An interview with John Williams
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 18/ No 70; 1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven
The following interview was recorded on April 9, 1999, at Universal Studios and was made available to the media by 20th Century Fox.
What was it like the first time you met George Lucas? What were you impressions of him and of the first STAR WARS movie?
I met George approximately in 1976, when he was looking for a composer for STAR WARS. He asked his friend Steven Spielberg who Steven would recommend. I’d just done SUGARLAND EXPRESS and JAWS with Steven, so Steven recommended that I go see George. I went to see him – he then had an office at Universal Studios; we chatted, and I remember meeting what I thought was a very young man at the time, I knew he had done AMERICAN GRAFFITI but I don’t think I’d seen it. He was then, as now, very enthusiastic, and I was very happy to do what I felt was going to be a kind of weekend space-ship film, never dreaming that it would have the kind of life and longevity and impact on the public that it’s had. George, like Steven Spielberg, seems to me very unchanged over the years, even with all the success in the few years that have transpired in the interim.
George Lucas says that, when he works with you, he is able to make what are, in essence, silent movies. What does he mean by that? And what does it mean to you as a composer to work with someone with that soft of sensibility?
When George talks about his movies being silent movies, I think it speaks to several aspects of the genre. He writes scripts and they have dialog, but there’s a hurtling forward in the editing and in the conception of the thing that’s really cinematic. It’s not a literary expression, even though there’s a literary aspect to it, so when he says “silent film” he’s speaking, at least to me, to a kind of rhythmic and visual energy that you could almost take the text away from and it would still hurtle forward. I don’t think he means it in terms that it doesn’t have a sound, but more to the spirit of the action movies of the silent period that didn’t depend on literate text but action and visual effects and timing, plus probably music- somebody playing tile piano in a theater pit or a little orchestra playing. People have observed that, even in the 1920s and before, when we refer to silent films as being silent, they were never really silent films, because we always felt we ought to have an orchestra in the pit or an organist or some music from the classical repertoire being played, and that’s still really the part of the tradition of what we do, and George leans strongly to that past. That makes me very fortunate to be working with a director like that because music is a kind of an essential pulse, if you like, of what he does, cinematically. It makes my role an integral one to the real spirit and the heartbeat of this film.
How important is the music in the STAR WARS movies? How big a role does that create for you as the person responsible for bringing the music to these films?
It’s remarkable to me that these films that George has made have required almost constant music, and that if the film is 2 hours – which I believe STAR WARS approximately was – that we had 2 hours of music, and it’s the same in PHANTOM MENACE. The technique is the same and the spirit of what he’s doing has the same requirement. I think the only thing that’s comparable to that film would be the cartoons of the past, TOM AND JERRY let’s say, for the older members of your viewing group; we remember that, from seeing it on television, that music really illustrates every point of the action, and every point of the story, and probably has a little tune for every character, and that’s no different from opera. It’s no different than other areas of music theater if you have a 2- hour ballet you have a 2-hour score. You may have a 4-bars rest somewhere, where some dramatic moment of stasis is created, and silence becomes the most deafening thing, and we have mat also, but when we use silence we use it almost as a kind of musical point of emphasis, and in that respect, it is part of the storytelling mechanism that the audience receives.
Can you describe how the process works between you and George Lucas? At what point do you get involved with a new STAR WARS movie, and how do you two work together?
George probably rang me about a year ago to tell me that the time was coming, his script was going to be ready and that he was about ready to shoot the film, and that the music would be needed by such-and-such time on the calendar. And then I would get another phone call two or three months later, and he would fix the spotting date, where we go and talk about where the music is going to go and what it should do. So I’ve been on alert perhaps a year before I did it.
The working process is really the classic set up where we run a film that’s either empty (it doesn’t have any music) or he may have a temporary music track with either some classical music or some other film scores, or maybe even some other music of mine, put in behind the film to give some kind of impression of what’s wanted. And we have a discussion of “we’ll play music here, we’ll play it there,” and George will say things like, “it ought to be quicker here” or “softer” or “make some gesture here,” and we discuss the sort of general contours and choreography of the music, and then I go off to my studio here at Amblin, miles away from where George is, and I write the score. That’s been the way we’ve worked, and all four of these films have been a comfortable collaboration. George is a wonderful collaborator and a marvelous friend.
How would you say the music in this new film is different from the first STAR WARS films – and how is it the same? And wasn’t it kind of intimidating to try and equal what you did twenty years ago?
It’s daunting for me and for any composer, I think, to start any project. You think, ‘will l be able to solve the problems, will I be able to come up with something as good, will I be able to hit the ball as far as I did the last time I baited?’ That challenge has been there with PHANTOM MENACE, that’s certainly true. We have about two hours of music in the film, and I think maybe ten percent of that or less comes from the earlier three films. There’s a minute and a half of the opening STAR WARS music, which we felt was obligatory, and then half a dozen quotes – I don’t think any more than that. A lime quote of Yoda, the Force theme, there’s a quote of Darth Vader’s Theme somewhere once or twice, but the other overwhelming percentage, like 90 percent, of the music is new – Annakin’s theme, music for the Flag Parade, the funeral scene, there’s the race, there’s Jar-Jar’s music, etcetera.
The challenge for me, as I’ve said, was to try to not only write music that I thought was as effective as the first trilogy, but that it would also wed to the tapestry of the earlier films, so it would seem an outgrowth. We’re all that much older and been through that much more life and whether you can connect that intimately with something done that long ago, who can say. But I felt that as a challenge, and have enjoyed it enormously. And other aspects of that, also – we came back to London to record the orchestra with the London Symphony. I think there were like twelve members of the orchestra now who were in the original band, but they sound the same. It’s like the Boston Symphony or any great symphony orchestra, you can turn around after 30 years and the personnel are all different, but there’s a continuity there. I think it was important to George also, in a superstitious sense, perhaps, or just in a sense of keeping the same team in place, so that once you got back on the horse, or back on the bicycle, you were there for an hour and suddenly you were back with it again, it wasn’t alien. Even though, as I said at the outset, that it was daunting to do It that way, it became quite comfortable, in terms of getting the stride up and hitting it at the same pace in which we took it all those years ago.
Was it a challenge for come up with music for THE PHANTOM MENACE that wasn’t so similar to what you did in the past? How important was it to you to come up with something fresh?
It presented wonderful challenges in the sense of trying to make it the same and make it different and fresh. One of the nice challenges of writing the score was to do a thing like writing Annakin’s Theme – I think we all know that Annakin will metamorphose into Darth Vader, and what I did, in effect, was to do what George was doing, in a sense, turning it over and writing things backwards. I took Darth Vader’s Imperial March and took it apart, and inverted some intervals, so that Annakin’s Theme is really made out of material of Darth Vader’s evil Imperial March. It’s turned into a kind of sweet, lyrical, young person’s theme, which at the end metamorphoses from something beginning in a very innocent way and ending with this portentous kind of feeling that the music, like the boy, is going to turn into something darker and more complicated.
George Lucas’ characters are really very symbolic. They’re archetypes. When you wrote the music for these films, did it also incorporate grand archetypal themes?
I think it’s very much so in the case of music. These themes can be specific – they are specific about characters, but there’s a general, broader archetypal (to use your word) aspect to each of these characters that George has created, and that’s very much a musical thing. It would happen, I think, in a musical characterization, a melodic depiction of any character if you were a noble character, the music would take on a nobility that would go beyond the individual and become generic, and express, not the man, but the nobility or the evil aspect of him, etcetera.
When you were writing the music for STAR WARS and THE PHANTOM MENACE, did you try to write something that was deliberately as grand and spectacular as the movies? And did you think that, because of that, your music would be really memorable and would stay with the audience?
This really is a central aspect of film composing. When we write music for films, we don’t have the audience’s full attention. They’re going to hear a lot of sound effects, and hear dialog. Maybe they will hear the music once or twice, so generally speaking, particularly in films like this, the music has to be simple – it has to be straightforward.
You have to say what you mean pretty clearly. If that means to be simple and to be direct and to have the motivic representations of characters be simple things that you can hear, through all the dialog and through all distraction, that may be a good thing. If it’s simple and it’s memorable and you hear it in the second reel, then if you hear it in the fourth reel and you remember that you’ve heard it in the second, you need to have that memory to connect the vertebrate part to the earlier part of the film. Again, it’s not dissimilar to opera, you gain the person’s attention note by note, step by step.
One of the things that you might do is, if a melody is complex in its end form, if it has twelve notes, let’s say, and the audience hears the first three in reel two, and then they hear six notes in real five, but they get the full complexity of twelve notes at the end of the film, there’s a wonderful sense then that the audience would seem unconsciously aware of an inevitability of something that they might even have predicted themselves. That’s part of the dramatic mechanism of pulling the audience in, so that if we can create melodies that can be remembered, even if not consciously, through the maze of dialog and effects, in a film like this we’re going to be better off. If the musical approach is atonal or a totally abstract wash of sounds, so to speak, the listeners going to have That same connection melodically and, ultimately, emotionally.
Is the orchestration the same for THE PHANTOM MENACE as it was for the original STAR WARS films?
Yes, the first three films had the London Symphony, and that was very much a standard orchestral set up of winds, brass, strings, and percussion. The only thing we’ve added this time are some electronics, synthesized keyboard sounds, materials that weren’t technically available in 1977. I haven’t used a lot of that. Also, there’s more choral work in this piece than we’ve had in the earlier three. I don’t recall just now whether we used chorus at all in the first three films, but we have a half-dozen or more important sequences in PHANTOM that do involve either women or children or mixed choir.
What about the music for the ending of the film? Why did you use a choir singing in the Sanskrit language in the final scene, and what were you trying to say in your music about the meaning of the action on the screen?
The choral piece that has to do with the swordfight and comes at the end of the film is a result of my thinking that something ritualistic and/or pagan and antique might be very effective. I just felt the way that George has staged that, on top of that great stairway, the way it’s done is so dramatic and so like a great pagan altar, the whole thing seems like a dance or a ballet, a religious ceremony of some kind, probably ending in the death of one of the combatants, you know? A ballet about that, super-real, or unreal even, and that medium of chorus and orchestra would give us a sense that we were in a big temple and we were taking part in a ritual that happens not just once, but every time a holiday comes around, we go through the same drama, and the drama is the contest between good and evil, and our conceptions of where these things come from, the balance of the two things, what’s going to prevail and what isn’t, the ultimate sense of justice behind the outcome, if there is such a thing. So it becomes almost a Mass, if you like, a celebration of a certain ritual, and the musical accompaniment to that would probably be typically more vocal than anything, really, in literature of at least recent antiquity. We added a symphony orchestra to that to emphasize and dramatize what it is, and hopefully some of this will be imparted to the viewer – that they’re watching something larger than a swordfight, that ft’s a real contest between basic values and basic conceptions of what we think is right and what we think is not right.
How do you think the audience is going to react to this new film?
Whenever a film is so preceded by huge anticipation as this one, one little corner of your soul worries ‘will it come up to the expectations of what people want?’ I never make any assumptions with these things. Rather than assume anything, I just hope that they will enjoy it and hope that they will be moved by it, and that it will be a big experience for them.
Another thing one can say is, I think the sum of an event is greater than all the parts that go into it, so that when the audience goes into a big theater, like the one George has there in his studio, the size of the screen, the massive impression that the special effects gives, and the orchestra playing, and all of this thing being all put together, is an experience that I wait for as the audience does. I only know my part thus far, it’s all going to be put together and we can all sit back and see what the sum of all of this work is going to add up to.
I’ve talked earlier about the cross-generational aspect of what STAR WARS is, and so many of the members of the London Symphony Orchestra came to me at intermission and said ‘we started studying music 20 years ago only because we heard STAR WARS and we wanted to play it in the London Symphony when we grew up, and here we are grown ii playing on the soundtrack of the new film!’ What it says is that this thing has jumped a generation or two and it’s going to be larger and longer -lived than any of us having to do with this thing. So I’m really indebted to George for creating something that is really bigger than the parts of it.
THE PHANTOM MENACE is a prequel – it depicts events that happened before the events in the original STAR WARS movies. Did you try to write music for THE PHANTOM MENACE that hints, in a way at the music in those original movies?
This idea of hinting of themes that are to come, or suggesting and giving hints of themes that we already know, was for me a new experience with PHANTOM MENACE. I didn’t have any of this thinking in the earlier three.
But I think it’s going to emerge as being a more important thought as we move on into the next couple of episodes. In the choral piece in PHANTOM MENACE, when George heard it, he said, ‘Ah! That’s the theme of the last film!’ I’m not sure what he means, because he has something in this idea that I don’t know about, but this musical image or picture seems to connect in his mind with something that’s yet to come. So I can imagine in the next episode that we’ll be revisiting some of the music created for PHANTOM MENACE, but having it evolve into other themes, other musical settings that, at this moment I can’t even imagine.