An Interview with Lalo Schifrin 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 and Randall D. Larson
Lalo Schifrin’s 1998 score for RUSH HOUR was a nostalgic and fun recapitulation of many elements of one of Schifrin’s most memorable scores – 1973s ENTER THE DRAGON. With the advent of RUSH HOUR 2 this summer, Schifrin returns to kung-fu action territory, albeit with a far different approach than the original. RUSH HOUR 2 marks Schifrin’s third collaboration with director Brett Ratner, for whom he scored not only the original RUSH HOUR but also 1997s MONEY TALKS. Soundtrack Magazine spoke with Schifrin just before the films August release to discuss his approach to the new film.
Does RUSH HOUR 2 carry over any of the themes from the first film, or is it a completely new score?
I use the same music at the very beginning – it’s the same as the beginning of RUSH HOUR 1, but it was very short, and then the Main Title goes into a different direction. RUSH HOUR 2 is more symphonic. I used an orchestra of almost 100 players. So, except for that part at the beginning, I don’t have electric guitars or any of the elements that I had in RUSH HOUR 1. As a matter of fact, Brett Ratner had said, “for RUSH HOUR 1 why don’t you write ENTER THE DRAGON for the ‘90s” and now, “why don’t you do a symphonic score?” And I did. It was a very refreshing idea because I was afraid that he and everybody else, once they found a formula for success, would want to repeat it, and for me that wouldn’t have been fun. With a symphony orchestra, I had more possibilities.
Did they ask you to take the theme from the last film and make it orchestral, or is there a new theme to RUSH HOUR 2?
For the Main Title, after the quotations of the first film – like James Bond or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE themes – I did a bit of a quotation of the first film, like a signature, but it lasts only twenty seconds, and then I have about two minutes of Main Title where I come in with another theme. But I also used the theme of RUSH HOUR 1 in a different context; for instance, the relationship between Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, despite all the jokes, is more personal, and there’s a human interest story there. I used the first part of the theme as kind of ‘Their theme,’ and the second half of the theme of RUSH HOUR 1 is the ‘Bad News’ Theme. Every time something happens with bad news, I used that but in a symphonic way. The woman villain has a motif – I wouldn’t say a theme – which is very ominous. And during some sections, in Las Vegas, there’s a dance band. As I’ve said, the main bulk of it is symphony orchestra.
Ironically, do you know this is your fourth film that Jackie Chan’s been in? Before both of the RUSH HOUR films you did BIG BRAWL, and not everyone knows that he was one of the extras in ENTER THE DRAGON, which of course you scored…
No, I didn’t know that. So I have done four of his movies!
What’s your working process on scoring a film? Do you work chronologically starting with the first reel, or do you first find an integral scene to center your score around?
It’s always been chronological. That’s the only way I can do it. I don’t write cues – I write a score.
Many composers nowadays mock up their scores, synthetically, for the approval process as they go along. Do you do mock-ups at all or just do play the score on piano for the filmmakers?
Brett Ratner trusts me a lot. I did a few mock-ups but only to consult with him to see if I was going in the right direction or not. We communicate very well, and he’s a great source of inspiration. I would say as much inspiration came from him as from the movie. He has so much energy that it becomes contagious!
Is there a moment in the score that you’re particularly pleased with, that fans of your work should pay special attention to?
I don’t want people to pay attention to the score; I want people to pay attention to the movie! If you’re paying too much attention to the score, or you’re paying too much attention to the photography or the acting, that means that the movie’s not working. I tried to write a score that would help the movie. In this particular case, there were two heroes and, despite the fact that they did a lot of crazy things, I ignored the comedy (like I did in the first one, but in this one it was more so), and I played up the danger. My intention was that the audience should care for them, and what’s going to happen to them next. Despite of all the jokes and the humor, I wrote a very serious score… I did it more contemporary, of course, but it could have been the adventures of Errol Flynn…
In other words, it was a classically driven…
Yes, with some elements of the Orient. Maybe more drive, without any of the electric guitars or drums. I’ve always said that Mozart didn’t need a rhythm section to drive, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.
You released the original soundtrack to the first RUSH HOUR on your own Aleph label. Was there any thought of your label releasing this one instead of going to another label?
New Line had already made a deal with Varese Sarabande before I could get involved in negotiations. Before I even began writing the score the deal was signed!
We’ve been very impressed with the releases you’ve done, like the MANNIX album and THE FOX and things like that. Are you going to release more of your original scores on the Aleph label?
I hope so.
Is there anything coming up in the future that you can mention? The last one that you did was ROLLERCOASTER, which was a great recording.
In some cases, there were a lot of changes and acquisitions of record companies and movie studios, and sometimes you don’t know who owns what. First of all, I’m not the producer of the label, my wife is, but she works like a detective, and we have very good attorneys to go after these things. When we can get the license to release the original score, of course we go for that. There are processes now with remastering that you can improve the sound from vinyl to CD, but in some cases we do not get the license, so then I re-record it. Right now we are going after several movies that I’ve done in the past, but it takes time for the attorneys – especially the attorneys of the other side! – to finalize a deal.
As a composer, in the case of something like MANNIX, that must have been an interesting experience, going back and revisiting the material after so many years after the fact…
Yes, it was like a time machine!
Were you sitting there going, “Wow – did I write that?!”
Exactly. You are reading my mind!
A good example would be BULLITT, which was a new recording, but one in which I think you captured the spirit of the original quite well.
It was the same conductor. The baton has no sound – the musicians have to make the sound, but one thing the conductor can do is, without talking even, (and this is one of the big mysteries of conducting) is to bring the feeling that you want – provided that the musicians are good, of course.
You’ve also recently done a score called LONG SHOT, also known as JACK OF ALL TRADES. What was that project all about?
That was directed by Lionel Martin, who comes from a background of doing music videos in New York. He wanted me to score that movie, and I liked it and I did it. But I don’t know what happened to the movie. It was independent, and I don’t know what happened in terms of distribution and all that.
One of your most famous pieces of music that people don’t know you wrote was the Paramount fanfare, which is heard at the end of all their TV shows, including STAR TREK and CHEERS and all the others. How did you come to write that little tune?
I was hired to write a logo for Paramount Pictures, which sometimes is being used in movies too. I was hired the same way Alfred Newman was hired to do the 20th Century Fox logo. That was it.
When did you first write that tune?
Oh, a long time ago. That was when Bill Stinson was the head of the music department at Paramount.
That was back in the 70s? It’s amazing it’s still there to this very day. It’s been interesting because that’s a question we get a lot – “who wrote that?”
That’s a little musical trivia!