An Interview with Pino Donaggio by Marco Werba
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.11/No.43/1992
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Marco Werba
Not since the making of BODY DOUBLE (1984) have you collaborated with Brian De Palma. I believe the reason you weren’t called to score his last four films was because of the plots…?
He and I both understood that he would only ask me to score films that he had written himself, not commissioned films. In recent years we have always kept in touch and have met very often. So this time, Brian called me because the story was written by him, just like DRESSED TO KILL, etc. I think he trusts me when the film is a thriller and when the idea is his own and not someone else’s.
I remember that BODY DOUBLE was not a big hit at the box office and had some negative criticism…
Yes. In fact, if the film had become a success, he would probably have done other thrillers right after it. But in the States it didn’t work (it was more successful in Europe) so he decided to change direction by doing a comedy and then a gangster film. With this new film he has come back to the suspense story but I don’t know if he will do the same with the next one.
How would you compare your new score for RAISING CAIN with your previous De Palma scores?
Musically it is much more dissonant; less “cantabile” without the violins “singing” a melody (with the exception of the end credits theme and a few other moments). So there isn’t a leitmotif which comes frequently, as happened with DRESSED TO KILL and CARRIE. This music is much more complicated, much more difficult. I have to say that the music is not prominent because there is a lot of dialogue; it is often in the background.
What size orchestra did you use?
I used a completely symphony orchestra of 64 or 65 instruments, but left out trumpets. I thought it wasn’t necessary to use trumpets because the trombones were enough to sustain the composition, like the pedal of a church organ. I would say that this music I have written is quite contemporary, like an abstract painting without formal structure.
Did you get involved before the shooting of the film or during the editing?
I was in Rome working on the TV-film, SCOOP, when De Palma called me. After three days I had the screenplay in my hands, and I started work before the shooting began. Then I went to Palo Alto (near San Francisco) where Brian now lives, and I had a chance to see a few sequences of the film, mostly the first part, and I wrote the theme. This theme is based on a melody enclosed in a carillon-watch that Kate, the female character, owns. The theme became the main element of the whole composition, the musical key.
How much time did you have to write and orchestrate the music?
Less than usual because Brian was late with the editing. I only had one month to write all the music, instead of the two months I usually have. I must say that it was a tough job because I had to take care of the subtleties and personalities of the main character – I had to interpret the music according to the various changes of moods within the character. In some ways, I was less free to portray musically the general feeling of the film since it was necessary to underline the various mood changes.
Of all the De Palma films you have scored, to what do you feel closest?
It’s difficult to say, because I am grateful to Brian and I love all his films. Thanks to him I’ve become well-known in the States. He heard the music I wrote for DON’T LOOK NOW and gave me the chance to score CARRIE. Since then our relationship has grown continuously through new musical experiences and my own professional development. Also, this new film has given me new ideas, new clues about interpreting the images. Besides, there isn’t a specific school to teach you how to write film music, and the only way to learn it is through your own experiences until you understand the way to work out the various cinematographic requirements.
Besides that, there has been an evolution from the point of view of the orchestration. In your first film score, DON’T LOOK NOW, the orchestration was done by Giampiero Boneschi; then progressively you have started to participate yourself in drafting the score even though (conductor) Natale Massara has always checked it.
Yes. The first film that I orchestrated was DRESSED TO KILL. Of course, Massara gives me advice concerning the orchestral balance and the orchestration, and he conducts the music. For THE FIFTH MISSILE the orchestra was conducted by Gianfranco Plenizio, but this was an exception.
Have you ever had the desire to write contemporary chamber music or compositions for the concert hall?
No, because then I would have to write avant-garde music. Instead, with the music you usually wrote for films, it can happen that one piece is similar to Stravinsky while another is like the melody of a pop song. That gives you the chance to write a wide variety of music and use a variety of different instruments. What I’d like to do is a ballet where you have the chance to write a modem score but with the possibility of including melodic themes, rhythmic games, etc. Contemporary music already has Bussotti and Clementi so it doesn’t need me.
What do you think about “serious” concert music? Do you think there is a crisis: a lack of ideas; a rebuttal of the experiences of the past?
You know, when I was a boy I remember that I did not at all like Stravinsky’s music. Instead, now Stravinsky and Schoenberg to me sound almost melodic! I think it is a matter of musical education and that people are not properly trained to understand modem music, otherwise there would be more people going to those concerts. Composers like Berio and Nono are well-known to a limited audience but not enough to guarantee large numbers at their concerts. Maybe in twenty years time, people will go to listen to music that today for us sounds “difficult”.
Are you satisfied with your career as a film music composer, or do you have any regrets from your previous careers as a violin player or as a pop singer?
No, I do not have any regrets, because I always liked what I was doing at that point in time. As far as my career as a film-music composer is concerned, the only regret is that I didn’t go to America, years ago, when they first asked me. As a matter of fact, by living in Venice I have lost many opportunities to work for important productions just because I was not there. When directors called me I was here working for a “small” Italian film, directed most of the time by a friend. In this way I missed the chance to work with Schlesinger for THE BELIEVERS, with Ridley Scott, with a friend of De Palma who directed SAIGON and even for OLD GRINGO. It would have been the only way to work for “big” American films.
Considering all the compositions you have written for films, which do you think you would adapt for the concert-hall in the way or an orchestral suite (such as ‘The Museum’ sequence from DRESSED TO KILL which was recently performed in Rome)?
Yes, ‘The Museum’ has been performed in a concert in Rome at which I wasn’t present because I was in the States working on the new De Palma film. The funny thing is that this piece of music is still broadcast in the States on the Classical Music Channel! In BLOW OUT, for example, one of the first tracks in the film (during the sequence in which the car falls into the water, the girl is trapped in the car and John Travolta saves her), I used a big orchestra. I think that composition is suitable for a concert. Also, in Brian’s new film there is a symphonic piece for the final sequence which could also be suitable for a concert. Strangely, I can only recall music that I wrote for De Palma’s films, probably because he gives me more opportunity – both from the budgetary point of view and from the importance he gives to music in his films. He loves my music and it’s maybe for this reason that he calls me when he writes and directs these kinds of stories where he wants this kind of music. As a matter of fact, it is probably for this reason that I give more and obtain better results when I work with him, even though I have done other things with which I am satisfied.
Maybe another director with whom I could have given more – had I continued our professional relationship – is Joe Dante. Instead, I did only his first two films. Another piece that could be included in a concert suite or in a ballet is the music from the final sequence of DANCERS. In fact, I wrote the music for a very long slow-motion sequence in which Barischnikof dances and in which the music does not follow the slow rhythm of the action but is in “real” time. I believe it is a successful piece. For Liliana Cavani’s film, INTERNO BERLINESE, there are a few “classical” compositions that are very close to Mahler in style, because the director wanted the feel of Mahler’s first symphony. In contrast, OLTRE LE PORTA had more ethnic characteristics related to the geographical setting of the plot.
But I usually would not consider Italian films for a concert suite since the budget is always lower than American budgets. For that reason I always have difficulties getting an orchestra, because everybody wants synthesizers and that tends to diminish the music. There are a few films in which you can use electronic keyboards, but they are certainly not the ideal solution for a musician. I think that the greatest satisfaction for a composer is writing for an orchestra. The rest is a routine job. That is why I like working with De Palma because there are no economic restrictions and there’s a fine agreement between us. Well, sometimes a piece doesn’t match his expectations and so it is necessary to change a few things. For example with this new film I wasn’t as free as with DRESSED TO KILL because there was a lot of dialogue. The music didn’t have to dominate. And there were frequent changes of character which had to be precisely underlined. But in an hour of music I think it’s normal to have to change something. Then I have to say that Brian always has a very precise idea of what he wants.
Do you usually let him hear the themes on the piano?
No, he usually shows me a few scenes of the film with pieces of music that he thinks fit the mood and are useful as patterns (sometimes he uses my own music from other films). In the final sequence of this new score there are influences from CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL (especially for a few striking moments in which I use tubular bells). They usually put music from other films in a temp-track to show the film to producers and this often influences the composer’s ideas and constrains him to write in a different way than he would have chosen. In fact, if you change the style of music they want, you then have problems because they have the temp-track music in mind and they find it difficult to accept something different.
I believe that a composer should be left on his own and free to do what he wants, because this is the only way to create original music without being influenced by anyone. When I work with less well known directors such as David Schmoeller, I feel free to do what I wish, as I did for TOURIST TRAP and also for CATACOMBS, a recent production in which I was able to use a mix of electronic and orchestral sounds in the way I wanted, and to have sole responsibility for creating the film’s music according to my personality and taste. For example: if someone puts a piece in 5/4 time and edits the film in relation to that piece, you have to write something in 5/4 time. You will not have to imitate the melody of that piece, but you will have to follow a method that has already been defined, otherwise the sync will go to hell! This way of working is a little restrictive for the composer who would like to break away completely from the musical idea he has been given, but sometimes can’t. Sometimes I see a film and say: Here they have used a piece that sounds like one of mine, perhaps with similar musical construction to CARRIE or DRESSED TO KILL. It is not a copy in the sense that the melodies are different but it has the same construction, the same sound. I think that showing the film with a temp-track to give a musical pattern is like putting handcuffs on a musician.
Are you happy with the orchestra with which you usually work in Rome when recording film scores? You haven’t had the opportunity to work with the London Symphony, for example.
I haven’t even thought about the LSO, as there has been no time. Besides that, Brian loves to record in Italy because for the same budget he can get a larger orchestra. In London it would have been more expensive. Then, if you record in foreign countries (USA, England, etc…) and you want to publish a record you have to pay the royalties to each musician of the orchestra, and it costs twice as much. I am happy to record in Rome, so I don’t feel the need to work with foreign orchestras. For INDIO, for example, I had the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, a very good one. For this latest De Palma film the orchestra was formed from many musicians from Santa Cecilia, so again I had a very good orchestra. Of course, it would be wonderful to record one day with the London Symphony – it would mean having double the orchestra I used for this score, both in size and sound.
You’ve been commissioned to score many thrillers over the years. Would you like to expand this to incorporate other kinds of films as well, or become more selective in the future?
All the time I want to do more comedies and other different kinds of films, but they always ask me to score suspense films. I would have loved to do the sequel to NON CIREST ACHE PIANGERE because the ending was left open for a sequel, but Troisi and Benigni went in separate directions and the sequel was never made. I also did a comedy called SETTE CHILI IN SETTE GIORNI which was a big success. I did the Tinto Brass erotic-comedy, COSI FAN TUTTE because he asked me to do a re-elaboration of Mozart in an ironic tone; I did a piece called ‘Mozartiana’ which was fun to do. I also did DON CAMILLO for Terence Hill and OVER THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE. These are musical experiences that you need to do for a change sometimes, so as not to be always writing suspense music. The problem is that when I write the music for a thriller that becomes a success, and then people always remember that. I wrote the music for I MISTERI DELLA GIUNGLA NERA, a TV series in which I searched for ethnic sounds and which I recorded in London with Indian instruments. Let’s say that I try to do other things, but directors still always call me to score mystery films!
What are your next commissions?
I am planning to work with Dino Risi for a TV film in three episodes starring Carol Alt. Then I should work again with Jose Maria Sanchez (the director of SCOOP) for a film about terrorism with Giancarlo Giannini and Stefania Sandrelli. I am also waiting to do a thriller produced by Achille Manzotti. All of these films are Italian, but nothing is fixed and maybe these projects will change.
Translated by Chris Phillips and Marco Werba