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BASIL POLEDOURIS: IN HIS OWN WORDS

PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS, THE FIRST SCORES

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

Basil Konstantine Poledouris was born on August 21, 1945 in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Garden Grove, California.

Music has always been in my home. My father was an amateur violinist and my mother an equal caliber pianist. I started formal studies at age seven with the desire to become a concert pianist, until I picked up a guitar...and discovered opera.(M17)

The first soundtrack album that I heard, or even knew existed was The Robe, 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 Miklos Rozsa, 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 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 Rozsa, Newman and Mancini.(F9-4)

I started earning money when I was 12 years old playing alto sax in a Dixieland band. I also was in a folk-singing group in high school and we played coffee houses in the beach cities of Southern California where all my schooling took place. My studies in piano were the foremost musical activity until I entered the School Of Cinema at USC.(M17)

I went to USC to study music. I had attended CSU in Long Beach for a year and half on music scholarship as a pianist.(SN99) I went to USC for three reasons. First, Miklos Rozsa had been teaching film score composition and I loved his music. Second, John Crown was head of the piano department, and third, my girlfriend was attending the university. Rozsa retired that year and David [Raksin] took over. The main thing I took away from the classes with David was his unique approach to film scoring. That scores must have an intellectual and emotional basis before the music is written. In other words, the drama must be understood before music can be considered. (M17)

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 (F9-4)...most of the music theory and composition was very modern: atonal serial composition, 12-tone stuff, etc. It was too heavy for me -- I didn't understand it, and I didn't want to understand it.(SN99)

I decided I wasn't really interested in being a concert pianist but was interested in conducting and the orchestra. The sound of the orchestra just totally intrigued me because of the power and the textures.

I wandered into the cinema department at USC at a particularly volatile time, you know, the mid-sixties, when everything seemed to be changing and in flux. It just seemed that the movie camera and the art of cinema itself had a little more to say to my generation than classical music.(IFM) I was ahead of Randal Kleiser by a year, but was there with George Lucas, Caleb Deschanel, Walter Murch, Matthew Robbins, Gary Kurtz, Kathleen Kennedy, and others.

Socially and politically, the '60s were going on (this was in 1965) and the Beatles had just hit America.(SN99) The social ills of our time seemed more relevant than perfecting 400 year old finger exercises.(M17) There were cultural and political upheavals taking place, and I felt that being a pianist wasn't going to address them, and 12-tone composition wasn't going to address them either. It was old and still being taught as modern.(SN99)

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.(F9-4)

When it came to look for music for the movies that I was making, I really couldn't find anything that I thought was appropriate, so I started writing it. That's basically how I started.(IFM) By now, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker -- this seemed to be the art and craft of my generation. But I didn't give up on music because I was scoring not only my own pictures but those of other students.(MM)

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.(F9-4)

I was on full scholarship working towards a Masters Degree when I became one of the first AFI interns. They would give me an internship for six months with a professional, and I requested to work with Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Frederico Fellini. They gave me Larry Turman. He was a producer who had just done The Graduate, so it wasn't a slouchy thing, but it made me realize that I really wanted to be a musician, not a filmmaker or a producer. It was a serious wakeup call that came at a good time in my life.(SN99)

This was the Big League, and the more I saw of film production on that level, the more I realized I was best suited for the kind of anonymity and solitude I enjoy as a composer, especially when George Lucas took me aside one day and said "Basil, you're a much better composer than you are a director."

By the time I graduated I was agonizing about giving up music in order to find work in the film business in editing or some form of production. My music-loving parents were very upset that I didn't seem to want to make a living as a musician.(MM)

It's in my personality to be a musician and composer. I don't like "water cooler" manners: smiling and saying hello to people on a daily basis. If I want to sit here and eat plaster or whatever, it's my prerogative! As a kid, I spent four hours a day practicing the piano from the time I was seven. Even today, I much prefer spending time in my studio for 16-20 hours a day. That's what I've done all my life, and what I'll hopefully do until the day I die! (SN99)

During this period, Poledouris also scored educational and industrial films.

It was a great opportunity because it helped me understand the use of music in films and how to use various instruments, the parts of the orchestra, what's possible and what isn't.(MM)

Poledouris' first major credit was on the 1971 TV comedy movie CONGRATULATIONS, IT'S A BOY!, directed by William A. Graham (who would later go on to direct Return to the Blue Lagoon), with Bill Bixby as a bachelor who meets a teenager who claims to be his son. The music credit was shared with Richard Baskin, who is best known for his songs for Welcome to L.A. and his music supervision of Nashville (he also directed the 1989 youth musical Sing!). His first feature to receive any major notice was EXTREME CLOSE-UP (later released on cable and video with the memorably awful title Sex Through a Window). Extreme Close-Up is the story of an L.A. TV journalist (James McMullan) who becomes obsessed with voyeuristic technology while doing a story on the subject. Despite a screenplay by Michael Crichton and direction by Jeannot Szwarc, the film has little to recommend it besides Poledouris' inventive score:

The first feature I did was mainly electronic, but sometimes I'd write something for six brass, and the next week for six strings, and the next week for woodwinds. I sort of experimented with little sections of the orchestra.(S24)

During the mid-1970s he also scored an off-beat indie film, HOLLYWOOD 90028; an unsold pilot called THREE FOR THE ROAD, with Alex Rocco as a man raising two sons, played by Vincent Van Patten and Leif Garrett; THE ANDROS TARGETS, a short-lived TV series with James Sutorious as an investigative journalist; and TINTORERA, a shark thriller filmed in Mexico, starring Susan George.

His breakthrough project was BIG WEDNESDAY, a drama about the friendship of three young surfers (William Katt, Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent), which reunited him with his USC classmate, writer-director John Milius:

John was into two things: kendo and surfing. John grew up in L.A. and surfed Malibu. When he and I both realized we were surfers, we probably spent more time surfing than we did going to class, and he was the Bear -- he was the model for the Bear [the character played by Sam Melville] and we used to call him Bear.

John really loved piano and I had just been a piano major before I went into cinema. I started writing stuff when I was in college and he was aware of that. He would make up stories and I would accompany them with music, like a silent movie. His stories were always very romantic and very iconic, and one of the themes I wrote for him became the theme to Red Dawn, another one became the main theme to Conan, and another became the "Three Friends Theme" in Big Wednesday. He had an amazing musical memory.

John likes to work on the themes before he shoots the film. Music is a very integral part of his writing and he always has music playing when he writes. John insisted on melody and on the repetition of melody, and I think he realizes that a lot of his stuff is harsh and macho, and he wants music to soften that. We'd talk about ideas and themes and I would play them for him on the piano, and we had the friendship theme and the Hawaii theme written before the movie was shooting. Then I wrote another couple of things like "Bear's Wedding" -- I had just caught this great wave at Malibu one day and as I got out of the water there was this beautiful girl walking down the beach with her surfboard, and that inspired "Bear's Wedding" -- I didn't want to marry her but it inspired the music.

[Milius] wanted to honor the roots of surfing, which was Hawaii, where it was the sport of ancient kings and where only the kings were allowed to surf on boards in the early days -- it was the way they would prove their courage. He wanted to have some sense of Hawaii, and the idea of bringing the Hawaiian kings into it, without being Don Ho or the stereotypes of Hawaiian music -- the rhythm is the kind of rhythm you would hear in hula, and the sound is supposed to be ceremonial, so it's not just them, but the whole history of the sport walking down with them on that beach.

He had heard about Keola and Kapono Beamer, who were slack key Hawaiian guitarists, and he gave me this album that sounded like folk guitar but it was really mellow stuff -- it sounded like open D tuning, but had a whole different flavor to it. He wanted me to utilize that mentality and attitude and wanted them to work on the movie. But rather than have that be the whole voice of the film, his whole take on surfing was that he wanted much more of a mythology associated with it. He wanted to show the iconoclastic take on it, and his concept was that the music should convey the idea that surfing is the ultimate end of the Westward expansion. You can't go any further west than the ocean in the continental United States.

The main title itself establishes that the film is going to be about heroics and nostalgia. The next act is the Gathering Storm of Vietnam, and the set piece in that act is the "Jack Surfs Alone" cue, because it has an anger and aggression, a farewell to it because he's saying goodbye to his youth and accepting the mantle of being the responsible one in the group, which is a difficult thing for him. The power of the ocean and the mystery of it is something that I tried to represent. There's another theme in the main title that I called the ocean theme, played on high strings, and I use that in the "Passing of the Years." It sneaks back and forth and I think it's an attempt to integrate the characters and the sea and the Hawaiian reference.

Most of the orchestra was around 55-65 pieces throughout the film with the exception of the big wave sequence where we went up to 70 musicians. Clearly one of the things he wanted to do was represent the power and the size of those waves, so the music tries to do that, kind of using Newton's law that force equals mass times acceleration, so if you want it to be forceful use a big orchestra and have it play fast. Then in the slow-motion parts you have to bring back the feeling of what's going on between them and recall the first act of the film. To this day for me there's something very magical about reentering the ocean. They're older now and farther away from it and it recalls that nostalgia that they have about it.

It gave me a taste for writing for a big orchestra. I always had it but I didn't know I could to it. I also learned a lot about conducting because I'd never conducted a large orchestra before. Fortunately the Hollywood musicians were very kind to me and helped a lot; most of Big Wednesday is free timing as opposed to being locked into a click track, because John really wanted to have the flow and ebb of waves coming down and they're not metronomic, so that was a huge lesson.(BW)

Following a little-seen documentary titled DOLPHIN, Poledouris had his first box-office smash, the remake of the Henry De Vere Stacpoole novel THE BLUE LAGOON (previously filmed in 1949, starring Jean Simmons and Donald Houston and with a Clifton Parker score). The film, directed by Poledouris' USC classmate Randal Kleiser and starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins as a pair of young people discovering their sexuality while marooned on a tropical island, was a surprise hit, helped by the copious nudity, Nestor Almendros' Oscar-nominated cinematography, and Poledouris' lush and melodic score.

Randal Kleiser was at the premiere of Big Wednesday. Randall and I were also at USC together. He said he was doing a movie called The Blue Lagoon, and this was the kind of music he wanted. He wanted a large melodic orchestra and he said "I want you to score this movie." This was a year and a half before he actually did The Blue Lagoon. There were a couple of other movies in between that, but those were probably the two major landmarks in terms of my scores.

The Blue Lagoon was really a ballet; it certainly had as many non-dialogue scenes as Conan, but somehow they were lighter, they were lighter on their feet, it was more of a dance piece. Just the sparkle of the water, just a different world, different color and attitude.(S30)


NEXT TIME: A little barbarian you may have heard of.


Sources for Poledouris quotes:

BW: Liner notes for the Big Wednesday CD from Film Score Monthly, by Lukas Kendall and Jeff Bond
F9-4: Interview by S. Mark Rhodes in Film Score Monthly (Vol. 9, No. 4)
IFM: From the book Inside Film Music: Composers Speak, by Christopher Desjardins (Silman-James Press, 2007)
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)
S24: Film Music Seminar with Poledouris and Bruce Broughton, moderated by Richard Kraft, featured in the December 1987 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 6, No. 24)
S30: Interview by Vincent Jacquet-Francillon in the June 1989 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 8, No. 30)
SN99: Interview by Dan Goldwasser on Soundtrack.net, 10/8/99


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

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