An Interview with Marc Shaiman by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.11/No.41/1992
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
With his score to 1991’s MISERY Marc Shaiman cut his teeth on a complex and difficult assignment, gaining a reputation as a newcomer to look out for. Followed by big-budget projects like CITY SLICKERS and the ADDAMS FAMILY movie, Shaiman’s career is off to a promising start.
Raised in New Jersey with no formal musical education, Shaiman moved to New York at the age of 16 and within a year was performing on the road with idol Bette Midler’s band. “I had a good year for a lot of different kinds of work,” said Shaiman. “I did a lot of arranging and then began writing a lot of off-Broadway shows – nothing that ever hit it big, but I was garnering a reputation.” Shaiman got an assignment as an arranger for SATURDAY NIGHT LNE, through which he met Billy Crystal. Crystal, along with Midler, was instrumental in bringing Shaiman to Los Angeles and, as their careers were taking off. Shaiman came along for the ride and soon had the opportunity to demonstrate his own talent and skill.
Shaiman scored a number of HBO Specials for Billy Crystal, one of which, MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MOSCOW, afforded him the opportunity to write dramatic underscoring. Through his association with Crystal, Shaiman met Rob Reiner who hired him as music director for WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Meanwhile, Bette Midler selected Shaiman as music director for BEACHES and, although both assignments had to do with selecting and arranging songs, they gave Shaiman an opportunity to work on big budget films and began a relationship with Rob Reiner that resulted in his first scoring assignment, MISERY.
Interviewed as he was starting work on THE ADDAMS FAMILY, Shaiman recalled his previous work and described his approach to the big budget ADDAMS FAMILY film.
How did you get involved with MISERY?
I met Rob Reiner through Billy Crystal. Rob felt my musical tastes were perfect for WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, so he called me. At the same time I was doing BEACHES for Bette Midler and, as her musical supervisor, I chose all the songs, and the fact that I chose ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ was really good for me. Both BEACHES and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, although they weren’t compositional, were both major successes. But I didn’t want to be just a music supervisor or an arranger; I really wanted to be composing. So, when Rob saw MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MOSCOW after we worked on WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, he felt he could take a chance on me. He is just about the nicest man in show business, and so he just called me one day and said, “I think you’re ready to score a movie. You want to score MISERY!” That was both a blessing and a curse – I was lucky enough not to have to do a lot of TV movies or low-budget films, but then again I had to cut my teeth on that big, major movie. I feel I acquitted myself okay, and I know I certainly gave Rob what he was looking for, which was more textural than a grand, sweeping thematic score.
I was very impressed by the music to MISERY. I felt it really supported the psyche of what was going on behind the scenes…
It went well. Rob Reiner and his company, Castle Rock, they’re just the nicest company; they’re like an oasis, a contradiction in terms – nice people in show business! CITY SLICKERS was done at Rob’s company, so my relationship has grown with Billy and also with Rob. Actually it wasn’t a fait accompli – I really had to hustle to get that job. Billy was the executive producer so I had him on my side, but they interviewed every person – it could have been James Horner or Randy Newman, I mean, those were all the people they were thinking of. But luckily enough – I know I sound like Mary Poppins here, but Ron Underwood, the director of CITY SLICKERS, gives them all a run for their money as the nicest man in show business! I’ve worked with a lot of creeps and a lot of horrible people, so I’ll just skip over all of that and just say that once again I was lucky in that Ron just liked my energy. He knew this project was near and dear to Billy, and that Billy wasn’t going to throw it my way just to throw me a bone, but he really thought I could do it, and so Ron gave me the job.
In CITY SLICKERS, more so than in MISERY, I got to write the kind of score that I was hoping to get a chance to do. It was just a great job – I think any composer would have loved to have had that movie to score, and I’m not the kind of guy you’d think of writing a score. But it was a challenge, and working with Billy Ron was a pleasure.
You’re lucky not to become typecast by getting another horror film right after MISERY.
Yes. Actually, people know me mostly as a talented but very funny person, and I work with all these comedians – people know me mostly as the last of the funny Jewish guys! I’m like the Sammy Kahn of my generation, so nobody expected MISERY to be my first job! I was really lucky there, and then CITY SLICKERS got to show me more, even though it was a western milieu, it was more a baby boomer’s remembrance of a Western and the TV things we all grew up on.
And now, ADDAMS FAMILY will hopefully be great, because it’s very theatrical, and I come from a theater background. I almost think of the movie as a musical in my mind, it has that kind of bigness to it, and it’s also very romantic. I don’t think I could have asked for 3 better jobs in a row, that were so completely different. Most guys do get really typecast, like you said, so I’m lucky.
How would you describe your initial approach to scoring MISERY? Did you get a lot of input from Rob Reiner on the music?
Yeah, he’s an extremely hands-on kind of guy, and because it was my first movie, he was even more so. Also, because it was my first movie, I was much more open. I’m sure a lot of composers would be outraged at the idea of the director coming over every few days and listening to what they’re doing, but for me, I had no problem with that. I was glad, because otherwise I could have gone off on something that I thought was fabulous but could have fallen on my face with – or worse, if Rob wasn’t happy with it, I would have had a short career!
I work things up on the synthesizer with a computer, even though the kind of music that I enjoy working on and have been lucky enough to do, has been very orchestral in nature. I’m not someone people think of as Mr. Synth Score, which is fine with me, but I compose on synths, although all my synths are ones that can approximate an orchestra. So Rob really got to hear what the score would be like. Obviously the film had a Hitchcockian flavor and I definitely did have my Bernard Herrmann CDs at arm’s length so I could pop one on every now and then – although of course Rob didn’t want anyone to laugh and think, “Oh gee, that sounds like PSYCHO”. Rob was looking for a subtler approach. He just wanted it to be supportive and let the 2 actors do what they did. I think I did that well enough. I probably would have loved to have written the new classic haunting melody, but what I only got to do was little “themettes” that travel throughout the movie, a couple of notes here, a couple of notes there. There isn’t one long, sustained melody. But if I started to do that, if any of the themes started repeating themselves or sounding like the melody of a song, Rob would start singing funny lyrics – “Ohhhhh I got a knife, and Ohhhhhhh I’m gonna come and get you!” He really didn’t want it to call attention like that. I was happy to do whatever he wanted.
How did you get the assignment to score the ADDAMS FAMILY movie?
The producer, Scott Ruden, has a real good base in the New York theater world, so he said that he’s just been hearing about me and one day he literally called me out of the blue just to meet with me and get to know me. When THE ADDAMS FAMILY came up he called me. There’s a song in the middle of the film, a musical number that just comes practically out of nowhere – I was originally hired to write the music for that, and that was the extent of it. But later on they called me for a meeting with Scott and (director) Barry Sonnenfeld. Barry was the cinematographer for all of Rob’s movies, and Rob had been telling him how happy he was with my music for MISERY. So, for whatever reason, they called me in and asked me to do the score. I actually got the job before MISERY came out – maybe if they heard MISERY first I wouldn’t have gotten it!
What was your musical approach to scoring THE ADDAMS FAMILY?
It had a kind of undefined, almost middle European, gypsy-like romantic flavor. I don’t have a big classical background, so I’ve immersed myself in the classical composers – these very odd, depressed guys like Bartok and Schonberg and Berg. You know, I’m bluffing my way for even talking about it, what with those scales and the 12-tones and all that – I don’t have an real schooling in that, but I’m trying to assimilate as much as I can, because the film should have a certain classically-based sound. THE ADDAMS FAMILY, like the family itself, should not, in any way, shape or form, sound like anything contemporary or anything that reeks of anyone era.
It has a more timeless quality.
Exactly. But I do hope to show that I’m more of a melody kind of guy – it won’t be so dense and classical that there won’t be some real themes. They have bought the rights to the television theme, so somewhere you’re going to hear “dum-dum-da-DUM…!” But no-one involved with the movie wants it to be kooky and hooky. I’m just gonna throw that theme in because I’m of the generation that grew up on that television show, and if I went to this movie I’d want to hear it myself.
Yeah – seeing THE ADDAMS FAMILY without that music is like Lurch rolling his knuckles without any sound effects…
Yeah. Even though BATMAN made a movie without using the TV theme, that movie was truly a complete about-face from the television show. THE ADDAMS FAMILY is a lot closer to the TV show than BATMAN was, but only in the best way, in that it’s imaginative and odd. My memories of the TV show were that it was this very eccentric, odd show that is not to be completely poo-poo’d as silly. They don’t re-run it here and I haven’t seen an ADDAMS FAMILY in I don’t know how long. I have a friend who has a bunch of them on videotape and I do want to watch and hear them to remind myself.
Are you playing it straight, musically, or are you emphasizing some of the satire and the humor in your music?
Actually, both. But the music shouldn’t be like “wa-wa-wa-waaaaahhh”. It should help the comedy along, but I think the comedy in this movie has to do with how straight-faced the family goes about their odd life. I played it rather straight and grand.
Thinking about this kind of score reminds me of BEETLEJUICE and how that approach had the same kind of grand score for a very wacky situation…
Yeah. I don’t think that’s far off. I’m sure if Danny Elfman had called them and said, “I’d like to score your movie” I’d be flat as a pancake in the stampede! But I feel they’re happy with me and what I’ve been doing for them. I know Danny and he wants to stop doing these sort of movies, anyway. His kind of score is along these lines, but I think they want it to be more theatrical. I mean, I love what he does very much, and this is certainly along those lines.
What kind of orchestration have you used on this score?
It ran the gamut. I’ve been listening a lot to these Bartok string quartets, which are the oddest things you’ve ever heard. I really love them, but they’re ferocious and perfect for something like Thing running around the house. In the movie, Thing is really a disembodied hand, and when he runs around the house we did the temp score with all these Bartok string quartets, all these pizzicato and very odd glissandos which worked great. I don’t know what guys like Bartok were thinking – I said this to the music editor the other day: for movie composing, when someone is doing something horrible on the screen, you write music that is dark in nature. But what were these composers thinking of? This was all in their head!! I can’t imagine what these guys were like at a party! But I love the sound of this Bartok stuff against Thing, and yet, when Morticia and Gomez are constantly all over each other, it’s very romantic. And there’s this big ballroom scene where I got to do a big waltz. It won’t be kooky – no one wants it to be the TV show. It’s got to be deeper and richer.
How much time do you have to do the score?
It’s frightening: 8 weeks, if I start writing now. I know they’re going to keep re-cutting scenes, and so every time I write for a scene and it gets re-cut…
All the timings go out the window…
Yeah. It’s not like you can just chop out 5 seconds. But I’m plowing ahead anyway, because there’s just too much music to be written.
Do you know how much music you’re going to be writing for the film?
It’s around 60 minutes of music. Oh, and I’m in the movie. I’m almost unrecognizable because I have a beard and moustache, but I play this deranged conductor in the movie!
How closely is Barry working with you on the score?
We’ll work closely. I mean, I’m still at that point in my career and, being that it’s Barry’s first movie (as director), he wants to be all over it. But every director’s that way. I guess at some point in my career I could tell directors and producers, “Hey, leave me alone! You hired me, now let me do it. I know what you want,” which is what a lot of guys do. But I also hear all these stories of even the most successful composers who get scores thrown out, so I’m all for collaboration! I’m lucky enough that I’ve been working with these funny people who I enjoy working with. I mean, Barry Sonnenfeld is just like Rob or Billy, he’s just like a nebbishy Jewish guy and we get along perfectly. I’ve been lucky to get these nice directors. I’m sure, eventually,’ I’m going to meet up with one of these egomaniac type ones I read about…
The Director from Hell, or something?
Yeah, but I haven’t had to deal with that, really. I have put in my dues – I’ve had a lot of great experiences in the last 12 years. I started when I was 16 and so even though I’m just 31 now, I have a whole autobiography worth of stories and eccentric people I’ve worked with, so I’ve put in my time. It just seems that suddenly, the waitress of life got my order right, and all these great things are happening at once. It’s just tremendous.