An interview Mark Isham by Robert Hershon
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Mark Isham’s musical path did not run in a straight line toward film composition. However, his early experiences in the Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies as well as the time spent with Van Morrison, Art Lande and Pharoah Sanders left him ready and able to deal with whatever compositional challenges came his way. Though he did not begin scoring for film until 1982 when he was hired to do NEVER CRY WOLF, he has since amassed composer’s credits for LIFE AND TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, MRS. SOFFEL, THE HITCHER, TROUBLE IN MIND and his most recent film, MADE IN HEAVEN. Despite this, Mark may be proudest of his newest credits: his recent marriage and his first Los Angeles residence, a modest home directly beneath the shadow of the famous “Hollywood” sign.
I just finished seeing Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND. Your score really built the bluesy atmosphere of the ‘Rain City’ and if that wasn’t Miles Davis on the trumpet, that was a beautiful horn part.
If there is any one person I have to single out as being my mentor or one sort of creative push throughout the last 30 years of music, it’s Miles. I always play a little bit of trumpet on everything I do. Even if it’s totally disguised. Disguised to the point where I don’t even dare give myself credit. On both MRS. SOFFEL and NEVER CRY WOLF there is a little bit of trumpet in there. I mean, it’s my main instrument.
Rudolph is a jazz fan. He liked the way I play trumpet. TROUBLE IN MIND is an urban film. Urban means that it’s got blues and jazz written all over it and so it just seemed like the natural thing to do.
How did you score the film? Did you work with click tracks and timings, or did you work in a looser way?
No real click tracks were involved. Rudolph’s whole style isn’t really that way. He’s a jazz filmmaker. He’ll just go for it and start improvising as he shoots, improvising as he writes. Everything is just off the cuff. So there were some rough timings and if I didn’t quite make them then he would slide a few frames around to help out here and there. Most of the score comes from improvisations. Sometimes not even improvisations directed at pictures, but based on having seen dailies a few days before, just playing off the top of my head. I wrote a couple of rhythmic themes, a couple of melodic themes, a couple of harmonic sort of progressions, improvised around them and then also used Kristofferson’s tune and TROUBLE IN MIND. Those two tunes are sort of jumping off places for improvisations and really took a very sort of jazz approach with the whole thing – which seemed to fit very well.
What circumstances brought you and Alan together to work on TROUBLE IN MIND?
That’s a good story, actually. I put together some sort of a list of directors that I wanted to work with after I did MRS. SOFFEL and I thought that CHOOSE ME was one of the most interesting movies had seen in a long time. Alan was near the top of the list and I gave it to my agent. The very same day he was making inquiries, Alan had come into his office and had said “I’ve been listening to this album called Vapor Drawings, I think this is the guy we should call and meet.” Literally the two calls collided on the same day. So it seemed like it was destined to happen and we met and it felt just perfect.
Who were some of the other people on your list?
Actually, Gillian Armstrong and Carroll Ballard were two people I would like to work with again. It comes back to directors who really have a feeling for music. Carroll does have a great feeling for music. Gillian maybe not so directly, but I love her sense of imagery – the painter in her. I did THE HITCHER recently and Robert Harmon has a tremendous sense of music.
Do you feel people are looking at you as a certain type of composer? Are you afraid of being typecast?
Yeah, there’s always that possibility. Also, I am not a film composer, shall we say in the classical sense, where I am completely well-schooled in a huge variety of styles and could whip out something in the style of Prokofiev, and then whip out something in the style of AC/DC and then whip out something in the style of Renaissance lute music. I mean, I come to it having developed a personal style from making records and being in bands and being an improvising performer, and it also happens that some of what I do works real well with pictures. I seem to have a sort of talent for putting what I do to picture.
I found that film music has allowed me to expand a lot of areas in writing that perhaps I wouldn’t look into if I were just writing for records. I think that’s good. But I’m not going to push myself out into a style that I am not comfortable with or that I feel I wouldn’t know how to do. I’ve been asked, “well, can you do a full symphonic score?” I’ve never done it before. I might be able to do it. Somebody would be taking a chance on me if they asked me to do that – I don’t know what style it would turn out in.
In fact, I probably will be typecast to a certain extent, and to a certain extent I think that’s probably good because I want to write the music that I write first, and write for films second. But I hope that the music I’m capable of writing, either way, will cover a wide variety of ground and atmosphere and emotional tone.
There were a lot of challenges in scoring NEVER CRY WOLF. Differing tempos, meeting the majesty of the wilderness and composing for wolves. The opening I thought was particularly effective, it really gave you the heart-thumping feeling of being up in the air.
Well, that was the first picture I ever did and everything came out of experiment and luck and chance. That scene was initially cut to start on the ground with the plane trying to get off the ground. My initial idea was to start with this very low da da da synthesizer line because it came right out of the airplane propeller. It was a really neat effect and who knows, it’s probably been used thousands of times, but to me it was my first shot at it. I thought it was a great idea and it worked real well.
When I was given that job, Carroll gave me three scenes to work on over a weekend at an eight-track studio by myself. So I wrote this piece that I thought worked the best out of a demo and it had that same idea. The device kept that rhythmic idea of simulating the plane in motion, but then washed it with these huge chords and odd shifting tonalities as the scene shifted.
The final version obviously was much different in detail, but conceptually very similar. The scene was cut and it starts off with the plane really tiny. The music obviously shifted and the music starts real small, but with that same rhythmic pattern.
It seems I heard a little Wolf Leitmotif running through the propeller theme.
Well, the way I work, again, is I just put a lot of things on tape and then I mix to picture. I like to have the director there when we mix it down because you can have them tell you directly what’s working and what’s not working. We first had the propeller sound going all the way through and we found that it worked the best if you got rid of it real quick. You let it in there for about eight bars just to establish that momentum but then as the plane started and you got more up into the ice, you get off that and just push the atmosphere and push a lot of sound, sounds that were sort of going to herald images coming in, like you say, some strange moanings and things that later show up as part of the wolf music.
I heard you helped Carroll Ballard make the wolves more fearsome.
Well, there were wolves, but Hollywood wolves. They live in Malibu. I think a lot of the time he just had trouble making them look ferocious enough because at points they looked like big lovable dogs and he couldn’t believe anybody in the audience would really get scared or feel that there would be any reason to be scared of these things. They are pretty big but a lot of the time they are photographed so that you really can’t juxtapose them against anything to see their actual size. They do look a lot like dogs, so a lot of what he would say to me is “you’ve got to make these things rougher, you’ve got to make them wilder, nuts’em up a big with the music, give them some theme that’s really going to put sort of a haunting fearsomeness into them.”
The theme you used for Tyler’s trek to the caribou herd had a real ceremonial feel to it.
It was an Inuit folksong which I used twice in its entirety. Once as Tyler and Utek make the trek to where they are going to run into the caribou, and then later at the end during the closing scene, after the wolves return to claim the puppies, when he and Utek march off.
There were two composers on the film before me. The main one, Bob Hughes, had been on since they started shooting. Carroll had done what I guess a lot of directors wish they could do and what Alan [Rudolph] is doing with me now, and actually hired someone from the very beginning to come to the set and start researching and be involved in pre-production.
This guy had done an incredible amount of work which I’m thankful for and owe a great debt to because he had these multitudes of Inuit music that had been accumulated. He had done a whole lot of research on the actual howls of the wolves, because wolves have been known to howl in particular scales, and so all this material was available to me. He had done massive experiments in orchestrating some of these Inuit things, so I had a lot of help in listening to all his stuff and finding for my own taste what I thought worked, what approaches didn’t work and what approaches Carroll had already banned and which he felt there was still some room to work in.
The closing theme makes a real statement about the movie – that this is not a tragedy.
A couple of people have felt that it boosts that up a bit too high in the actual film, that not enough happens to warrant such sort of jubilation at the end, but I don’t know. On the other hand, like you say, you can be left just a little bit too down unless you pull out some hope, that there has been a right of passage here, even though you know there has been some real sadness something has grown, there’s a new life starting – you can get all that from the theme. I think that’s why Carroll really pushed to have that jubilation there in the end; because that’s something he had really wanted to get out of the film, that real sense of wonderment and growth and, again, a right of passage.
Just to back “trek” a little, how did you put together the caribou chase sequence?
That’s music concrete at the most interesting that I’ve ever been involved with. That’s literally taking about four or five wild elements and ideas and just collaging and montaging. A couple of drum tracks, and we had taken the big Chinese bamboo flutes to sort of be the wild element of the wolf, and this big chordal vastness of the elements and the environment, and we just painted with sound. If Carroll recut the picture we’d have to go back and re-paint the music. It was a masterful mixing job by Todd Boekelheide. It really is music concrete – I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of how to notate something like that. Very improvisational – all the keyboard, electronic things are improvised, all the drum parts are taken from very rough ideas, improvised by a wonderful drummer, George Marsh.
Some of the biggest disappointments I’ve experienced as a fan of film scores has been buying soundtrack albums that have destroyed the integrity of the score. You have overcome that with your album, Film Music.
I’ve only got two albums of film music out and that one is after the fact. so I had control over the way I wanted to put it out. None of the studios had any interest in putting that music out themselves – the whole thing was generated by myself and the people at Windham Hill. We just made sure we at least had control over the way the music was presented; otherwise I wasn’t interested in doing it. And then TROUBLE IN MIND, that was an underground low-budget picture, and the one thing you do get when you make pictures for very little money is that you hopefully maintain some sort of control as to the way you want the final project to be. I got full, 100-million percent back-up from Rudolph and Blocker, Island Records was good with the budget and everything, we recorded the album digitally and did it exactly the way we wanted to do it. I’m very happy with both of those recordings. I think they are good representations of both the films and the way the music really does sound and the way that the music can work outside of the film.
How did you develop the main theme for MRS. SOFFEL, Gillian Armstrong’s film? It haunts you long after you’ve left the theatre.
A funny story behind that is that I wrote that before I saw any of the film. I wrote it as a synthesizer piece because I was living in a very tiny flat and I didn’t have a piano. I just had a few bits of gear lying around and my agent called up and said that they were real interested in me. I had only done HARVEY MILK and NEVER CRY WOLF, so I was virtually unknown and my agent said that this would be a real good film to do and asked if I could demo something up, just a musical impression of the script to get a sense of what my concept might sound like. So I did that and it turned out to be the theme. Actually, when I did see the film we had put that demo version up against the picture and it really didn’t work, so I stayed away from that theme for about two months. A lot of other themes had fallen into place and felt good, but the main one wasn’t ready, so I tried that demo theme on piano one day and it sounded quite different. When I put that version up against the picture it seemed to solve all the problems. But I had refused to believe that something I did after only reading the script would really work so well.
Since you didn’t have a background in film, have you experienced any dark nights of the soul when you started this work?
Oh, of course, ever since Ballard phoned me up, I mean the question was, what’s he phoning me up for? I don’t know anything about this and I must say he gave me Todd Boekelheide and Mark Adler to work with on that and when we worked as a team I learned a tremendous amount from them. And everything from then on has been a learning experience for me, from the film point of view, because I have never gone to school for it. I’ve just had the good fortune to work with some really pleasant, very knowledgeable people who have really helped me out a great deal in learning about everything.
But, sure, there are plenty of dark nights when I don’t know how to pull this one off. It is very important for me to work very closely with the director and make sure nothing is going out that’s not really working for him or her. There is a tradition that the director doesn’t hear the music until he’s on the sound stage and he’s got the 100-piece orchestra and bang-bang two days later they’ve got the whole score and it’s another God-knows how many thousands of dollars to do it again. But with me, because I’m much more of a constructivist, I can do one element at a time and I can mock-up something and make a cassette in my bedroom and send it to them and ask “is this working? This is the way I feel the direction should go” and we have a day-to-day interaction, a day-to-day decision making as to what’s working and what’s not. I’m much more comfortable that way. I don’t want the responsibility of writing an entire score from my point of view and having neglected perhaps a whole other approach that the director might be feeling, or miss the chance that if we’d sit down and put a tape on backwards or upside down, or play it at the wrong speed, that something might come out of that, something that will be completely wonderful.