An Interview with Lalo Schifrin by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Composer Lalo Schifrin grew up with a strong love for music and motion pictures – especially the horror and science fiction films that served to develop his cine/musical awareness. “I saw THE THING, the original, about eleven times!” Schifrin recalls. “And all of that left an influence in me, because every time I was going to a movie I became very conscious of its score.” Since there were no universities offering film scoring classes during the 50’s when Schifrin studied, the films that he went to see during his youth served to shape his sensitivity for the medium.
Born and raised in Argentina, Schifrin’s interest in music was instilled by his father, who was concertmaster for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. Through a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory of Music, Schifrin studied classical composition, but also developed an interest in jazz, which eventually resulted in his working with famous jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, who brought him to New York. From there, Schifrin broke into films in 1963, putting his experience in both jazz and symphonic music to good use by scoring films with such diverse musical styles as classical (THE FOUR MUSKETEERS), jazz (BULLITT), pop/rock (ENTER THE DRAGON). He also composed the popular themes for television’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, MANNIX, and others.
Schifrin’s varied musical interests (“I like all kinds of music, as long as it’s good!” he said) have also served him well in the horror and science fiction genre. The extensive score for Sean Cunningham’s A STRANGER IS WATCHING (1981) was built upon the rhythm of the subway trains that figured in the film’s milieu, transposed for orchestra. For the semi-fanciful documentary, THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (1971), Schifrin tried to create the audio world of insects with his orchestra of both acoustic and electronic instruments, utilizing many varied techniques including the use of wire brushes over strings during the ants sequence. “Every sequence of that film was a different texture, but it was very interesting,” Schifrin recalled of HELLSTROM CHRONICLE. “It forced me to go almost to my own limits of the imagination.” The score, which was recorded at different studios and put together on a 24-track mixer, is considered by Schifrin to be one of his best works.
For the prehistoric comedy, CAVEMAN (1981), Schifrin provided what he termed “a broad, Mack Sennett symphonic score”, utilizing primitive-sounding instruments in the sequence in which the cavemen invent music. For this scene, Schifrin used the sounds of bones, rocks striking each other, and an ancient instrument from the Amazon called a Birimbao. “That is basically a bow, from the bow and arrow,” he explained. “They take the string from the bow and by changing the position of the hand they change the tune. It’s mostly a rhythmical instrument because it can not play too many notes.” Schifrin also scored George Lucas’ THX 1138, THE MANITOU, and other genre efforts.
But his most atmospheric genre score is probably that for THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, which he scored for director Stuart Rosenberg in 1979. When a sequel, of sorts, was later filmed by a different production company, Schifrin was called in to provide a similar musical score for AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION, developing his original music from the first film. While both films have been rather eagerly forgotten by most moviegoers, their scores are worthwhile of closer inspection.
Lalo Schifrin’s primary approach to scoring the AMITYVILLE films stems from an idea he had shortly after seeing the early, unscored print of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. “When Stuart first showed me the movie,” Schifrin said, “he was going to have the main title when the couple are buying the house, and then the other titles intermittently – a little bit of dialog and back to titles; more dialog and back to titles. After I saw the picture and after we talked, I got an idea that the house was alive – there was something alive in the house, and I got the idea of doing a nursery rhyme, almost like children’s voices, but more eerie.” Schifrin composed a haunting nursery rhyme theme, occasionally using “wrong” notes to make it sound more discordant and foreboding. “It had that innocence of children against high strings, playing very sustained, and once in a while, low strings and the low orchestra come in, suggesting the idea of something horrible happening here.” Schifrin explained his idea to Rosenberg, who – before he had even heard the theme – in turn got his own idea about a new opening, a simple shot of the Amityville house with an orange, Halloween color to it, rolling the credits over this image while Schifrin’s music played. This, then, became the opening used in the finished film.
All of the thematic elements of the AMITYVILLE score are embodied in the repeated, descending two-notes of the nursery rhyme. “I broke that nursery rhyme into little motifs” Schifrin said. “They were like bricks with which I built a whole house – the Amityville house! It was the bricks of a score, little musical cells. It’s always built around that nursery rhyme, with different orchestrations and counterpoint, but that was always the primary element.”
The first AMITYVILLE score was written in less than six weeks, and then orchestrated for the musicians by Richard Hazard from Schifrin’s very detailed sketches. “I don’t give freedom to my orchestrators,” Schifrin said, suggesting that often a composer’s musical intentions may be distorted in the translation from sketch to full score. “My sketches are so thorough that they are almost like condensed scores.” Hazard, himself a composer of occasional films and TV movies, transferred Schifrin’s sketches faithfully to score paper for the orchestra. The music was then recorded with a seventy-two piece orchestra that included three female studio singers, who imitated children for the nursery rhyme theme.
The score for AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION is a development of the theme from the first picture. “I used the same formula”, Schifrin said, “but I changed the theme, because this is a different company and it’s attached to a different publishing house. So, for copyright reasons, I couldn’t use the same theme. I used a similar theme, but I changed it enough to make another nursery rhyme.” While details such as the precise notes were changed, the basic rhythm, harmony and tempo of the theme is the same as the first film, and it is this element – along with the ominous Long Island house itself – that links the two films, Schifrin’ s instrumentation was also altered slightly to suit the new picture. “In the first score, I used strings, brass, woodwinds, keyboard (piano and celesta, not synthesizer), percussion, harp and the three voices. In AMITYVILLE II, I kept the same percussion, I kept the harp, the strings and the voices, but I didn’t use brass or woodwinds.” Schifrin added, in their stead, synthesizers. “I had three players playing different kinds of keyboard instruments, from piano and celesta to different kinds of synthesizers. I used some of the newest kinds of digital synthesizers to give very ethereal and eerie sounds.” Schifrin also used a synthesizer to imitate the sound of a medieval horn a one point, and elsewhere used voices in a semi mass style for a brief crescendo when the demonic writing on the wall is seen.
While Schifrin loves fantasy and horror films, he has actually scored comparatively few of them. “I can’t do too many of those,” he explained. “You come up with an idea like AMITVILLE once in a while, maybe once in ten years. The change of style and theme, however, appeal to Schifrin. “Right after I finished AMITYVILLE II, I did THE STING II, and that was very refreshing. I think it’s necessary for the soul and for the musical idea to change in order to be fresh to able to do different things.”
What appeals the most to Schifrin in scoring horror films such as AMITYVILLE II is the counterpoint involved, the mixture of innocence, and horror. “In THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, what works is the innocence of children, in juxtaposition to the horror. This is what I really like to do.” Schifrin also prefers to develop his score gradually, progressing through the various levels of the film. “I think you shouldn’t come in too heavy from the very beginning. Of course, it depends on the film, but I think that there is so much to build that you really have to start in the lowest point, and then you have something to build to. If you start right at the beginning with the whole orchestra and the whole sound there’s nowhere to go.” Schifrin finds that the lowest point is often innocence and that contrast is evident in almost all of Schifrin’s genre scores especially the AMITYVILLE films. “I like the delicate approaches to horror,” he said. “I like finesse.”