An Interview with Shirley Walker by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.66, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Starting out as a conductor and orchestrator, Shirley Walker has been a prominent figure in film music for more than 20 years, and one of the first women to succeed in a film scoring career in the midst of what has been a male-dominated vocation since the 1930s. Notable collaborations as orchestrator, conductor, and “additional music composer” for the likes of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Trevor Jones, Carter Burwell, David Newman, Brad Fiedel, and many others led to Shirley’s recognition as a first-rate composer. Director-composer John Carpenter gave her the opportunity to demonstrate her mettle as solo composer for MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, and he called her back four years later as co-composer of ESCAPE FROM L.A. A fistful of work for television, including the well-respected SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND series and the BATMAN, SUPERMAN, and SPAWN animated series, and notable scores for the ASTEROID miniseries and features like TURBULENCE and BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM have given Shirley Walker a reputation as a thriller composer – a position counterpointed against her kindly appearance and quiet manner. Included in Sci-Fi Magazine’s “The 25 Most Intriguing Women In Science Fiction”, Shirley Walker is indeed a formidable composer whose music is quite the equal to anyone now working in film music.
What’s your involvement with the new BATMAN animated series?
I’m the music supervisor/composer on the new BATMAN/SUPERMAN ADVENTURES series, for Warner animation. It’s a continuation of the half hour animated show; they’ve just combined the two characters. The purists, I’m sure, may be offended, but we’re talking ratings here! I’m also doing the SPAWN half-hour show, for HBO Animation, which is continuing. They did a test of six episodes and liked it so much they’ve ordered another 12.
What challenges does writing for animation give you versus scoring a live action series?
I think the biggest challenge is the pacing of the story telling. Something that would take two minutes to unfold in live action is going to happen in 40 seconds in animation. So, if you’re writing 15 minutes of music for animation, it’s like 45 minutes of live action music! You have to be able to get your stuff to turn around on a dime.
You’re also scoring as you would score a feature film. It’s not cartoony, the subject matter is treated seriously, as is the music.
Creatively, that’s been a real requirement. The producers of the show wanted a real differentiation between the Carl Stalling style of comedy animation that Warner does, and the more serious, dramatic Batman-Superman show. So, in that sense, it’s been just great. You almost can’t be dark enough for them with the music! We had to tone back a tiny bit this Fall, when Warner Bros. network was concerned about the show being a little bit too adult, maybe too scary.
When you first got involved with something like that Batman series, how did you lock into the theme and how did you work that theme throughout the episodes?
That really took some trying and a lot of going back and forth with the producers. On the animated Batman, I got lucky. They loved the first theme that came out, and we were fine. The Superman theme took a couple of tries. We’d initially wanted to do a theme that was somewhat different, not what you’d expect, not John Williams sounding. We didn’t want to use “Superman” rhythmically in this music, but we wanted it to have the feel of American cities of the 40s music. That’s where we started it, but it never worked! We ended up with “Su-per-man!” Da-da-daa! Everything they said not to do, we ended up with – and they loved it! The new theme for the Action Hour is real fun because we took some of the darkness of the Batman music and then the heroism of Superman.
Do you use themes for different characters throughout the series and then invest new ones for one-shot characters in episodes? What’s your overall approach?
Yes. I have created themes for the major characters – not so much on Superman, I let the composers in the rotation have a little bit more of that responsibility, but on the Batman, definitely. All the major villains have their own themes, and we do bring them back from show to show, which is actually a lot of fun. We’re creating this show over the span of two years, that’s 65 half hour shows, and every single one of them is scored. Since 1989, we’ve done 141 BATMAN and SUPERMAN episodes, all with original scores.
Did the fact that the BATMAN features existed, with their own musical realm, affect what you were doing with animated series?
I think the biggest effect was the desire and we all agreed about this – that there was a darkness to the Batman character that we wanted music to be stating. For me, personally, I think Elliot has done more of a campy, almost comedic approach with his BATMAN music. Danny just captured the darkness of the character, and that’s something we wanted to do, but certainly there wasn’t a conscious attempt to make it sound like the Danny Elfman music.
What kind of orchestration have you been able to get away with on the series?
It’s mainly orchestra. What we have here are single winds with doubles, three percussion, harp and synthesizer. We’re a bit large on the brass, because that’s the chief ingredient. That was something I was doing on the SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND series, too, to get that kind of bombast. And then we had just the most mellifluous strings. We do have synths, we wanted to have a little bit more orchestral color in the sound, especially for atmospheres. We’re using a lot of cool synths for atmospheres.
What other composers have you worked with on that series? What has been your role, their role, and how has that worked?
The composers are Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion, Kris Carter and Harvey Cohen. I get to pick the good shows, and I give them the dogs! I get to write all the themes, however many I want to and have the time for, and then they have bits in the shows to do, and then I am there as they are recording. I’m at the scoring stage and I can make any last minute adjustments that we might need to. So they get all the hard work and I get all the glory! It’s the perfect situation!
What about the feature, BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM?
That’s probably the best score I’ve had the chance to write, because it’s consistent all the way through On TURBULENCE I thought I did real well for 80% of the score, but then I had about 20% that sounded just like the temp. A good music editor could say, “Oh that sounds exactly like these two CDs!” And they’re dead right! But MASK OF THE PHANTASM was a fabulous experience. Warner Bras gave me a great orchestra, and I had time, and I had the enthusiastic support of everyone who was on the series. It was pretty exciting for me.
Do you compose on the synth and then orchestrate it out?
No. SPAWN is the first series that I have actually sat in my studio here and done the score from first thought to final tape. It’s wholly electronic, and it’s very sound-oriented. When you watch the finished show you can’t tell what’s music and what’s sound effect. When I do the orchestral stuff, I’m over here at the time-honored piano keyboard, with pencil and paper. BATMAN, for example, is completely written out and orchestrated. I do have orchestrators who put it on the right piece of paper. But the whole thing’s worked out on the sketch.
A lot, if not most, of the work you’ve done has been for science fiction films…
Science fiction was where I happened to get started, and I love it because it’s so fantastical. I get to write things that are just so much bigger than life, or they’re creepy and weird. That is so much fun, especially for somebody who looks like I do, to get to do this weird stuff! The packaging doesn’t fit the sound!
In science fiction, fantasy, and horror, you get to create whole worlds, and create new kinds of music that you can’t get in, say, a Western or a drama.
I would agree with that, because film music tends to be an exaggerated cliché, and we all try to find a way to soften that tendency and bring in a personal sound. As you’ve just said, science fiction and fantasy has so much more latitude in what’s permissible there.
You are one of few women prominent in film music. It’s getting better, and lots of film music fans were delighted to see Rachel Portman get the music Oscar last year…
That took a lot of pressure off of my shoulders, too, by the way!
How has that affected your career? Not that it should really make a difference – a composer is a composer – but at the same time, reality indicates that some people make the distinction.
There’s a couple of issues involved. One misfortune that happens to any perceived minority group is that one is enough! I am aware that there are more women working as composers now than there were when I was starting in 1980, and that’s a good thing. That, again, takes a lot of pressure off me! The fact that Rachel is succeeding in the way that she is, I think, makes those of us who aren’t writing “feminine” music – I mean, quirky, feminine, sweet stuff – again, we just have to keep pushing a little harder. It is unfortunate that there are people who see women as being so frail that they couldn’t carry the stress of a score, and particularly, of a major score.
Have you lost jobs because of that?
I haven’t lost any, but I think that I haven’t gotten some jobs because of it.
Obviously your work here is equally as dramatic and as powerful as some of your other-gendered counterparts. It shouldn’t make a difference.
In all honesty, I think I’m a good action writer when I’m at my best.
What is your approach to scoring action? You’re somewhat dictated by the tradition – action scenes need action music, you have to write fast or slow, etcetera. Is there a specific “action film” style or a specific technique that you can call your own?
I don’t think there’s one I could call my own. If you put a Shirley Walker action cue up to a blind listening test of some kind, I don’t think anyone could identify it as mine! For me, it is a process of decision-making, though, and the first decision I make is, “Am I going to play against the scene or am I going to have cues and play with the theme?” Some action themes just soar when you’re playing the emotion of the character and you’re ignoring all the other specific things that are happening and you aren’t shifting back and forth between suspense and terror and intensity. That’s the biggest choice and that’s where you can lose a score, actually, if you’re wrong in that choice or your filmmakers don’t appreciate the choice when they wanted a muscular, pounding kind of sound.
What can you tell me about IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE II, a many years removed sequel to a classic ‘50s sci-fi film scored by Herman Stein, Henry Mancini and all those great guys from Universal?
Well, that’s the film that I would like to leave off of my resume! It was one of those dreadful situations. The studios all now have low budget, $2-4 million projects where they have a chance to work with new directors. The music budget on these is anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 for a feature-length, live-action film score. What was great about it was that Roger Duchowny, who directed and wrote the movie, had a real appreciation of music and we sat in this room and we looked at everything together. The basis of the score was totally electronic, and then we went in and did one session with, maybe, eight instruments. So there were some live French horns and a trumpet, but I think I had no strings. That was it. Some of it was very synthy, and I had a lot of fun with that part. As a sequel, I don’t think the film was able to do justice to the original; it just didn’t have the economic support that it needed.
What about THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN ZOOM, another cable TV project?
This is the same studio, Universal, and the same level of project budget-wise. I did half of it electronically with a simulated orchestra, and then we went in with a small ensemble, 36-players or so, and we recorded about 30 minutes. We did the maximum amount that the Union allows us to do! With the music, we tried to go back in style to the Flash Gordon series, and that kind of real energetic PERILS OF PAULINE kind of stuff, with lots of diminished chords and stuff. The sense of humor in that was so great, so broad. Great acting. So that one was a lot of fun. I’m really proud of that one.
You worked on MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN for director John Carpenter. Was this your first feature score?
It was the first major studio score that I had done. The biggest thrill for me was the people, the old timers who worked on the motion picture lots who heard about this score, that there was one woman in Hollywood who was doing a score “just like the guys did,” that I’d actually written all the music myself, and I was going to conduct the orchestra, and that I was given the same level of support by the studio that a man’s score would be given with no kind of special treatment, no orchestrator/guy who was going to “help me out” like Suzanne Ciani had on the INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN.
The first two days of that score, there were a lot of people who had come to visit the scoring stage because they were here to witness this event. I was almost in tears about that. I had to ask somebody why all those people were here, and when they told me it was just incredible. It’s because there’s a real tradition of oral history in this business. There are so many things that have happened in this business, that will never be written down by anybody, and it’s private – it’s for the people who work in this business, and that was their honor to be there and support me in that, and I was just incredibly touched by that.
What was your approach to the score?
Again, big decision. I wanted the score to stay with the drama of the bad guys, and the threat to the central character, rather than try to play anything comedic about Chevy Chase. He wanted to come out as a dramatic actor in that story, anyway, so the music went in that direction.
How did you get that job, initially?
It really was Gary Le Mel at Warner Bros. and Dan Carlin, Jr. at what was then Segue Music (and is now Zomba, where he was music supervisor). They had started out with Jack Nitzsche and it just wasn’t working, and they got to a certain point where everybody, including John Carpenter, agreed that they just needed to bring in somebody else.
It must have been fairly rewarding for you as a composer, doing this for John Carpenter, having him step back and not score it himself or influence you on the scoring stage, and allow you that freedom to do it, especially on your first time out…
Oh, absolutely. It’s very hard on your career when you have to share a credit with somebody else, no matter how the division of the work was done. It’s not a clean credit.
You can’t hold it up as your own.
How did the collaboration on ESCAPE FROM L.A. work out?
That was so much fun. John was very clear that he wanted to write some of that score, and actually do the writing, in his own way – which IS to sit at his synths with the picture and to create to the scene. It’s a therapy for him, a way to relax at the tail end of the project as the pressures build toward its release. He knew he wanted to have orchestra because of the magnitude of the story and the huge sound effects that it was going to have, but he didn’t want to touch the orchestral stuff.
Because MEMOIRS had gone as well as it did, he asked me to do it. I was delighted to get a chance, again, to do some of the electronics, because people don’t think of me as writer who can do synths. So we each came up with a lot of synth stuff that we played for each other, and we sorted through that. John had a theme for the Snake Plissken character which we used. I had a Snake theme that we used for some of his adventures, so we split that. He had a lot of atmospheres and things which I massaged to picture. It took us weeks to generate all the electronic atmospheres, and then we had two scoring days with the orchestra to sweeten the music.
You’d done quite a bit of conducting prior to this film. How did you get involved in that and who did you work with most often?
My association with Hans Zimmer, which lasted a good many years, came about because right at the time he was coming over here from England, he was with the same agency that I was with, and he wanted an orchestrator and somebody to conduct for him. I had a lunch meeting with him and his partner and we all hit it off, and we had a glorious span of projects there for quite a few years. And Hans actually got me another feature, CHICAGO JOE AND THE SHOWGIRL, which again is a shared credit. It’s nothing he wrote a note of, but his contractual obligation was such that he kept his name on it.
I had an association over a number of projects and years with Danny Elfman, first as a conductor, and then gradually I became involved as an orchestrator. And there was a thing with Carter Burwell, Brad Fiedel – Brad and I go back quite a few years, and I’ve just retired from that because, now that I’m composing, it doesn’t make sense.
What can you tell me about SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND? What was your relationship here?
That was a good show, and we were all pretty heartbroken when it bit the dust. Jim Wong and Glen Morgan, the writer/producers on the series, wanted to portray an attitude that was last seen in America around the time of World War II, when the whole country put its differences aside and got on with the task at hand. For them it was a military-space show. It was fun for me, especially in the theme. I really wanted to embody that military presence, and it has a lot of drums in there. The nature of the melody is such that it’s coming down and going back up. It puts them out in to space and brings them back to their home planet, this continual returning to home for replenishing and then going out to fight the bad guys.
Fox let me have an orchestra on that show, which in today’s prime time television is something that is very hard for any studio to do, it’s twice as expensive. They usually use a synth-packaged type of score. Orchestral scores also have unpredictable expense levels, because it costs more if there’s more action music, because there’s more music preparation, but they really hung in there for the whole season. It was great for me. The same two writers worked on THE X-FILES, and they were very familiar with Mark Snow’s music, which is very atmospheric, and they knew that they didn’t want that – they wanted something you could really touch and feel more. They wanted a lot of emotion in the music.
How did you get involved with TURBULENCE?
My agent submitted my name for that and I got down into the final group of people. I think they interviewed and screened the movie for 7 composers. I know they were talking to Bruce Broughton, Chris Young, Brad Fiedel, Basil Poledouris, and myself. I can’t remember who the other two composers were who were in the final group. I had several meetings with them, and it was the film editor, John Duffy, the director, Bob Butler, and the producer, David Valdes, who made the decision. I don’t know what did it for them, in the final analysis. David did say to me that “your music just has some kind of an energy to it that I didn’t hear in the other things we listened to.” And that’s what he went with, some kind of gut response. Of course my agent said, “I took him in the bathroom and I beat him up until he signed!”
What was your approach to writing the music? We have composers like Hans, and Mark Mancina and John Powell, who have seemingly defined the current approach to scoring action films, this rhythmic, very percussive/synth/orchestra sensibility. What was your approach to TURBULENCE in view of that?
I got to depart from that for probably half of the score. One mitigating factor was that it took place at Christmas, and we decided to use a Christmas carol for the dementia of the Ray Liotta character. So we got started in Christmasland, we got to have this sort of elegant but boring portrayal of the plane at the airport and the magnificence of take-off and blah-blah-blah! Then we get up in the air and we started getting gradually demented. Then all hell breaks loose and we have this wonderful, wild, fight sequence here and all of a sudden a whole bunch of people are dead, including the pilot, and from there on it was a psychological thriller rather than an action thriller. There were not that many action sequences, and I chose to use a live electronic percussion approach rather than doing all that in-house stuff.
How much time did you have to score it?
Lots! I had 2 months on that score. It was ideal, because I could sit with my ideas, and I could bring the guys in and I could play stuff for them and we could mull it over and think about whether it was really going to work. I always get it worked out so I have people orchestrating while I’m writing. I can do a complete sketch for a certain body of the work and then I can taper down from that. Once I set the tone and the style of what I’m going for, as the score continues to evolve, the sketches can become more condensed, with less specific information for them in terms of orchestration. And I have a separate person who does the mock-ups for me. But it’s hard, there are so many more meetings and so much more previewing of stuff and presenting specifically what the cues are going to be. You used to be able to gloss this over.
Yeah, just play the director something on the piano, but now they want synth mock-ups that replicate just what the full score’s going to sound like.
Yes! It is a challenge and it takes a whole team of people. I’m the front person for myself and my work, and I’m still at a point in my career where I can write every note of my own score. If I were busier, I don’t know if I could do that. Hans Zimmer is one of the first people who opened that curtain and said “you know, here’s what’s really happening, and I’m going to name the people who write with me and I’m going to give them credit”, and he opened that whole thing up. There are still composers who have people writing for them who are hiding. Most film composers are pretending that it’s a one-person job, and I would say for maybe ten percent of the working composers it really is a one-person job. And of course it’s the top ten percent!
Is that just because of the frantic pace of the deadlines?
That’s certainly the main reason in my mind. Of course every time I get further along on my career path I look around and realize “oh my god, this is why it was happening to those guys!” I used to be so critical of those composers and the more success I have, I’m going “Okay, now I get it!”
Do you see this as a trend?
Perhaps. I think it’s really remarkable, with the time pressures in film production now, that we haven’t been forced to become teams yet, although I can certainly see that it may happen. We may see more and more teams of composers having to tackle these projects, especially when they’re giving you four weeks and they’re still editing.
Do you think that would be a detriment or a benefit to film music as a whole?
I think we are seeing a benefit with Hans and Media Ventures, as the first group that just put it out there and said, “here it is, and this is how we do it.” It shouldn’t take away from the people involved. It’s incredible that they can pull it off and come out with good stuff. I think there are other composers now who can find a way to take every job they’re offered and not have to do all the composing! So there are shifts in the marketplace that are challenging for all of us to live up to.