Scoring Session for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome by David Stoner
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
The English release of the soundtrack album to MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME undoubtedly caused a few raised eyebrows amongst collectors by the sleeve’s inclusion of the mythical track, “Apocalyptic Prelude.” This music was Maurice Jarre’s cue for the main title credits and was in fact recorded for the film but later dropped in favor of the Tina Turner song, “One of the Living.” However, not only was the music changed but the whole presentation of the credits was altered.
What is now a mundane and imaginative series of titles was something once bold and brilliant.
I was able to watch Maurice Jarre while he was at work on MAD MAX and, fortunately, the recording session I attended was that for the main titles as well as that for the end titles, which music was also deleted and replaced with “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
What follows was written immediately after the recording and is an observation intended to portray something of the atmosphere of a film scoring session. [Regrettably, no photos were taken during this session. Readers will have to rely on David Stoner’s lucidly descriptive narrative to picture the environment. -ed.]
Amid general chatter and over the noise of eating and drinking, a voice rings out.
“Anyone for MAD MAX?”
Standing in the doorway of the canteen of CTS Studios, Wembley, England, is the bespectacled figure of John Charles, the session manager of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His remark causes considerable commotion since most of the people in the room are players of the RPO and they are required downstairs in Studio One. It is almost seven in the evening of May 22, 1985, and one of the final scoring sessions for MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME is about to begin.
Tonight’s session will cover the beginning and end title music and will be conducted by the composer, Maurice Jarre. The complete score is a long one, over 90 minutes, and contains many complex and intricate pieces of music. Also, due to the nature of the film, much of the music is very loud and violent and has proved quite exhausting to play.
This evening session is to be the last of many for the score has taken over three months, on scattered day and evening sessions, to put on to the film. For many of the sessions, director George Miller has been on hand to add advice, criticism, and so forth, although his help was limited due to the fact that constant jet-lag caused him to fall asleep while much of the music was being played.
Inside the control room, the large window looks out onto the panorama of CTS’s largest studio, recently completely re-equipped with digital facilities. Separated from the bulk of the orchestra are the two Ondes Martenot players, Jeanne Loriod and Cynthia Millar. For the music at the climax of the film, already recorded, Jarre employed a third player, Dominique Kim, and then re-recorded all three so that the final effect sounds like six players.
In a sealed section directly under the control room is an exotic array of percussion. Apart from the usual timpani, there are snare drums, swiss cow-bells, tam-tams, wood blocks and a whip! There are constant jokes about the whip.
Darting around the players, checking mikes and headphone hook-ups is the recording engineer, Dick Lewzey. He handles most of the film work at CTS and his recent projects have included THE BRIDE and A VIEW TO A KILL.
Standing beside the conducting podium and deep in conversation with a tall, fair-haired man, is Jarre, looking a lot younger than his 61 years and dressed in the ever-present turtleneck sweater. He is going over the orchestrations for the end title with Christopher Palmer, his musical assistant for the last ten years.
Lewzey, having finished in the studio, now comes up to the control room and confers with Tim Pennington, his assistant. Tim threads on a spool of 24-track digital tape (as opposed to the usual 2-track video cassette) and checks the recording equipment. Clutching a bundle of music manuscripts, Palmer enters the room, takes his place at one end of the recording desk and confers with his assistant, Julian. They prepare the end title score to follow along as Jarre rehearses the orchestra. There is much noise from below as they tune up.
Jarre and the orchestra are now ready for the first rehearsal. There is a large screen at the back of the studio, but for this particular cue there will be no picture, since the track is recorded “wild.”
Jarre raises his baton. On the downbeat, the lower strings set up a sinister tempo and the orchestra quickly swoops in with a frenzied theme that is adventurous and exciting. Percussion, synthesizers, harps as well as combined strings, brass and woodwind perform the exhilarating music. As they perform, Lewzey tests individual microphones by feeding each particular mike through the desk, producing some alarming sounds as suddenly the entire orchestra is silenced with the exception of a pianist doggedly thumping away at the lower end of his keyboard.
After about three minutes, the music comes to a rousing climax. There were one or two ragged points in the playing and Jarre takes them through it again. In the control room, Palmer follows the score, making his own notes and comments which he relays to Jarre via a phone after the first rehearsal. This is the first time that anybody has heard the music and after the second go, Jarre and Palmer confer, deciding that a cleaner result may be possible by giving more prominence to the brass and cutting out some of the strings. They try it, the orchestra performs and it works; it sounds much sharper. Lewzey is satisfied that he is getting everything from “the floor” and so it’s time to try for a take.
The piece is technically known as 12-M-2, this nomenclature identifying it as the second music cue in reel 12. Jarre signals for silence after checking with the control room that everything is set. Lewzey signals that it is and Tim sets the tape running. Operating the studio mike, Lewzey gives out the ident, “12-M-2 take 1.” There is a pause and the click track starts, which is fed through to each player via their headphones, and then the piece of played. The take is good but Palmer thinks there should be another. And so, “12-M-2 take 2.”
This one is short lived as there is a false start, but the third is much more successful. Palmer suggests to Jarre that he come up and listen, which is a good cue for the orchestra to break for coffee and generally disappear for about fifteen minutes. Jarre wanders into the control room and sits in Lewzey’s chair to get the best effect. He listens to takes 1 and 3 and agrees that the third is the best. Tim notes all this down on the tape box, since when it comes to the final mixing, they will need to know which takes are being used.
During the break, there is general discussion about the next and last piece to be done which, perversely, is 1-M-1, the first cue to be heard in the film.
The music heard over the opening credits is often a wonderful chance for the composer to assert himself, providing it is in keeping with the tone of the film, especially if the credits aren’t shown over live action, dialog or any other noise as is the case with THUNDERDOME. Miller intends to do for his audience what Spielberg did with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS – literally jolt them out of their seats with a combined visual and orchestral explosion. Jarre wants force and violence from the orchestra and this is where much of the percussion comes in. Everybody agrees that 1-M-1 will be tricky and Lewzey has a worried look on his face, possibly thinking about the sonic explosion that is about to go through the studio’s highly expensive recording desk.
One of the main problems is due to the split-second timing involved, and linked to this is the fact that part of the music was recorded weeks ago. The first few bars of the theme are performed by a boy’s choir to give an angelic choral effect and the choir in question have recorded their part, and gone.
Since there is no orchestral playing during these bars, plus there is a brief fanfare before the choir starts, the players will have to keep absolute silence after the fanfare until they come in with their explosion. The timing has to be exact because the musical explosion should arrive at the same time as its visual equivalent. The film opens with the Warner Bros. shield logo, over which is heard the fanfare. Then there are a few preliminary credits on a black background while the choir is singing and then comes the film title. The black screen is suddenly lit by a streak of lightning after which comes a brilliant, blinding flash. From behind the camera, as with the SUPERMAN credits, the words MAD MAX come forward as a solid metallic block and hit the screen. Appearing beneath that and only when the advancing words have stopped and taken center-space on screen, comes BEYOND THUNDERDOME, so that the final effect is that title logo which appears on the poster and film’s advertising. The whole thing only takes a couple of seconds, and when the orchestral crash is added fractionally after the lightning so that it hits at the same time as the flash, the effect will be startling.
After the break, the musicians reassemble and Jarre prepares to take them through 1-M-1. The fanfare is tried first and this seems to go all right, although Palmer is unhappy that the trumpets don’t have the power that was intended. After an interval comes the explosion. When it comes, it almost blows out the recording desk and Lewzey is horrified to see red lights on all 24 channels. As the crash dies out and the percussion begin their growing beat, Lewzey checks with Tim to see if any damage has been done. Down in the studio, the orchestra are now well into the theme, and it is time for the saxophone to make its appearance.
In the film, one of Tina Turner’s minions plays this instrument and Jarre has decided that it should play a featured role in the score. The player is Ron Asperey, a veteran session player, and for this, he is being closely miked so that the sound is harsh and abrasive. The music builds to a clangorous climax and ends with the synthesizer producing a low dying note. This takes the film out of the credits and into an aerial shot that swoops down and over a wagon traveling across the barren Australian landscape.
After a couple of recorded takes to a color work-print of the film, Jarre comes up to listen. The fanfare seems all right and the crash works even though Lewzey expresses his disquiet at the noise level, but there is a problem with the percussion build-up after the crash. What Jarre is seeking is a martial incisiveness; a steady thump with bite to it. At the moment, this is not what is coming through. A couple of percussionists have come into the room and make a few suggestions. Eventually, a few changes are made and the orchestra goes through it again. Once more, the fanfare, then the crash and now into the percussive build-up. This time it is much better. There is a distinct aggressiveness in this music which is what Miller requires for his opening and which Jarre will make every effort to supply. However, altogether there are six takes and none of them are completely satisfactory.
It is now fast approaching ten o’clock, the time at which the session should end. After that, the musicians will have to be paid overtime and already the costs incurred for this score are horrendous. There are no more sessions planned and so the work must be done tonight. Jarre is reluctant to try any more takes. The piece is hard work to play and the orchestra is already tired. He comes up to the control room and listens to everything that has been recorded thus far. Of the fanfares, there are two that are good and one of these will be used. The crash is more of a problem. Two of them come in too late but are musically fine, and others are accurate but with the remainder of the theme being poor. Palmer suggests that a possible way round this is by editing two or three takes together and producing one that is good in every section. Lewzey is against this because the music is of such a complex nature that good editing spots would be hard to find.
While this is going on, it has been decided to add some reverb and echo to the saxophone track and this greatly enhances the atmosphere of the piece. Also, the percussion is given a needed boost by pushing their channels up to top volume. Although, individually, none of the takes were totally satisfactory, an acceptable compromise is reached by skillful mixing and the fact that there simply is no more time.
After this, the music will be mixed into the film and attempt to find its own place amongst the other sound tracks.
It is extremely disheartening to think that all this effort was ultimately wasted, although the final mix is more in Jarre’s favor than it has been in other recent films (TOP SECRET being a prime example). To add insult to injury, the album release from MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME is a less than ideal representation of the music that is in the final print. The absence of the Thunderdome fanfare is keenly felt. However, this does serve as a testament to Jarre’s unflinching professionalism and to the very hard and conscientious work that does go on in the recording studio.
And also, to what should have been, and almost was, a very striking set of opening credits.