Maurice Jarre and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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

MAURICE JARRE --- Image by © Mo-Spector/Kipa/Corbis

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.

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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.

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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.

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