A Conversation with Mario Nascimbene by Claudio Fuiano
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.5/Nos.20/1986
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Claudio Fuiano
You often use “sounds” in your film scores. A heartbeat in DOCTOR FAUSTUS, sounds of nature in the “Dinosaur” films, a typewriter in ROMA ORE 11, the rustling of the wind in BARABBAS, etc. Does that reflect your interest in experimentation when you score a picture, or do you do it to have fun, to surprise the audience with the unexpected?
I do it because I think certain movies are better served that way. Take the scene from ROMA ORE 11, for example; those girls waiting on the stairs are hoping for a job and using the sounds of a typewriter comes naturally, as a fundamental part of the story. Take the heartbeat in L’ORA DEL TERRORE (aka THAT NIGHT), which is about an American middle-class commuter who suffers a heart attack in the subway; he isn’t carrying any papers, so the heartbeat becomes a supporting sound. In CRONACA DI UN DELITTO, set in Terni, a steel worker is unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit, and is finally acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence. I used the sound of a power hammer as an expression of the accusation by our society. At the end of the film, when the steel worker is acquitted, there is a scene where all the employees are leaving the steel works at Terni on their bicycles, and here I used the sound of many bicycle bells ringing, to underline that the man is once more being accepted by society, he is once more a part of it.
In ANGELA, a man kills another person by slamming the bonnet of a car over his head; this sound comes back many times during the movie to haunt the murderer (actually, I obtained this sound with the bonnet of a real car). In another score of mine, where a huge door of St. Peter’s Church is opening, I recorded the sound of a squeaking door, and the result wasn’t really satisfactory as far as sounds go.
There is also the fascinating aspect based on a technique of recording sounds, and on the technique of using, incorporating, these sounds, which I call “L’Impronto del Suono”, a term actually invented by a friend of mine, film music expert Glauco Pellegrini.
Film scoring allows a composer to write all kinds of music, assuming he is able to write in many different styles. You write in a vast number of styles, from sweeping romanticism to funky jazz, from avant-garde to full tango, from religious music to folklore, from vigorous marches to blues… Is that one of the things that attracted you to scoring films?
I think this is the most beautiful aspect of a musician’s career: every time you have to score a scene, there is always a different solution, you can use a different approach; each time you score a movie, there are totally new sensations that command your attention, speaking creatively, technically and psychologically. There is also the relationship with the film director, the screenplay, the characters, and the film editor – someone who tends to work in the dark and who influences our work very much. A musician must be polyvalent, he must be a chameleon! I’ll have more to say on the subject in a book I’m writing.
There have been many rumours about who actually scored EL CID. Please tell us what really happened. Was the music you wrote actually used in the Italian print of the film?
I’ve just read Miklos Rozsa’s autobiography, and I’m glad for the opportunity to clear up things once and for all. At a certain place in his book, he says that he was called to Malaga to score the film, because producer Samuel Bronston didn’t like the work done by the Italian composer, and wanted him replaced. This, of course, is Rozsa’s version (Rozsa’s a composer I like very much), but he only knows what Samuel Bronston (a person I don’t hold in high esteem) told him in the first place. Robert Hagiag was the co-producer of EL CID in Italy at the time (I had already scored ROOM AT THE TOP for him, which starred Simone Signoret) and he knows the real story.
Bronston called me and asked me to score EL CID, which was being shot by Anthony Mann. I read the screenplay first, and they told me to write some dance themes only. The music had to accompany a kind of fighting dance for scenes taking place on the beach, so I wrote some cues for tympani, with a rather brutal, violent rhythm, without any real melody. Director Mann liked what I had written and shot his scenes, using the cues as background.
Then, when shooting EL CID was about halfway, I was asked to come to Malaga to discuss the score itself. Samuel Bronston met me there when I arrived, showed me a pile of records of Massenet’s ‘El Cid’ and told me: “This is the music for the film”. Apparently I had to sort of “adapt” Massenet’s music for the film. Samuel Bronston behaved in an offensive way, and I told him that I am used to discussing the score with a director, and with him only. So I returned to Rome, where I tore up the contract already made.
As a result, Bronston phoned Rozsa, told him that he disliked my music, and asked him to score the movie instead. This was an absurd statement, since at that time I hadn’t yet written any themes for the film, only some dance cues for the beach scenes! (Later I heard that these were apparently used in the finished film). The picture was an Italian-American coproduction, so my name was removed from the credits and replaced by Miklos Rozsa’s.
Did Richard Burton himself ask you to score DR: FAUSTUS? Maybe because you had previously scored ALEXANDER THE GREAT? Why did you re-use existing music from FRANCIS OF ASSISI and SOLOMON AND SHEBA in that movie?
I was asked to score DR. FAUSTUS by Richard Burton, once he had seen some films I had worked on. In the finished movie DR. FAUSTUS, there are two themes taken from FRANCIS OF ASSISI and SOLOMON AND SHEBA, because the uncompleted film had been “tracked” with my music from these pictures. You see, of then-when the film is being mixed and edited, the director likes the music so much that he decides to keep the “temporary” film score…
At the time (1962), BARABBAS was a “gimmick” score, totally different from the style used by other composers in biblical films. It was a new approach in scoring Roman Empire films, very different from what Rozsa and North had done for similar pictures. Can you tell us something about that new approach, your concept of mixing sound effects and Gregorian chants for what was, after all, a Roman epic? What did director Richard Fleischer think of your score?
It may sound odd, but I have made my best scores without having met the respective directors of the films. For example, I scored THE VIKINGS in 1958 without ever meeting the director, Richard Fleischer. I met him one day in Hollywood, and he congratulated me on the score I did for THE VIKINGS…
For BARABBAS, I got a phone call from Kirk Douglas, who asked me to come to Monaco where he was staying at the time. BARABBAS was a milestone in my career. When watching the film. I understood that I couldn’t score this movie in the same way that my colleagues had scored other biblical epics. I love to bring to my scores something really special – originality and personality… Scoring ROMA ORE 11 proved a determining factor, so when I scored BARABBAS I used what I call the “Mixerama”. For example, that sequence of the eclipse was a supernatural event to people who lived in the Judean age, it brought fear to men’s minds, so it couldn’t be written for a typical orchestra it meant silencing the entire orchestra, so that the strings could be used exclusively. I needed to find a new way to introduce a new sound, and I did that by putting together voices, a soprano and two strings during an extended five-minute segment at the moment of the eclipse itself; I also used the sound of a bass at half speed. I discovered that the same concept could be used by bringing in the “Mixerama”.
Can you explain that “Mixerama” to us?
The “Mixerama” is an instrument which contains 12 stereo cassette tapes, so you can get 24 different sounds. I have more than 1,000 cassettes like that. I have recorded all the possible sounds the musicians in an orchestra can make, from the piccolo to the contrabass, male and female voices, the strings (now sharp, then soft, then trilling or pizzicato…) on all the notes of the musical scale.
When I had all the sounds separately, I recorded the high and low ranges of every single note, and then recorded them separately onto the stereo cassette tapes. So in the end I had truly infinite possibilities of a mixture of sound. Each note had its own sound, but three or four used together change that sound. It’s all pulsating, creative, “living” sound. Unlike modern computer keyboards, the “Mixerama” uses pure sound treated in a human way. For example, in GLI ATTI DEGLI APOSTOLI I used Severino Gazzelloni on flute, the sound of cicadas, and themes written for sitar; using the “Mixerama” in that film was fundamental, it underlined very well the anxiety and suspense.
Other scores with a similar musical expression were ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE WORLD. Sometimes you can’t ever hear if it’s electronic music or not…
There’s no electronic music in these scores. In the methods I have used there was no room for electronics. (Although I have used electronics in some later television scores). For the “cosmic” sequence in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., I needed 67 pre-mixed sounds, 12 at a time! It took me and my sound engineer, Gianni Mazzarini (whom I have worked with for twenty years), four days to put that sequence together. I remember in particular the impression of wind moving back and forth stereophonically…
How did you become involved in scoring American films? It all started with THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, which is not exactly typical of the later developed “Nascimbene Sound”, introduced in ALEXANDER THE GREAT two years later…
Your question reminds me of a nice anecdote… At the time I got a phone call from the secretary of William Wyler, who directed ROMAN HOLIDAY. I agreed to meet him at my apartment. It turned out to have been a joke, perpetrated by my friend Franco De Simone, and of course he turned up at my apartment instead of William Wyler!
Four months later, I received another phone call, this one from the secretary of director Joseph Mankiewicz. I shouted angrily into the phone, believing it was a joke once more. But the secretary called back a second time, and a third, and in the end, I agreed to meet the film director, thinking that Franco De Simone was again behind it. That same afternoon the bell rang, I went to open the door with irritation, intending to speak my mind to Franco, but on the doorstep stood Joseph L. Mankiewicz in person. When I told him the whole story, he was very amused; we got along well, and this opened many doors for me in Hollywood.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT was a new approach in epic scoring. During the ‘50s, the only available concept was the one created by Miklos Rozsa, first heard in QUO VADIS. What can you tell us about your new approach to scoring biblical films? Did director Robert Rossen leave you a free hand? Who orchestrated the score?
Robert Rossen was a close friend of mine. For ALEXANDER THE GREAT, I suggested a novel idea: to score the film without using any strings! Rossen was surprised by that idea, and felt rather uncertain about the reception such an unusual score would receive in Hollywood; my reason for such an unusual orchestra was that the strings tend to underline love scenes, and instead I wanted to concentrate here on the aspects of a hero, a leader and – of course – a warrior; hence my suggestion to use an orchestra consisting of 8 horns, 8 trumpets, 8 trombones, 2 bass tubas, 12 tympani; 20 percussion and woodwinds. When Robert Rossen heard the recording of the main titles, he was really impressed, and everything worked out well in the end. I orchestrated the score myself, as indeed I have done with all my film scores.
Some of the finest scores you have written were for films by Valerio Zurlini…
With Zurlini I had a really nice artistic relationship. I ought to tell you that I have been the producer of a number of documentaries, and in that respect I have launched the careers of directors like Zurlini, Dino Risi and others… It was Franco De Simone who introduced his cousin to me, a very young Valerio Zurlini, asking me to write the music for Zurlini’s first documentary, SORRIDA, PREGO. Valerio was an exceptionally kind person, very talented, with a great sense of humor and at the same time burdened by a kind of sorrow. After I had scored his film, I continued to produce documentaries for others, winning various awards.
Zurlini made other documentaries for me, for example IL BLUES DELLA DOMENICA, I PUGILATORI, etc. After his first movie for Lux Film, he asked me to score his next 4 films: L’ESTATE VIOLENTA, LA RAGAZZA CON LA VALIGIA, LE SOLDATESSE, and LA PRIMA NOTTE DI QUIETE.
If we consider your style, your versatility in scoring films; it seems strange that Frederico Fellini never asked you to score any of his films after Nino Rota’s death… Fellini’s films lost a lot of their appeal after Rota passed away; you would have been a perfect successor.
I only briefly worked with Fellini, for a film called AMORE IN CITTA, a film vérité on which other directors also collaborated: Antonioni, Maselli, Risi and Lattuada. Then Fellini teamed up with Nino Rota.
You have scored the finest ever Italian western, UNA SIGNORA DELL’OVEST (1942). If I am correct, you have never scored any other Italian “spaghetti” western. Have you been offered any? Did you refuse to do any others? After all, you were the most innovative Italian composer at the time, and many of Morricone’s ideas were already inherent in your scores, years before Morricone began working in films. Is it true that he was one time your assistant?
I didn’t score any other westerns because I wasn’t interested in the films they asked me to do, not because there was no demand for my services.
Morricone was not my assistant. He arranged the BARABBAS theme for a commercial recording, and at one time he conducted my music for MORTE DI UN AMICO.
You have written jazz scores, comedy scores, dramatic scores… What is your favourite type of score?
(Smiling) All kinds.
Some of Kirk Douglas’ films have very interesting scores, like THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and THE VIKINGS. Did Douglas ask you to score these films? For some reason, there are no track titles on the record of THE VIKINGS, nor on SOLOMON AND SHEBA for that matter. How come?
Yes, Kirk Douglas asked me to score THE VIKINGS, he phoned me from Monaco. I didn’t use authentic Viking material, though.
As to the record albums, they were made without involving me in any way: they are badly edited, and the sound is bad too.
Are there any films you have refused to score? Are there movies you would have liked to have done, but were not asked to do?
There is only one film I regret not having scored, IL DESERTO DEI TARTARI (Ennio Morriccone ended up doing the music for this film). As to the other pictures, I feel I haven’t lost very much. For example, I rejected the offer to score SODOM AND GOMORRAH, which was eventually done by Miklos Rozsa.
Which (film?) composers do you admire, and which (film?) composers have influenced you in your composition?
I don’t really know whether anyone has influenced me, because I have always tried to have a personal style. No doubt my teacher, Enzo Masetti, one of the greatest Italian film composers, has had a major effect, but he gave me advice rather than tried to influence me.
Among my contemporaries, I very much like Italian composers like Ennio Morricone and Piero Piccioni. Among foreign composers, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Quincy Jones, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Mike Oldfield for his THE KILLING FIELDS, Vangelis for his use of synthesizers and Alex North (a composer who has always been ahead of the going trends). And the score for a current movie called ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE.
Did David O. Selznick specifically ask you to score A FAREWELL TO ARMS? Rumor has it that he was a difficult man to work with…
Selznick was a good friend of mine. He chose me to score A FAREWELL TO ARMS, after having heard the main title I wrote, which he liked very much.
A few years ago, someone released a triple album set called ‘L’impronta del Suono’, with themes from a number of your scores. Wouldn’t it have been better to include less previously recorded material and more themes from less familiar scores?
I was happy with the triple boxed set. After all, it was meant to give a panorama of my entire career, with the various styles used.
According to some film credits, you scored the Italian release of SPARTACUS, while Alex North scored the U.S. version. What was the reason?
The film SPARTACUS has often been included in my filmography, in error. I could not score that film because I was with King Vidor in Madrid at the time, working on SOLOMON AND SHEBA.
One evening I received a phone call from Kirk Douglas, who had been very satisfied with my music for THE VIKINGS. He was the producer of SPARTACUS, and he asked me to come to Hollywood. I couldn’t go, because I was still recording the music for SOLOMON AND SHEBA, and I had already been signed to do another movie after that one. I asked Kirk Douglas if he could wait a while until I was free, but 3 days later I received a telegram saying that another composer had been signed to score SPARTACUS. A pity, since I should have liked to do that picture.
Some sources credit you with having written music for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and for SACCO AND VANZETTI.
I never wrote any music for these films. Regarding SACCO AND VANZETTI, there was probably some confusion with a lyrical opera called SACCO AND VANZETTI, which had a libretto by Rossen and which I did write music for; but the opera was never finished because of Rossen’s untimely death.
Questions provided by Udo Heimansberg and Gerd Haven