An Interview with John Barry by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed & Edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.79, 2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
With the advent of the 21st Century, John Barry has entered his fifth decade of film scoring, having begun in 1959 in England. With more than 120 film scores to his credit, John Barry remains one of the most distinctive and distinguished film composers of the modern era. This year will see the release of a new mystery/action score for ENIGMA, director Michael Apted’s story of how the British (not the Americans, as U-571 had it) came into possession of the machine that broke the German radio code during World War II. The film, shown at this year’s Sundance Festival, has been pushed back for general release until this Fall, with a soundtrack CD due from Decca.
When you became involved with ENIGMA, had you worked with any of the people on that project before?
No. Michael Apted directed the last Bond movie, and I don’t know whether he had some I conversations with Barbara Broccoli or not, but anyway he called me on this, and sent me the script, which was excellent.
What were they looking for you to bring to the film? Was there anything in particular that they had in mind when they were spotting the film with you?
No, I don’t think so. I think a director has knowledge of scores you’ve done, not just of one aspect but of many aspects; you read the script, and then sit down and see a rough cut and then get into discussions. They spring out of your reaction to the footage and where you think the score lies, and what the score should do for the movie. Those are the kinds of discussions you have. The working relationship springs out of that discussion.
A lot of directors want to hear and approve synth mock-ups of the score. How do you work on that level?
After spotting the movie, I pitch out, say, two or three essential main themes that are obviously going to be repeated to a greater or a lesser degree throughout the movie, and the director and I come to an understanding on what the music is about. But I don’t do synth demos. I would hope I’ve passed that sort of thing now.
How long did you have to work on ENIGMA?
I had a good while. They got me involved early, but I can’t remember the exact time. It was a very comfortable time. There are two relationships the hero has in the movie, one is a genuine thing and one is an infatuation he has with this femme fatale. So there were these two very different forms of romantic themes that we had, as well as the Enigma theme. Having the two romantic themes, I thought, was quite interesting to work with.
On this particular film, did you choose any particular solo instruments?
Not really. There are solo moments, such as a piano solo, which I think is very effective, but essentially it is a full orchestral piece.
You didn’t record the score in your usual places, like New York or Los Angeles or England, you actually went to Amsterdam. What was the experience like working in Amsterdam?
I had the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, so right there you’ve got a world-class orchestra. A lot of people think it’s the finest orchestra in the world. It’s most certainly one of the finest concert orchestras. They’d never done a movie, and evidently someone with the movie company got in touch with their management and asked if they would be interested. And they said yes. We went into the main concert hall where they always record – it’s an extraordinary hall. John Richards, my engineer, came over, and we’d shipped in all the equipment, and it was just really great, they loved doing it. You go into a situation like that with a certain guarded feeling, but they were absolutely extraordinary.
So if the opportunity came to record with them again you’d certainly do so.
Oh, absolutely. They were the most charming gentlemen. There was none of the attitude they sometimes have, “Oh, we’re just doing a movie score.” They really got into it in a major way, and on our last day, when we finished, I was very flattered to receive a very genuine applause from them. The movie was made in Holland, so that’s why we could go to Amsterdam to record. Not a lot of movies get made over there, you know, not with American money or English money.
Have you prepared the album for this film yet?
John (Richards) is working on the album. We had to do one more pick-up session, but unfortunately at that time we couldn’t get the Concertgebouw again, they were on tour or something during that time frame, and so we went to England and worked with my favorite English Chamber Orchestra, and we recorded them. They’re the same size orchestra, and are just magnificent.
About that same time, you’re going to have a non-film score album coming out, kind of a Celtic flavoured composition called ‘Eternal Echoes’?
It’s very loosely based on John O’Donahue’s book, Anam Cara. I loved the book; it’s the thoughts coming out of the book set into a musical concept. But it’s not necessarily Celtic.
Another CD, which was released on Prometheus Records last May, is of a score you did in 1993, RUBY CAIRO. This is a film that was directed by Graeme Clifford, who you’d worked previously with on FRANCES. The film was a thriller set in the Middle East with Andie MacDowell and Liam Neeson. What are your recollections on that project?
It wasn’t the happiest movie of my life! I worked with Graeme, I liked Graeme very much. But getting involved in it, there were a lot of things that left much to be desired.
You and Graeme wrote a song together – well, he took your theme and put a lyric to it.
Right, that’s what he did. He obviously wasn’t my first choice to do it, and he did it without my knowledge! That gives you an idea of what was going on there.
There was a Japanese CD of the score released a few years ago, but they reversed the channels the violins were on the right!
Oh my God!
Don’t worry – the reissue fixed that.
I don’t recall the Japanese CD. You know, when you have a certain kind of experience on a movie that leaves much to be desired, I don’t know what other composers do, and I tend to kind of emotionally and physically run away from it. It’s like, “Oh, I did that? Oh, yeah, right, sure…” and you see my dust!
Have you ever come across a film you had not really had the best experience on, and maybe caught it on TV, and thought, “Hey, that score wasn’t too bad?”
I don’t know. I’m usually happy with what I write. If I get into a situation like that I don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to have to just brush this off.” I always do my best, and maybe giving it what I thought was originally intended in the script, so I put my input into it in terms of what I think the score really should have been like. I think often the score on an album winds up better than the score in a movie.
In the last few years there has been quite a renaissance of interest in some of your earlier efforts. Varese Sarabande Records, Silva Screen Records, and other companies have recorded numerous albums, not only of your complete scores but also suites and compilations. Joel McNeely did the recording of BODY HEAT, Nic Raine did RAISE THE TITANIC… What is your take on that, seeing all this music of yours now suddenly being newly recorded and released?
It’s very consoling. I think what it indicates is that fundamentally you wrote something that stands up; however you want to determine what “stand up” means! It must be something that’s standing the test of time, as music, or otherwise I don’t think record companies would be expending this money on the actual recording, artwork, and promotion. You know it costs a bundle to put an album out. But they don’t phone me on these things – I just get informed or sometimes I walk into a shop and there it is on the rack.
The last thing in the world you must have been expecting was someone to do an entire new recording of RAISE THE TITANIC!
That was kind of surprising. I did enjoy doing that score, although the movie didn’t get the audience they thought they were going to get. But there was some interesting stuff in that movie. Take the idea of that story, forget about the movie – just the idea of going down there and bringing this historic thing back up to the world, that alone is fascinating! You could write a musical suite on the emotions of that, without a movie. It’s an interesting, haunting theme of a past generation, of something that happened in the world, in the history books. The mind jumps all over those very fertile thoughts of what that would be like, before you actually get into the movie. So I think that’s the kind of weight, hopefully, you bring to the movie. Those are the thought processes that go behind the composition. There’s a point of view there that hopefully is intelligent and uplifting and has a certain mysterioso ambiance about it, about the history of the whole piece.
Are there anyone of your scores that you, personally, would like to do a new recording about or you’d like to see released?
Perhaps some of the early scores. I’d love to see SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON but it would never sell! That and THE WHISPERERS are the first two movies I did for Bryan Forbes. THE WHISPERERS did come out on CD, but I’d love to see a mixture of those two Bryan Forbes movies – SEANCE and THE WHISPERERS would make an interesting album.
There are so many scores you’ve done that are so fascinating, whether off the wall things, like THE BLACK HOLE – and there are a lot of people who want that, believe it or not!
Well, that came out.
Yeah, but not on CD unfortunately.
Yeah, well, that’s Disney.
Yes, they have their clutches on that and they’re not about to let that go anywhere.
That’s something I don’t understand. They have the tapes, there are really no production expenses they’ve got everything there, you know. I mean it’s not going to cost them a fortune; they just have to put that back into the machine, as it were.
It’s a matter of disinterest.
Yeah, total disinterest. But for very little effort they could produce it. Maybe there is a market out there.
A project that I did, along those lines, was your score for HAMMETT, which was something I really fought hard to do as a CD. Something about that movie you really responded to. What I find interesting is that everyone knows you for your big orchestral efforts, but HAMMETT is such a wonderful, delicate chamber score. I think the main title and the end title cues are just a clarinet and a piano.
I loved doing HAMMETT. That was a terrific movie. I wasn’t the director’s first choice, but a friend said why don’t you just go along and do something, so I went into a studio and I recorded a demo of it, with a clarinet, and sent it to the director. I went to London and came back, and he called me at, like, 3 in the morning, very enthusiastic, and we just got on like a house on fire after that!
I guess the thing that struck me about HAMMETT was that it was a very intimate score. I think people tend to forget that the early English films that you did, were so intimate…
You can’t be more intimate than SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON! But I loved those things. If the director’s got it correctly onto the screen and that intimacy is up there, it’s just great to be able to write that simply and orchestrate that sparsely.
There are a few legends that have arisen about you over the years. One goes that you wrote demos for THE RIGHT STUFF and CLASH OF THE TITANS, neither of which were used.
That’s not quite true. On THE RIGHT STUFF, I wrote several things and Phil Kaufman was very up on all the rest of it and everything. It was going very well, and then there were certain problems on the movie down the line, and he needed an excuse for delaying the production. The details are a little foggy now, but I’ve always remembered my association with Kaufman was also one of the most dishonest pieces of behavior I’ve ever encountered in the movie industry. I’ll leave it at that.
Do you have any recollections of CLASH OF THE TITANS at all? You’re actually named on some of the early posters.
I can’t remember for sure. I don’t think I got too involved. I think I may have done some demos on that and they didn’t like the way I was going with it and that was probably it.
Was that also the case with a more recent project from 1999, GOODBYE LOVER? Reportedly you wrote a score that was withdrawn.
I remember vaguely doing that, but it’s amazing how you remember the good ones and…
And the bad ones just go away!
Yeah, you put them so far on the back burner!
I’ll close this out by saying: it’s 2001, you’ve got this record coming up, you’ve got ENIGMA coming up, what are you looking forward to doing next?
If it’s a good movie and I read the script and I think the working relationship will be terrific, then I’m delighted to do it. I’ve got a wonderful recording contract so I’ll be doing more albums. I’m not looking to do a lot of films. If I do one terrific movie a year, I’ll be really, really happy.