An Interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto by Ford A. Thaxton, transcribed and edited 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 Ford A. Thaxton
What attracted you to scoring? Was there a film or event in your life that made you say, “Hmmm, that’s something I’d like to do?”
I’ve always loved movies, and I was interested in the relationship between images and music, or sounds. But I never dreamt I would work on film music when I was young.
What scores of that period struck a chord with you?
My favorite film is still Jean-Luc Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU (1966). The music was composed by Antoine Duhamel, and it’s sort of early 20th Century classical music. Although I liked that movie very much, that music is not very special. The film music I was always interested in was more like music by Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone. I am still very interested in them.
Your first film credit was MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE, which you also acted in (Sakamoto played the part of Captain Yonoi in the film). How did you happen to come into that?
That was truly my first experience in filmmaking, so I was an amateur for acting and writing a soundtrack! But Mr. Oshima (director Nagisa Oshima), by his intuition, he contacted me.
And of course at that point, when they say, “You’re the guy!” it’s like, “What the hell do I do?!”
Yeah – I had no idea how to do it! Acting was easier than writing the soundtrack, because I had some experiences being in front of camera in some TV commercials, but writing the soundtrack is different! So I asked the producer, Jeremy Thomas, to give me some reference for writing the music, and his answer was “watch CITIZEN KANE.” So I did, but what I did was very different from what Bernard Herrmann did.
One of the films you scored was WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1992). Was that a TV movie?
No, it was an English feature film, and obviously a remake of the famous story. It wasn’t successful outside of Japan.
There have been many other versions of this same story scored by people such as Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. That must have been a little daunting, having that heritage behind you, even having this new film. What was the biggest dramatic problem for you to solve here?
Luckily, I was not familiar with the music from the other productions, so I didn’t know about the other music by those composers! The director’s view was that it’s a conflict between English, kind of Celtic culture and the more stately, kind of Victorian approach.
Now the album for WUTHERING HEIGHTS was released in Japan, but I don’t think it was readily available elsewhere in the world, as far as I can tell.
That was because the film didn’t do well.
You scored an interesting film called TOKYO DECADENCE. That must have been a different project for you to undertake – certainly a far kinkier extreme than, say, WUTHERING HEIGHTS! Did you score that specifically or did they track in material that you had written previously?
It was not really scoring. What I did was just one piece, a version of a classical Aria. Ryu Murakami, who directed this film, was my friend, and he faxed me the score of this Aria. I played it on my synth and I sent it back to him, and he used it in the movie.
So he didn’t tell you what the movie was about until later on?
Well, I was guessing!
You scored Brian De Palma’s SNAKE EYES, which was a thriller staring Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise. This was a film that by all accounts was very troubled during the editorial process, because it went through significant changes – they reshot the ending and they kept recutting the movie. Had you worked with Brian before then?
No, this was the first time I worked with him.
What was the process of working with Brian?
We were searching for the right theme for the movie. This is a kind of general procedure I do for films, so I gave him several – almost ten possible themes and he picked one. Then I started writing each cue.
Was that difficult for you to score?
Every day he came to my private studio to check what I did. He listened to it and he said yes or no. He stayed 15 minutes, and he left. That was an everyday routine.
And you recorded the score in New York.
Yes, and we had a mix session with players from the New York Philharmonic, which was great.
Now after you scored the film and then left, they made a significant change to the end. Did you re-score that or did they just edit your music to fit the new ending?
Everything was completed and I went to Mongolia to research the culture for my opera, and then at the end of the visit I got an email from Brian. “Come back to New York!” His email said he changed the ending of the film, and the release date was just one month away, so the email said I needed to re-score the ending. Well, you know, that was my fault because I brought my laptop computer to Mongolia so I could get online!
The world is getting to be a small place. They can find you anywhere!
Yes! It was my fault! So I went back to New York and rescored and re-recorded in one day.
What exactly was that, was that just tightening things, or doing new versions and editing?
It involved three or four cues in the ending – the big one was the storm cue, and the structure was a little different, shorter. Three or four cues were removed.
Did any of the music from the scenes that were cut end up on the soundtrack CD that was released?
The End Title. That was the biggest cue of the three, an 8-minute cue with a symphony orchestra, and that was omitted in the film. But it’s on the album.
The other thing about De Palma is that you were originally going to be scoring MISSION TO MARS. What happened there?
I don’t know. I heard he was going to ask me, but I guess he was able to get Ennio before he did. I was asked to do music for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE before I did SNAKE EYES, but there was a scheduling problem so I couldn’t do it. I was in the middle of a tour in Japan, and some people on de Palma’s side said I should cancel the tour and do the movie, but I wasn’t going to do that!
Another major director, among several you’ve worked with, is Oliver Stone. You scored WILD PALMS for Oliver, which was a limited-edition kind of a futuristic TV series set in not-too distant future about virtual reality. What was it like working with Oliver on that project? Or did you actually work with him on it?
I met him, but we didn’t share much time. He had asked for me earlier on a project (HEAVEN AND EARTH), but he ended up using Kitaro instead of Sakamoto!
Then you also scored some projects for Bernardo Bertulucci, SHELTERING SKY, and LITTLE BUDDHA, both films with a historical base. Was SHELTERING SKY a very difficult film to get a dramatic handle on? What are your memories of working on that project?
I saw Bernardo right after he finished shooting it in Africa. He and his crew were in the deep desert for six months for shooting, and while they were there, the world was changing – the Berlin wall came down, and they didn’t know about that in Sahara…
They just came back and it was gone!?
It was gone! I strongly remember that he was talking about the strange feeling he had that the world was changing so much while he was in the Sahara. Usually he’s very musical and has lots of ideas about music for his films, but for THE SHELTERING SKY, he was sort of empty after the shooting. He didn’t give me any references or directions about music right away. We were listening to lots of CDs together, looking for the right kind of music, and I came up with some ideas of Tristan and Isolde, by Wagner, which of course is a tragic love story, but the music didn’t work. We finally we found that the closest music for this film was Verdi’s Requiem. We both liked that as a basic mood for the music, but of course I wrote my own music, I didn’t rip off or use any of the Verdi…
It was just the color of what you decided to do.
Yes. Just a dark mood.
Have you ever had a situation where they have something called a temp track, and you come in to see the movie and it has the temporary music, and they say that’s what we want? How do you deal with that?
Sometimes it’s easy for me to have temp music, because the direction is very obvious, but sometimes, of course, I feel insulted, because if the director likes, let’s say, Peter Gabriel, why doesn’t he ask Peter Gabriel?!
Do you feel the directors are getting more conservative, musically?
I’ve found that most filmmakers are not very musical, except some special people – for example, in some areas, Bertolucci knows more than I do about music, certainly about operas and ethnic music, and he checks everything. He has great, great knowledge, so it’s hard for me to talk with about music because he knows a lot!
You did a film that will be shown in Cannes this year, GOHATTO, which is a Japanese film by the same director who did MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE. What kind of project was that for you to work on?
The story takes place at the end of the Samurai era in Japan, 150 years ago, before Americans came to Japan to open up the country. So, obviously, it was a very chaotic situation in Japan, almost a civil war. There’s a Samurai organization that was hired by the Shogun government, and one very beautiful young guy joins this team, and he’s a lot of trouble because he’s so beautiful. This is a man’s organization, so obviously the film is about homosexuality, and the man’s organization in a very chaotic era of society.
Musically, what did you provide the film with?
Obviously some early Kurosawa films are Samurai films, so I didn’t use that style, I wanted to go another way. My music was something along the lines of ‘60s French B-movies!
That’s going in another direction all right!
Yes! Lots of ambient sounds, also. I wanted to make this film sort of edgy, not a typical Japanese Samurai film.
What do you have coming up next?
Bertolucci and I have been talking about some possibilities for the future, so it might be possible to do something together again, after a five-year break.