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A Sprig of Basil: The Musical Mastery of Basil Poledouris

Interview by S. Mark Rhodes

Excerpted from FSM Vol. 9, No. 4

In his nearly 40-year career Basil Poledouris has worked in nearly every genre of film, from sports (For Love of the Game, Big Wednesday), science fiction (Starship Troopers), thrillers (Hunt for Red October) and comedy (Hot Shots!), to westerns (Lonesome Dove, for which he won an Emmy) and sword-and-sorcery (Conan the Barbarian). And despite his low-key demeanor, he has partnered successfully on a number of occasions with several of the most controversial filmmakers in Hollywood, most notably John Milius, Paul Verhoeven and John Waters. On the eve of a reissue of his first major work Big Wednesday, Basil sat down with FSM to talk about his life, work and legacy.

FSM: When you were growing up, did any film score capture your attention?

BP: I was basically studying to be a classical pianist. So, the literature I was exposed to was all classical. I was gifted with a teacher who taught me theory and harmony as part of my learning experience who believed that without knowing what music was it would be difficult to perform it. So she was insistent on understanding the ideas of what the composers were writing about. This was especially true with Beethoven and Chopin, mostly the romantic stuff.

The first soundtrack album that I heard, or even knew existed was The Robe (1953), by Alfred Newman. I basically wore it out! There was something about it that was so powerful. Of course I eventually saw the film, which reinforced the music. The other composer was Miklós Rózsa, whose work was always important to me. There was some sheet music that was available for Ben-Hur that I was able to get that I thought was really tremendous. So those two were the composers who I really gravitated towards in my initial introduction to film music. The other element that influenced me early on had to do with my Greek Orthodox raising where I used to sit in church and just be enthralled with the choir. So, there are a lot of Gregorian modal ideas in my music that go back to that.

Finally, I shouldn't say this (laughs) but I bootlegged Peter Gunn. I recorded it because there was nothing available so we used to have these little wax recorders to record this show. It was exciting stuff. So in the beginning it was Rózsa, Newman and Mancini.

FSM: Was the realization that you would work as a film composer come gradually to you or did you have a moment of epiphany where you realized all at once that this is what you were going to do?

BP: I was in the School of Music in USC and switched my major to Cinema because I wasn't nuts about modern composition and the way it was being taught. I had decided at that point I didn't really want to be a concert pianist as a career. Something about stage fright that got to me. It seemed at the time that Cinema was a lot more pertinent for the mid- to late-'60s generation. I simply fell in love with film. It was Fellini's 8 1/2 that took me into film and caused me to look at film with some seriousness. At the time, you could use any music you wanted and I wanted some music that was close to the idea you wanted to convey as a director, which brought me back into writing music. Because I had decidedly quit music when I was about 20. But then scoring was what led me back to it. Then after working as a professional film editor for a while I came to the decision that I would rather score films than direct or edit them.

FSM: It is probably fair to say that your first score to make a broad impact was the soundtrack for Big Wednesday. What do you remember about the process of creating this piece? Did you listen to music while writing it?

BP: I remember everything (laughs). It is kind of a fluky thing. You go back over the piece for re-release and you think, 'Oh yeah, I remember what I was thinking that day.' It is kind of terrifying. Big Wednesday was the first one where I had an orchestra. In those days, we didn't have access to synthesizers, or at least quality synthesizers so there wasn't really such a thing as a 'mock up' -- it all had to be done on the piano. If you had to show a director or producer your idea you couldn't go out and hire an orchestra if you were just starting out, you had to play it on the piano and hope they had an imagination. Now I had studied to be a pianist, so it would be kind of scary if you hadn't. Of course, the result of this is that most of the composers were pianists. John Williams was for instance, a great pianist, and Henry Mancini was accomplished as well. So a lot of the guys of my generation had to rely on that.

It is an interesting thing that has happened with Big Wednesday. The movie was about surfing in Southern California in the '60s. I was a surfer, and certainly John (Milius, the director) was a surfer. So we had our own notions and ideas about our experiences. John wanted the score to be very grand. This would be a reflection of John's idea of surfing as the final expression of Westward expansion, which was of course a total Milius concept. So the score took on a kind of mythological proportion in a way. I guess in terms of influences I tended to listen to a lot of [Gustav] Mahler and still do for that matter. If you listen to it, I think some of that Mahler influence is apparent. Of course the writing wasn't near what Mahler did.

FSM: Yeah, it was interesting to have a surf film that wasn't propelled by pop music.

BP: It was there, but in the appropriate places during party scenes. And the surfers were this kind of ragtag group that had this sort of fierce individuality where you kind of confront nature on your own. And, a lot of it is in your head, I mean you can ride a six-inch wave like it is a 30-foot wave if you imagine it correctly. Obviously, John and I wanted to get the primal feel for the ocean as this kind of unbelievably powerful force.

FSM: Another score of yours that touched a similar mythological chord was the first Conan.

BP: Conan was a real watershed for that kind of film. Nobody took fantasy movies that seriously before this film. There was a lot of foreign stuff, and some Steve Reeves stuff, but it was usually not well done. I think the filmmakers tried to stay true to the spirit of the (Robert E.) Howard books. Conan was very much a real guy to Howard, and a lot like Tolkien, Howard created this world that was maybe not as complex, but just as powerful. And, I think the idea of man against nature in this film was so appealing because this man was not a victim and could master this hostile world.

The audience for the film cut across a lot of demographics. You had the bikers; I will never forget the 100 or so bikers who came to the premiere in Las Vegas. Of course there were the Robert E. Howard freaks. Women liked the movie since Arnold (Schwarzenegger) was very attractive in those days and there was the female warrior in the story, which was one of the first times a woman was portrayed in this way in a Hollywood film. And there was the casting of the extras and so on, which was very effective since a lot of them were bodybuilders so they looked the part. All of this lent realism to the film where people could believe there was a world where guys could walk around carrying hammers (laughs).

FSM: You have worked with a few directors on several occasions such as John Milius, John Waters and Paul Verhoeven. Is this a challenging process to collaborate on several occasions with the same filmmaker or is it a comfortable process?

BP: Well it is both. The hope is that they are doing projects different from the last they have done. The challenge is to get up to speed on what they are dong. The comfort zone is also there as well because you do develop shorthand with regard to your communication. With each of those people, except John Waters, I have a personal relationship with them all. There is a sense that you kind of march through time with them. I think that this kind of relationship is ideal because you can communicate more fully as part of the filmmaking process.

Excerpted from FSM Vol. 9, No. 4, on sale now...

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