Lalo Schifrin on Creating Mission: Impossible

An Interview with Lalo Schifrin by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

lalo-schifrinIt’s Monday May 8th in the early afternoon as I drive down Sunset Boulevard towards the east end of Beverly Hills. The weather is breathtaking and it’s the perfect spring day to visit composer Lalo Schifrin. I arrive one hour early in order to set up for the photo shoot. When you walk up the sidewalk to Lalo’s front door, you notice a doormat with the letter S on it. His assistant Nikki greets me as I’m shown to his studio in the back. On the way I’m greeted by a large and wonderful German shepherd dog, who wanted to dance. After entering the maestro’s studio I noticed a plaque on the right side of the door that read, ‘Citation of Achievement’, Lalo Schifrin, Presented By BMI For The Song ‘Theme From MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE’. (2nd Award), In Recognition Of The Great National Popularity As Measured By Broadcast Performances. This was signed by the President / CEO of BMI, Frances W. Preston.

It was at this precise moment that I began to realize I was about to do a story on a legend, thus enter Mr. Schifrin. With another framed award in his hand he greeted me. Lalo was trying to find a place to put his new plaque that commemorated more than one million sales in CDs of the film RUSH HOUR. After searching all around his huge studio he finally found a place for it over the fireplace. He placed it there among a long row of other awards he’s received over the years.

Composer Lalo Schifrin has composed more than one hundred scores for motion picture and television over the last thirty five years, not including his work in jazz, opera, and the classical arena. His film projects include THE CINCINNATI KID, COOL HAND LUKE, THE FOX, BULLITT, KELLY’S HEROES, DIRTY HARRY, ENTER THE DRAGON, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, THE COMPETITION, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, THE DEAD POOL, and RUSH HOUR. He has received six Oscar nominations, twenty Grammy nominations, and one for the Cable ACE awards. Four times he’s won the Grammy, two were for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. One for Best Instrumental Theme from Television and Movies and the other was Best Instrumental Performance. In fact Lalo won both of these awards in one night; it’s a statement of recognition like this that can show anyone what a powerful impact his music for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE has made. It was hard to believe that I was here to find out about a Lalo who was scoring for television over twenty years ago. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the television series, has become a milestone for many. Its original approach to espionage with a classic team of specialists and its customary plot twists won over the attention of millions of viewers. The show was so popular it birthed a major motion picture in 1996 that was directed by Brian De Palma and scored by Danny Elfman, the ‘Main Title’ or theme being reinterpreted by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, the bass player and drummer for the British band U2. Even now the popularity to this day continues with the upcoming release of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, directed by John Woo and scored by Hans Zimmer, the main theme being reinterpreted by Fred Durst and his band Limp Bizkit. With all this to deal with, I sat down with composer Lalo Schifrin, who put a pipe comfortably in mouth, to discuss his views on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

Going back to when you started working on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, how did you get this job?
I think it was in 1966 or 67. This had to do with the producer of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, who was also the writer, and the director of the pilot, the late Bruce Geller. He was flying his airplane in the Santa Barbara Mountains when he had an accident. Bruce contacted my agent because he wanted me to score MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.
I’d been in Hollywood for several years and he’d heard some of my earlier movie work, so I went to meet him when they were shooting the series. At that time the studio was Desilu Productions, it was acquired by Paramount later on. I went to the set without having read the script; I didn’t even know what the whole thing was about. In-between takes when they were setting up the cameras, I met Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, and Greg Morris. I knew it was a spy story, it was a pilot, we didn’t even know if it was going to sell or not. In those days a composer would have to do ten pilots to sell one. Once the pilot sold, the possibility of it staying on the air after thirteen or twenty six weeks was really difficult because it was usually bumped out. In this case I happened to be at the right place at the right time. When I was hired to do the music, I read the script and then I knew what it was. It was a successful series and the music became a success.

When you realized what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was about, what attracted you to the project?
The fact that it was a trailer. That was the year when James Bond was very big; it was after DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the first James Bond movies. There was a whole slew of shows like I SPY and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., many television series that had to do with espionage. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was also espionage because in its first five years they were constantly dealing with the other side of the Iron Curtain. The pilot took place in a location like Cuba, it was an island. It had an imaginary name and was in the Caribbean with a dictator. I remember the characters having beards, dressed up in green military like uniforms, it was evident. It was the espionage type elements that attracted me to this show.

How long did you score the show for?
It ran for seven years and I constantly scored it until the very end, but when a film project came up, I just couldn’t do it for two or three months. However, my theme used in the underscore, ‘The Plot’, became so attached to the show that when they hired other composers there was a problem. The other composers didn’t want to use my theme for ‘The Plot’, which is the key to the whole score. I didn’t realize that this was going to become a marriage with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.
Bruce really didn’t like what the other composers were doing, so I signed a paper giving them fifty percent of my royalties if they used my theme. This was a good idea because it’s better to have fifty percent of something than one hundred percent of nothing. Bruce was happy, Paramount was happy, and the composers were happy to because they became adapters. They had to adapt my theme to whatever situation there was in any episode. That gave me the freedom to score films, to get involved in other projects, but when I didn’t have anything to do I’d call Bruce up and say, “I’ll do two or three episodes, I have two or three weeks available here.”
As a matter of fact, I remember when I got married to Donna, my present wife, which was twenty nine years ago, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was still going on and I had to score an episode. The day before we got married I had to finish it and I couldn’t, so we got married and afterwards I had to go home and put the finishing touches on my score, then stay for the scoring sessions, and then we went on our honeymoon. That tells you that I stay until the very, very end!

What was your biggest challenge when scoring this series?
There were no challenges. In television, once you solved the problem in the pilot and it’s your music, there are no more challenges. The only challenge is to adapt it to each show. There was one episode that was located in Russia and I had to adapt it to Russian music, but basically even that was very easy for me.

What did you enjoy most about working on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE?
It was a very congenial atmosphere. Bruce and I became intimate friends. I regret his death, not only because he was a great professional and was so pleasant to work with, but I regret it from a more personal point of view. He was a friend and I miss him. He used to live in the house right behind me. I bought this house because he was living there. When we visited each other we went to each other’s back doors, crossing the alley. Not only Bruce, but there was a whole team of people from Paramount and his crew, music editors, film editors, they all contributed to an excellent atmosphere.

When you wrote the ‘Main Title’, did you realize what a signature sound you were creating?
No, there’s no way. That season when I did the pilot, there were ten other pilots about spies that didn’t sell. I did great things for them, but nobody knows about them! Why? Because they didn’t sell, they were never on the air. Not only did MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sell, but the series became a big hit, and then the music became a hit. I’m glad that young people today can relate to that music.

How did the famous ‘Main Title’ sequence of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE come about?
The pilot was the first episode of a possible series. The idea is to show it to a network, in this case it was CBS, to see if they would buy it. The background music in a pilot is important, but what’s very important is the main theme or title. I said to Bruce, “There are two projects here, one is the background music and the other is the ‘Main Title’ music, but I really don’t know what to do for the ‘Main Title.’ Once he finished shooting and edited the pilot, he was ready for me. I went to see it and there was no main title or end credits. I spotted this episode with Bruce and came up with this idea for a plot theme, “da-dada-dadadada,” but he wanted a theme for each character in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. One for Barbara Bain, and all the other characters, and I said, “No, that would be wrong because you’re quick cutting.” Greg Morris might be doing those electronic things, they’re all specialists. Martin Landau is an actor who puts on masks, Barbara Bain is a sex vamp, Mata Hari, Lupus was the big guy with a lot of strength, and Phelps was the head of the team. I said, “You need one theme only, like a paramilitary operation with a suspenseful march.” I call it ‘The Plot’, actually that was the theme of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE I used in the score. Bruce agreed and then I said, “What about the ‘Main Title’ music, what do you have in visuals?” He responded, “Well, I’m thinking about something with a fuse. There’s this company who’s doing the graphics and visuals.” I said, “Are they going to have it in time for me to see it?” He said, “Yeah, oh yeah.” Then I said, “I’m going to start working on the score, the background music.” So I’m working and working, in television they don’t give you much time, it’s not like a movie; half a week went by and I hadn’t heard from Bruce. I called him up, “What’s happening with the ‘Main Title?’ He said, “I don’t know yet.”
I kept working on the background music until I was finished, now I was ready for the ‘Main Title’. I said to Bruce, “I don’t have anything else to do and we are scoring next week.” He said, “I have bad news. We rejected what the graphics company was doing, l didn’t like it. So you’ll have to score to nothing on the screen. Give me something very exciting; give me something really light, not like the background music which is really serious. Make it a little bit tongue and cheek, something very exciting with a lot of rhythm, vigor, but don’t make it too serious. Give me something rhythmically exciting. “This was the first time since I was scoring film that I could actually come out and compose something of my own.
I like to write for the screen, but this was an exception. Total freedom, maybe that’s why it sounds so free, so exciting. It was a hit! They liked the music, so DOT Records, a subsidiary of Paramount who acquired Desilu, wanted to release the music. I only had two themes, ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘The Plot’. Even on LP or vinyl you had to do about thirty to thirty-five minutes of music. This is when I wrote a theme for each one of the characters, which I never used in the show!

I detected in the ‘Main Title’ some Latin jazz type influences.
Maybe that’s why Bruce wanted me, because this was Latin jazz, but I hadn’t done too much of this. Jazz, yes, my first films like in CINCINNATI KID where I had Ray Charles singing with a symphony orchestra, BULLITT, or even later on in the DIRTY HARRY films, that was my bag. The fusion of jazz and background music, scoring with electronics, but using mostly symphonic instruments.

It’s the feel of the percussion that gave it a Latin sound.
Percussion, yeah, but the rhythm is quasi Latin. It’s an odd rhythm; it’s in 4/5. A few years ago I conducted a concert at The Salzburg Festival. This is the city where Mozart was born; it’s a very important classical festival. I did a concert called ‘Jazz Meets The Symphony’. lt was very daring for the authorities of The Salzburg Festival to call me. I was in London at that moment recording and producing one of the ‘Jazz Meets The Symphony’ records. They wanted a press conference before the festival opened, to promote my concert within the festival that had many acts, conductors, soloists, and orchestras. I was very tired when I arrived in Salzburg, I hadn’t slept at all. There was a huge press conference. The journalists were from all over Europe, television, newspapers, and magazines, many specializing in music because this festival is very hi-brow. The questions were very intelligent, but I was tired and hungry. My impresario and my wife were waiting for me to have lunch. The questions kept going and going, I was exhausted, dead tired with very little sleep, especially because of recording the night before in London and the trip here. Finally it was a wrap, you saw the television cameras leaving, the journalists leaving, so now I can go the hotel, take a shower, and have lunch.
At this moment a young lady comes up to me and says, “May I ask you a question? Why did you write the Mission: Impossible Theme in 4/5?” So sometimes I have a naughty sense of humour, maybe because I was a jazz musician on the road with Dizzy Gillespie and there were always a lot of practical jokes going on. I said to her, “Well, have you ever heard about The Manhattan Project? It was a project where the American military government had the armed forces build the atomic bomb in New Mexico. They tested these nuclear weapons, a lot of explosions took place there and the radiation went into the soil. It just so happened that some babies who were born there had five legs.” I made this all up, right at that moment. Then I said, “When these babies grew up and were old enough to go to discotheques, they couldn’t dance, because discotheques are only for people who have two legs. Here in Austria you really have a precedent because at the turn of the century, between the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, there were sightings of aliens that came from outer space who had three legs. That’s why Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar wrote the Viennese waltzes, because it’s in three. One, two, three, one, two, three, we had three legs, but the people in this context really have two legs, so I wrote MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for people who have five legs.” I then did the festival, a whole tour of Europe, and came back. The article that she wrote was published and my booking agent in Europe faxed me a letter saying, “Didn’t you realize that she is the most important music critic in Vienna, for the most important music magazine?” She had written the article the exact way I explained this to her!

Was it easy to write the ‘Main Title’?
It was easy, especially when Bruce told me that I could do anything I wanted to, also because I’d written nine other titles for nine other pilots dealing with the same subject. So when Bruce told me to write something with vigor, something promising to an audience, I came up with this distinctive theme. A television theme has to be very distinctive because it’s almost like a signature. The purpose of the ‘Main Title’ is to identify. If somebody’s in the kitchen getting a soft drink and the television set is in the living room, when the show comes on and the music starts playing, the person thinks, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is showing now, I’m going to now go and see it.”

You explained that you’ve heard the first motion picture interpretation of your ‘Main Title’ by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen of U2, what did you think of it?
I liked it. I went to the premiere of the first movie in Westwood, afterwards I went to the reception. I told them that I liked it. I was in Glasgow, Scotland and they were going to come from Ireland to see if we could do a gigantic stadium concert, where I would perform the first half with a symphony orchestra, while in the second half they’d play their own material. Then at the end of this we would do MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE together. It never came to fruition because when they could do it, I couldn’t; we were just never available at the same time.

Larry and Adam took your theme and made a rhythmically heavy rock version of it.
That’s originally what I said in Salzburg to that lady reporter, I said, “U2 did it for people that have two legs, I wish I had thought about that myself.” They changed it around a lot, but that’s OK because if the theme is strong enough to be interpreted by people like them, it’s like a bridge over generations. I established a bridge that crosses time with other generations of musicians as well as the public.

This supports the idea of Limp Bizkit interpreting your main theme for the new movie, and obviously offering it up to a new generation within their style of composition.
I welcome this very much.

You’ve probably made more money on this theme than both Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer scoring both films put together?
Perhaps. I’m pleasantly surprised about the fact that the young audiences like my theme. It became like a classic, people like it all over the world. That brings me a lot of satisfaction.

Now that you’ve scored over one hundred motion pictures, what’s the difference between scoring for television and film?
In television you have to be very concise. In movies you can expand and develop. In classical music there is such a thing as a development of a theme. Like a symphony playing Beethoven, “Ba, ba, ba, ba,” that’s only a theme, but the symphony’s long. When he did those four notes it was amazing. In movies you can develop the development, in television you just don’t have time for that. The cues are generally very short and you have to cut to the chase, not too much embellishment, that’s the nature of the medium.

Which do you prefer scoring?
I like both because television gives you a kind of discipline that’s an economy of means; I’m not talking about the economy of money. Financially the budgets are reduced. To be able to say something with a few elements and say it right, gives you good discipline. In films it’s a different story. If you have a huge panorama shot, you can bring in a symphony orchestra to score it. These are different mediums, I like both, but I don’t do television any more.

Are the days of orchestral scoring for television coming to an end because of technological advancements and shrinking budgets?
I don’t know, I’m not a prophet. THE X-FILES has a great score. I know it’s done with synthesizers and it’s very good. Technology today is quite good because it allows a musician to reproduce some of the sounds of an orchestra. It’s not the same as a real orchestra, with an orchestra there’s more emotion because of the overtones. Electronic instruments have a problem with these overtones, although they can sample sounds. To actually do a good score, in any medium with synthesizers, it would take so long to build this up in a studio, it would be less expensive just to do it with an orchestra because it would take too many hours of studio time to try and create all the overtones these acoustic instruments have. For instance, when the woodwinds play and they bounce their sound off the walls of our concert hall, they also bounce their sound off the strings, the violas, and the cellos, all these players. This creates overtones that people call emotion, if the music is right.

When the first motion picture was made from the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series, did it bother you at all when you didn’t get a call to score it?
Not at all. I couldn’t have done it anyway, I was unavailable. I was producing a live television video and record in France.

Paramount has withdrawn permission from Famous Music, the publisher, to license out your ‘Main Theme’ from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for film and television use other than it being used in the original television series. Were you aware of this?
No, but if I were them, I would do the same thing. They’re expecting to have a series of movies, like James Bond, and if they want to have a series of movies they have to protect that theme. You just can’t overuse it. However, I’ve just been told by one of their lawyers that this huge company, Motorola, is going to promote my theme all over the world to promote their own product.

What are your plans?
In September I’m going to record one of my compositions for the German government. They commissioned me to write a piece of music celebrating the Millennium, which I did in Cologne, Germany during January. I brought musicians from five continents together to do this. I call that piece ‘Esperanto’, it’s one hour long. The record will be released in September.
Also I’m performing and recording my fifth ‘Jazz Meets The Symphony’ record. I’m very involved and performing a lot of concerts with that. I have been appointed Music Director of the Latin Jazz Festival here in Los Angeles and I’m also principal guest conductor of The Cologne Symphony in Germany.
I just re-recorded BULLITT and it’s about to come out on Aleph, AMITYVILLE HORROR is possible for the future as well. I’ve been offered three films to score, but I’ve haven’t signed yet. I told my agents to cool my bookings for the second half of this year, I’m going on vacation and when I come back I’ll be very busy working for the movie industry here.

After interviewing Lalo, I desperately tried to get a picture of him with his wonderful German shepherd; unfortunately the dog wasn’t in a photographic mood. As I was leaving the Schifrin residence I was introduced to Lalo’s wife Donna. We greeted each other as I said to her, “I’m doing an article on a legend.” Her response, “Don’t say that – he’ll be impossible to live with.”

  • My thanks goes out to Tony Rose, Nikki Du Wick, Karen Sundell of Rogers & Cowan, Dan Kimpel, and Mr. Lalo Schifrin.
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