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Lost Issue Wednesday: John Morris Interview (1997)

Part One

By Jeffrey K. Howard

Here's a follow-up to the Mel Brooks interview that ran in last weekÝs Lost Issue!

Jeffrey Howard: How did you come to choose music as a career?

John Morris: I never had a choice [laughs]. I started playing the piano when I was three years old. We were visiting friends in the Bronx and I went over to their piano and started to play and I never stopped.

JH: So, you are from New York.

JM: Yes. Originally from New York, then I grew up in the Midwest in a little town called Independence, Kansas. I studied the piano during my childhood with different teachers and then I went to Julliard. I am a legitimately trained pianist.

JH: How would you describe the music of John Morris?

JM: I am a complete eclectic. I determine what is necessary for the film and what I want to hear behind the film. I do it frankly, like a menu in a Chinese restaurant. What I want to hear and what I don't want to hear. Then I consider using a big orchestra or piano alone or whatever it would take.

JH: How did your relationship with Mel Brooks begin?

JM: We are both New Yorkers and we met on Your Show Of Shows briefly. Then we were both called in to doctor a terrible musical called Shinbone Alley [1971] with Ertha Kitt and Eddie Albert. Mel was called in to fix the script and I was called in to fix the score to make it better for Broadway. That's how we met. After that, he asked me to score The Producers.

JH: Mel Brooks has called The Producers [1968] his favorite film he's made. The music seemed to play a crucial role in its success. How did you approach using his melodies in your score for The Producers?

JM: You have to decide what the thematic language is. It was appropriate to use that tune and somehow it unified the film. I used as much of the song as I could and when it was appropriate I used something else. Thinking about The Producers, if you remember the fountain scene, when Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder run around the fountain, well, Mel's a drummer and he knows what music can do. In that scene he had the music take over instead of it just being background music over the water. Mel's very smart about music and when it should be big and when it should be little.

JH: For the title song for Blazing Saddles you received your first Academy Award nomination. How did it feel?

JM: [ha ha] Wonderful!! It was my first two months in Los Angeles and we did the picture. Mel and I wrote the song. Then the associate producer of the film called up and told me I was nominated. I thought, "This is not so hard". The very first notes I wrote in California and Hollywood gave me a very big honor. To be acknowledged by your peers, nobody had ever met me or knew me...anything.

JH: How is Mel as a writing partner?

JM: He's great and so smart. He has a lot of neurotic habits. When you sit down with him he would always say, "Let's take it from the top." Now, if it's a movie that means playing all the cues all the way through. And it drives you absolutely nuts, but that's his way of working. He's an improvisor.

JH: Do you recall your reaction when Mel Brooks asked you to score the first Silent Movie [1976] in nearly 50 years?

JM: I had no idea how hard it would be. The first thing was I decided not to use a note of piano in the whole score to get away from that cliche. What was hard about scoring Silent Moviewas that it was an interminable amount of music. I think we had something like 40 recording sessions. We had stacks of scores. It became a joke. It was a hour and a half of music. Lionel Newman was the musical director at Fox and I said, "If I'm really in trouble Lionel, I'm going to call you." So, at the first recording session, I would do a take and then I would listen to it to see if it was any good. I thought, "I'll never get through this." I called Lionel and asked him to conduct the sessions so I could stay in the booth and then I don't have to do double work. He came and he did it. He was brilliant and such a wonderful musician.

JH: Why a march for the main theme?

JM: It seemed to be proper. Mel and I discussed it and thought it should be something rhythmic and lively. The characters were always on the way to somewhere and it had to be upbeat.

JH: The main title from Young Frankenstein [1974] is one of your most memorable melodies. Did you research any classic horror scores for inspiration?

JM: No. Mel said for Young Frankenstein, which is really a horror film basically, writing scary music was totally inappropriate and had nothing to do with the main character. Mel told me to write the most beautiful Eastern European lullaby that you can. That would become the heart of the monster. It would be his childhood. I understood him because Mel always goes for the emotional center of something. It's not that Mel didn't want scary music, it was just another kind of movie. It was an emotional movie. You just have to write honest music.

JH: In High Anxiety [1977], Mel Brooks parodied the classic Hitchcock films. Can we say the same about the score? I notice a bit of Bernard Herrmann in there.

JM: Not really. If it's there it's accidental. The theremin was the device I used in the main title. I used it as a joke, like for Spellbound and such.

JH: I heard a story about a particular recording session for High Anxiety. Mel Brooks was staring out the window of the recording booth and you were conducting a bit of suspense music titled "Walking to the violent Ward." You had done 29 takes of this little piece of music that was only to last 30 seconds on screen. Mel kept yelling "The trombone is a little funny" or " Now it's the bassoon. Take it out!" I heard it took 31 takes. Is Mel Brooks always such a perfectionist?

JM: Yes, he is. He loves recording sessions and he loves to make jokes for the orchestra. He may have been showing off a little, but he does know the orchestra and he's very good with music.

JH: Your next project for Mel Brooks was a departure from your familiar fare of music. The Elephant Man [1980] is truly one of your most remarkable scores for which you received your well deserved second Oscar nomination. Were you anxious to try something with such a complex and dramatic theme?

JM: Writing a score is writing a score. Whatever is proper for the movie is how I approach it.

What was harder was composing the main theme. It took me several weeks. The theme had to convey someone who worked on the edges of the circus and the melody had to be poignant.

JH: It sounds like a haunted carnival waltz.

JM: That is exactly what it was. It has two layers. It has the tune and then it has the over layer which is the circus. It took me a long time to arrive at that point. Then I thought you really need a big wonderful orchestra to it justice.

JH: Why did you choose to use Adagio For Strings in The Elephant Man?

JM: No no, that was David Lynch. He said, "I love this and I've used it for a temp score. Somehow work it in there." I told him he was making a big mistake. Listen, Adagio For Strings is so pretty that it would work anywhere for anything. I told Lynch what's going to happen is this piece is going to be used over and over and over again in the future. And every time it's used in a movie it's going to diminish the effect of the scene. Now, when people see The Elephant Man they go...ahhh, that's the music from Platoon. Right away the effect is cut off and the audience is distracted. You should wed it to the original score and leave it alone. He said "no" and I told him he would regret it.

To be concluded in the next Lost Issue...

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