An Interview with Trevor Jones by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Trevor Jones emerged as a composer of note when he scored THE DARK CRYSTAL in 1982. While he had previously composed the music for EXCALIBUR the year before, that music was overshadowed by excessive use of operatic chorales and it wasn’t until Jim Henson’s elaborate puppet fantasy that Jones’ music shone in its own symphonic splendor. While Jones’ output for cinema has been modest, he has provided noteworthy scores for the British mini-series about the Amundsen-Scott Antarctic expedition, THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH and an American mini-series, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, and he remains one of the most interesting film composers to emerge from England in recent years.
Interviewed while in San Francisco on a research visit to Lucasfilm in July, 1985, Jones describes in detail his thoughts to film music and his work in both British and American cinema.
You’ve reportedly been interested in writing film music since the age of 5! What sparked that interest and how was it nurtured during your youth?
When I was a child I grew up opposite a cinema in Capetown called The Gem Cinema. My cousin took me along one day and the impact of the movie sound track was so amazing that I was often found in the cinema at every conceivable opportunity. It was such an old cinema that often the sound would go and you just had the images, and it occurred to me that part of the impact was in fact due to the soundtrack, and especially the music track. I was captivated by it. That was my first real taste of cinema, although my family had worked in film and theatre so I had been brought up in the medium.
From that early inspiration, what steps did you take to get involved in the industry?
I won the scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when I was 17, and because of my interest in film and film music, my mother suggested that the way to really proceed into a career like that was to actually establish myself in music, to learn the rudiments and the conventions of classical music. So I trained in piano and organ and all the keyboards, orchestration, composition and that sort of thing, at the Academy.
But, because I was a foreigner to England, at the end of my four-year stint at the Academy I was meant to return to South Africa. This, for obvious reasons, wasn’t the way I wanted to go, because, first, we don’t have an industry there to talk of, and second, I didn’t like the politics of the country. So, I won a prize at my third year at the Royal Academy of Music which brought me to the attention of the BBC, and they offered me a job as classical music reviewer for radio and television. I spent four years working there (one needs four, really, to attain naturalization). They have a vast library of music, and that in itself was an education. At the end of that I became naturalized, and I was free to continue my studies.
While doing a broadcast one day, I met the Professor of Music at the University of York, Wilfrid Mellers, and he and I talked about designing a course which would cover the various types of music apart from classical music, which would prepare a composer for writing in various styles. We designed a course of study into electronic music, 20th Century avant-garde techniques, music concrete, ethnic music, Balinese, Javanese, Indian music, African, a bit of Latin American and so on. This gave me the confidence then to work in my fourth year on a Master of Arts degree (I spent four years at York University studying all these musics).
I did a Master of Arts degree on film and media music specifically, and that was combined with four years at the British National Film School, where I became a film maker and learned to operate the camera and direct and script; also I was essentially the composer in residence. I spent a lot of time working on film soundtracks for class exercises, so my whole training constituted a 12-year period of quite intensive work in the field. And of course that naturally led to a very smooth transition into the industry. I found it very easy to go from scoring pictures at the National Film School on a professional level, straight into the industry, because I’d used professional musicians. We worked under professional conditions, and it was really a very good way to enter the business.
How would you describe your personal approach to scoring a film? How does Trevor Jones strive to complement the visual elements and enhance the film’s dramatic impact through his music?
Every film, in the main, dictates its needs. If you have a dramatic sense you envisage what the director is trying to do, you know how far he has gone with the images, and you therefore have a sense of what he is trying to achieve, or you should have. Really, the idea of fulfilling the potential inherent in the concept is what we’re talking about, how music can interact with those visuals. You know, you’ve got two art forms running in a continuum there, and a lot of the time people work by serendipity, but a good composer doesn’t. He knows exactly what he wants to do, he knows the extent to which an emotion ought to be emphasized or enhanced, and he will go in with a loaded black dot and fulfil the dramatic concept that the director is unfolding. So my attitude to scoring is quite complicated. I spend a great deal of time getting to know the person I’m working with, and I’m getting to know what the parameters are in which he’s working, I think that’s vital.
Would you describe your involvement with the short films, THE DOLLAR BOTTOM and THE BLACK ANGEL? What sort of music did you write, and under what kind of conditions?
Both those films are directed by Roger Christian who won an Oscar on STAR WARS as a set dresser. He came to film school to study direction, and we met there and made some shorts together for the school; then we came out of school and made those two short films. The type of music I wrote for THE BLACK ANGEL was medieval-based, or rather had an inkling of medievalism. The conditions were simply that we didn’t have any budget at all. I’ve forgotten the line-up but it couldn’t have been more than four or five players. Similarly with THE DOLLAR BOTTOM, I think we had four or five players too, but I don’t think that inhibited what the film required in any way, or inhibited what we were trying to do. If anything I think it was a good challenge to work within the confines of a small budget. At film school we had very limited budgets, but they were in fact very exciting projects to work on, because we had so much to achieve with such small forces.
How did you become involved with EXCALIBUR?
Shortly after film school I did a project for Radio Telefis Eiren, which is the Irish Radio and Television station. John Boorman apparently saw it in Ireland, because at that time he was heading the Irish National Film at Ardmore studios. He called me and asked whether I’d be interested in doing some work on EXCALIBUR, and that is how it came about.
Did you find it awkward at all to work on a film in which most of your music would be overshadowed by the operatic chorale material?
I’m not surprised if it was overshadowed, because Wagner is Wagner! I mean, there was only about twenty minutes of Wagner and Carmina Burana, and the rest consisted of about fifty-five minutes of my music. Boorman is a very exciting director, I find him very a stimulating man, and he adored Wagner. When I came to the rough cut he had all the Wagner and the Carmina Burana all laid up, and of course it’s very daunting when one’s faced with that type of work to score around, but I didn’t feel that it was a lost cause in terms of adding my contribution musically to the film. I was just happy to work on an exciting project of that magnitude.
What was your approach to the film in terms of the music you wrote? Did you try to complement or contrast the classical pieces, and what was the kind of thematic structure that you chose for the film?
In the main the source music cues, the Igrayne’s Dance and that sort of thing, were cues which I really enjoyed doing, in that they seemed to require a medieval touch but at the same time I was concerned with not putting a time span on the music. I was concerned not to date the action because the legend is timeless, and so in that respect it was an enormous challenge to come up with a score which seemed ancient on the one hand and would also be slightly unconventional, and not easily categorized in terms of time span.
How large of an orchestra did you work with on that film?
I think the maximum number of players were forty-five at any one time, and we had about five sessions.
How closely did you work with John Boorman on deciding the musical approach for the film?
There are certain directors for whom you are hired to score a film, and John is one of those people. He’s very much in control of what he wants as an element from any aspect of the filmmaking process. He has almost a vision of the finished product, and what one has to do is try to get into his mind to try to ascertain exactly what he’s envisaging, and that can be very difficult, particularly as he’s a very sensitive man, and although he’s incredibly explicit he doesn’t talk a great deal. I find it an in¬cred¬ibly exciting experience, because I never knew precisely what the finished image would be, we would have very exciting talks and discussions but when one saw it on the screen, the manifestation of his ideas was quite stunning. I mean, in the original cut of EXCALIBUR it is a phenomenal film, but unfortunately it had to be cut back severely to come up with ninety minutes.
What was your musical approach to BROTHERS AND SISTERS, a film I’m not familiar with. What type of film was this?
That was a film made by Richard Wooley, I think his brother now is head of one of our big video places, Palace Video. Richard Wooley lives in Leeds in the midland of England, and he trained in Germany as a film-maker. At that time we had the York¬shire Ripper at large, and he used the vehicle of Leeds and the idea of the York¬shire Ripper to impart a more universal theme, which was in general the attitudes that society has toward women. The film was a social commentary on male attitudes to women, and woman’s role in society; and the film works on so many layers, it’s a very complicated film but one that I found very challenging and very exciting.
The largest line-up I used was about fifteen players, and it has one of the themes that I especially like because I feel it works particularly well with the idea behind the film. It’s basically a sad theme, not without hope, but at the same time it’s cyclic, it goes round and round. There are moments in the theme which I particularly like because I’ve not gone down that path since, and I remember feeling that I was breaking ground that I’d not traversed before.
What was your musical of stylistic approach to THE SENDER?
This was the third project Roger Christian and I worked on. THE SENDER was basically an orchestral piece with the use of some very simple synthesizers at times.
That was essentially a horror film, wasn’t it?
Yes. Well, I never thought it was intended as horror as such, because there’s not a lot of severely frightening things that happen in it, I feel that it was more a psychological thriller rather than a horror film. I don’t know, maybe other people see it as a horror film. I found myself captivated by the plot, because I was forever trying to work out whether reality or fantasy was at work, and I found that interesting throughout.
What was your musical approach as far as accentuating some of those elements?
The film opens with this tracking shot as this man walks into a park and fills his pockets with stones. He wades into the lake, and the camera cranes down and goes under the water and follows him. What I wrote for the opening cue was a basic theme which evolved and developed into what was almost avant-garde; I used avant-garde techniques toward the end to put across the idea of panic and disaster and drowning.
Then unfortunately last week I had that hideous experience and ended up in the hospital [the week prior to our interview, Trevor suffered a diving accident which put him in the intensive care ward for several days] and, I mean, today’s my first clear day in which I haven’t suffered from a headache! But if I had that experience before I would have scored that film slightly differently. I found the actual experience of drowning to be quite strange. What is interesting is that the conventional expectation of drowning is that panic ensues, but in my case it was followed by euphoric ecstasy, in which I experienced this feeling of floating through a white blurry tunnel, which is quite extraordinary.
I don’t know whether, if I’d had that experience, I would have scored the opening of that film differently, I think the experience is far too close at the moment to try and make that kind of decision, but I might have gone back to the way I did score it because the conventional expectation of a dramatic building demands a big crescendo. But it was curious that I should experience the same feeling and in fact the week before last a man was found drowned in the same pool that I was in, so I think I had a very lucky escape.
But, reverting to the film, THE SENDER, there were things that were different about the film and things I was required to do that I hadn’t attempted before, such as the use of electronics in the broken mirror sequence (in fact it has quite a few substantial moments, actually, as I recall now!) but I found it more interesting on the psychological level.
You basically approached the music then from a psychological point of view rather than just scoring the horror. The music was more subtle as far as getting beneath the surface.
I tried to; I mean music is a direct emotional link to an audience. One has it in most public places and one has it in the home, it’s become such an integral part of one’s life that it works on a subliminal level in the main. People are aware of music and its emotional implications, and I feel that an audience is far too sophisticated to have bad scoring in a film.
Apart from the fact that I feel I have my own standards which I need to adhere to and raise, I feel it’s my job to reach an audience in the most subtle and effective and efficient way I can. One brings in all the techniques and all the ploys of the craft that one can muster to achieve those ends. I mean, an audience wants to be entertained, whether it’s a horror picture, a pirate movie, a fantasy or whatever the genre. You can be very sophisticated in all those mediums.
How did you become involved with THE DARK CRYSTAL, and during what point in production did you start work?
I started THE DARK CRYSTAL very early; I don’t think we even had a script yet. Jim Henson called me and asked if I’d like to be a part of this project. THE DARK CRYSTAL was a project in the real sense of the word, it wasn’t only a ninety minute film, it was music for fashion shows and exhibitions and the documentary of the making of the film, albums, and all sorts of things. I was in Moscow the other day and I heard parts of it accompanying an ICON exhibition. I find it fascinating to hear the music used in different contexts in different countries! On all the Henson projects, I tend to start incredibly early, and it’s wonderful because I go about the world amassing information while I’m working on other projects. I can collate and collect information about a project I’m about to embark on, so I came to DARK CRYSTAL at a very early stage, before they’d even set up shooting. Similarly with LABYRINTH, the new Henson film. We discussed LABYRINTH when we were leaving America after the premiere of DARK CRYSTAL, so that was quite a while back. We’re now shooting LABYRINTH.
That obviously benefits the work you’re able to do because you have more time to become part of the film rather than an afterthought like often is the case.
Absolutely. Some composers don’t like working like that, but I do. I like being part of the filmmaking process and I’m sure the subtleties that one brings to a score are ideas that you’ve worked through and digested and examined and knocked about and hammered home. My waste paper basket is filled with things that people usually put on their pictures; that might sound awfully arrogant but it’s true. I tend to work through my ideas even if the time is incredibly short. I know that a musical idea has a process which has to be worked through in order for it to actually start gelling with an image, and I’m not happy until I’ve achieved that fusion.
How closely did you work with the filmmakers in establishing the kind of music they wanted for DARK CRYSTAL?
DARK CRYSTAL, initially, was going to be a score as innovative as the images. We were all set to examine using sound for it’s own sake, whether it was caused by acoustical instruments, elec¬tron¬ics, building structures, whatever, and fusing a fantasy sound world. But when Gary Kurtz came to the project it was decided that, because on this particular type of motion picture (which incorporated animatronics totally ÄÄ there was not one live actor in it), the images would be so different that if one didn’t write music which was associated with the conventional ideas that an audience would feel comfortably with, then you would lose the audience. I agreed entirely at that point, because, as exciting as it would have been to do something like that, I felt that we were in danger of losing an audience completely if we didn’t have a conventional sound that people could easily relate to. Hence, the orchestral score. In doing that, I still tried to add tone colors and textures and things which complemented the fantasy world without it sounding too conventional, I wouldn’t want to produce a score like anybody else’s.
I’m reminded of the scene where they’re going down the river and you have these electronic sounds, which is really an impressive little piece. It both fit the scene and yet had a new texture…
Well, that was the way we were going to work, but on a more extreme level, using sound for its own sake, and actually orchestrating and writing parts for all sorts of sounds that I’d captured on tape. But, who knows? Maybe we can work towards that in the future.
How would you describe, musically and orchestrally, the score’s thematic elements as they did evolve symphonically.
The central core, to my mind, was the unity at the end of the film. The Urskeks is the essential theme. The Urskeks was a composite of the Mystics and the Skeksis and they come together and fuse to form this fantastic creature which is the perfect being. Throughout the film I used two themes, and super¬imposed one on the other, the Mystics theme and the Skeksis theme, and at the end of the film they come together and form the theme to THE DARK CRYSTAL. That’s my little trademark, and I do tend to do that in all my projects, I have little subtleties which pertain to each particular project.
There were also sorts of themes required, the Landstrider theme, Jen’s theme, Kira’s love theme, but they all stem from a central theme. The thematic ideas are all related. You can, in fact, analyze them in a symphonic way, you can take them apart and see that they derive from the same cluster of notes and work in an organized intellectual fashion. But all that is totally irrelevant if it does not have an effect on the audience. If it doesn’t move the audience then there’s no point in scoring.
Would you describe the type of electronic sounds desired for DARK CRYSTAL and how they were created and put to use?
For instance, in the opening Power Ceremony there’s a sort of electronic chain-saw and things like that which hurtle across the sound spectrum, all those sounds were initially there to offset the orchestral sounds, to make the whole Power Ceremony as strange as possible, and to in fact hook the audience. I don’t know how far we succeeded in doing that, so I found it incredibly exciting producing all these sounds. We spent a good few weeks actually just coming up with sounds, which were all cataloged on floppy disc, and I would think “that would be a good sound for the Mystics,” or “that would be a good sound for the Skeksis,” or this situation or that situation, and when I came to scoring it I found that maybe it worked better in this scene or better in that scene. It’s wonderful ending up with a pallet of sound and having many colors to draw on, I enjoy doing that very much.
But I find it equally challenging to work in a smaller dimension. I did a piece for the BBC, the last of the James Mason films, DR. FISCHER OF GENEVA in which I used a very small line-up of about three players. I notice in America one is either a film composer or a television composer, and although my life is film – I love the big image, the big screen, the big sound – I’m not adverse to scoring for television. Some of the finest mini-projects I’ve worked on, THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH, for instance, DR. FISCHER OF GENEVA, and recently a documentary film about Karen Blixen, the Danish writer whose story is told in Out of Africa. The BBC asked me to score the documentary of her life which I found absolutely riveting, because I could then bring into play the African music I had studied, especially the music of the Kikiyu and all the tribes around her house in Kenya.
If the subject matter interests me, if the film is well-made, and if I feel I can bring something more to it in the music then I will score the film. If I feel that I can’t bring anything else to the movie then I won’t do it, which I have done for the BBC in the past. I went to one screening and I said, “I’m sorry but I think the film’s absolutely fine as it is, if you use just sound effects on the opening titles and sound effects on the end credits, the film would work without any music at all.” The result was that I went home not having got the job, and I realized on the train that I had talked myself out of work! But there’s a small coda to that story, in that the film went on to win a prize!
But I enjoy scoring films which have been well-made. I put in as much energy into films which have been well-made as I do into films which have been badly made, so I’d far sooner do the ones that have been well-made!
One final question on DARK CRYSTAL. I like the Pod Village music. What traditions did you draw upon for this festive material, and did it entail any kind of research?
Not really, because the Pod People don’t derive from any continent that we know. Basically, Jim had said to me, “I want party music.” I didn’t know what the Pod People were about, because this music was being recorded before the shooting, so I was faced with no images and no idea what the film’s going to look like. I went away and I produced a tape, but unfortunately I produced a demo tape which was just me going into a little studio with two players. We just tracked and had a great time. So I played the cassette for Jim and asked, “is this along the right lines?” He said “that is it, I love it!” And I was stuck with this piece which was a demo which we then had to use for the film, and on a technical level there were several things to be desired!
But Jim knows exactly when an idea is right. He will jump on it and say “don’t change a note.” If it’s not right, he will tell you equally, and he will give you explicit indications as to which direction to move in. So I find it incredibly enjoyable working with him, because his method of filmmaking is unlike anybody else’s I know. We learned an enormous amount on DARK CRYSTAL. We’re shooting LABY¬RINTH, with David Bowie. We now have actors, and we have a script which we feel very happy about. It’s a very exciting piece, and one that I’m terrifically excited about.
Have you finished writing the music for LABYRINTH?
Trevor Jones: Oh no. None of my music has been done yet. I’ve been sketching ideas, vaguely, as I’ve seen rushes, but they’re not anything that I am committed to.
Do you know yet if you’re taking an orchestral standpoint or, like on DARK CRYSTAL a mixture of the two?
I know as much about it as you do at the moment, but the direction we want to move isn’t orchestral. We may use strings, we may use bits of orchestra, but essentially it’s an upbeat approach, maybe with rock. It’s a score that I will be really fascinated to do because the music will affect the film so radically. There are four songs by David Bowie, and of course these are like stantions of a bridge. It’s my job to build up to those songs, but I think for me it’s a fascinating challenge, and it’s only afficianados of film music who will probably take notice of the score!
How would you describe the work you did on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, the mini-series? Was that a U.S. project?
Yes, it was. I found it a curious project, I was asked to do it, I never met the director, I only met the producer. I never attended any of the dubs because the film went by so quickly. The amount of input I usually put in a dubbing session is quite considerable; I try not to harass the dubbing mixer, but the score’s cues are designed to fit in to the sound track spectrum at various levels. Sometimes they need to be up front, sometimes they are designed only to work behind dialog and behind effects, and it’s critical, I feel, that I instruct the dubbing mixer as to exactly where I envisaged it in the first place, and it’s up to him to find out whether that works best, if he feels it works in other contexts that’s fine. But I have an idea, it’s like tailoring a suit, you know how it’s got to hang, and if I can be of help then I am, and usually it works. Usually they’re happy with it.
How did the fact that that was a lengthy mini-series with a variety of different characters affect the music you had to write?
Essentially there were lots of couples, and they all needed their specific themes. There was music for Isis, which I did a lot of research on, because there are Isis temples in existence even today, and they use various percussion music, and so on and so forth, which I researched and went into. Basically, it was a conventional score. I played the opening titles on the telephone to the producer in Los Angeles, and I can quote his exact words. He said “that’s not lollipop music, that’s not bubble gum music, that’s music with integrity and taste!” And I took this to be a compliment! And that was the last time I spoke to him. The rest of the score went off to be put on the film, and that was the end of that project. That was the first and only time on a film that I’d never met the director.
As a composer working, primarily, out of England, how would you contrast being a film composer in England, working on projects there, with the kind of projects or conditions you find over here?
Essentially there’s a basic difference, not only in England but in Europe, and European cinema is slightly different from American cinema. In the main in Britain, we don’t have a vast cinema; i.e. an indigenous cinema isn’t all that enormous, but if you’re making a film for an international market the criteria generally is that, because America has exported such vast quantities of film, the social acceptances or the associations that an audience has of what a film and score ought to be are laid down.
I think that stems from the fact that you have so much television in America and you have so many commercial breaks, an audience has to be brought into the heart of the scene as soon as the commercial break is over, and music does that. It’s the direct emotional line to an audience, so as soon as the commercial break is over, you’re BANG! into the scene, and BANG! into what’s happening in the music, so there tends to be an enormous amount of music required. Whereas in Britain and in Europe, in the main, there aren’t that many commercial breaks. That convention set up by television is taken into cinema, I feel. What we have in Europe is less commercials and so more time in which to view a film in a continuum, and therefore the necessity to put in an awful lot of music becomes less. I don’t know whether people will agree with that or not, but that’s my diagnosis of the requirement of so much music in a film.
That’s an interesting observation. In fact one of the things that really irks me a lot is the way that motion pictures, as an art form, is really dominated by or subjected to commercial interests. You find that throughout every level, even as we’re saying here, that needs of music are even bound up in commercialism. I think that’s a very sad state of affairs, but I don’t think it’s going to change, because motion pictures are essentially a business, an industry. To insure it’s continuation one has to…
…Comply with the lowest common denominator. But the exciting thing for me is that the lowest common denominator isn’t all that low or that common. The average cinemagoer is a pretty sophisticated animal; he wants to be entertained and stimulated on an increasingly higher and higher level, and really to manipulate your craft to do that is becoming harder and harder for composers. It’s always been a hard business to be involved in, but people are always setting standards and trends, and I think at the end of the day I leave it to the audience, who pays the money, to judge what they want out of that entertainment.
During January 1987, Trevor Jones completed work on ANGEL HEART, a drama set in post-war New York and New Orleans, starring Robert DeNiro, Mickey Rourke and Charlotte Rampling. Inasmuch as a lot of the film’s action takes place in New Orleans, Jones made use of New Orleans flavored jazz which Jones carefully combined both as source music and as an element of his incidental score. In addition to the jazz music, which was recorded with every attempt to be faithful to the actual sound of the period, Jones’ also composed a lot of electronic music, created on a synclavier in London. “I worked with a guy in London called Courtney Pine, but the main bulk of the score was worked on with synclavier,” Jones recently told CinemaScore. “Basically there were two types of music, one was the electronic stuff from the synclavier that the director wanted, and the real jazz musicians. The two work very well together in view of the film’s intent. I’m happy with the score.”