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John Morris Interview (1997) Conclusion

Part Two: Conclusion

By Jeffrey K. Howard

Jeffrey Howard: Beginning with History of The World Part One, [1981] you were no longer orchestrating your own scores.

John Morris: I do and I don't. If there is a lot of time I'll do it. Ralph Burns and Billy Byers orchestrated Silent Movie. I didn't even have time to stop. I had six weeks to write Silent Movie and if I had stopped to orchestrate what I had wrote, I'm dead. I won't finish it. There were 120 cues and I had 30 days. That means I have to do four pieces of music a day. If I get behind it's going to be horrible. I orchestrate my television projects and my son is an orchestrator, so he's been helping me out a lot. It really takes time.

JH: You have scored all of Mel Brooks' films with the exception of his last two, Robin Hood: Men In Tights [1993] and Dracula: Dead and Loving It [1996]. Were you approached to score these films?

JM: No. Mel and I are little estranged. I admire him greatly, but I did 10 movies with him after all. First of all, in terms of the schedule, I am a morning person. He is an evening person. I had an apartment in California and Mel would call up and tell me he's coming over at eight o'clock at night. But, he doesn't come over at eight. He comes over at nine thirty. I had to play things for him and people in the building would want to go to sleep. It just got to be nuts!

JH: When did you meet Gene Wilder?

JM: On The Producers.

JH: As with Mel Brooks, you and Gene Wilder had a long and productive working relationship beginning with Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. How was Wilder's approach different than Brooks?

JM: It's no different. Although, his writing is much more emotional. Writing for Gene was much easier than Mel. The truth is in the progression of a score for Mel, I said to him finally, "if you don't give me a half an hour of your time this afternoon, you are not going to have any music."

So he would close the door and I would start to play cues and the phone would ring. He would be always on the phone. I was desperate. That's what working with Mel was like always. Gene was different. Gene was much more disciplined. You asked him for a meeting and he'd give it to you.

JH: Who wrote all the crazy lyrics for the opera in Smarter Brother?

JM: Gene did.

JH: Your next film for Gene Wilder was The World's Greatest Lover. I have to say it has my favorite theme composed by you. The tango for the opening credits worked out perfectly.

JM: I couldn't sing a note of it for you [laughs].

JH: Gene also wrote songs for his films. Did he ask you to write songs with him?

JM: No. He wants to do it himself. So, I said fine. Do it yourself. I have in certain circumstances said to different people in the past, that's no good. It's not a good tune and it's not serviceable. When you are really in trouble with something, then you have to speak up.

JH: If Brooks and Wilder wasn't enough, you scored both films written and directed by Marty Feldman. First with Last Remake Of Beau Geste [1977] and finishing with In God We Trust [1980]. You seem to have kept coming back to this talented group of filmmakers. Did you have such a strong idea of how these men thought?

JM: Marty was lovely to work with. He was relaxed and very smart. I really enjoyed working with him. He smoked incredibly. What happened was, he went to Mexico City and he liked to do his own stunts like Buster Keaton. He was thousands of feet up in the air, the elevation, and he was smoking, he had a heart attack and died. It was too much for his body. He was wonderful to work with. In God We Trust was a very funny picture. It just disappeared from the world. You can't get it on video and the government put a lot of political pressure on Universal Pictures and they withdrew it and buried it somewhere.

JH: So, I guess when you had the opportunity to write pirate music you jumped at the chance to score Yellowbeard [1983].

JM: That was Marty's last film. I met Graham Chapman once during the filming and I really didn't have much to do with the actors on Yellowbeard. It was a swashbuckler. You know what the period is and what your obligated to do. I suppose in the back of my head there is all of Miklos Rosza and all of those scores floating around in there. But, I don't study a lot of films.

You know I have three careers. Film, television and the theater. They all occur simultaneously. They are all equally important to me. I didn't go from film to film because I was doing other things in between. That's really my attitude.

JH: Your last project was the mini-series Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With The Wind. You had some big shoes to fill. You're tackling a classic.

JM: What you have to remember is that the director, John Urman, is very smart. He said we cannot get anywhere near the original theme. That's a great movie theme. He said Scarlett is not Gone With The Wind -- it's afterward. Just write a '90s piece. I told him, "I'll do a waltz for you. Which will take it light years away from Gone With The Wind." You're always following big shoes. I've written 15 Shakespeare scores. You're following in the path of Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland -- all these great composers. You bring something different to it. That's all.

JH: Do you mostly compose for television now?

JM: No. I do everything now. I just did a piece for PBS on the Religious Right.

JH: Many of your scores are for British films and television. Do you change your approach for British films? How do they differ from American films?

JM: It's all the same. It's always a question of personality. Some people are easy to work, with some are not. There are certain directors who don't even go to the recording sessions. It's true.

Herbert Ross, I understand does not go to recording sessions. For Arthur Hiller, I did The In-Laws [1979]. He didn't care. He said; "I don't know anything about music and I can't comment, so you're not going to see me at the recording sessions." I said; "What!?" He told me, "Just do what you think is proper." I welcome the input of the director. They tell you where they want to go and what they want to accomplish.

JH: Are there any current film scores or composers you admire or take notice?

JM: I love Patrick Doyle. Henry V was just marvelous. I wish I could have written that. I like James Newton Howard. Elliot Goldenthal is a wonderful composer. I also loved the score from The Postman. That score makes me weep. It's a gorgeous melody. That's what I look for . A melody that just grabs you.

JH: You're a member of the Academy?

JM: Oh, sure. I have been since 1974. Because I was nominated for Blazing Saddles they automatically made me a member. I don't think it's true anymore.

JH: Which was your favorite score?

JM: Elephant Man.

JH: What are some future projects?

JM: Something wonderful is happening to me. I wrote a musical show in the '60s based on How Green Was My Valley. It got wonderful reviews and opened in New York during the newspaper strike. It is being revived in London next year. That's absolutely thrilling for me. It's going to have a production in the West End. When you speak of a favorite film score it's The Elephant Man. When you speak of the theater, this has my best wishes and my heart is in it.

JH: Any advice for aspiring film composers?

JM: Stick with it. Be strong. Don't get discouraged. Your chance may come from an area that you least expect it. Get to know contemporary filmmakers. It's getting harder. I know a brilliant musician from New York, who went to California. Agents who control everything won't even listen to his tapes. It's crazy. They are so arrogant. Agents won't take you unless you have your own client list.

JH: Any plans to release your Brooks scores on CD?

JM: Yes. There are plans, but I don't know where they stand.

JH: Thank you so much for taking time to speak to me.

JM: My pleasure.

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