An Interview with Lee Holdridge by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Lee Holdridge entered the motion picture industry in 1973 when he scored JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL with songwriter Neil Diamond, whose record albums he had arranged previously. Holdridge had studied composition and conducting with Henry Lasker in Boston, and later studied composition at Manhattan School of Music. He began to arrange and conduct for the theatre in New York, as well as writing songs, and started to arrange records for RCA in 1967, which led to his association with Neil Diamond. Having always been a fan of the art of film music, Holdridge kept the ambition to compose for movies from an early age. He moved to California in 1973, and since SEAGULL has been scoring films and television ever since.
Holdridge continues to work in the symphonic field, as well, in addition to arranging record albums for artists like Placido Domingo and John Denver. Holdridge’s violin concerto was recently recorded by the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra, and he hopes to write an opera in the near future. “I really have a lot of creative desires,” Holdridge admitted, “and I don’t want to neglect any. I find that being creative and being versatile keeps the creative muscles very alive and very active. One helps the other in the sense that if you compose a lot, you become very adept at it.”
One of Holdridge’s major scoring assignments was for the recent television version of EAST OF EDEN (1981), a score he is quite proud of. “I was very honored to do that project,” Holdridge said, “having grown up reading Steinbeck in high school. It was wonderful to get to work on it. That was a project where I was given a proper amount of time and it was a total labor of love. I wrote and orchestrated every single note in it, which was great. I had a producer who was very sympathetic, and he gave me eight weeks to work on it, which as you know is a rarity!”
Holdridge scored the 1982 sword-and-sorcery fantasy, THE BEASTMASTER, with a rich orchestral composition that strongly underlined the adventure and heroism of the film. This score led to the assignment of scoring the short-running TV series, WIZARDS AND WARRIORS, a show he enjoyed composing very much. Holdridge composed all eight episodes, and he had the rare luxury of being allowed an orchestra of 35 players for this series. Since then, the prolific Holdridge has scored a number of TV movies, including THURSDAY’S CHILD, IN LOVE WITH AN OLDER WOMAN, LEGS, and the forthcoming Agatha Christie story, CARIBBEAN MYSTERY. His recent feature film score, MR. MOM, is a pleasant pop score featuring a catchy main melody for trumpet and saxophone over electric band. The score also features a plethora of satirical references to JAWS, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, ROCKY, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS and PATTON, utilizing their music to heighten the lampoon.
Interviewed on October 19, 1982, Holdridge described in detail his approach to the heroic music of THE BEASTMASTER.
How did you become involved with THE BEASTMASTER?
The director of the film heard my violin concerto, was very impressed with it, and had known of my work in films. He wanted a large symphonic score for this picture, my name had come up a number of times, and he was very interested in having me do the score. The producer of the film, who was in ultimate control of the film, was not familiar with my work and started out wanting John Williams to score the picture – but I guess everybody wants John Williams these days! And so, once reality set in, and they said we’ve got to find a composer who can do our film, the director continued to prevail and say he wanted me to do the score. It took them a month and a half to decide, and when they finally did, they gave me two and a half weeks to write it! This is very typical in our business!
I’ve noticed that you’ve done a lot of what I’d call “light” films, such as FOREVER YOUNG, FOREVER FREE, EAST OF EDEN, and OLIVER’S STORY. What did you think about scoring a bizarre fantasy such as this?
I had done heavier films before. I did a film called THE PACK, for Warner Bros., which is not well known but was kind of a horror thing, and I did a very strong score for that. I had done a lot of things even within television that either involved battles or fights or things like that, and because of my symphonic background I had no problem as far as being able to score a heavier kind of score. In fact, it’s more my natural element, but it takes people a while to discover that about you. The truth of the matter is, of course, that there’s been a period in which we’ve not been doing big symphonic scores, and it’s only really in the last four or five years that people have started to get interested in symphonic scores again. They sort of took a holiday from it for a while, and everybody wanted light scores. I’d even have people say to me “I don’t like strings”, which would make it difficult because that’s sixty percent of the orchestra!
What was your basic approach to scoring THE BEASTMASTER?
I decided that it was mythological. That’s all I could figure out about it. You can’t tell what period it’s set in or where it’s set or anything like that; it could be in the future as well as in the past. So I decided that it should be mythological in nature, and therefore I opted for what I call a kind of modal approach in symphonic works. Oddly enough, I found myself listening to a lot of Mussorgsky, Walton and the Hindemith E Flat Symphony, just to refresh the vocabulary again. I found a lot of valuable things, especially the use of percussion and brass, which I used a lot of in THE BEASTMASTER, and the open sound of the 4th and 5th gives a mysterious modal quality to it which makes it sound ancient. I wanted very strong themes. I liked the film CONAN THE BARBARIAN, to which this is very similar, and I thought the score was good but I missed the strong central theme in that film. I wanted THE BEASTMASTER to have that, and so I have definitely a hero’s theme that is throughout the film, and it becomes very distinctive as the hero’s theme.
How would you describe the other thematic elements of the score?
There is kind of an “evil theme”, for the evil priest played by Rip Torn, whose character borders on being serious or funny depending on which way you’re looking at it. For him I just used a low timpani drum beat that you hear throughout the film in places, which suggests a pagan style to it. It’s very effective, I think it’s a device that I may explore more in some future film that might come along, but it seems to work very well – particularly the cue when the hero first arrives at the city that the evil priest is holding and he goes to the pyramid; you hear this intermittent drum beat that builds and builds as the priest is sacrificing one of the children, and the orchestra builds over that timpani, and I found it to be a very effective device. It’s not really a thematic device, but it becomes like a leitmotif. Then of course the slave girl/princess has her thematic thing which is a little bit more romantic, a little softer – primarily flute and exotic percussion like finger cymbals, wind chimes, and so forth. The eagle has a theme which is very important in the picture, because the eagle becomes the eyes for the hero; it becomes his symbol, for me from a composer’s standpoint, and you’ll find that the eagle has a very distinctive theme as well as the hero. The two themes become more and more intertwined as the picture develops, and I find that I was able to work the two themes together in a nice way, especially in the final moments of the picture when they’re all united. All of the themes come together in the very last scene of the picture.
How closely did you work with the director on the film ?
We worked pretty closely; the only problem was time. They didn’t give me a lot of it, and so it became necessary to literally lock myself in the studio, and I had to tell them that I wasn’t going to be able to see them very much. But I did play them some themes initially, on the piano, to get their approval of what I was doing, and they became very excited about it. The director told me he was absolutely pleased, and he had a couple of comments that he asked about, certain things that needed help, dramatically, that he felt he had not achieved directorially and he hoped the music would help to bridge that gap.
Did the fact that they had initially wanted John Williams at all affect the kind of score you were asked to compose?
That was hard to say. Everybody wants John Williams these days, but then you look at their film and it has nothing to do with anything that he’s done. I think it’s more that they’re just celebrity conscious, rather than practical. If anything, I think that when I looked at this film, I thought back more to Franz Waxman and Korngold – who, of course, have influenced Williams – and I think it was more the heroic approach that they wanted. I felt that it would be appropriate for this film to do that, and that’s what I set out to do. Williams has certainly rekindled that spirit in films for music today, the spirit that was very much alive when Korngold and Steiner and Waxman were scoring pictures.
Did you use any unusual instrumentation in the score?
I didn’t do anything overly exotic. I do have a synthesizer in the orchestra, as of the orchestra. It never really stands out in the orchestration, but it’s continuously there, either doubling the strings or doubling the low brass, or enhancing the percussion in one form or another. It’s very effective because I think it becomes part of the overall texture and you’re never really aware of it, and yet somehow the sound of the whole orchestra is a little different, especially in the battle cues or the suspense/mystery cues. It’s just constantly lurking around in there. I used a lot of percussion, especially in the battle sequences, and I had an orchestra which I called the battle orchestra, which was comprised only of strings, a huge brass section, percussion and the synthesizer. No woodwinds whatsoever. I wanted big thunderous crashing chords, and strong fanfarish brass things for the battle. Then when I went to the more mysterious kinds of cues I introduced more woodwinds and things like that. But the synthesizers were very effective in just gluing it all together in an interesting way, and altering the color of the strings or the woodwinds or the brass every now and then.
Roughly, what was the size of the orchestra?
The smallest orchestra was probably forty musicians, the largest between fifty-five and sixty. The smaller one would have been for some of the lighter cues, some of the mystery things where I did not have a lot of brass.
Did you orchestrate the score yourself?
In this case I orchestrated about a third of it. Because of the time problem, I had to have help. Normally I orchestrate my own scores, but in this case it was out of necessity that. I get some help. I had the assistance of Grieg McRitchie and Alf Clausen, two excellent orchestrators, and I think it’s a credit both to my sketches and to their abilities that no one can really tell who did what. We were so much in sync that in a couple of cases where I orchestrated half the cue and somebody else did the other half, you can’t really tell.
The reason I selected these two gentlemen was that they are from symphonic backgrounds, like myself, and I felt that we would have a good rapport, which we did. My sketches were pretty complete; I composed the entire score in sketch form, and they started orchestrating at the beginning and the minute I finished sketching all the cues, I jumped in and became an orchestrator as well. Toward the end the three of us were going full guns, trying to complete the thing in time!
There were eighty-five minutes of music (which is literally double the amount of music that’s normally in a film) to write within a period of two and a half weeks. Grieg McRitchie, who is an old-timer and a fantastic composer-orchestrator, told me that in the days when he used to work for Alfred Newman at 20th Century Fox, Newman had a contract that said he had ten weeks to write a score, two weeks to record it, and if they wanted to add music to the picture they’d have to add another two weeks of writing time for every two minutes of music they added! Those days are gone forever!
Now that you’ve finished with THE BEASTMASTER, do you find that you’d like to do more films of this type?
I like doing films of all types. I think it’s good because it keeps you on your toes; you don’t want to do the same kind of film too often. I would love to do another film of this sort, sometime, but not immediately. And then I would have to see what I would do to approach it differently than THE BEASTMASTER. But you know what happens to us film composers some times – you do a score and if somebody really -likes you they want you to do the same score for them! That sometimes causes problems, because if you walk in with something totally different, they say “no, no, no, I wanted it just like what you wrote for so-and-so!”
Lee Holdridge on film music
When I went to college, if you scored films it was like you might as well be a whore! Now they’re changing their attitude somewhat. They’re beginning to think: well, gee, maybe it’s not such a terrible thing after all. I’ve never understood that attitude. Look at all the top English composers, they all wrote wonderful film scores. Some of the best film scores, some of my favorites, are by Walton and people like that. You know, it’s the ballet and opera of this century. Composers used to support themselves before by writing ballets and operas, and then in between they wrote their symphonies. Now it’s film scores.