Trevor Jones on Scoring Merlin

An interview with Trevor Jones by Jonathan Broxton and James Southall
Originally published in Soundtrack! Vol 18/ No 70; 1999
Text reproduced by kind permission of the Editor Luc Van de Ven

Trevor JonesFrom his early scores such as EXCALIBER, THE DARK CRYSTAL and LABYRINTH, to recent actioners LAST OF THE MOHICANS, CLIFFHANGER and MERLIN, not to mention a variety of scores in-between like ANGEL HEART, ARACHNOPHOBIA, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and G. I. JANE, Trevor Jones has portrayed a gift for melody and passion, weaving tapestries of musical emotion across the multilayered canvas of the cinema. Interviewed between scores for THE MIGHTY and NOTTING HILL, Jones described his views towards film music and playing emotion with a symphony orchestra.

MERLIN was very successful for you. With over two hours of music, how long did you have to write it?
I think the MERLIN score was three and a half weeks in total, about 24-25 days or something. The fact of the matter is that, with television you’re meant to write a lot faster than film, mainly because the budgets are smaller and it means that you can’t spend as much time on the project because the schedules are tighter, although it doesn’t cost any more for me to come on a film three or four weeks earlier. It’s only me writing at that point. But even with the shorter post-production period, one finds that people tend to want to make changes right up to the last minute.

Is there any change in the actual approach to the music if it’s television?
For me, not really, no. You can hear that I don’t write any differently for television or film. Basically, I believe the medium is going to become so sophisticated, and these masters will be used for DVD or whatever format that may be invented in the future. Those scores written for television will really show as being not as full-bodied and the ideas not as fully worked-out. I think the shelf life of those projects will suffer.
I get equally excited about doing a project whether it’s for film or for TV. I think it’s because we have a different approach here in Britain – people feel they are “composers,” so they write music and whether it’s for television or film it’s irrelevant. In America the budgets and the time scheduling for TV writers are very constrained and restricted. For film, it’s equally constrained and restricted, but they pretend it’s a notch up! (laughs)
There’s a strange thing that goes on in America with regard to composers. I’m sure there’s justification for it, but they seem to look down on their television music writers. They don’t seem to be regarded in the same light as film composers, the assumption being that the restrictions produce less quality work, I suppose.

The thing that struck me about the MERLIN score is the fact that it doesn’t sound like a television score. It sounds like a theatrical score, because it has that big scale to it.
Well, it’s a big-scale story, you know, and so I think that when you have high definition television with surround sound in your living room in the year 2010 or whenever, those are the projects that we are going to be viewing. You know, I bought MERLIN on DVD a few days ago in America; it sounds spectacular in surround sound stereo! I was extremely impressed. So that is my reason for not treating television with condescension. MERLIN was virtually the entire Arthurian legend from his birth right through to the death of Arthur, which is quite comprehensive. It is on a big scale.

You seem to be the man for Arthurian things.
Well, I don’t know why that is actually! (laughs) Earlier in my career EXCALIBUR was a big project I loved working with John Boorman because he really got me fired up by the myth and legend. Every few years we look at myth, fantasy and legend in a new light. Every generation looks at it and it’s terribly exciting. There’s something about that story that gets to people. I love it, I must say. And then, in THE MIGHTY, it tums up once again. It’s not that I chose to score it because of the Arthurian theme, but I could easily identify with the boys’ interest in the legend because I share the same fascination, I think.

And although they all deal with the same legend, you’ve approached them in three very different ways.
Well, I just feel that I’m creatively bound to do that. It is exciting to take three different approaches to the same theme. If I’d churned out the same score for each picture, or even for the subject matter, I’d be in all sorts of trouble! The legend is just the sort of thing that inspires you every time you read it, and every time I get involved in it I feel that I can do it from a different angle. I’m sure that if I’m asked to do it again I could easily come up with yet another direction. It’s exceptionally inspiring.

Don’t you get directors saying “make it sound like EXCALIBUR”?
Well, believe it or not, I don’t. I’m not even sure that the last two actually knew I did EXCALIBUR. I don’t want to insult my directors, but I doubt they were aware that I had. I think people might be worried if they did know because they’d think “oh dear, he’s going to regurgitate that old score again.” I realize now that there are actually people who listen to the music (laughs). Like you! (laughs).

Were you happy with the way MERLIN turned out overall?
I think so. If you’re doing a job and you write what you feel is the best you can for the film at the time, you can’t ask for more than that. The fact that a month later it was nominated for an Emmy Award, and then I’m sitting in a limousine going to Pasadena with my engineers meant that we must have got something right. The turnover for television is so fast, whereas with some films, you write it in January and you don’t know anything about it until October, and by that time you’ve gone away and written other scores and other films have been released, and it gets confusing. So, with MERLIN I was very happy that, given the time, it came out as well as it did.

The thing that constantly astounds me about people like yourself who do scoring, is that you’ve got all these constraints about what you write having to fit into the scene but that it also sounds so good outside it as well. It just constantly staggers me that you can actually do that.
Well, I know it sounds silly, but it’s a craft which you practice, you keep doing it and the more you do it the better and better you get at it. That’s why I’m in awe of people like Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and Maurice Jarre, and these guys who’ve been around forever – I probably shouldn’t say that! (laughs) – but they’re the doyens of the industry, they’re legends, and they’re a few years older than me and they’ve been around writing and practicing for a very long time. I’m just in awe of their ability to get better and better as time goes on. That’s the whole point of the job, really. I’m Chair of Music at the National Film School and I’m trying to help people realize that it’s a craft, that the more you practice any craft the better you get at it. At the end of the day, it’s trying to enhance the meaning in the film with the music. That’s the main thing.

Some people say that the best film music is the music you don’t actually notice in the cinema, when it has a subliminal effect. Do you find that that’s something you strive for when you’re writing?
It depends on the film – yes and no. I mean, I can’t actually say that when I wrote the theme for THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS I was hoping no one would notice it! (laughs) It just comes at you and it makes a big statement. But when you’re underscoring certain scenes, it’s using music like make-up – it’s there to heighten the effect, to bring out the structure, and hopefully you will not notice it as you would a main theme or an opening title statement. The roles and the uses of music are many and varied. But I think the feeling, the subliminal effect of music, of not being conscious of it, has more to do with music itself, because music is like a direct emotional line to an audience. It bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart. It doesn’t go to the brain unless you actually tune in or are made to notice it and are conscious of what it’s doing. It has an emotional effect without you having to think too much about it, and that’s why it’s used so extensively.
Someone asked me the other day “Why is there so much music in film?” and the reason I thought of was that it came about because the Americans tended to have so many commercial breaks in their television that it just broke up the drama on TV. In order to bring you back into a scene and make you feel what you are meant to be feeling after any given commercial break, you slap the appropriate music on – like “this is the Iove theme” and this is the baddie chasing the goodie, and so
on.

What are you actually working on at the moment?
It’s a film with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts called NOTTING HILL. It’s fantastic, it’s wonderful. I saw it last week in Los Angeles at a test screening and it really is a superb piece of entertainment, a treat! I enjoyed doing it very much. We used the LSO, but it’s not a vast symphonic score, that would have been wrong for the film. Instead it’s got nice intimate guitar, piano and string writing, a bit of woodwind occasionally, but not a “big-canvas score” because it’s not that sort of subject matter.

It’s very different from something like MERLIN. You get to write so many different styles – it must be great fun!
It is, but by the same token you have to be careful not to take on similar genre pictures. After I did EXCALIBUR, I could have done sword and sorcery pictures forever and probably my career would have taken off faster if I had stuck to one genre of picture, but I think I’d have gone barmy! It’s just so much more interesting to write the best possible music you can in other genres. There are so many genres left to do.

How did you get the job for NOTTING HILL?
I remember being approached to score FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, but I couldn’t do it because I was working on IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER at the time, but I got NOTTING HILL through Duncan Kenworthy, whom I’d worked with alongside Jim Henson in the early eighties. Duncan and I have done quite a few films together. He produced LAWN DOGS, and then I also worked with him on GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, by now I enjoy quite a history with a number of superb directors and producers.

Is there going to be a CD release of NOTTING HILL?
Well, the thing is about NOTTING HILL is that there are a lot of songs. I’ll prepare a soundtrack album whether it’s going to be released or not, and I’ll put it aside. I’ve got quite a few soundtrack albums that have never been released. But, generally speaking, NOTTING HILL has very big songs that play an integral part in the
film.

Are you also responsible for deciding which songs to use, as well for as writing the score? Is that always the case?
When I score, yes, generally. On IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER for instance, they basically said, “Do what you need to do to make the music a success.” So I felt that U2’s Bono singing the opening titles and Sinead O’Connor in singing the closing credits songs would be wonderful bookends to the film, and they were fantastic. The characters in IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER were in prison over a long period of time, I wanted to denote the time passing with pop music, from The Kinks through Bob Marley and so on. The films I choose tend to range quite extensively from genre to genre, I don’t like being typecast as a specific genre composer so I never tend to do two films in the same genre consecutively.

You haven’t done many romantic comedies, so NOTTING HILL is allowing you to explore yet another genre.
Yes, that’s right. But the thing about music is that it usually fails if it tries to be funny. I haven’t attempted to be tongue in cheek about this score either. I’ve been quite serious. I enjoyed it, but I find that kind of writing quite a challenge, because you can be so easily seduced into thinking you’re funnier than you are.

I read a quote that Randy Newman once said that, when he was doing MAVERICK, he’d written the score and the director, Richard Donner said “ft’s not funny enough,” so Randy said “What’Il make it funnier” and the director said “Well, can’t we put some banjos in it?” He expected this to suddenly transform the film!
I think when you’re doing a film and the director’s saying “Look, you’re not expressing what the guy had for supper last Sunday” then you’re in serious trouble because the director is obviously trying to put an emotion into the scene that he didn’t shoot or the actor didn’t convey. When a director seriously suggests the use of certain instruments because he associates them with humor, then it is our job to examine the idea. Usually one is trying to enhance what is there, like a make-up artist, you’re bringing out the color in the cheeks. If you’ve got to graft cheeks on in the first place like a plastic surgeon, you’re in trouble. When it’s not inherent in the scene, everyone has to face up to it and no amount of banjos will rescue the situation.

All you do is just bring it out and make it more powerful for the audience.
Yes, but even so, sometimes you think: “If it is there, why cake it? Why don’t you contradict the image, why don’t you add another dimension? Why don’t you give it another resonance?”

There’s a very thin line between being appropriate and being manipulative.
And catering for people’s neuroses about what they think they didn’t do. They didn’t shoot it properly, it didn’t accurately convey what they were hoping it would. There are times when you look at a scene and you say, well, why don’t you like this cue? What’s wrong? They say, “Well, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. It could do this, that and the other” Then you learn at a later date that there’s a whole load of baggage there that you can’t see on the screen. All you see is an actor doing a scene in a particular way, but there’s this baggage, this history, what the director has experienced that you don’t know anything about. That’s very difficult sometimes, because you have to say, “All I can do is score what I see. “The audience will only take in what you present them with. The success of every project is dependent on such a variety of reasons both artistic and commercial. All one can ever do is give it all you have, sometimes it’s highly successful, at other times not.

TITANIC TOWN is a very unusual score. What inspired the decision to just use guitars?
Probably two things. One was the fact that TITANIC TOWN is a very intimate film, the formation of the women’s movement in Northern Ireland is a very serious subject. The other thing is probably the fact that it just suited the subject matter. If it had needed a 100-piece orchestra, I would have gone out and got one, and I’d have probably paid for it myself, but the fact is it didn’t. There’s an intimacy about the guitar sound that, when you see it in the context of the film, I was very concerned to use for the film. The John Martin type of sound, that I was wanting. He’s a fabulous player. His style has changed over the last 25 years – obviously, like all artists, you change and develop and grow – but he tended to have a particular voice in the seventies which was very special. Also, because of the fact that he came from Northern Ireland, I could relate to that as a real sound instead of the diddly-aye things that people jokingly associate with the Irish. There’s a phenomenal sound there that is Ireland. So in order to keep a kind of continuity in the score I tended to use the songs of John Martin along with the guitar sound that he used.
MOLLY is scored for guitars too, but differently, that was multi-track guitars. But there’s not a great deal of music overall in it, really, This year I keep saying that it’s going to be the year for big orchestras. I love writing symphonic orchestral scorns.

What is your relationship with the orchestra when you’re writing symphonically?
What I’m trying to do at that point, in the studio with musicians, is put the emotion onto the screen. So I’m trying to get a performance out of the musicians. If the musician isn’t feeling it, it’s not going to work for an audience. I think the orchestra on THE MIGHTY, for instance, played the scene of the boy running after the ambulance ten times better after they saw the picture. They learnt the notes, then I asked them all to come into the control room and look at what they’d done to the picture, and they saw what the music, the notes I’d written, was trying to do. They went back, and it had so much emotion in it. That’s what moves an audience. You have to be able to feel it in order for other people to feel it. By saying that I don’t mean that I’m a method composer, that if I’m doing a horror picture I have to stab my way through a few pumpkins before I can write a cue, or anything like that. But you do have to create an atmosphere and an environment in which other musicians can work and perform and give you that emotion you need. As I keep saying, we’re blessed with the most fantastic musicians in England. You’re not dealing with sentimentality, you’re dealing with very real sentiment, and you need to express that, and they’re able to do that superbly by just focusing and concentrating. There’s an incredible amount of channeling of energies in order to get the right emotion out of a piece of music. I suppose that’s really the main point about the business of scoring.

I saw THE MIGHTY just after Christmas, actually, and l thought it was wonderful. I thought your score was fantastic. I love the way you’ve got the three different styles of music. I don’t know how exactly you would describe it, but you’ve got the kind of bluegrass American theme, and then the big Arthurian theme, and the Irish one.
As I mentioned, my favorite bit in THE MIGHTY actually doesn’t play the way I wanted it to, but it’s the bit where the boy dies at the end, and the other one comes running up to the ambulance, and Sharon Stone gets out of the back. I just had this one boy chorister with the LSO’s strings. It was the kind of score that I really enjoyed writing because I thought there was something special.

If’s quite a tragic film, with the boy dying at the end.
Actually, I said to the director “We can’t leave people at the end of the film on a low,” so we gently took it right up and up and made Max’s journey, and the fact that he comes out of himself and begins to fly, more uplifting. It’s like the broken ornithopter that has been fixed and can fly; it’s like a metaphor there. That’s why I was so thrilled about the song being nominated for a Golden Globe, because doing the song with Sting was such a fantastic experience we both felt a sense of flying. I really enjoyed working with him.

Was it always the plan for there to be a song, or did that develop later out of the score?
While I was writing the score Sting was sent a cut of the film, because we decided that maybe we ought to get someone to do a song. And Sting, when he saw the film, asked who was scoring it, so they told him I was, and he said “Why doesn’t Trevor write the music and I’ll sing it and write the lyrics.” So I did, and we worked in this very room actually. He’s such a generous artist, a great communicator I had a great time with him. So the score and the song were being worked on at the same time. There’s a lot in common with the two things.

The song is based on the main theme isn’t it?
Yes. Which, really, I felt was a very integrated way of writing a song, because nobody usually does that. It’s normally just a distant idea, musically.

Sometimes songs don’t bear any relation to the score. They’re tacked on so that they can make a song compilation.
I don’t know what the figures are – I suppose THE BODYGUARD sold and made lots of money -. but I think song compilations are slightly boring, frankly. The songs are already out there, usually on CD, and they just get put together in a compilation. Something that anyone can do in the future when we can compile our own CD’s from the Internet.

Sometimes the songs aren’t even featured in the film, or you get twenty seconds of them over the end credits.
Or something on a transistor radio playing in the background and someone’s put a drill over it. We had that on ARACHNOPHOBIA where you can’t hear the song in the film but it turns up on the record.

At the expense of your score.
Well, you know, a lot of the time they don’t put the score on because, commercially, they feel that that’s a better way of doing things.

The sad thing is that the song albums sell more than the scores.
The thing is that there are two separate markets and I think those markets need to be better developed. It’s when people take an interest in the scores that the standard of scoring will go up. That’s why I’m always keen to talk about my work and to speak to people, because it’s people like you who make a difference. In taking an interest and in writing about it, hopefully more and more people will become interested and the standard of writing will go up, and the quality of scoring will improve and we’ll be given bigger budgets and sensible schedules. I’ve always felt that film scoring has been the Cinderella of the industry. The credits for musicians always go after the honeywagon and the caterers – it’s like it’s more important for them to have been fed than there is to be good music! Well, you know, frankly it’s not good enough. It’s pathetic. It’s iniquitous really, considering the contribution the music makes.

Like we were saying before, if the films didn’t have the music they would be diminished to the nth degree.
I think that the way in which people have taken advantage is just overwhelming , because composers have lost the authority they once had. There was this time when they put rubbish on films and anyone with a synthesizer in their front room could whack a tune on a score and it would be put out there.
But when you’re talking about quality work, when you’re talking about a long shelf life of a project, then it matters that the London Symphony Orchestra or a great orchestra, is playing it, and it’s superbly recorded, and it’s going to stand the test of time. And that it’s something that people will want to collect and listen to in the future.
Even though the time constraints have, in the past been excessive, people have been able to pull out of the bag things that are quite amazing. People take musicians for granted. They know that they can do it. There are very few organizations in the world that are as professional as musicians. Ninety people walk into a room, you put dots in front of them that they’ve never seen before in their lives, and they turn them into human emotion instantly. Five minutes later and you are hearing it in all its glory. People like me will manipulate little black dots so that it gives meaning to the film, I find it extraordinary that, with all this obvious formidable professionalism, music is still treated like Cinderella. In every respect. With budgets, people will say ‘oh, this is the only bit we’ve got left, do what you can with that” or “we had two days of rain we weren’t expecting” or “I’m afraid the cast of thousands ate their way through too many sandwiches and cups of tea”

They ate the soundtrack budget! (laughs) Do you feel that directors tend to interfere too much in what you do?
It depends on the quality of his vision and his experience but arrogance. A CD collection can lead to the destruction, sometimes, of a good score. Often someone who has sung in a choir, thinks he knows about music. Everyone “knows“ about music, everyone “loves” music, but the craft of writing to a picture is a totally esoteric craft which, even after four years at the Academy and four years at University and then film school, and even after practicing further for over 20 years, I still feel that I’m learning about it. I don’t know all the answers to everything and I probably won’t until the day I die. I’ll still be discovering new things about it, and that’s part of the fun of scoring. That’s probably why I write so much, because I’m constantly discovering new things.
But there’s nothing more annoying than people who want to get in and feel they’ve contributed to the score. What you need is to find out what the director’s vision is – what is it that he wants to realize on a screen? Then you put your perspective on that vision. You’re putting forward your angle; this is the way you would write something. It’s like someone saying to you “I want you to paint me a view of Covent Garden,” and then saying “but make that bit pink, and I don’t like St Paul’s that big, make it a little smaller..” and you think, well, who’s doing the painting here, me or you? It’s like having a dog and barking yourself. It can get very boring.
But it’s wonderful when you’re working with people who have faith and trust in your abilities. I feel that I want to go on improving from score to score and you can’t take anything for granted, if you respect the work you’re doing.The fact is that we are in a very extraordinary situation where we’re doing something we love doing, something that people love seeing, and we’re getting paid for doing it! Even though sometimes I have bags under my eyes and I say there’s not enough time, the fact of the matter is that I’m doing something I love doing, and that’s a real privilege. Especially when you walk into a room with assistants and engineers like this around you and you know they’re tired but they’re still smiling, because you know they’re actually getting a kick out of what they’re doing. We love and enjoy this business we’re in, and we know how lucky we are to be in it. It is a privilege, and one that we can’t abuse.

I wanted to ask you about LABYRINTH, your thoughts about that film, and your recollections of working with David Bowie and Jim Henson.
It’s probably one of the most romantic projects I’ve ever worked on in terms of memories, because it was with Jim, and Duncan Kenworthy. Duncan produced FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and he’s also the producer of NO1TING HILL, he’s a special talent. We were about the same age when we started with Jim in the late seventies, early eighties. We worked on THE DARK CRYSTAL, LABYRINTH and THE WORLD OF JIM HENSON and projects like that. LABYRINTH came about because Jim and I were in the airport in Atlantic City promoting THE DARK CRYSTAL and he said “What shall we do next?” so I said “Why don’t we score a rock project next, something totally different from the previous symphonic DARK CRYSTAL?” He said “Hmm. A rock score. So we’d use a rock artist. Who could we use?” We rattled through Mick Jagger, David Bowie, all the rock stars who could also possibly be actors, and settled on pursuing Mr. Bowie, who was incredible in doing these songs for the picture. Jim and I went over to Gstaad in Switzerland to work with him on the songs, and he was amazing to work with and loved the project. It was like a fairyland. We used to stay in and drink mulled wine. I have some really quite special memories mixing the music at Odyssey Studios, working with Jennifer Connelly, as well, when she was just a little girl in LABYRINTH and now she’s in DARK CITY as an adult. Seeing her now, grown up, is quite extraordinary. It makes me feel really old (laughs).

LABYRINTH is a completely synth score isn’t it?
Yes, but it wasn’t going to be. I would have gone on to add an orchestra to it, but we stopped for some reason. I think the producer said something. I’m really easily influenced by things sometimes, and the producer kind of put his oar in and made a suggestion when I was conceiving the score at the outset. Now I don’t have that problem – I need space to do my thing, and then people express their opinions. But this score seemed to stop at a particular point in its development and Jim said he quite liked it like that. At that point the score was on a par with the work Bowie had done on the songs all instrumental and synthetic, and not orchestral. To a certain extent there might have been a slight imbalance in the texture if we’d have had rock music with orchestra.
There were a lot of cues in LABYRINTH, as I recall, a great deal of music. The funny thing about scoring pictures is that an audience sees about five percent of the iceberg – the successful tip of achievement – and ninety-five percent of the iceberg is failure. You try something, and it doesn’t work, then you try something else, and all you ever show the public are the bits that do work, so at the end of the day they expect some genius to come staggering out of a room, and of course what you’re doing is presenting the things you’ve been trying to make work.
Filmmaking is like that. It’s a combination of all the best elements percolated down into one entertaining product.That’s why it’s lovely to work with people like Duncan [Kenworthy] where you feel comfortable about trying to do something different, making a statement, maybe failing and maybe succeeding – what film school is about. You can be comfortable about it because you can trust Duncan to be supportive, and it’s like a conspiracy to entertain. It’s a very precious thing, when you’re working together, to be able to say, “they’ve got to feel like this, how can we do it? How can we bring the tear to the eye and bring out that emotion?”

With thanks to Victoria Seale, EMI Abbey Road Studios and the incredibly tanned Trevor Jones who, despite having a raging cold and a meeting with Ronan Keating, talked passionately and at great length.

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