Michael J. Lewis

An with Interview Michael J. Lewis by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/Nos.65 and 66/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl

Michael-J-LewisWhen I found out that composer Michael J. Lewis lived a couple of blocks from me, the word coincidence was redefined. I was intrigued by the idea of interviewing a composer whose film scores I grew up with. SPHINX, THE LEGACY, THE PASSAGE, and THEATER OF BLOOD were all films I saw at the theater years ago. Each possesses a score that lives on inside you and stands the test of time. Michael says it well himself: “I want to be emotional, original, and theatrical.” However, you must raise the emotional level a couple of notches when you hear his scores. Michael is one of the last great veteran composers. He’s a renegade composer fighting for the cause of creative freedom which produces incredible results. Genuine originality is what he offers in a world of corporate rules. Michael has one of those personalities that’s bigger than life itself. The film is his mistress and a film score is the true love he has for her. His music speaks of passion, drama, and emotion. Let the Great Welshman speak.

Why did you get into film scoring?
Basically because I was asked to. The desire had been there for a really long time. I went to the movies as a boy. Movies came to Wales, where I was born, probably fifteen years after they were released or something. I saw films like KING SOLOMON’S MINES, a big old-fashioned epic with a big score. As a young composer you thought, “That’s where I want to go.” In my early 20s, when I was studying in London, I would go to the Odeon Leicester Square and watch the Bonds. I used to love the early Bonds, you know. John Barry did great scores for those movies. You’d just listen to those and the complexity with different layers of sounds and this excited me so much. Then I did a musical. Brian Forbes and Richard Attenborough, both British film directors, became involved in this musical. It was called ‘Please Sir’, about a doctor who ran an orphanage on London’s East End. It was a great story that I made into a musical. Some years later, EMI in London wanted to make it into a film musical, but it never got on. But Brian Forbes had asked me, “Apart from writing musicals what are your dreams?” I told him I wanted to write for movies. He said, “If ever I can help you and if the time comes along I’ll do so.” He loved what I’d written for ‘Please, Sir’. He called me two and a half years later when John Barry was busy on THE LION IN WINTER for Tony Harvey. Barry was too busy to score THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT. I said, “Yes” and that was the beginning of a new life.

Where did you learn to score films?
On the job. When I got on to that movie I had not the slightest idea in the world (technically or emotionally) how you scored a movie. It started at Victory studios in the south of France. They were shooting the movie and they wanted this theme to be part of the visual as they were shooting it. That’s why they needed a composer real quick. They took me down there and I had dinner with Katherine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, and Yul Brynner, a great night. Hepburn’s of Welsh extraction, so she and I got on very well. The deal was that Brian Forbes, the director, wanted me, but the producers wanted Francis Lai, who was very big at that time, or Michel Legrand, because it was a movie set in France. But Brian wanted me so they gave me a villa in the south of France and a grand piano. They said “Come up with a tune. If your tune is better than the other guys’, you got the job.” To be fair to the other guys, I don’t think they ever got to the stage where they were asked for a tune.
The next morning I sat down and out came the theme for THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT. They all came over to see me at lunch time. All the producers, all the cast. They all trouped in, all in their costumes. I played it, and I knew I had the buggers. I had them all. I got to the end of it and there was that almost customary silence when you can see people looking at each other waiting for the first one to say yea or nay. Brian turned around and said, “I think it’s perfect”. And they all went “yea! yea! yea! yea!” That was it, I was in. Actually there are three themes in THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT, so I stayed down there and had a riotous month. I wrote them another theme per week. Once you’ve got the themes, then what do you do? That’s where the technical part comes in.

How do you feel about your film score to THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT?
Love it. Love every second of it. I love the whole composing process. I remember going on the podium for the first time. They said to me, “Who’s going to conduct the score, Michael?” I said, “I am.” They said, “You’re an experienced conductor as well?” And I go, “Oh Yeah.” And I had never conducted a professional orchestra in my life, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. One morning there you are in the best film studio in London, which is the oldest in Bayswater. It’s not there anymore. Suddenly there you are one Monday morning, with all the best musicians in the world in front of you, they’re all shaking your hand saying, “Welcome, let’s go.” And you’ve never conducted in your life.
All those were great, great memories. There was producer interference on that movie. It was a couple of years after THE GRADUATE came out. There were a couple of sequences where they wanted to use a pop rhythm section. And like all producers do, they don’t want originality; they want what is selling at the moment. The biggest thing in film music at that time was THE GRADUATE. Some of the rhythm tracks were influenced by the whole graduate thing, but when you listen to them now they’re hopelessly, horribly, dated. The real lesson is that if you score a movie with a full symphony orchestra, the music is going to stay fresh for decades to come. If you follow the current trend, then in a couple of years your movie is going to sound horribly out of date.

What’s your approach to scoring a film?
First of all, you read the script. You get some idea of what it’s all about. Then the director will give you some sort of briefing – very rarely will they let you go and see their movie “cold”. You go in and have a screening on your own or with the director, producer, or everybody. You’re expected to give real smart answers and tell him how wonderful the movie is. The next stage is you and the director sit down and you spot the picture reel by reel. It used to be that the director would really look to the composer for real input. He would rely on the composer, but these days it’s totally different. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants to put his fingers in the pie.
Once the spotting is done, it’s off to home. To me scoring movies has always been the simplest and easiest of processes, once you accept the fact that the film is your mistress. The film speaks to me and my mistress tells me just what to do. If you’ve got a really great mistress you learn early on that the best thing is to do what she tells you to do. I’m a very theme-orientated composer. I believe in the power of melody. At this time, in the late ‘90s, that is not a characteristic of film scoring, to its detriment. The greatest gift that a composer can have is the gift of melody. The first thing I do when I start is to write the melody, the theme. Once you’ve got a great theme, you’ve got a great score. It’s literally as simple as that. It’s not just me talking, but the whole musical composition for the last four hundred years. Once you’ve got a great melody, you can do anything with it.
When I came into the early ‘90s, I did a movie for Ted Turner called THE ROSE AND THE JACKAL. The first thing I did was to write the melody because it was a love story. It was an interesting movie because love didn’t blossom until halfway through. So it was halfway through the movie before you heard the melody. I like that. That was good. It was no great idea of mine to introduce the melody halfway through. It was a great emotional moment where you’d gone though half the movie and all of a sudden this beautiful tune starts. You know you’re going to grab your audience because the audience loved beautiful tunes. On that very movie I got an ACE nomination and the people that make the nominations really know nothing about music, right? What was it they loved? They loved the melody. So my approach is to read the script, look at the movie, talk with the director in general, then spot with the director, then you put your ideas and objectives down. Your melody sometimes has been done in-between looking at the movie and having discussions, or sometimes it’s done when you read the script. Sometimes it’s done before I read the script. The theme can happen anytime, but sometimes very late on like in SPHINX. This was another example where the big tune didn’t come out until halfway through the movie, because that’s what the movie told me to do. You know it would be totally wrong to have that tune anywhere else other than when that particular emotion of love begins.

What was the largest orchestra you composed for?
I compose mostly for 85 pieces. People think that 110 musicians is better than 90. Very often that is absolutely the wrong assessment. If you’re going to go to 110 musicians, you have to have a room with the sufficient cubic capacity for that number of musicians to actually sound. It’s a fact that if you record at CTS in London, once you go over 80 musicians, the music sounds less good. It gets too cloudy. You can use three or four basses instead of using eight or ten and get equally good effects; SPHINX was a big score because I used two orchestras. There was the standard orchestra and the ten piece Egyptian orchestra. That was one of the greatest fun jobs of all time. There was so much orchestral color by using a western symphony orchestra and an Egyptian orchestra which was Mid-Eastern.

How did you learn how to write for Egyptian instruments?
You just listen to them and you get the color. It’s really the color you’re after more than the notes. When I went to rerecord SPHINX, I went to Germany and the guy they had playing the santuri couldn’t play the first note of the part. So I dumped him and I brought the tracks back to L.A. I set out to find a santuri player. Here we are sitting amongst 60 million people and I literally found a guy one mile away from where I live who is the ace santuri player in the United States.

What was the smallest orchestra you composed for?
UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO. That was a chamber orchestra, about 28 or 29 pieces. If you listen to it, it sounds like lots of strings, but again it isn’t. What sounds like strings is violas and cellos, no violins at all. A lovely combination.

Do you write, orchestrate, and conduct all your film scores?
In the early days I didn’t, because even though I studied orchestration in college, I didn’t have much practical experience. THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT was orchestrated by Wally Stott. I think it’s the last job that Wally Stott ever did, because shortly after that, he ceased to exist. He got married and went to Casablanca on a honeymoon with his wife. When he was in Casablanca he had a sex change.

Is this for real?
Wally Stott came back from Casablanca as Angela Morley. That’s the story of the birth of Angela Morley. I got to tell you that Angela Morley, particularly when she was Wally Stott, was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. She scored a film called WATERSHIP DOWN; Eventually Angela moved out here to L.A. and did a lot of movie work and episodic television. I think she’s off the scene now.

At what point did you start orchestrating your scores?
On UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO. That’s one of my really favorite scores. Whereas all the earlier scores were really big, suddenly I got offered this little movie, UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO. We did this with a little chamber orchestra. The first morning we went in the studio and everything that could have gone wrong just went wrong. I had had two years of great success. I’d bought my first house and everything was wonderful. Then suddenly one morning on this movie nothing worked. We didn’t record a minute. We did a whole session with the orchestra and didn’t have a minute in the can. It was a disaster. So I went out to lunch with the producer and director and they said. “Don’t worry, Michael. Don’t worry. We’ll find a way around it.” I had visions of losing my reputation, losing the house, and losing everything. So we went back in the afternoon to do totally different cues. The afternoon was different from the morning as could possibly be. Everything clicked into place and the music was great. To this day I never found out what went wrong on that morning. I took those scores home that night and looked at them. Whatever was in there that I didn’t understand I took out. I rewrote it myself and vowed that I would never ever put myself in the position where someone else had that much input into my music.

Have you ever used synthesizer in any of your scores?
Very little, except for one film. The film started out as ESTER, RUTH, AND JENNIFER. When the American distributors came aboard they wanted to get rid of the title. They thought on the American market it would be perceived as a film about lesbians. In fact the movie was about a hijack of an oil rig in the North Sea. In England it became known as NORTH SEA HIJACK and in the United States it became known as FFOLKES, because Roger Moore’s name in the movie was Capt. Ffolkes. I used an old ARP synthesizer that was meant to give the effect of the wind. It became an orchestral instrument. It’s one of those things like using rhythm sections in a score. A few years later the thing is so dated. That was the only time I ever used synthesizer in a score.

What has been most difficult about scoring to you?
I think that sometimes you’re more emotionally involved with one picture rather than the other. I look back now and I seem to have done a lot more horror movies, action movies, and that type of thing. After awhile that got really tedious. When you do love music and use a big theme you cover a lot of ground very quickly, whereas if you do an action sequence it’s stop, start, stop, start, stop, start. That takes a lot of time, logistically working out how you’re going to do that.

Tell me about your score to JULIUS CAESAR…
I used about 75 or 85 pieces. Lawrence Ashmore orchestrated this and UPON THIS ROCK. Every one of my scores takes about five weeks to do. This film was a really interesting situation. Whereas the MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT was a theme movie with lots of melody, JULIUS CAESAR needed a real symphonic score with very little melody. That was the type of movie it was. The first couple of days scared the hell out of me because I was just about to find out if I was a real composer or not, because I didn’t have the crutch of a melody. The mistress said, I’m not that type of movie! Suddenly I found that I had to be a real symphonic composer. For a couple of days I was really scared that perhaps I didn’t have it in me. Again, when you’re running the race you find your stride. Once you find your stride, you get into your stride, and then you’re on safe ground.

How did you like working with director Stuart Burge on JULIUS CAESAR?
I didn’t. That was one of the most negative relationships I had anywhere. He was essentially a theatrical director of the Nottingham Playhouse in England who had done great theater. The guy was an excellent theater director. The producers thought it would be great to bring a theater director in to do a Shakespearean movie. That just didn’t work. This guy didn’t understand movies. If anyone ever sees the video today, what they ever think of my work I can’t imagine because once I scored the movie they dumped the director and re-cut the movie. They just slammed the music in and the results were horrifying.

Tell me about your score to UPON THIS ROCK?
Again it was recorded in London with 75 or 85 pieces. UPON THIS ROCK was a dream job. This comes from the Bible where Christ says to Peter, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” The movie was a dramatized documentary of the history of St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. It was the first time that a 35mm camera had been allowed into the Basilica. For the very first time, close ups of these great works of art inside the Basilica were filmed. If that wasn’t inspirational enough, the principal people involved were Michelangelo Buonarotti (who designed much of the Basilica and the Vatican next door) was portrayed by the great Orson Welles. Also Ralph Richardson, Dirk Bogarde, and Edith Evans were all in this.
Here I am at the beginning of my career working on this monumental movie. The movie had actually been offered first of all to Sir William Walton, who was the greatest living English composer at that time. Sir William would have been anybody’s first choice because this particular project was so great that anyone would want to do it. Sir William was asked if he wanted to do it and he turned it down flatly. He wanted nothing to do with movies whatsoever. A few years earlier he had scored THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, which is a great movie. After his score was recorded, someone at United Artists came up with the stunning idea that it wasn’t any good. So, Sir William’s score was thrown out, except for the one aerial ballet at the very end, and Ron Goodwin was brought in. About five or six years before this, Ron had done a movie called 633 SQUADRON. It was a great score. BATTLE OF BRITAIN is just a rehash of that whole thing. You watch THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN and it all goes along in one particular wave, then all of a sudden when you come to the final aerial ballet it totally changes when William Walton’s music comes in. Then you know what great music is all about. So yet again, in UPON THIS ROCK, the great film executive and his infinite wisdom turns the best away. Then I got the job and I adored every single second of it. The film never went out theatrically, and was only shown for one night on NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame. It’s never been shown in England, never been shown in the United States since then, and sitting in someone’s vault somewhere is this great movie. It’s lost and obscure and not even on video tape, but I’m hoping to resurrect it at a film festival in England next year.

What is the key to composing a score like this?
Once again, it all comes down to the mistress. If she’s a great mistress, she will bring great things out of you. There’s times in our careers we’ve all done certain types of jobs, shame upon our heads, or shame upon my head, for money. There was a time in England when my hobby was buying land. I was buying acres and acres of Sussex farm land in England. That was my hobby and I was making so much money with movies and television commercials. I was like the jingle king of Europe. A week would come along and I’d be offered real prime ten acres of farm land, adjacent to what I’d already owned. Then someone would come along with a movie that wasn’t very good. And I’d say, “You can buy that land with that movie.” So I would do that movie to buy the land. It was a movie you wouldn’t have ordinarily wanted to do, but it was great cash. The point here is that if you sometimes work with a cheap old mistress the score may not be as good. UPON THIS ROCK was a mistress who was on my own level. That’s the level I should be working on.

Tell me about your film score to UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO?
The strength of the relationship on this movie was with the producer, Gareth Wigan. He’s now a high-powered exec at Columbia. He really wanted me to perform the score that was originally written and supported me right down the line. The director, John McKenzie, was in another world and really didn’t understand what I was doing. This is one of my absolute favorite scores. It has been one of those scores that’s been totally ignored, but now people are beginning to take notice of it.

Do you feel that your score here was more playful than the others?
UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO was set in a boys’ public school in England. Unman, Wittering, and Zigo were the last three names on the roll call. Maybe the orchestration’s reflecting those adolescent overtones to the whole movie.

How did you get involved with THEATER OF BLOOD?
The two producers of this film wanted me. The first time I was offered the movie; my agent rang me up and said “You’ve been offered this movie THEATER OF BLOOD.” Here I’d been working on MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT with Katherine Hepburn, UPON THIS ROCK with Orson Welles, UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO with the chamber orchestra, great stuff. Now here’s THEATER OF BLOOD with Vincent Price! My agent said it was a horror movie. In my superior way I turned around and said, “I don’t do horror movies. See ya.” That was the end of that.
A couple of weeks later she called and said “They’re back again. The THEATER OF BLOOD crowd. And they say you’re the only guy to do it. It’s not a horror movie, but a black comedy. It’s very clever with a lot of Shakespeare. They loved what you did for JULIUS CAESAR. It’s obviously going to be your movie. Will you at least go talk to them? They’ll take you to lunch.” If you want anything out of anybody, take them to an expensive lunch. It works really well. I still think, 25 years later, that this was a great movie, a great, original concept. It was about bumping off all these critics in the manner of a Shakespearean play. That’s really clever stuff. You can look at that movie 25 years later, and it looks great. I think it was also a very courageous way to score a movie, because it was really musical counterpoint. It’s like the famous sequence where Diana Rigg and Vincent Price go to cut off Arthur Lowe’s head. They get out the sword and take off his head. It’s a pretty grisly sequence. You could see if it had been a Hollywood type producer today, it would have been some generic effect music. We did the opposite. Dr. Kildare had been big at that time, you know, a medical series with Richard Chamberlain, with lush strings and all those kinds of things. So we said “Let’s really send it up, right? Let’s go all the way with it.” Here they are sewing this guy’s head up and this beautiful tune is playing. That only makes it more comedic. When you work like that man, writing for movies is great fun. If that had been written by committee approval, it would never happen. Committees don’t have the insight to do that. That’s the great tragedy of film writing today – no one has any courage. Wimps! Wimps!

How did you like scoring for Richard Burton’s character in THE MEDUSA TOUCH?
There are thousands of people out there who love THE MEDUSA TOUCH. I’ve got to tell you when I scored the movie; I thought it was one of the most unremarkable films and a most unremarkable score. Until I came to the United States and suddenly found all these fans, I’d never paid attention to what I had done in that movie. I thought the movie was an absolute bore. It was torture to write, because it was the same thing over and over again. It seems to have struck a chord that was right. I have no affection for it compared to MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT or UPON THIS ROCK.

What was it like working with director Jack Gold?
Jack was essentially a television guy. Here he was trying to direct a big budget movie. When you’re a television guy in England and you’ve got a big orchestra, it’s like eight, nine, or ten players. Suddenly here he was with the full works – 85 or 90 pieces. People like this tend to back off and leave it to the composer. He was a joy to work with because he obviously sensed I was doing what was right for the movie.
Then again, it’s a question of the old mistress. I listened to the movie. I didn’t do perhaps what I wanted to do; I did what the movie told me to do. It was obviously the right way to go.

How do you adapt to a scene like when the passenger plane flew into the skyscraper? That part shifted between background music and film scoring.
I wrote the muzak there too. There’s a sequence when the television goes blank, because they switched off all the television services as an act of mourning. And you just get this music coming out of a blank television screen. (That’s on the double CD as ‘Grazioso’.) Only about 15 seconds of that was ever used. On the plane crashing into the skyscraper, you never think about it. The picture tells you what to do. You sit there, you watch it, and you feel it. That’s a perfect example of what a film composer’s supposed to do. You feel the emotion of the moment. You underline it, enhance it, and make it bigger. With many of those sequences, see how much emotion you’ve got left after you take away the music.

How did you become involved with THE PASSAGE?
This is one of those jobs my agent picked up. This was with director J. Lee Thompson, who’s one of the legendary directors of the mid-20th Century. He did some great movies. This was a war movie with Anthony Quinn. I’d never done a war movie, l really enjoyed that. Again, it was one of those scores where it needed a lot of emotion put into it. If you listen to the opening title, it’s all blood and thunder, lots of percussion and brass. Then during the drama when they were escaping, from France and going over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain, it opens up to become much more lush and romantic. It’s man’s struggle against the elements. I just love all that stuff.

Do you think your score lived up to the suspense this film created?
Oh yes, no question. The mistress was really turning me on that month. To me THE MEDUSA TOUCH was a pretty sterile movie. I suppose I felt I had to work real hard to bring it to life. Where as THE PASSAGE probably wasn’t as good a movie, but it had more emotion it. I don’t like sterility. Sterility’s got no part in my life. Drama, passion, and humanity I’d like to have.

How did you approach bringing romantic themes into a film like this, even though it’s a war picture?
This was a human drama set in war time. This woman and her husband were trying to survive. Survival of the human spirit is one of the great romantic notions of our life. The war setting was incidental really.

Your approach to action scoring seems different than the current approach by some other composers.
You didn’t have one hour and fifty minutes of music in a two hour film! There’s a reason for that, but that’s the way it is today. If anybody knows anything about construction, be you a novelist, journalist, or composer, you know that you’re going to lose your effects if you overdo something. It’s like when you go to music school and they teach you orchestration. Part of great orchestration is when you leave something out to give it much greater effect when you bring it back. So if you’re going to write minutes and minutes of music and it’s all blood and thunder, over and over, it’s going to lose some of its punch. You need lighter moments so when you come back your blood and thunder is more blood and thunder. Today it’s “Make as much noise as you can,” right? That’s the way it’s done. Whether it’s right or wrong, very often it works. What people are going to think about these scores in ten years’ time is a different matter.

How did you become involved with THE UNSEEN?
I was in Cairo, Egypt, because Franklin Shaffner had asked me to go and meet him on the upper Nile where he was shooting SPHINX. I met Franklin and we got on fabulous straightaway. He gave me the movie. Then he told me to go off for two months to think about it, do some research, and they were going to pay me. The whole luxury of two or three months to think about a thing, of course it paid off. I went back to Cairo where I was staying at the Intercontinental and I had this phone call. No one knew where I was, but the phone rang and there was this producer in Hollywood, who said “Lewis, I’ve been looking all over the world for you. If you’ll be in Hollywood tomorrow I’ll give you this movie. I’ve waited for you for two weeks while I tracked you down and I can’t wait for you any longer.”
I said, “How much money?” Oh yeah, I knew I could buy a lot of land with that movie! This producer had been one of the producers on THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT and JULIUS CAESAR. Again, THE UNSEEN was one of those horror movies and the picture disappeared without a trace. There’s a lot of good spooky stuff in there and I’m going to resurrect that sometime in the quite near future. Also a lot of ‘40s and ‘50s big band stuff because of the nature of the story. That’s a really interesting score that’s been long forgotten.

Did you have to deal with any of your films being temp tracked?
I think it’s one of the most vile techniques that’s come about. Why don’t you want to bring out the best in the composer? If you’re going to temp it with someone else’s music, by the time the composer comes along, the director and the producer have probably fallen in love with the temp music anyway. When the poor composer comes along, he ain’t got a chance, because they’re all in love with something else.
I never had this happen to me because they had too much respect for me to do that. So the composer’s going to imitate someone else. So years ago I got offered a movie in Toronto. They flew me first class from London to Toronto and when I got there they took me out to dinner, wined and dined me. They told me how wonderful their movie was and that they had a wonderful surprise for me with this movie. Next morning I get up, they send around the limo, go off to the theater, we have the first run of that movie. After about 30 seconds into this movie I realized what the big surprise was. They had taken the whole score of THE MEDUSA TOUCH and put it into their movie (slow laughter). It worked so well, it was perfect. They said “Isn’t it perfect?” and I said “It’s so perfect; I couldn’t possibly work on this picture.”

What do you think is the difference between film scoring thirty years ago and today?
Composer liberty. Composers have lost their liberty.

Do you think film scoring has become more of a business than an art form?
The composer just wants to keep the director and producer happy. That’s a pretty lousy way to create. I think that films have always essentially been a business. 98% of all movies made have been made as a business. I think the attitude up until recently was to produce movies that will have such qualities that they will produce lasting qualities. I think movies here are made in such a way that in ten years’ time they’ll appear to be absolute bores. Let’s look back on the last ten years. Name me one great theme from a movie? The great themes that have come out of movies in the last ten years, have com e from song writers rather than from film composers. That’s a whole new twist. Think back to the sixties, look at what Maurice Jarre was doing. One of my great inspirations, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DR. ZHIVAGO, great, bold, fabulous themes that will be around forever. There’s films I’ve been to see in the last couple of years that have made lots of money, but are appallingly, badly made.

Do you think your score to THE NAKED FACE is one of your most jazz-oriented scores?
Yes, that was the beginning of where I’m going now with my writing. On my most recent CD, ‘The Romantic Splendor of Wales’, the jazz element, which started with THE NAKED FACE, is now becoming a real part of my writing and recording. I just love it! It creates much greater involvement with the musicians.

What led to your making that CD?
One of the sad things about my life in the last five years is that I’ve done nothing in movies because I find the whole way of working in movies at this time so stale. The approach to movie music at this moment is not conducive to great scores. Great movie music, in my opinion, isn’t being written at this moment in time. The money people, being the studios and producers, are not allowing composers to do what they want to do. If you don’t allow someone to do what is their best act, you’re not going to get the best.
One of the things about here in Hollywood is that they say 90% of your time is trying to get the job, 10% is doing the job. That is the fact. Go to parties; hang around parties, smiling at people, trying to get people to like you so they will give you a job. So if you spend 90% of your time as a hustler and 10% as a composer, you’re not a composer, you’re a hustler. I was born a composer and I want to be 90% a composer and 10% a hustler. If I’m not meeting the real creative people to allow me to do creative jobs this time, I’m going to go off and do it myself. My CDs have been out now for 18 months and I’ve had people ringing me up saying “Why on earth isn’t this music in movies? This is how movie music should be.” There’s a good and bad part to this. The bad part is that producers are getting the generic material that they deserve; it’s the listener who isn’t getting what he really deserves.
In two weeks, when I’m in London, I’m going out to lunch with a producer who’s just raising the money for an absolutely stunning project for 1998. If it comes off, I am going to do that. He’s already assured me that he wants me to do what I’m best at and to do a stunning score. It looks real rosy.

Did your film scoring style influence you here on ‘Romantic Splendor’?
Oh yeah. Basically I’m a film composer and I’ve been doing that for a long time. This little hiatus I’m on at the moment is one of these days going to payoff. When I come back and do my next big movie, it’ll all payoff. It’s like a half way period through my life, I’m looking at other things that film was not allowing me to do, like exploring the whole jazz element, or improvisation. When we come back to do movies, that will be a whole new technique waiting to be used.

If you had a choice on the kind of score you could do, what type of films would you like to work on today?
I would love to work on a great romance, but then again great romance is not in at the moment, apart from the small Miramax movies like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Here’s the perfect example of what I’ve been preaching to you for the last two hours. Something must be crying out. Let’s go back to last year’s Oscars. Here are all these great big bombastic orchestral scores, blood and thunder from beginning to end. Who wins the Oscar for best film score? IL POSTINO. Why? You’ve got all this blood and thunder from Hollywood and what do you think the Academy members think is the best? A guy who writes a nice tune. The Academy members themselves know what they like. Do you know what the members like? Quality.
With ‘The Romantic Splendor of Wales’, I’m only doing what Steven Spielberg does. He always said, when he first started making Indiana Jones, he wanted to go and see the type of movie he likes and nobody was making them. So all he does is make the movies that he likes to watch himself. So with ‘The Romantic Splendor of Wales’ I am making a CD now of the music I want to hear. If someone asked, “What is the best movie you enjoyed in the last five years?” I’ll tell you, that was THE LION KING. I loved that great score, I even voted for it. I’ll divulge secret information. I voted for it and it won. I was so happy because it was a great score full of life, full of originality, and full of great music. I want to do one of those.

Author’s Note: My personal thanks to Craig Spaulding and Michael J. Lewis for making this interview possible.

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  • CAROLINE ROPER-DEYO on said:

    Good interview with MJL. Provides considerable insight into his creative process. I pray he will return to scoring for films. His music is so powerful.

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