The Online Magazine
of Motion Picture
and Television
Music Appreciation
Film Score Monthly Subscribe Now!
film score daily 

BASIL POLEDOURIS: IN HIS OWN WORDS

PART FOUR: BASIL SCORES BIG AND SMALL SCREEN CLASSICS

(All sources for Poledouris quotes are listed at the bottom of this column. Paragraphs in italics are contributed by the editor)

Besides Amerika, in 1987 Poledouris also had two other TV projects, the TV movie PRISON FOR CHILDREN, starring Raphael Sbarge and John Ritter, and an unsold pilot called ISLAND SONS, starring all four of the Bottoms brothers. Poledouris reunited with Flesh + Blood director Paul Verhoven for the futuristic action thriller ROBOCOP, which proved to be one of the most popular works in both filmmakers' careers. Poledouris was interviewed about the film before beginning the score...

My original idea was synthesizers with some kind of drug-addict guitarist, but I don't know! Paul Verhoeven loves symphonic orchestration, so I have a feeling it's going to be a combination of both. It's probably going to be synthesizer rhythm and sounds, because I personally like synthesizers, and this is the kind of film where I think a large score would be nice. But I'm not really sure yet. (C15)

...as well as afterwards...

Paul and I spent about three agonizing weeks exploring whether RoboCop should be extremely contemporary, as in rock rhythm tracks and lead instruments, or be orchestral. The studio thought that the film's audience would be young and that this particular audience wouldn't be interested in the movie unless it contained music that spoke to them. Kind of an insult to the young moviegoer, but that's the way people in marketing tend to think. As artists, Paul and I were a bit confused also since either approach would be valid. In the end, it seemed perfect to join the two styles in order to represent the half-human, half-machine idea of RoboCop himself, and we ended with a fusion between fairly outrageous synthesizers, by Derek Austin in London, and a sort of punk approach with the orchestra. (M17)

What I tried to do here was hint at what that experience [of becoming part-robot] might be like. I blended electronic and acoustic music with the orchestral to try to capture that feeling. There are two main themes, the first being a fight theme for his conflicts and then a "home" theme to deal with his humanity in flashbacks to his former life with his wife and child. (MM)

In Poledouris's score, the memorable "RoboCop theme" isn't heard until fairly far into the film:

There were two reasons for this. One, the Main Title sequence is 20 seconds long. So, no time to state anything except a premonition of what's to come -- a little mystery, a little violence in the force of its presentation, and a little taste of what to expect harmonically. The second reason is that we don't know who this guy is yet -- just a cop in the not-too-distant future who is checking out a routine call perhaps. It is not until Murphy becomes half human and half machine that we discover whom the main character really is. We learn about his past only after he has become Robocop. Neat, huh? (BS)

The anvil-like clang throughout the score was created with a fire extinguisher we found at Abbey Road Studios, banged on with a large metal hammer. (M17)

It is hard to say how you relate RoboCop to your life, but you can. My uncle was severely afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, and the parallel was a man trapped inside his body. Basically all his faculties were functioning, but he had no way to externalize any of his thoughts. (F30-31)

RoboCop was followed by NO MAN'S LAND, an action thriller in which undercover policeman D.B. Sweeney falls under the spell of charismatic car thief Charlie Sheen:

No Man's Land is completely synthesizer. I had an orchestra, but the producer chose not to use any of it. and in retrospect it was not a bad choice because it's a very sparse, strange kind of film. I think the synthesizer complemented it very well. (S64)

Despite the success of RoboCop, Poledouris's projects for 1988 were of a much smaller scale. There was a TV movie directed by David Drury, INTRIGUE, starring Scott Glenn and Robert Loggia, and two largely forgotten features: the supernatural thriller SPELLBINDER, starring Timothy Daly and Kelly Preston, and the boxing drama SPLIT DECISIONS (also directed by Drury), with Gene Hackman, Craig Sheffer and Jeff Fahey. The composer took a similar approach to both features:

They were both electronic, and that's about the same time I started taking seriously the notion that one could divorce oneself from the recording studio and to do it at home. And that whole notion is very romantic. It's like a painter, having one's tools available to create finished works. And that's the promise of electronic music, you get a hit or an idea, and you go in and it's finished whenever you say it's done. (S44)

Poledouris and his USC friend John Milius collaborated on their fourth feature, the World War II adventure drama FAREWELL TO THE KING, with Nick Nolte as Learoyd, an American solider living among Borneo tribesmen during World War II:

The first time I saw the picture, editor Anne Coates had put together a 3.5 hour assembly cut -- I think I fell asleep during that screening. I thought I had figured out John in terms of what he was looking for as a director, and I was originally going for more of an action-oriented score, with a World War II flavor. (FK)

One of Farewell's main musical themes had a sound strongly reminiscent of John Barry, which Poledouris openly acknowledged:

It's the last thing I would have come up with on my own, and John [Milius] wanted that theme to play throughout the film. In the face of that, you have these marches and jingoistic stuff going on, but the overriding thing that John was going for, was that at his core, Learoyd is anti-war, which is why he insisted on this Barry-esque theme. (FK)

John's dictate for Farewell was that the main theme was played often and in, sometimes, unconventional scenes. He wanted to remind the audience that this was a film about the relationship between the Botanist and the King and requested that the theme contained a sense of warmth and heart. That was unusual for him and I think it was a bold requirement that worked very well. Of course there are a few action scenes where playing this type of music was inappropriate and I scored it more in an action genre. (BS)

The gamelan thing is really prevalent in that part of the world, and there is such a cultural icon present in the sound. The gong came from a museum in London, and it is like one huge gamelan bell. These gongs were enormous, and create a sound that you can't get with Western music. (FK)

Under the direction of Simon Wincer, with a script by William Witliff, and an all-star cast including Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston and Chris Cooper, LONESOME DOVE, the four-part TV minsieries adaptation of Larry McMurtry's PulitzerPrize- winning epic Western novel, was arguably the most critically acclaimed project in Poledouris's career:

I had just scored Farewell to The King in Budapest and returned home with a cassette of the score. Charles Ryan called me from the Kraft-Ryan Agency which was at ICM at the time. It seems that Simon had gone through all the scores at the agency and was becoming extremely frustrated by what he was hearing. I told Charlie that this was a score written for a WWII saga set in Borneo no less. He said that I should present a few cues. Simon heard and loved it. I couldn't believe it and didn't want to jinx my good fortune but I had to ask what he heard in my music that he responded to. He replied simply, heart. Instead of Copelandesque rhythms and harmonies he was looking for theme as in folk song, which has always been the wellspring which I attempt to emulate when I write any melodic passages. This was also due to John Milius' insistence on clear, uncomplicated melodies that are not obscure.

I saw a rough cut of the film in the producer, Dyson Lovell's, office and loved every frame of it. I immediately went home to my piano and wrote four of the main themes in less that an hour. This is writing at its best and I knew it was good stuff. No doubts, no hesitations, no editing. Pure flow and energy. I think that my background in American and Scottish and Irish folk songs served me well as well as my own fascination with the Mythic American West. I felt that I born to score this film and will be forever grateful to Simon that he allowed me to. (BS)

It was such a strong, instant reaction to it. That's because the novel is so strong and the screenplay was so strong and of course the acting was just phenomenal. It's not one of those things where you go "gee, how can I solve these problems?" (S68)

What made this interesting for me is that it isn't just a Western, it's a character story about two men, wonderfully played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, and their rigidly strong personalities, especially their moral integrity. Character is the predominant issue in Lonesome Dove, and that's the kind of challenge I welcome. (MM)

The script is where it all starts. Lonesome Dove is a perfect example of a script that was so powerful that everyone had the same feel for it. The script drove everything. You couldn't do anything else. (S64)

It seems to me that the main characters, and all music, all film music, must be driven by what the final dictates of the drama are, and this one was really about two men, Texas Rangers, very uncomplicated people, but very straight, very honest, very forthright characters, and the last thing I wanted to do was something which was too terribly sophisticated that it would play counter to them. I didn't want to do anything that was too modern. I didn't want to reflect from the 1900s back to the 1860s, and I wanted to find something that would really feel like it was in the 1860s. I didn't base it on any particular folk song, although I used the Texas Rangers theme when one of the Texas Rangers was carrying a body back for burial. I wanted it to sound like they were folk songs, that the music grew out of a folk song that might have existed. (BP)

This was really the first time I was able to use a folk idiom in a dramatic picture. I didn't want to use Copland style Americana -- that was too theatrical, almost too modern. Lonesome Dove needed a strong mythology, and making the score sound like folk music, with simple structures and very tuneful melodies, would give it a reality, as if it was really music from the period. (S68)

To me, folk music is one of the great wellsprings of melodic material. It's the simplest expression of the human soul. It conveys a complicated emotion very simply. (LD)

I was a folk music freak. I loved the stuff. I was a classical musician, but folk was a sideline. I grew up with that whole Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Weavers, The Dillards...Allan Lomax was one of my heroes. I played banjo and guitar in a folk music group, and we played at shows, and it augmented my whole classical side. So Lonesome Dove gave me an opportunity to use that. I had played with that idiom in a bunch of educational films before, but never in a dramatic form. So this was really the first time I was able to use a folk idiom in a dramatic picture, and it seemed to really work.

The other thing was that some of it was really dictated by budgetary considerations. I may not have used as much of the small groupings in the film if we had the budget, but I'm glad I did because I think it really worked. It just added a different dimension to it.

It was the first Western I'd ever done, and it was the first time I got to work in this idiom, dramatically, so it came at a good time. I'd done a few things before that but nothing quite like it, so it gave me a real fresh palette to work from. The orchestra wasn't as large, it certainly had no choir, it was different from most of the action type stuff that I had tone up to that point.

I think the largest was around 30-40 musicians...The group was generally around seven to ten musicians.

There were two guitars, steel-stringed guitar, a hammered dulcimer, some banjo in the July Johnson theme. I also used accordion. I used it to replace the harmonica, which I think is too often used in Westerns. Then, blended in with that group were solo instruments like solo cello, solo oboe, solo flutes, and there were all kinds of strange percussion. It was such a joy to watch and write music for. I'm not going to say it was effortless, because I ran out of time, but it was one of the most pleasurable things I'd ever done. (S68)

Poledouris received his first and onlyEmmy nomination for his score to Part 4 of Lonesome Dove, ultimately winning the award:

I didn't think it was very important, I tried to downplay the importance of either winning or losing, and when they were reading the names of the nominees is when it started to grow, and when I realized that I had to win this thing it was terrifying, it was actually a terrifying sensation, because I could do nothing to affect the outcome. It didn't matter. It was an extraordinary experience. (BP)

A sequel miniseries, Return to Lonesome Dove (not based on McMurtry's writings), featured a score by Ken Thorne adapting Poledouris's themes. McMurtry wrote one sequel novel and two prequels, all of which have been filmed as miniseries. Streets of Laredo was scored by David Shire, Dead Man's Walk by David Bell, and the upcoming Comanche Moon, directed by Wincer, has been scored by Lennie Niehaus.

Poledouris wrote a brief score for the unsuccessful John Belushi biopic WIRED (which nonetheless managed to launch the career of actor Michael Chiklis), and followed it up with his highest grossing film, the adaptation of Tom Clancy's THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin (as Clancy's protagonist, Jack Ryan), whose final form was affected by ongoing events such as the end of the Cold War:

The director, John McTiernan, asked me if I could use a Russian folk song for male chorus in the main title. I agreed with the concept but chose to invent my own song, one from which the thematic material for the rest of the score could be drawn. (MM)

Red October is distinctly Russian because the character is distinctly Russian. My original concept for Red October would be "Rachmaninoff goes to sea," and there's a little bit of that in there, but because of what happened politically -- as the film was being edited actually -- a lot of the emphasis of the film got shifted, and basically what McTiernan and I realized was that the thrust of the movie was that it became a mystery. It became in a sense a thriller, as opposed to a political statement. The fact that they were going to blow up the United States with this boomer -- at one point they had considered editing the film so that the audience didn't know if in fact that's what he was going to do for the first eight reels. That sort of became [not] the issue, because the threat of Russia doing that was lessened severely by the beginning of 1990. That film was released in March [1990], so it became a dead issue.

We also thought that the film would share two very distinctive styles -- distinctly Russian at the beginning, then as the sub moved closer to the United States and we're more involved with the Jack Ryan character, and the flat-top coming in and the rescue mission, that it would become more Copland-esque. But again, that whole notion got sidetracked because the main dynamic of the movie was a mystery. It became a lot more Herrmannesque than anything, with a Russian twist. (S44)

Along with Poledouris's original score, the film featured a tracked-in (and credited) cue, "Payoff," from his score to No Man's Land:

I suspect one of the reasons McTiernan hired me was because of that piece. He had it very strong in his mind that he wanted to use it for that scene. Basically, I was trying to score Connery's speech about life at sea and twenty years with no battles, and it's a very reflective thing. He's also thinking about his wife who had been butchered by the Russian doctors (which is the whole reason he does this in the first place, which never comes up out in the movie). So I thought I'd have the unseen wife in there, and all this sort of stuff.

You know, I saw it the other night, and I must say I don't disagree with [McTiernan's choice]. I did at the time. I took strong exception to it, because I thought it set up Sam Neill being killed in the conning tower later. But basically what No Man's Land does is keep the tension of the "Crazy Ivan" maneuver, you know, when they're circling the sub. I'm not sure, because I have no knowledge of this, but my guess is that at that point, this is one of those vestigial things left over from when they were going to keep the audience in the dark about whether he was going to blow up the United States or not.

And I think McTiernan thought there was a tension and a strangeness [in "Payoff"]. He was always nuts about it, to the point where he asked me to re-do it, since I did it the first time. And I looked at it and realized that they had cut it -- again, there's a scene that was cut to a piece of music -- and for me to try to recreate it exactly the way they had cut it would be impossible. I could have gotten it close, but it wouldn't have had the same effect, the same feeling. (S44)

John is a terrific director with a great sense of movement and pacing. The Red October score didn't need to duplicate this so I got to stretch the tempo and tried to provide a sense of the size and mission of the sub itself. I played all the main themes for John on the piano, he approved them and we met again on the scoring stage. He was very involved with the recording and the Russian choir sessions. (M17)

John's very interesting. I think he's a brilliant director. I really do admire him and respect him as a director, and I saw a lot of myself in him. He will put off making a decision till the last minute. Red October -- I think they finished mixing about a week before it hit the theaters, before they needed 8000 prints, they were still mixing. (S44)

Three of Clancy's later Jack Ryan novels were also filmed; Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger were scored by James Horner, and The Sum of All Fears featured one of Jerry Goldsmith's final scores.


NEXT TIME: Sailing, sequels, Seagal, and the Basil vs. Hans death match.


BP: Basil Poledouris: His Life and Music, Written by Jon Burlingame, Produced by Nick Redman and Michael Rosendale, Directed by Rosendale (Vineyard Haven Video, 1997)
BS: Interview for BSOSpirit by Jose Luis Diez Chellini
C15: Cinemascore, issue #15: "Basil Poledouris on scoring Amerika," interview by Randall D. Larson
F30-31: Interview by Darren Cavanaugh and Paul Andrew MacLean in the February/March 1993 issue of Film Score Monthly (issue 30/31)
FK: Liner notes for the Farewell to the King CD on Prometheus by Dan Goldwasser
LD: Liner notes for the Lonesome Dove CD on Sonic Images, by Randall D. Larson
M17: Interview by Mikael Carlsson from the Summer 1997 issue of Music from the Movies (#17)
MM: From the 2nd edition of the book Music for the Movies, by Tony Thomas (Silman-James Press, 1997)
S44: Interview by Darren Cavanaugh and Paul Andrew MacLean in the December 1992 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 11, No. 44)
S64: Interview by Rudy Koppl in the December 1997 issue of Soundtrack (Vol 16, No. 64)
S68: Interview by Randall Larson in the Winter 1998/1999 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 17, No 68)


Parts One, Two and Three of this series can be accessed on the website.


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

MailBag@filmscoremonthly.com


Past Film Score Daily Articles

Film Score Monthly Home Page
© 1997-2014 Lukas Kendall. All rights reserved.