An interview with Patrick Williams by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
For thirty years, Patrick Williams has been established as a versatile and innovative film composer. Winner of three Emmy Awards (out of twenty nominations), two Grammy’s (twelve nominations), and a Cable ACE award, Williams has composed sixty-five feature films (his music for one of them, BREAKING AWAY, was nominated for an Oscar), and his themes for TV’s THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, LOU GRANT, and THE DAYS AND NIGHTS OF MOLLY DODD are well known. Poorly represented in the realm of soundtrack albums, the recent release of Williams’ score for JESUS, the new TV miniseries, may well give Williams the greater recognition he’s deserved for some years. Interviewed two weeks before JESUS aired in the US in May; Williams described his experiences scoring the project as well as his music for a very different biopic, ABC’s THE THREE STOOGES.
How did you get involved in the JESUS mini-series?
The involvement came from Roger Young, the director. We must have done fifteen films together. I’d gone to Italy and met the head of the company, and was Okayed by some other people, but Roger really wanted me to do it.
Obviously, this is a subject that has been covered by a multitude of other composers in a multitude of different ways. Coming onto a project like this, did you find it at all daunting? How did you approach the subject matter?
That’s an interesting question; because it’s a question I asked myself when I started the project. When I came out here in 1970 from New York, I got very close to Lionel Newman and the whole 20th Century Fox thing there, and I was very familiar with the music of Al Newman, Korngold and Rozsa, all of them.
I’ve scored, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty films, so I felt that I wasn’t intimidated by the project, necessarily, but I didn’t want to pay an homage to all those wonderful composers! So I consciously did not play any soundtrack CDs, any classical music, or anything. Sometimes when you start a project, because of the realities of either the temp score or what they’re looking for, you listen to music, and it gets you in the “mood”.
In this case, I listened to absolutely nothing. I just wanted to see what I could come up with. Obviously, having said that, I haven’t grown up in a vacuum, but I certainly didn’t try to dip into anybody’s well.
What did you key on in the film when you began writing? What sparked what you were going to write?
The way I almost always approach dramatic films of any kind, really, is to come up with a main theme that can serve as kind of a home base for the audience, something that can help unify the experiences on the screen. I have always been a believer in the repetition of material, because I think it works.
And so the first step was to come up with a very simple, straightforward theme. As you probably know, that’s a lot harder to do than it sounds, because everything just sounds so damn trite at first! I must have spent three days just hating every note I wrote, but finally, I don’t know if it was desperation or what, but I finally found one t thought would do it for me. I had to be able to count on it for four hours of material, and you don’t want to get into hour three and say, wow, I think this isn’t working anymore!
What do you think was most Challenging about this assignment for you?
There were many levels. Number one, I’d never been to Italy, and three quarters of the production money to do the film came from Italy. Luca Bernabei is a very powerful, very wealthy, influential fellow who is the head of the company over there. He’s done something like 14 movies based on various books of the Bible, and they’re all done with top actors and top directors and he’s done it as a legacy. He wanted to leave something that he was proud of, and so he’s very sincere and very serious about this stuff, even to the point of having a religious council consisting of different religious scholars approve the scripts for biblical accuracy. He flew me over to meet with me, and he was very interested in what the music was going to be. He said “I want you to write music where, if you write a theme, a truck driver would be able to remember it!” He did not want an effete experience. He wanted Jesus as a very down-to-earth guy in this movie. The whole point of this particular slant of Jesus is that he, in fact, is a human being, and he is filled with all kinds of human qualities, so it was not supposed to be a grandiose, bombastic, overly-written bunch of nonsense, because it would be totally wrong for this movie.
No Handel’s “Messiah” at the end, then?
That would just be totally wrong. So I felt it had to be something extremely straightforward, very transparent, just enough notes to do this job, and no more. There’s a temptation sometimes with writing music to show off, where instead of writing four notes that you really care about, you can write ten more and show that you’ve got some real chops, and all that. But when you do that, you start to lose the emotional purity of what you’ve accomplished in the first place, because you’re not hiding it under a lot of orchestrational gimmicks. So I really tried to stay true to that throughout the process of doing this score. There were no days off for six weeks of just solid JESUS all day long!
What was the experience like for you?
The film was aired in December in Rome. They flew us over for the premiere. The city was plastered with JESUS posters; I’ve never seen anything like it. They had the premiere in a huge theater that’s about a block from the Vatican. The president of Italy was there, it was a very big deal, and then the next day, about ten of us who’d worked on the film, Jeremy Sisto, Jacqueline Bissett – ten of us were escorted over to the Vatican for a private audience with the Pope. When I walked into the project I had no idea that it was going to be this connected! To me, a job’s a job, but this turned out to be a very special experience. I really got to experience Italy twice, things that I never could have anticipated.
Was there an additional thematic structure to the score beyond the main theme that forms its core?
There really weren’t any others, because of the thrust of the film. First of all, there’s a very operatic quality to these stories, it’s got betrayal, it’s got everything that great opera has, and of course Jesus has them all in spades. I just wanted to essentially use one theme for him, because he is the reason that everything happens or doesn’t happen, it’s all about him, so I didn’t want to cloud the issue with a theme for Mary, or a theme for the others.
The way this particular film presents it is that you find the human being caught in very extraordinary circumstances, not all of which are of his own making. He’s caught in this as much as he’s leading it, so it’s really all about him.
How much music did you end up writing for the film?
An hour and fifty minutes is what comes to mind. Give or take a few!
And you had six weeks to write it all? Was that sufficient for you?
It wasn’t sufficient as I was doing it, I was thinking, “they’ve got to be absolutely out of their minds for me to write all this!” But once I got into it, I got over the initial anxieties and I got committed to the theme. Roger heard the theme and liked it and then I was just on it. It was like going into a state every day and then at the end when you’re done, you turn around and go, “well, what was that?! What did I just do?!” You’ve just been so involved with it. It was a project like that, I really wasn’t thinking about how many minutes I had to do as much as how it felt about what I was doing.
Your music is primarily orchestra, but there’s a little bit of synth in there. How’s your feeling about merging synth and orchestra in a film like this?
I would prefer not to use electronics, if the truth were to be known, but having said that, about 25-30 minutes into the film, which has been a pretty conventional-looking period piece, Jesus goes out for the 40-days and 40-nights in the desert, and Satan appears. He’s played by a wonderful actor (Jeroen Krabbe) and he’s dressed in a black business suit and a turtleneck.
They shoot this scene with a lot of close-ups of Satan talking into Jesus’ ear about, you know, “you’re not going to make any difference, this is all in vain, you think you’re going to do it but it’s not going to change anything.” It’s a beautiful scene, and all of a sudden you realize that this movie is taking a left turn on you. It’s doing something different. That’s when I thought the music’s got to do something different, something has got to be in here that’s of today, so that’s when I got the idea for some electronic effects. I didn’t want to have a lot of synth going on, but I hoped it would be subtle and would work with some of the percussive elements that were acoustic.
You mentioned that you were keying in on the human elements of Jesus throughout most of your score. How did you address, musically, the more miraculous and supernatural elements?
As I recall, one of the things they didn’t want to do was to make it into a movie about that, so they very carefully only showed three or four miracles. One of them had no music at all, an almost funny sequence where he changes the water into wine. That’s actually a lighter moment in the film. The others were when he heals a leper, and the two big miracles – walking on the water and the raising of Lazarus. In those two I really tried to pull out all the stops, I mean, that’s what the film looked like. Roger shot it big and it looks big and it was big. The only other huge moment to me was the whole sequence of the crucifixion, which, by the way, is my favorite piece of music in the film. Something happened with me writing that and looking at the film at that point, that just got me into some place that I don’t usually get to, and that’s my favorite cue. It was very moving, and very well done.
How was your working relationship with the director, Roger Young? You mentioned you’d worked with him a lot over the years?
Roger and I have been working together for 20 years, and we have total respect and trust with each other. He doesn’t say one thing to me that he doesn’t mean, and I don’t say one thing to him to try to justify or explain, it either works, we agree on it, or we don’t agree. But there’s not any of that kind of interference that you often get, or the posturing, you know what I mean?
Yes indeed! What kind of input did he have on the music, if any?
He left it up to me. What he tells me is, “look, here’s what I‘m doing, here’s what I’m trying to do with this piece, here’s what I’m going for, here’s the way I’m going to shoot it.” He gives me as much information as he can on how he’s going to tell the story, which is the whole thing – how do you tell a story. Once I’ve got that feel from him, I go to work and I come up with some ideas, and then he comes over and listens to them, and he says “I think you’re on the right track with this” or whatever. He never gets it into like “I think it’s great” or “I think it’s awful,” we don’t use words like that. It’s all about how it’s feeling, how it’s working, and how it’s coming off emotionally. It’s very special for me to work with somebody like him. I really value it.
Okay, let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous, if you’ll excuse that knuckleheaded remark. Tell me about THE THREE STOOGES. How did you get involved in this project?
The director was James Frawley, and it turns out that Jim and I had worked on four or five COLUMBO’s in the early seasons of that show. They were very good shows then, and they were really fun to work on. Jim directed them but we never met. We were both working with a producer named Richard Alan Simmons; I would work with Richard and he would with Richard so we never really met, but it turns out he really loved what I did with those shows. He called me and said he wanted me to do this movie. He said “it’s The Three Stooges, but you’re not going to have to deal with any of the vaudeville, you don’t have to deal with any of the ‘20s stuff, you don’t have to deal with any gags at all. I’m going to tell you what I want you to do. I want you to write a theme that will break my heart.” I said, “Okay, I’ll try.” So that was my job. It really wasn’t about the comedy aspects at all; the score that I wrote was more about the underbelly of disappointment and kind of sadness that went with the lives of these guys.
You spoke for the heart of the characters…
Patrick Williams: That’s it. That’s what he wanted me to do. We had a nice sized string section and some excellent players, and to me it sounded beautiful.
Was the project rewarding for you?
Yes, I really enjoyed the process of writing it. I felt the movie was well done, the characters were well performed, and it was shot nicely. My job was very clear. It wasn’t like he was asking me to do something and then I looked at the film and I thought “god, I don’t know what he’s talking about!” I felt exactly what he did, so I just worked hard on trying to come up with a theme that I really liked. That’s always the trick, to do something that you really feel that you can count on through the whole film, that will payoff for you when you really need it, something that really has some melodic value to it, for lack of a better way of describing it.
How much music did you write for this production?
Not that much, 22 minutes.
How long did you have to write it?
You’ve spent most of your time, at least in more recent years, working in TV. Do you enjoy that, or would you like to do more features?
I’d love to do more features. I used to do a lot of them, and I did some smaller films that I thought were fun and good to work on. One was THE GLASS HARP, directed by Charlie Matthau, Walter’s son. It had a wonderful cast, it was a gentle film and I was able to write a melodic score. I did a quirky kind of movie called JULIAN PO, which Christian Slater starred in. The score there was kind of Kurt Weilish and it was interesting to do. I’m not doing the big buck movies, but these were interesting projects to work on, so I’m hoping that I can find interesting things that are rewarding to work on. The longer you’ve been in this business, the harder it is to get involved in things that you’ve done a lot of before.
Your tolerance for crap is not what it used to be!