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BASIL POLEDOURIS: IN HIS OWN WORDS

PART FIVE: SEQUELS, SAILING, SEAGAL, AND A SCORE COMPETITION

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

Poledouris followed his Emmy-winning Lonesome Dove with another project with its director, Simon Wincer, the lighthearted Australia-set Western QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER. He reunited with his USC classmate Randal Kleiser for their third feature together, an adaptation of Jack London's classic WHITE FANG, but the project proved to be a troubled one for the composer -- not only due to confusing dictates as to the film's musical approach, but because Poledouris found himself competing against an alternate score composed by Hans Zimmer (with help from Shirley Walker and Fiachra Trench):

It was a very interesting exercise in how to spend a lot of money on a film which was reported to have had a minimal budget. I think there was a strong desire to keep the production costs minimal on the score. On the other hand, there was the conflicting directive which requested in general the score should be very melodic, and the example was "like Lawrence of Arabia," which as a composer I interpret to mean very large orchestra. There was a strong desire on the part of the music personnel over there to keep the cost down. I was instructed to think in terms of real ethnic kinds of music, after which I did some research about Eskimo music. It's not terribly rich, Eskimo music. In fact it's essentially chanting. And even the instruments themselves (and I suspect because trees are scarce) are primarily percussive. There are very few, if any melodic kinds of instruments involved. So what this essentially led to was a small group consisting of about six musicians: flutes and drums and synthesizer, because I knew that I would need some dramatic sense in a few of the scenes. That represented about one quarter of the score, that size group, and I proceeded scoring. And the rest of it was not exactly giant orchestra, but I think it was around sixty, or sixty-five musicians.

Then the score [for the] first six reels was completed, it was screened. And I think at that time whoever desired the Lawrence of Arabia-type stuff really freaked, because all they were hearing were small indigenous kinds of Indian flutes, and rattles and shakers. Unfortunately, that comprised most of the first six reels and the orchestra then kicked in, with the exception of the main title and a couple of other sequences.

At that point, Hans was set to re-score the picture. I finished mine, knowing that Hans was writing another. Hans finished his, having no idea I was in fact still at work. I must say that it is a really underhanded thing to do to a composer, to both composers. You should fire one, and let the other one do a score. It just really markedly shows they had no idea what the hell they were looking for so they're going to try potluck. Now the director was always on my side because it was Randal, and I had worked with Randal, he knows I sort of have an understanding. So they brought in the [exec in charge], they showed him the first reel with my score, and then they showed him reel one with Hans' score, and Fiachra and Shirley. And then he would choose. He'd say "Oh I like that, and that, and that."

The way it ended up, percentage-wise I think I have 83% of the score, Hans has 14%, and Shirley has 1.2% and Fiachra Trench has about 3.6%.

I just saw it the other night for the very first time. I never saw it in the theater. I was too heartsick about the whole dynamic, because the way it ended up it was ludicrous that they put everybody through all that, and probably spent well over a million dollars on the music, and the budget was originally $230,000. That's why when people talk budgets to me I like go TOTALLY NUTS. (S44)

Poledouris scored his fifth and final feature for director John Milius, the Vietnam-era military drama FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER (Poledouris was unavailable to score Milius's next project, the TV movie Rough Riders, with the assignment going to Peter Bernstein with help from his father Elmer):

With the exception of the Intruder March, I don't think this score is about patriotism. I think it addresses the individual who would break all orders to circumvent political non-action. It also addresses the terror of what it must have felt like to be in the cockpit of an A-6 jet plane and watch Surface-to-Air missiles screaming toward you. It is also about a recurring Milius theme -- loyalty to one's friends. Unfortunately, the sound effects are so loud, I can understand why these concepts may be impossible to hear! (M17)

Poledouris returned to familiar subject matter with RETURN TO THE BLUE LAGOON, a long-in-development sequel to his first big hit film, starring Milla Jovovich and Brian Krause as another marooned young couple in love (despite Jovovich's resemblance to original Blue Lagoon star Brooke Shields, it is actually Krause who plays the child of the original film's lead characters):

I was disappointed that they didn't use the next book [The Garden of God, by Blue Lagoon author Henry De Vere Stacpole], which is in fact a continuation of the first Blue Lagoon. It seemed to me that [what] we ended [up] with in the second one was really a remake of the first Blue Lagoon, with new people for, again, a new generation. It was ten years ago that the first one was made -- a new audience. So yes, I was excited because when I wrote the first one I was still close enough to my own adolescence to get a lot of that into it, and the second one gave me an opportunity to sort of re-live my life at the time that I wrote the first one. So I was flooded with a lot of the memories of the way I felt, the way my family situation was. My children were much younger, I was much younger, so there was a kind of walking down memory lane. They weren't bad memories, so I think there's a lot of nostalgia in the second Blue Lagoon.

And you know, one of the criteria for doing [Return to the] Blue Lagoon was that it would have all new themes, with the exception of the only time we see the original two characters, for they're dead. You know, you play that over the main title. But I think it's always interesting when a composer gets to go back and re-work the themes, if you can develop them and take them to new places. Just repeating them is kind of boring. So in that sense it was kind of challenging too, to cover the same territory with new ideas, but stylistically I don't think I tried anything wildly different from the first one. (S44)

Poledouris had his third project (and second feature) for director Simon Wincer, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, a light-hearted action film pairing Mickey Rourke as a biker and Don Johnson as a modern cowboy:

I think Simon Wincer is a fabulous director. As an artist he gives me almost complete control, once he establishes the ground rules. I think the material he chooses is interesting stuff, and I'd go with Simon any day. It certainly wasn't a favor. A challenge, yes. Basically, you're dealing with two great American myths: the Cowboy and the Biker, but you set them in 1996. To me, the quintessential biker sound is "Green Onions" or "Born to Be Wild," and the quintessential Cowboy is French horns and large orchestra -- y'know, Tiomkin, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. That is the Cowboy. Here, we have an audience which may or may not have ever seen Rebel without a Cause or Gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- basically kids. So the challenge is trying to carry over some of the mythical qualities of that music and those musical styles into the future, which basically I tried to affect with synthesizers throughout the score. Also, the score was primarily action. It wasn't like Lonesome Dove, where character was the predominant, overriding issue of the film. The overriding issue of Harley Davidson and The Marlboro Man is action. So by definition, I think action always needs rhythm, so there's a lot of that in it.

Mickey Rourke is a tough [guy] to score with music, he's so powerful, He's got such a strong screen persona, to come up with a sound that even begins to stick to the screen with him is a very difficult thing. I remember when I did it with Harley, I screamed for joy because I had been going bananas for two weeks. (S44)

Poledouris scored NED BLESSING, a Western TV movie written by Lonesome Dove's William Witliff and starring Daniel Baldwin, which became an extremely short-lived TV series starring Brad Johnson. His next feature was WIND, a romantic drama about sailing, starring Matthew Modine, Jennifer Grey, and Stellan Skarsgard, directed by the acclaimed Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf):

I've been sailing since I was seven years old. So sailing is something I know a great deal about and have some very strong opinions about what it sounds like musically. Wind was a grand opportunity to lay those ideas out. It's an interesting score because a lot of this was done in my studio. In fact I did a lot of the solo synthesizer work and I really enjoyed it. (S64)

Carroll Ballard probably thought I was a stalker when he was doing Wind. I'd been sailing all my life, and when I heard about Wind, it's like I camped out on his doorstep in San Francisco. I must tell you, for me there's always been this fine line between selling yourself and begging, and it just depends, like anything else, on the attitude with which one pursues it. That was a film I was born to write, and I knew it, and I just wanted to make sure that he knew it, too. I think this was probably the most aggressive pursuit of a film ever. (KS)

But it was a joy to score those sea sequences. The director, Carroll Ballard, came up with shots of those boats and those races that are absolutely fabulous. It gave me a chance to use my banks of synthesizers and multiple keyboards and electronic gadgetry. I thought that the effects you can get with all this stuff -- the pounding and surging and the almost illusory feeling you get with that kind of action on the water -- was the right way to go with those sequences. But you have to be very careful about the use of electronic music in film scoring. You can do all kinds of wonderful things with these modern computer systems, but you can never duplicate the feeling you can get with real instruments played by humans. You must never lose sight of the difference. (MM)

Poledouris parodied his own action scores with the spoof sequel HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX, and scored another sequel, ROBOCOP 3 (Leonard Rosenman had scored 1990's RoboCop 2, directed by Irvin Kershner). As with the original RoboCop, Poledouris was interviewed about the project before he scored it...

Fred Dekker, who's the director of RoboCop 3, I think one of his criteria for hiring me is that I will use thematic material from the first RoboCop, particularly the heroic march stuff, things like that. Maybe the home theme -- there is a sequence where he remembers his past again. So yes, there will be elements of that, but in RoboCop 3, there are some really good villains as usual, and this time he comes up against "Ninja-Robo." So I think that's going to present a really rich basis to draw from, in terms of Kabuki music and Seven Samurai kinds of music. What I've got in mind basically is I'd like to use some of the sounds -- not necessarily the styles -- but the sounds of the koto, the Japanese ceremonial drum, things like that.

I have seen it. I saw the rough cut about a month ago. The post-production schedule is very comfortable. I think they're taking the kind of time and care that most films should have in post-production, so it'll probably be another couple of weeks before we spot the film. So they've had a great deal of time to hone it down to its proper pace and length. I've started working on a couple of the other major characters. Interestingly enough, one of the main characters in the film is a fourteen-year-old girl -- she's actually the heroine of the movie. So I've been working on her theme which is like counter to Robo. (S44)

...as well as afterwards...

I found this interesting because the character had regained some of his humanity. He knows who he is, and he isn't so disturbed. With the character more resolved, I didn't feel the need to use electronics extensively. The score is more grounded in human emotions. This is the approach I prefer. I like stories that have to do with people, I like to write for human relationships. I like the intimate rather than the violent. (MM)

The sleeper hit FREE WILLY, about a troubled boy and his friendship with a whale, inspired two sequels and a new trend of animal-themed family films, and reunited Poledouris with director Simon Wincer:

I like all the movies I've scored, you know, and you don't really think about...I don't choose them because I think they're going to be hits nor not. I choose them because I can find something to write for them.

The thematic material came very quickly, as in Lonesome Dove. I think I saw Lonesome Dove and came home that afternoon and sat down and had the three main themes by six o'clock that evening. The same thing happened with FreeWilly.

What I wasn't sure of was whether it would work. I suppose...Simon also is quite taken by melody, so I've been quite fortunate. Obviously directors are attracted to me for that reason, perhaps, but I was unsure about whether we should do that kind of a...it's almost, it's quasi-classical...ballet is exactly what it feels like.

But I wasn't sure if he would go for it, so I remember the day he came over. I just played it for him, very loosely on the piano, and he had tears. And I thought well, okay, maybe this is it.

I get to a place that I call very raw, and I really am unable to make any kind of assessment about what I'm doing, and that's when I really have to rely on the director.

Let me digress a bit. I have this feeling, that I grew up with my children. I kind of went through their childhood, I suppose, because I was there all the time. I was at home writing. So there's a kind of sweetness that they brought to my life, a softer side, and Free Willy kind of played into that.

But, again, it was the ocean. (BP)

Poledouris next scored the ecologically-themed action adventure ON DEADLY GROUND, the directorial debut of its star, Steven Seagal:

Seagal was cool. It was one of the more meaningful experiences I've had with a director. I found Steven to be an absolute gentleman. He was very well versed in my scores and had strong ideas of what he thought the music should be for his film -- he knew he wanted an orchestral, sweeping kind of thing to match the grandeur and scope of Alaska, and he also knew he wanted some Native American music.

His instruction with the main theme was that he wanted it to be very strong, and have kind of an indigenous flavor to it, utilizing the native rhythms, which are very straight, they're not African or Tahitian. I needed them to give it a surging, driving quality, and I think it also gives it an exotic kind of quality. I guess you could interpret it as oil wells going up and down too. He really wanted it to have that drive, and more importantly he wanted it to speak clearly and directly.

I used a lot of electronic flutes blended with acoustic ones, and electronic sampled native drums along with Steve Foreman who played real percussion. (F44)

Frankly, I was a little scared at the start because of Seagal's image as a tough action hero. He not only turned out to be a sensitive director but a man with a love of music -- in fact, he can actually read music. We could discuss the use of music in his film, and he gave me ideas that I accepted. Working with such a director makes all the difference for me. I think composers should be hired by directors, since they have to work so closely on the concept and texture of the film. More often than not, directors and composers get stuck with each other. Both directing and composing are rather subjective arts, and it helps the film when you have someone with whom you have an understanding. For example, one of the problems in scoring films is that it's easy to be misled by the personalities of the actors. It helps if you have a director who can point out that it's the characters about whom you should be writing. (MM)


NEXT TIME: From the jungle to the highway.


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)
F44: Interview by Lukas Kendall in the April 1994 issue of Film Score Monthly (issue 44)
KS: From the book Knowing the Score by David Morgan (Harper Paperbacks, 2000)
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)


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


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

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