally winning with 1976s THE OMEN. Though he rarely wrote melodies that became top-40 hits, Goldsmith has planted himself into our musical consciousness with TV themes for THE WALTONS and THE MAN FROM UNCLE, as well as the sweeping notes of STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE. Electronics dance about his lush orchestrations, a harmonious match of old Hollywood and the synthesizer revolution.

While Jerry Goldsmith doesn’t like his music to draw attention, none of the pictures his work has graced could be more notorious than BASIC INSTINCT, Paul Verhoeven’s thriller of orgasmic death and animal attraction. Blasted by gay groups for its politically incorrect use of lesbian villains, INSTINCT is the kind of danger-seeking experience that’s drawn out Goldsmith’s best passion. His score keeps up the film’s dazzling erotic centerpiece, and then blasts into ice pick action. Audiences might not know whether to scream or moan, but amidst the outcries, BASIC INSTINCT is an effective example of dark Goldsmith.

What’s your reaction to BASIC INSTINCT’s controversy?
This is one of the best pictures I’ve worked on in a long time, especially because Paul Verhoeven was so faithful to the script. It’s very artistic and accessible, and all the surrounding debates are a bunch of cheap shots that have nothing to do with what the film is about. People are just trying to get a free ride off of it.

How was your collaboration with Paul Verhoeven?
Our relationship was built on mutual respect, and it’s one of the best I’ve had with a director since Franklin Schaffner. Paul’s articulate about music, and he has a very clear idea of what’s going to work in the picture. We developed a technique on TOTAL RECALL where I could play my synthesizers along with the picture, which let him get an approximation of what the score was going to sound like. That beat the old days of trying to play the music on a piano, and that let us sort out our differences before I went on the scoring stage.

How did you decide on BASIC INSTINCT’s musical direction?
Though it has graphic scenes. I’d describe BASIC INSTINCT as a sensuous thriller. This isn’t about ordinary sex, so the music had to be erotic and evil at the same lime. I ended up writing three different themes, before I settled on one. Though Paul and I would get tense sometimes, our partnership was never acrimonious. His face would light up when he heard the right music, and at other moments he would be absolutely silent.


What does “sensuous” music sound like?
I hope that BASIC INSTINCT plays like “sensuous” music, but you can’t put a subjective label on melodies. People think that seafaring tunes need French horns, and that’s only because of our identification with what’s come before. But there’s nothing written that says the ocean has to be represented that way. What’s red and how do you write “red” music? It’s something that you feel which is what makes the collaboration between a director and a film musician so difficult. You can’t discuss these things on musical terms, only on dramatic ones. Sometimes Paul would be frustrated because I wasn’t “getting it”, and would try to sing something. That was hopeless on both of our parts, because you have to keep working until you hit that common chord. The saving grace on BASIC INSTINCT was a very long dialogue sequence, and Paul was only happy with the last minute of it. He could point to that illustration and say, “This section of music has the feeling that I want”, a piece which conveyed the film’s mystery and danger.

How do you react when a director thinks he knows something about music, but really has no idea what he’s talking about?
I think it’s dangerous when a director says he knows a “little something” about music, because music is impossible to verbalize. I’ve had composer friends describe a piece they were writing, and I’d grow more jealous and envious as they talked. I’d think, “God, this is a great piece of music. I’ll never write again!” But I was only making that judgment on a verbal description of the piece, which would often turn out; upon hearing it played, to be a load of rubbish! That shows how ineffectively you can describe music. So if a director comes in saying, “I know what your approach should be, because I play the drums and the clarinet,” then I’ll realize he’s being ridiculous. The director should only deal in terms of dramatic terminology, which is the only way I can talk to him. I once told the producer of CHINATOWN that I wanted to use an orchestra of four harps, four pianos, strings, a solo trumpet, and percussion. He said, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” But I was just talking off the top of my head to make conversation! Then I realized it was an interesting combination, which shows that it’s all nonsense until you put the notes down on paper.

Do you still break into a sweat when you’re against a deadline?
It’s counterproductive to get nervous. In the old days, I’d stay up all night and worry myself to death. But I’m a professional, and my music always gets done. I’ve yet in 35 years to walk onto a scoring stage without a completed score, though I’ve gone on sleepy sometimes. I know that if I won’t get a piece written in the studio today, then I might as well stop at 5:30, go eat dinner, sleep, then get up the next day and it will be there. If not, then the music will come the day after. Sure I had days on BASIC INSTINCT where I was frustrated, but I knew the score was going to happen. How could I have lost my talent? A creative person suddenly doesn’t stop being creative, and I don’t believe in bum-out. That only happens when you don’t care, but I love composing. If I can’t do that for films, then I’ll always be able to sit down and write concert pieces.

Do you think BASIC INSTINCT has led you to “gentler” scores?
TOTAL RECALL was some of the best music I’ve written for a film. I was really impressed with myself, even though I rarely listen to what I’ve finished. I’d written enough notes in that score for a Bruckner symphony! After that, I wanted a change from all of the action films I’d been doing. I realized that I wanted to do “people” pictures again, and held out until I got THE RUSSIA HOUSE, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, and LOVE FIELD, movies where I could get lyrical again. THE RUSSIA HOUSE is now my favorite score, while my work for MEDICINE MAN has some very lyrical moments.

Do you think that your music works better on an album than when it’s attached to a critical or financial bomb?
That’s the story of every composer’s life. When you get a picture that didn’t turn out the way you would have liked, then you’ve got to work twice as hard to make the score better. You can only hope that people like your music on the album. But there are too many records of mine out there, and I’d like to eliminate 90% of them. They’re releasing another old score now, and for what? Everything doesn’t have to be on a record, especially when some of these reissues aren’t that good. It’s all out of my control, and the collectors want any film score. It’s like getting bottle caps for them! But if I really like the score, then I’ll spend a lot of time on the album. However, I put too much music on the RUSSIA HOUSE CD. I’d love to pull ten minutes out of it so the score wouldn’t sound so redundant.

How has the business of film scoring changed?
It’s still the same. There’s always the resentment that goes along with thoughts like, “Why did he get that job when I should have? Who does he know that I don’t?” I’ve been doing this for too long, and have seen a lot of people come and go. There’s a flavor-of-the-month in every aspect of the film industry, and I’m tired of everyone saying jobs are political things. Yeah, you might get a break now and then because of a friend, but the belief in your abilities is what keeps an artist going.

Since Alex North’s passing, do you think the only political view among composers is how to get their next job?
I never understood how McCarthy thought film music would turn Americans into Communists, but Alex was never political in the music he wrote. Though he grew up in the 1930s labor movement with a lot of other artists, Alex was very circumspect about his political beliefs. They never got into the music he wrote, and even Jerry Fielding’s blacklisting had nothing to do with his film scores.

Why do you think so many scores now are being rejected or altered?
Scores have been tossed out and redone ever since I can remember, though the only one I was called in to redo was CHINATOWN. And the main reason that score was rejected was because the composer wasn’t right for the movie in the first place.

What do you think of the way film composers are being taught now?
I don’t think they’re being educated well, because I keep hearing these shocking stories about people who can’t read or write music. But on the other hand, what’s important is the music that comes out. I’m honestly not blown away with their work, and that’s not sour grapes. There just isn’t much imagination in their melodies, or interplay with the drama. Their music basically serves as wallpaper for the story.

Are themes the most important part of your music?
I don’t know how composers work without them, because I certainly can’t. You don’t write an hour and ten minutes of music without something to start with, and this was one of the big problems I had on BASIC INSTINCT. The theme sets the whole approach, and tells you what the story’s about in a few notes. But I started to compose INSTINCT before I came upon that idea, and had gotten myself into a corner until Paul discovered its theme. The audience needs that subconscious musical unity, and it satisfies them without interfering with the movie’s story.

Do these kinds of experiences show you have anything left to learn about film scoring?
I feel that I’m learning every time I sit down and write a piece of music. You never master this craft, which makes it so much fun. That’s the concept of the learning process, and anyone who’s good at their craft is on a constant search for knowledge. You’ll often get drawn into the same emotional situation when doing films, but you don’t always want to express them the same way. But I can’t intellectualize what I do, and I wouldn’t be very good if I could. It’s all a gut reaction for me, and I keep a visual picture in my mind that will hopefully channel itself into musical expression. All of this reasoning about music is boring, and how I hate to read massive concert notes about the “theory” behind a new piece! Just play the thing and be done with it! Let me draw my own emotional conclusions, because I don’t want to be told how to react.

Do you think it’s dangerous to unlock the creative process?
The reason you study and learn technique is so it will become second nature. You shouldn’t have to think about how the chords go together when you’re writing a score, because it’s an instinctual thing. When you ask why a piece isn’t working, there should be a logical reason for it. If I started analysing how to do it, then I’d be in trouble.

Since BASIC INSTINCT and practically all of your scores now include electronics, what do you think of the argument of synthesizers versus a ‘real’ orchestra?
Though we’re in a time when any art form goes, I think innovation really ended in the first quarter of this century. From then on we’ve been treading through various fads, and nothing seems to make a lasting impression. And like any new found thing, people grabbed onto synthesizers when they became accessible. But electronic emulation has been going on since the 1920s, and it’s no “new” phenomena. I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of manipulation in music, and was very excited when synthesizers were built. They could extend my orchestral palette. But today we’ve lost sight of what electronic manipulation should be, which is a new direction for treating sound instead of imitating acoustic ones. It doesn’t mean anything when you make a pretty sound on a synthesizer, and because I’ve gotten used to all of the toys, my fascination with the technology has been moderated.

How do you like to use synthesizers?
The electronic sounds that I use are the ones you can go to a store and buy. I don’t make my own effects, because I have no talent, time, or interest for that. I’m not afraid to use the same synthesizer over and over again, and what’s wrong with that? But I’ve also learned that certain sounds don’t work with an orchestra, and I’ve dropped a lot of those effects during recordings. They just didn’t blend in.

Is it difficult for you to come up with new music?
I just conducted a two-hour concert of my music in Memphis. It was quite an ego trip, because in the middle of the show I thought, “Jesus, I’m really impressed with myself! This is really an astounding collection of material, and I wrote all of this!” I like what I do, and it’s a constant challenge. Maybe it’s because of my psychological make-up, but I like to see new scores happen, and I know that I can always do better.

What film scores inspired you?
I had no idea that I would compose for films when I was studying music, but then I saw SPELLBOUND, and I immediately knew what I wanted to do. Miklos Rozsa was my hero, and that was the greatest piece of music ever put on film.

Is BASIC INSTINCT a tribute to those kinds of eerily romantic scores?
BASIC INSTINCT had to be subtle, because 90% of it is under dialogue. While Hitchcock certainly played a part in some of the visuals. Bernard Herrmann was an influence on my work. Paul Verhoeven’ played me some scenes from VERTIGO, and wanted my music to take that approach. If some other filmmaker had said that, I would have been offended. But I respect Paul, and knew that he was coming from a creative point of view, where it was good to have an example to point to.

What’s it like to have composers influenced by your work?
Every creative person is going to be influenced by someone when they’re starting. Listen to early Stravinsky, and it’s pure Tchaikovsky. Then he went through a Debussy period before finally becoming one of the most innovative composers of the 20th Century. No one says your first five notes are revolutionary, because it’s all part of an evolution.

What kinds of music do you still want to explore?
I’ll just be happy to keep on writing film scores. My love of what I’ve just done quickly vanishes, because I’m always hoping that my next score will be better. Film music has to be accessible, and more contemporary artists should write for people instead of being lost in a blaze of intellectualism. I’m not condoning a Communist manifesto for the masses, because it’s fine to free yourself from inhibitions. But don’t expect everyone else to suffer through them!

What do you hope to be remembered for?
After a concert, it’s very exciting to have people tell me that it’s the first time they’ve ever been to a symphony. Now they can hardly wait to go to their next concert! If my music has attracted them to the concert hall because of the film titles, and has whetted their appetites for classical music, then I feel fulfilled. There’s nothing more rewarding than being in a room with hundreds of musicians, playing music that you can appreciate.

Do you think film scores are the natural extension of classical music?
Mozart wrote that his shoe shine boy in Prague was whistling one of the arias from Don Giovanni, which was the pop music in those days. People would go to the theater to be entertained, and the rich hired house orchestras and composers. Film scoring’s only difference is that it hasn’t produced a Mozart or Beethoven yet. Maybe we will, and maybe we won’t. What we’re doing in movies isn’t so different from the composers who wrote for the Church and royalty. But I’m not a court composer, just a guy working for a living, and doing what he loves with no pretensions about it.

Do you think you’re self-effacing about your film scores?
No. just honest. If you start taking yourself seriously, then you’re in deep trouble!



  • David on said:

    A wonderful interview with one of my greatest inspirations.

  • Christopher Howard on said:

    When Jerry passed he left a tremendous void in the world of music. Simply put he was the best living composer of his time not to mention he was also a great human being. His work survives, his name lives on but the loss is beyond measure.

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