Larry Groupé on Scoring The Contender

An Interview with Larry Groupé by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.73/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the publisher, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Larry Groupé Among the most interesting of the new crop of film composers to take up residency in Hollywood is Larry Groupé, whose expressive and intelligent scores for films like SLEEPING WITH THE LION, I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED, and the new Rod Lurie release, DETERRENCE, are quite notable.

Groupé grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. He came out to California to earn a Bachelor’s and then a Masters Degree in Music Composition, which he received in 1983. A desire to continue writing orchestra music led him to seek work in film composition. “I didn’t want to be a teacher or live in academia, which is where it normally occurs,” Groupé said. “That pretty much left the production and commercial world of films, naturally, the best bet, orchestrally speaking. So I gravitated toward that for that particular reason, and have been fighting hard and struggling to get scores accordingly.”

Aside from his film music work, Groupé continues to compose commissioned works from orchestras such as the San Diego Symphony, maintaining a hand in the concert world as well as the cinema world. Groupé’s latest film is THE CONTENDER, his third collaboration with Rod Lurie. The film, a political drama about a woman running for Vice President who is having secrets from her past coming into play, stars Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, and Sam Elliot. Interviewed on February 5th, the day before he began recording his score for THE CONTENDER, Groupé spoke about his music for the new film. Additional information, including promotional recordings of his scores, can be found on his web site.

How did you hook up with Rod Lurie?
My agent had got me a script of his for a movie he had written, and I wrote two or three sketches based upon my reading of the script. I met with him and played him the sketches, which he liked very much. For a variety of reasons, the movie was never produced, but he remembered me when he did a short film called THE FOUR SECOND DELAY, which won many, many awards. I scored that, followed by a feature length film, DETERRENCE, and now CONTENDER. Each one has, of course, been bigger and better.

So your previous association with Lurie was how you got involved with CONTENDER? You didn’t have to “contend”, so to speak, with anybody else?
Well, I did, actually. Not that I was competing with people who were writing sketches, but I was sitting in his office during one of our early meetings on CONTENDER, and literally the agents for John Williams and Thomas Newman both called in, and I was just dying! And Rod, of course, had fun with it to no end! He always had me sweating, I think, more for fun. But he had liked what I had done on FOUR SECOND DELAY and DETERRENCE very much, and he knew that I would give him 120%. He’s an excellent filmmaker. His films are intelligent and provocative, they are all politically oriented, that’s the main content. It’s been a pleasure with him so far.

How would you describe your approach to THE CONTENDER? You told me it was a rather large orchestral score. What kind of thematic and textural/orchestral structure are you using?
The nature of this film from an emotional overview, to quote the director, is that it’s about greatness. This story’s about the first woman vice president and her struggles in being confirmed through congress. That’s what the film was about, in essence, and he wanted the music to reflect a certain feeling of greatness. I’d written a theme that he liked very much which has become the core part of the score. The theme is represented very clearly in virtually every cue; he really wanted it constantly repeated.
The dark side of the story I usually enjoy most because it’s much more meaty and interesting, but Rod, even though he liked the music, kept removing it from the picture because he wanted to keep that part without music. So what’s happened to the score is that it’s primarily all the positive aspects of the scenes and we’re now missing, by deletion, all the dark aspects. He told me he wanted to keep a documentary style with no music at all for those scenes.
I’m actually kind of concerned. This is a very large picture, the cast is quite enormous, it’s going to be a big deal for me, and to be honest with you, I’m concerned that they’re not hearing, as it were, the dark side of what the score actually was. You’re only getting the positive thematic statements, which do service the film in the way that they should, but you’re missing the real color in what I did. It’s a lopsided score, in that regard, although it will work fine in the film.

What kind of instrumentation are you using?
It’s a traditional orchestra. Originally I had a large orchestra until the production budget suddenly got into crisis only a week ago and I lost over half my funding! So the score has dropped into a much smaller group. It was 76 pieces, now the largest group is about 41 and then we immediately drop to something like 32. We’ll make it work, I’ve got Armin Steiner engineering and I’ve got a wonderful set of players, so I still feel very good about it even though I’m clearly disappointed at the loss of the large group. The score itself, however, is very understated. It’s not a complex score, because the film is extremely dialog heavy, so I have to lay low and be careful not to interfere.

Having worked with Rod before, how was the arrangement this third time out?
There were certain advantages. I know what he likes. For example, I knew that he wouldn’t want to hear very much piano, especially high “tinkling” piano. He likes piano solo music, which is rich and flowing, but he is not a big fan of harp and piano in high registers; the exception to that would be the main theme from FOUR SECOND DELAY, which actually features a harp and piano motif!

So this is very purposeful instrumentation based on the other sonic elements that are going to appear in the film?
Right, especially the dialog. Rod is a writer/director and he also has written all of his last three films. I think that’s an important distinction. Any director will care about the dialog, but for the writer it’s absolutely paramount. At the same time he’s a very strong believer that a film’s theme be memorable, so melody is very important to him. I tried to throw in my composer point of view, but often it was shot down because I began to overshadow the dialog, which he didn’t want, or I was going into an opposite direction from the positive feeling he wanted with the theme.

Where do you think THE CONTENDER lies in your overall compositional output, and what do you think it bodes for your future as you become more involved as a film composer?
CONTENDER is very good for me because, again, it’s a very high profile film with a high star powered cast, and therefore it will be seen, it will be noticed, it will be criticized when it comes out. My concern is, as I mentioned earlier, that the score has become not the best showcase for me, due to the requirements the film needed of me, as opposed to my more eclectic independent films such as DETERRENCE, I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED, EARLYBIRD SPECIAL, and various other things, which I think are much more interesting scores. As much as the theme for CONTENDER works where it’s supposed to, it also became a certain amount of a trap because I couldn’t go beyond the confines of the theme. Since I couldn’t arrange the theme in the more varied ways that I wanted, I guess the challenge was in presenting it so it would remain fresh.

Do you see yourself moving up into A-list kind of composition or do you prefer the independents?
If I could have my choice of all the things in the world, I would prefer to have a career that would be similar to what Thomas Newman has had, as far as getting high quality independent pictures. I’m not necessarily looking forward to doing the next JURASSIC PARK. I mean, I’d be happy to do it, but my interest is more for well-crafted, well-made films, and certainly Rod Lurie films are extremely well made films, and they’re intelligent, and I love to do them. I would love to do something like SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and I think that’s going to be happening.

You have issued promotional CDs of many of your scores. What do you think of the place of promo recordings, which are valuable of course for self-promotion, but they’re also finding their way into the collector’s market for those of us who are pleased to appreciate them outside of the film theater. What do you see as the value of promo CDs from the composer’s standpoint?
Selling promo CD’s from my own Web site isn’t done to make money, but indeed to get them to reviewers and collectors and people who appreciate film music. I’m very grateful for the Web to allow this to happen. To my surprise, I sell a lot of CDs to collectors overseas who just buy everything on my site, and they respond back very favorably. I love that. Sometimes they are involved with the press, like yourself, and they’ll call back for interviews. I have like an underground following which I enjoy immensely and that is why I do the promo CDs, to get the music out there and appreciated and heard. It’s certainly not going to be any monetary benefit.
When I give a promo CD to another director to be hired for a film, I usually don’t give him the entire soundtrack, I often make a CD with two themes here, two themes there; I make a compilation specifically for them as a standalone promo. But these are specifically for people who just like film music and that’s the only way they’re going to hear it, because it’ll never be released otherwise.

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