An Interview with Simon Walker by Philip Powers
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Born in Sydney in 1961, Simon Walker began to develop an interest in music at the age of twelve, when he started tinkering with the piano. A newcomer to the film music scene, he began scoring short films in the late 70’s, graduating to feature in both Australia and America in 1982. Interviewed in 1985, Simon Walker describes his background, his own approach to film scoring, and his own views of the Australian film music scene.
What form did your musical training take?
I’m completely self-taught, or for all intents and purposes anyway; basically by studying scores and listening to lots and lots of music.
Did you study music at school?
Yes I did, but it’s very lightweight — the kinds of music courses they have in high school.
So at what stage were you participating in music at the school – writing for the school band or similar things?
I was, actually. I left school early but in the three or four years I wrote quite a lot for the school orchestra and the odd piece for the jazz band. I wrote a rock cantata which was performed at a number of schools and also a rock opera, but after a few years of rock I lost interest and turned to more classical music.
Did you ever doubt whether or not you really had the ability to be a composer?
No, not really. I mean, there are always those moments when you’re a little nervous about doing a piece, but if you push yourself you find that all sorts of surprises can happen, that you’re capable of a lot more than you think you are.
I believe that at one stage you won a competition organized by the Australia Broadcasting Commission for the encouragement of young composers?
Yes, that’s right. In 1978 or ’79 I won the Young Composers Competition, and first prize was a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra which was a big thrill. I’d written a lot of orchestral music up to that point, and of course heard scaled-down versions of that with the school orchestra, but hearing a full-blown piece with the S.S.O. was very exciting.
And obviously it did your confidence a lot of good.
Walker: A lot of good! It was very soon after that, that I left school and went professional.
How did your actual interest in writing music for film develop?
Strange as it may seem, prior to 1975 I hadn’t noticed film music at all. I mean, I was familiar with some of the TV tunes as everybody is, but I really hadn’t paid any attention to film scores at all. Then I saw a film called LOGAN’S RUN, with a score by Jerry Goldsmith, and I think it was within the last half hour of the film that I suddenly became alert at one particular point, and suddenly realized that there was this wonderful symphonic score behind it all, and I went back and saw the film the next day. That’s really where it all started. I decided that film music was possibly what I wanted to do.
How did you go about realizing this ambition?
I left school soon after the A.B.C. Competition, so I had that tape as well as a tape of a number of things I’d done with the school orchestra, and I wrote to lots of film producers and knocked on lots of doors and eventually I was asked to do a documentary at Film Australia, and that led to another thing and another thing, and I was off.
During those early years, after laving high school, how did you support yourself?
I was still living at home for the first couple of years, but really it was during that time that I started to get work, so there was never a question of having to be a waiter or a bricklayer or anything. I was lucky, I suppose.
What was the first professional work that you did as a film composer? You mentioned that you did a documentary at Film Australia. Was that your first professional assignment?
Yes, the first professional one. Prior to that I’d done a number of radio plays which actually did go to air, for a friend of mine from school. I’d been writing lots for small, amateur films, but my first professional score was the Film Australia documentary.
When you mention the amateur films which you scored, were they with just very small groups?
Oh, three and four pieces, and I’d overdub about 8 tracks.
Was that just a matter of getting friends to play the music?
Yes, precisely. It was very depressing, really, because I had these grand ideas and I had to scale them down to three and four instruments. It wasn’t for a few years, actually, that I came to realize that marvelous things can be done with three and four instruments without thinking symphonically all the time. I was so keen to do something orchestral that that’s where my thought patterns lay.
After your years of scoring films and documentaries, how did you actually get your first major film assignment?
My first major television work was a mini series called FOR THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE, and that led to my first feature, THE WILD DUCK — my first feature release in the theatre, at any rate. I’d done a number of tele-features for Independent Productions, but as every project is terribly important to me, in a lot of ways I enjoy doing documentaries very much and features have their own thing to offer.
As a relatively unknown composer, how did you score the coup of writing the music for THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE?
It really came through having done the tele-movies, that the producers felt that I had an instinct for drama, which is a very good prerequisite for being a film composer, I suppose. They offered me the job, and I was very excited to accept it.
Did you find that it had a typical television schedule, requiring a lot of music to be written in a short time?
There was a lot of music. There was over an hour of music and I had all of about three and a half weeks to write it, which was very frightening at the time. Since then I’ve become a little more used to those kinds of schedules, but it’s a challenge and it’s one of the things that I love about film music, that you’re producing a good deal of music in such a relatively short period of time, and some very good things can come out of that. I think a lot of composers tend to dilly-dally and if left to their own devices probably wouldn’t produce very much.
THE WILD DUCK was a direct result of your having scored the mini-series?
Yes it was. The producer had heard my score for TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE, and felt that it was he same kind of style he wanted for THE WILD DUCK.
The style of the score is very romantic, warm and Wagnerian. Was this the influence of he producer or director?
As a matter of fact, I wanted to do THE WILD DUCK quite differently from the way it ended up being done. When I first read the script, I thought a very gentle, small orchestral score would be appropriate, but the producer, and especially the director had other ideas. They wanted a full-blown symphonic score with lots of strings, so that’s what I did.
The last feature you worked on was ANNIE’S COMING OUT, for which you wrote a score entirely opposite in style to THE WILD DUCK, being very dark and often dissonant. Can you explain about your approach to this film?
I really wasn’t conscious of any reasons at the time for doing the score the way I did other than I was doing what I felt was appropriate for the film. Unlike THE WILD DUCK, I was allowed to go in the direction that I felt was appropriate. I think most scores do boil down to this point — you do what you feel is appropriate and after the event you may look back and say “Well, I obviously did this for this reason or that reason” but at the time, which is what’s important, you’re reacting emotionally to the film in your own way.
Do you find that you tend to have basically the same approach for each new film?
Exactly, yes. I’m not conscious of doing anything in any unique way. I’m simply reacting to the film. I’m writing music that I feel is appropriate and I really can’t theorize on that. I think you can run into hot water if you try to theorize too much about why you score a film this way or that way. Obviously in the case of THE WILD DUCK, I can say in all confidence that I was told to score it in that way. But where everything else is concerned, it’s an emotional reaction.
Do you find when writing the score, finding ideas and then actually putting the notes on paper, that it’s a difficult experience or an enjoyable one?
Writing music isn’t easy. I found that it’s always an emotional ex-perience and I suppose it should be, too. The schedules, of course, can take their toll, particularly the television cartoons I’ve been doing in the last six months – really insane schedules, but it’s worth it when you get to the end of it.
Do you work at the piano?
Yes I do.
Do you use an orchestrator?
I have used an orchestrator on a few occasions when time has really been at a premium, and I wish I could use an orchestrator more often, but my habit in using one has been to provide him with a very detailed sketch, and although my own working methods have changed slightly over the last few years, meaning that I don’t sketch in such detail when I’m going to be doing my own orchestrations, the orchestrator has had really very little opportunity to go off on his bat. It’s always been exactly the way I would have done it myself had I had the time.
Having worked on other than purely Australian-made films, do you see any major differences between the way you’re asked to score an Australian film or an American influenced project like TERM?
I think most Australian producers and directors seem to prefer smaller scores; smaller in terms of orchestration, and there is a tendency also to ask the composer for a very introspective score, although at times I’ve felt that a broader score would be more appropriate – not in my own case – except for THE WILD DUCK, I’ve always followed by own instincts.
Are you then aware of specific problems which are peculiar to the Australian film industry? I’m aware of our lack of a large sound stage for recording, but what about the onus being so much on the actual composer to book studios, music editing…
Oh, yes, there’s that whole side to it, that the composer is responsible for all the bookings and has a lot of “business” to look after, things that aren’t directly related to composition, and that is a bit of a nuisance at times, but all in all, you might be looking at a few days on the telephone to organize the facilities and so on, and sometimes the composer is required to make up his own cue-sheets – this is before video tapes became standard. But it’s really of not much concern to me.
Do you notice any particular Australian film music “sound” or attitude that is different from other countries?
Only what I was saying before, that there is a tendency to look on the smaller side. I think, given the choice, American films will usually go with a bigger orchestra and a bigger concept for the score from square one. We tend to look at the other side, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’s just a characteristic of the industry, and I think it’s very possibly due to the fact that until recently the budgets weren’t big enough for the larger scores.
So as the budgets for Australian films grow, you think the orchestras will also?
Particularly the films which have been made with the American market in mind. For whatever reasons, the budgets are bigger, goodness knows, but the Americans have had a great influence on the films of the last few years, or so they seem to have – films like THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, PHAR LAP and MAD MAX.
You mentioned that recently you’ve been doing some work on animated films for American television. How have you felt about working on these projects?
The schedules are insane. There have been four composers working on this series, and I think the most any of us have had is seven days, which is quite respectable really, for the amount of music. I haven’t had the luxury of having seven days; I’ve had four or five days to do the three that I’ve already done, but they’ve been lots of fun because they’ve given me the opportunity to write in a style that is – well – fun!
Do you have an interest in working in America at some stage, as some other Australian composers have done, such as Bruce Smeaton and Brian May?
I’d love to work in the States. I don’t know if I’m prepared to uproot everything and go to America in the hope of “scoring it big,” but certainly if I was offered, I’d go.
Are there other aspects of music which you also enjoy, especially in terms of writing – other areas in which you like to write?
Walker: Ballet has often intrigued me. It’s been suggested to me on a number of occasions that I should try my hand at ballet. I think there are many links between ballet music and film music which is very possibly why people have drawn it to my attention, but film music is my first love, and that’s what I intend to stick at.
What projects will you be involved with in the near future?
I’m currently doing another cartoon in this series, and there’s been word that there may be a few more cartoons. There’s a possibility of a feature later this year, and I’m going to be doing a 24-part religious series early next year for Sunday morning television, which I’m looking forward to. It’ll probably be very sparse in terms of the orchestra, but it’ll be a nice change from action-packed cartoons.
Do you find that in Australia the film composers tend to get together and talk about things, or are they all very singular and introverted into their own work?
Since the formation of the Australian Guild of Screen Composers last October , nearly all of the composers have been together at some point or another, and I think there’s a higher level of communication than there was prior to that and I think it’s a very healthy thing. It’s very easy for a film composer to become isolated to the point where he thinks he’s the only only with problems, and of course it’s just not true.
This guild that you just mentioned – for what purpose was it formed?
It was formed primarily for the purpose of ensuring that the government-sponsored films, via the tax concessions still offered, are scored by Australian composers. By some fluke, original Australian music was left out of the tax guidelines when they were drawn up a couple of years ago.
And so this guild will be comprised of all the film composers in Australia?
That’s right – well, as many as are prepared to join, which is just about every one of them. There aren’t that many of us, really; about 45 in all.