An Interview with Michael Kamen by Ford A. Thaxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.67/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Ford A. Thaxton
You’ve just scored LETHAL WEAPON IV, which, from all understandings, was a very exhausting experience…
Well, it’s a very exciting experience, but it’s because it’s so fast and so intense it’s exhausting.
You’ve got four LETHAL WEAPON movies under your belt now. How much music did you end up writing tor this one?
I decided that LETHAL WEAPON IV was my continued responsibility to keep writing for, rather than just pick apart the score for I, II, and III and slip it in there somewhere. I recognize that my start in Hollywood came as a direct result of LETHAL WEAPON I. And when I did LETHAL WEAPON I, I cared very much about what I was doing. I wrote every note, and was meticulous and very careful, and I decided I’d better do the same thing for LETHAL WEAPON IV.
To date, there is no soundtrack album LETHAL WEAPON IV…
I don’t know if we’ll ever have a soundtrack album. The movie was made so quickly that the music was slid in at the very, very last minute. You can make a film and make it a big film and make millions and millions of dollars on it, and get it released in two weeks, but a record needs two months. By the time a record comes out, the film’s gone.
There have been rumors circulating that there will be some sort of ‘Best of LETHAL WEAPON’ album.
Yeah, I’d like that to be the case.
I’ll tell you, as far as I’m concerned, the biggest crime on the planet right now is that there isn’t a CD to LETHAL WEAPON II.
Well, we could do LETHAL WEAPON I and IV and then you’ll have a record…
In the case of LETHAL WEAPON IV, you obviously have certain themes which have recurred from the previous films, notably the tunes associated with Mel Gibson’s character. Your music for the villains gets to change…?
Mel’s theme stays the same, and Danny’s theme stays the same. On this new one, the bad guys were Vietnamese soldiers.
So this gave you a chance to dabble in that Oriental vein.
Yeah, we were playing around with some Chinese percussion, and we met some wonderful Chinese musicians who played the Erdo, a fiddle, and oboes that are like a bundle of sticks, wonderful, ancient Chinese instruments.
Your new project is WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, with Robin Williams. You replaced Ennio Morricone as composer. Where do you stand on this project now?
It’s been about six days since I said yes, after seeing the film, and I have completed composition of the entire score.
In six days?!?
You’ve got the thematic ideas all put together?
Yes. It’s a very complicated story, but my wife looked at the film, and said, “Oh, I know what that is. That’s ‘Beside You’, which was an old song in our New York Rock And Roll Ensemble.”
That was co-written by yourself and Mark Snow!
Yes. Mark Snow, my old partner, and I wrote that song, many, many years ago, when we were members and founders of the New York Rock And Roll Ensemble.
Robin Williams plays a character who dies, and the film has to do with his afterlife…
It’s a very metaphysical, joyous film. It has a tragic beginning, and a triumphant ending, which is a nice change. My wife had a very serious illness – and a very full recovery just as the film came into being. So I wasn’t going to be making music for a while, I’m writing a symphony now, but I wasn’t going to be doing film. But this call came in, and the subject matter is what got me into this thing.
The circumstances of Ennio having done a score for it were something I didn’t want to take on board – I know how badly I would feel about somebody else taking over a film that was obviously a labor of love. I respect Ennio Morricone, so I didn’t want to hear what he had done.
What kind of approach did you take in scoring it?
I figured because the film was such a profound piece of writing, there were two ways to go. One could be a very dark, very somber, very serious, and very profound piece of music; the other could be incredibly light and incredibly romantic, making a love story out of it. At the end of the day it is a love story, with a great ending.
Where will you be recording the score?
Here, in London.
Ah, so the chances are very good that there will be a very full score album?
Oh yes, sure. It will be on Decca.
So how will this song that you and Mark Snow co-wrote figure into the film?
That song has become the theme of the film. It works, as a melody, and it will probably, with any luck, wind up being the song at the end of the film.
My understanding is that there are three major artists who are considering recording it for the film?
You know what? I’ve done this so many times now, and each time I’ve done one of these records, the political turmoil that surrounds putting a record on a movie is enough to drive you into the shoemaking industry! It’s the worst part of rock and roll and the worst part of the film business.
Now, that’s interesting, because you have had a history of some very successful songs written for films, most notably, ‘Everything I Do, I Do For You’ from ROBIN HOOD. What’s the genesis of something like that? How do you approach doing a song for a film?
I don’t. I approach doing a film. The melody has to help sell the story, because, as a composer, that’s what I’m doing. I happen to love melody and I have a background in song, so I tend to think in big, melodic ideas, and I try to tell the story with the melody.
What happens is, you can either start with a song, a la LAURA, and make it obsessional throughout the film, or you can start with a melody and, very normally, make it obsessional throughout the film. At the end, without, in this case, being even the slightest bit commercial, it’s almost a poem about the meaning of the film. It just shows up, almost inexactly the form it showed up all along as a piece of score, but now it has words. It’s intrinsic to the score. It’s not just a song at the end of a movie. I don’t like doing that. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if somebody took a tune of mine and stuck it at the end of their movie and made a hit out of it and it had no relation to the movie score! But, when I score a movie and I do a song, the song comes from the score.
Now, I assume this will be a large-scale orchestral effort?
Yes, it will be a full orchestral palette.
Speaking of that, you’ve written a lot of scores in that big orchestral school of thought, but recently you’ve kind of shifted gears briefly, going to a very intricate score for a film called THE WINTER GUEST. How did that project come about for you?
Alan Rickman is a friend, and he had agreed to direct a play that he co-wrote, called THE WINTER GUEST, for the Almeida Theatre in London. He asked me if I would give him some music for the shows, which I did. I was on a plane the day after the show premiered, and read the newspaper. When I do a film, even though there’s an hour and a half of score, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a mention in a newspaper – “the music by Kamen was okay” or “terrible, loud music by Kamen!” But, here it was two column inches about the score – which was 12 minutes of music in a play! So I was very impressed, and when Alan arranged to direct the film, he asked if I would write the music for the film. But the idea of using just the piano was arrived at because of the film. That’s what the film responded to best.
And this is probably a much more intimate effort…
It’s not, really. The film is intimate, there’s a very clear bonding between characters, and they don’t go chasing each other in cars or planes or helicopters or anything like that! It is in a very closely surrounded, frozen wasteland of Northern Scotland somewhere. At the same time, when I write the score to LETHAL WEAPON, it’s just me and a piano and the movie. So it isn’t that the intimacy is designed so particularly, except by the movie itself. You respond to the film and either blow your piano up into a big orchestra or rock and roll band and a big orchestra or a bunch of synthesizers, or you leave it as a piano.
You’ve been active in the film world since about 1982 and you’ve just had a chance to step back and do a little bit of an overview with ‘The Michael Kamen Opus’. What was it like for you, actually kind of sitting down and taking a little stock of where you are in your career now, and looking back?
I’m very happy, and I’m going to continue being happy. I don’t think you need to spend too much time looking back. I’m reminded of somebody asking George Harrison one time, as he passed them, “What was it like being a Beatle?” And George looked at them and said, “I don’t know. What was it like not being a Beatle?” I don’t actually take my life in a span; I take it a day at a time.
Sometimes composers will take a moment to look back and they’ll find something that they’ve written that they’ve completely forgotten about…
Well, that happens from time to time. That’s the joy of spontaneous combustion, just waking up in the morning with a tune in your head and then recognizing that you wrote it years ago.
Of all the scores you’ve written to date, what’s the one you’d like to see on CD that is not?
A compilation of earlier films, like THE KRAYS, MONA LISA, there’s probably some stuff that could come out of THE DEAD ZONE – it has an album, but I don’t think it’s very complete. And a compilation of actual old soundtracks.
You’ve had one or two CDs come out that were at, shall we say, highly questionable origin. DIE HARD, for example. As an artist, when you see someone do that, what’s your reaction as a composer?
I’m actually flattered. If there’s really an interest in your music, that’s got to be of great value, so, yes, I’m flattered. There are more official ways of looking at it and more businesslike ways of looking at it, but you don’t attach a dollar value to the notes that you’re cranking out. Somebody else does that, so I’ll let that be their problem!
A question on THE AVENGERS. You left the project because of scheduling conflicts?
What had your involvement been prior to that? How much work had you done?
The movie was still in formation. It took a long time for them to make agreements about what they were trying to show. Never at any real, cohesive point was I presented with a film that was finished, for me to start scoring. I had made five or six different attempts at scoring the film, but the film kept changing. It was like aiming at a moving target. And you can’t really finish the score until the film is finished. I literally couldn’t finish THE AVENGERS and do LETHAL WEAPON, so I did LETHAL WEAPON IV.
So now you’re working on a symphony. What’s the basic behind the symphony?
It has an American Indian title, ‘The New Moon In The Old Moon’s Orbs’. It’s a millennium symphony – instead of doing a hundred year retrospective of American music, I’ve decided to do the millennium and go back a thousand years. It takes a very fanciful look back at the Anazasi tribe, who had a flourishing society about a thousand years ago until, for unknown reasons, they vanished. But they were an amazing culture, and I want to take a look back a thousand years and then head forward a thousand years. It’ll premiere in the beginning of 2000, with Lenny Slatkin and the National Symphony.
So after all of this, no film work for you after this picture, for the time being?
Not for a little while. Unless you’ve got a good one!