An Interview with Leonard Rosenman by Randall D. Larson
Introduction by Ford A. Thaxton – Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since STAR TREK first appeared on our TV screens, and it’s only appropriate that Paramount Studios has released the latest installment in the film series this same year. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME stars most of the original cast and is once again directed by Leonard Nimoy himself. However, one crewmember who isn’t returning is composer James Horner, who had scored the last two films. At Nimoy’s choice, a new composer beams aboard to try his hand at going “where no man has gone before,” and that new composer is Leonard Rosenman.
Rosenman is a long-time veteran, having scored such films over the last 30 years as EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, A MAN CALLED HORSE and CROSS CREEK. He is also one of the few composers who write for film who has also maintained a career as a Concert Hall composer with works performed all over the world. Rosenman has been honored by Hollywood with two Oscars for his work on BARRY LYNDON and BOUND FOR GLORY. He comes to STAR TREK IV as no stranger to fantastic films, having written memorable music for such things as the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “And When The Sky Was Opened”, COUNTDOWN, THE CAT CREATURE, LORD OF THE RINGS and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.
How did you receive the assignment to work on STAR TREK IV?
I’ve been a friend of Leonard Nimoy for years, and this was the one that he felt would be best for me, because it was an original one, different than all the rest, and would utilize my particular abilities. I’ve always wanted to score a hardware film, because I’ve been a so-called “modern composer” off the screen, and it gave me a chance to really utilize a lot of the techniques and dramaturgic abilities that I’ve accumulated over 34 years.
You haven’t really scored that many science fiction films. The ones that come to mind are BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS and FANTASTIC VOYAGE…
FANTASTIC VOYAGE was a kind of trail blazer in many ways, and has become a kind of cult film.
That’s one of my favorite genre scores, it has some groundbreaking uses of interesting and new sounds.
Yeah, without electronics!
How do you feel about scoring these kinds of films? Are there any particular approaches that are especially useful in these films?
I’ve scored mostly intimate films dealing with human relations, all the way from my first film, EAST OF EDEN. It’s always been films of that kind, and I’ve had very little opportunity to do so-called large genre films, giant blockbuster films. Of course, I haven’t really been on the film scene that much, I do take off and do concerts and write concert music, which actually occupies most of my time, and so I do an average of about one film a year. The result is, is that my career is not, let’s say, as visible, as some of the other people.
Coming in to STAR TREK IV, you’re kind of following on the heels of these large, bombastic William-esque kind of things, what with Goldsmith’s original, and the two James Horner things. Did that cause any problems or challenges for you in scoring this film?
The greatest challenge that it posed was that you’re dealing not with something new but with 20 years of habit with Sandy Courage’s theme. The idea of trying to create, as Jerry did, and I think even Jamie tried to do it, a new Star Trek theme is shoveling sand against the waves. My original idea, and as a matter of fact even the script, called for Sandy Courage’s theme at the beginning. I thought, “Well, if I have to do it, I’ll make a fantastic arrangement of it, the kind they’ve never heard before.” I took it a bit slower and very sweeping, and then for the rest of the film I had my own music. As a matter of fact, this time I utilized motifs for the various characters, which has never been done in STAR TREK before. There is a main Star Trek motif, which I repeated throughout the entire film, and also in the end title credits. Well, suddenly Leonard Nimoy ran the film, and he put the end credits music against the main title, and thought that it had so much energy and was so much better that he said “let’s forget Sandy’s theme, let’s use your own.” So, except for the fanfare, which is Sandy’s, the rest is all mine.
How would you describe your approach to scoring this particular film?
First of all, there’s less music in this film than in any other science fiction film. Most science fiction films are wall-to-wall music. There are several reasons for this. First of all, I think this is one of the first science fiction films in which the relationships are much more important than the special effects. It’s a film that doesn’t depend on hardware. We loved the film just as much when we saw the rough cut without any special effects as we do seeing the film totally finished. For those of us who know the film, it doesn’t make it any realer for us, because the real thing is in there already, which is the relationship between the people.
So it’s a very warm film, and it’s also a comedy. There are very, very funny lines and the thing is incredibly rich in situation, and the result was that these lines had to come through and you really didn’t need that much music.
Most of the music, oddly enough, turns out to be lumped together in the last 5 reels of the film, and then, of course, it’s almost wall-to-wall, because there’s a lot of action. That’s where I think the score will really be remembered. Aside from the main and end credits, which are quite thick, almost symphonic, there’s a giant whale fugue that I use, which is a real cap off to a large scale cue that lasts eight minutes. That came off so well that I reprised it in a slightly different form in the end credits, which gave it almost another movement. It is quite long.
You mentioned earlier than a lot of your background has been in films that dealt with relationships, with people, with the inner side of things rather than the more bombastic surface level. It’s appropriate, in that sense, that you are scoring this particular film which emphasizes that aspect.
The strange thing about it is that these parts that really deal with human relations in the film don’t need any music! They’re that good. This is the kind of film where, ordinarily, one would think “they hired me because they want me to write some very warm, feeling kind of music.” But most of it is very heroic, which is kind of odd.
You mentioned earlier, and obviously in your other work you are considered something of a “modern” composer. Would you consider this to be a modern score, or a throwback to the Korngold romanticism?
It’s got “modernity,” whatever that means, but basically it’s certainly in this kind of heroic Korngold tradition, although it is orchestrated in a much more contemporary way. It also has jazz in it, which I did with the Yellowjackets…
When is that music used?
That’s used in a big scene, the first scene in San Francisco. I felt that they wanted something like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, and I felt that listening to this, it’s a real shock, after all this really symphonic stuff. I mean, it seems something we know, but it’s something they don’t know. In a preview, it literally brought people out of their seats.
How would you describe the thematic structure?
It’s a straight eight-bar phrase, which is a very strong handle, because it’s memorable, it’s repeatable, and it is repeated in the film. And it’s a kind of a thing that I use in very much the same way that I would use it in a much more intimate film. There’s a scene where the girl, in a disconsolate way, runs to a truck, sits down and thinks for a while of what she wants to do. And I have this theme suddenly come in, and you know she’s thinking of going to see Captain Kirk. I mean, you simply know it. The theme reads her mind, which is a kind of thing I would do in a much more intimate film.
At what point during production were you brought in?
I was brought in when the script was only half-written. Leonard and I talked about the music a long, long time. He has a very intelligent approach to it, which is mainly that where there are an inordinate amount of special effects, the special effects should be there and let’s not have any music. And when music is there, let’s really have the music come out.
That sounds like a marvelous opportunity for a composer. So often, especially in a special effects film, the music tends to get drowned out by the sound effects…
It doesn’t matter. If you have a film that lasts two hours, and you’ve got two hours or an hour and a quarter of music, diminishing return sets in and eventually you don’t hear it. I don’t mean to disparage John Williams, because I think he’s wonderful, but I think that the thing that really gave John Williams this enormous reputation from STAR WARS was the main and end title. That’s about the only thing you can really hear. When I first saw it, my hat was off to John just for the herculean task of writing that much music.
Well, this score is about 31 minutes long, and that’s probably the shortest big-picture sci-fi score on record. It’s also got much more humorous music than any other sci-fi score, or anything I’ve written. It’s got two fantastic chases, and it’s a tribute to Leonard too. He is, basically, a beginner director, he’s wet his whistle on one film, and this is the first time he’s been totally on his own. Of course you’d know that Leonard would be wonderful with the actors, because he knows them, he’s worked with them for years, and he’s a good actor himself. So you’d know he knows how to direct actors. But then you think, well, what about the action? Well, it’s just as good. He’s a natural director, and I think, after this, he will be one of the really big directors.
Would you be able to say overall how much time you spent in composing and scoring?
There were a lot of problems with the composition itself, because I was writing for the film as the special effects were coming in, and very often the special effects came in different lengths than what they ordered. The result was that they had to fix preceding and succeeding scenes in order to fit those things, so I was constantly re-writing cues. One cue I wrote about eight times! But that’s the racket. I probably would have been really frustrated if I wasn’t working for someone like Leonard.
What kind of instrumentation did you use in the score?
Which orchestra was that?
Mostly people from the L.A. Philharmonic. And then, of course, I used a lot of electronic instruments for the jazz stuff. I worked with the Yellowjackets, who are just marvelous, Russ Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip and the rest of us went into Russ’s electronic lab and we ground out something that was really quite good.
Was there any merging of electronic and orchestra, as is prevalent these days?
No. Just in the jazz we used a live synth player and a live bass player.
Do you think this particular job here might benefit any larger assignments in the future?
I would think so. You know, as Leonard said, “relax, you’re riding a hit.” To be connected with a successful film is the key, because very few people know anything about music. They simply want somebody that’s connected with a big hit. Then, of course, you form a team. Although I can’t speak for him, I’m sure that Leonard feels good luck with a team like that and I’m sure, if he made another film, he’d want to go with as many members of his team as possible, because they work. And I’d much rather work for one or two or three people than totally freelance, because after a while it becomes almost telepathic, you don’t have to debate things.
You’d think that when you work with a group of people that you know you would avoid some of the things that some other composers are having, and that’s scores being thrown our three-four times over…
Oh, well listen, there’s an old saying here, that you’re not a man until you’ve had a score thrown out. I’ve had two of them thrown out. But two in 34 years is not too bad.
Can you say anything about any future projects that are coming up?
None in films. I’m working on three different commissions now, which takes me up to next summer. I’m doing a string quartet; I’m doing a concerto for viola and orchestra, and a song cycle for soprano and chamber group that has a premiere the 23rd of March in Pittsburgh.
Do you enjoy this diversity – a little bit of film work, little bit of concert work and all that?
Yeah, and also teaching. I’ve taught at Cal Arts and USC. I’m going down to Australia to lecture there, and then I go the next year to New Zealand and take the New Zealand Symphony on tour.
That gives you a good variety of various musical pursuits…
I love the idea of keeping my options open and I love the idea of participating in all aspects of music. I don’t participate in pop music, I mean films are the closest thing I do to that. But, if I’m going to do one film a year, I’d really like to do a big film. I’m a little tired of doing small films that deal with individual problems, although some of them are simply marvelous. I scored a film three years ago, CROSS CREEK, a wonderful film that nobody saw, and I got an Oscar nomination out of it. If you do a good job, people know.
It’s great to see you having worked on and being connected with STAR TREK IV, both not only for the film’s benefit but for your own benefit, and hopefully we’ll be seeing you getting some of the recognition you deserve, publically.
Thank you. A lot of people have simply said that. I have several biographers who, referring to my career, say that I have an “unaccountably low profile.” But we’ll see if that’s remedied. It’s actually been my choice, I absented myself from films totally for four years by moving to Rome and conducting there. Now I kind of like it. What happens, like in any other business, there are a lot of idiots and there are a few really top people, and what I’d like to do, if I have to do a film to make my livelihood, not that I don’t do the best job I can, I may as well do it with people who are interesting and alive.