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BASIL POLEDOURIS: IN HIS OWN WORDS

PART SIX: FROM THE JUNGLE TO THE HIGHWAY

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

Following On Deadly Ground, Poledouris had three major studio releases in 1994. He scored John Waters' dark comedy SERIAL MOM, his deft orchestral score at times evoking Herrmann and Elfman (Poledouris reportedly loaned his last remaining copy of the rare Cherry 2000 CD to the director and never got it back), and, temporarily typecast after the success of Free Willy, scored the modern-day LASSIE. He returned to his adventure roots with the live action RUDYARD KIPLING'S THE JUNGLE BOOK for director Stephen Sommers, who would later direct the hugely successful Mummy films:

A lot of the stuff in Lassie and in Jungle Book is from experiences with my own children. What is it that they would find interesting about the piece of music that I would write for the particular scene? Would it be charming, would it be enchanting, would it be magical for them? (IFM)

Jerry Goldsmith had been set to do it originally, and I think what happened was that Jungle Book's schedule had been pushed back; the post-production was taking longer than they had anticipated, and Jerry had commitments to another film. So, I supposed I got it by default. That sort of thing happens a lot in Hollywood. Schedules jam up sometimes.

I knew it had to be highly thematic. It is very difficult to drag just underscore along for 20 minutes, also it had to set up the characters. I think the music points out who's who. Very much the same way that writing introduces the characters in the film, I think the music did that too, by setting the place, the mood, and the period of the film, which is the late 1800s.

The first reel or two of a film, the first 20 minutes, is a very difficult time for the audience, because they're making the transition from getting out of their car, sitting down in the theater, and thinking about "Where did I put the popcorn?" and "Did I drop the car keys?" -- all as the movie is starting. The first ten minutes of a film are absolutely essential to letting an audience know what kind of world they are entering musically.

The ear can only assimilate so much, and if you've got a melody and dialogue running loudly, they are obviously going to fight each other. If there is no dialogue, you can't just put up musical wallpaper and expect it to hold anyone's attention. In such an instance you can't pad. The absence of dialogue allowed me to speak more fully about what was happening on screen.

What the director, Stephen Sommers, wanted was a large, orchestral action-adventure score, and once you started getting into serious ragas and ceremonial music, it becomes very difficult to use them in a dramatic way. The real obvious, stereotypical way to do it would have been to use only the rhythm instruments, which I did, somewhat, throughout the score. However, it was unlike what I did for On Deadly Ground, where I used authentic Eskimo drums and patterns and chanting. Such an approach for Jungle Book seemed to be out of character with the request for more of an action-adventure Romantic type film score.

Frankly, I don't remember the Rozsa score, although I know it's on his list of favorites. When the original came out in 1942, even I wasn't born then, and it wasn't high on my list of films when I was a young man. I asked the director if he wanted to make any homage to the original Jungle Book, and he said absolutely not. This was going to be a new picture with new energies. In fact he himself had not seen the original. Frankly there was not enough time to do the kind of research an homage would have required anyway.

I think I had four and a half weeks to score the entire movie, from the time we spotted until we finished recording in London. We had spotted 88 minutes of music, so it had kind of struck terror into my heart, at least. What made it possible, however, was the fantastic support I received from Stephen Sommers, Ed Feldman and Matt Walker and Andy Hill at Disney. All I had to do was write.

Twelve weeks would have been a very comfortable amount of time to have done a picture as big as Jungle Book with that much music in it. It was also very large orchestral music. Steven wanted a certain kind of old-fashioned hit on the music, for it to be very melodic, punctuative, and rhythmically quick as well as hitting a lot of cues. So it was a very tall order. (F55-56)

Poledouris reunited with action star Steven Seagal for the Geoff Murphy-directed sequel UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY, which gave Katherine Heigl one of her first major film roles; Gary Chang had scored the first Under Siege, and the sequel used none of his music. Poledouris scored a sequel to one of his own projects, FREE WILLY 2: THE VOYAGE HOME, reworking his original Free Willy themes and providing new material. He wrote the theme for the TV minsiseries DANIELLE STEEL'S ZOYA, with William Goldstein providing the score, and scored his fourth film for director Randal Kleiser, with the intimate drama IT'S MY PARTY providing a less troubled experience than their previous collaboration, White Fang:

The idea emanated with Randal Kleiser, the writer-director. Randal was also a class mate at USC Cinema School and I've done several of his films. He is always taken with the thematic material I present him on piano and has expressed, in the past, a desire for the orchestrations to be more like the piano. He got his wish with It's My Party, and I think the choice was bold and correct. The film is about a man and his estranged lover who is dying of AIDS. They reconcile in the last few days of the lover's life. We needed something that was expressively tender but also masculine. Piano was the choice. I played all the cues. Randal and I spent several months working out the various ideas. Music was loosely sketched but not to any frame-accurate timings. We didn't want the cues to sound contrived but very natural and improvisational. By the time we recorded, I had memorized the film and its timings became internal. It was a new approach for me and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Again, it seems as if time were a partner in this score as it changed from week to week as the entire film became clearer and more fluid to me. (M17)

He scored the comedy CELTIC PRIDE, starring Damon Wayans, Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern, as well writing music for another, more prestigious sports themed project -- the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, for which he provided an original piece, THE TRADITION OF THE GAMES, for the opening ceremony:

First of all, nothing exists from ancient Greece. I think there are scraps, fragments, of what the music may have sounded like, so it was really kind of a process of my own remembering what the rhythms were.

My father used to dance a lot, you know, at parties and gatherings. I've always liked particularly, in modern composition, the Greek composers...[Mikis] Theodorakis, I've always been a fan of his, and [Yannis] Xenakis.

So there's almost a...working backwards. I got some tapes that were recorded in the 30s, and I figured that those were probably pretty close to the way music had been in Greece for a long, long time. If you go to some small village in 1930, there's not a whole lot of association with the outside world in that time.

I did sort of a deconstruction about what I thought music might have sounded like, and then plugged in my own childhood memories of things, and my own ideas about what the ancient games might have been like. So I think it lent an incredible reality, imagined or otherwise, but at least it was real to me.

My father had passed away about two months before. And I was going to do it as sort of a tribute to him. He became ill and died about two months before the Olympics, so it was with...it was very sad, you know, because it was something I thought would really be a statement about him, and his birthplace. Not that the other films that I'd written...that he wasn't very taken by them, or moved by the music, but this was really more for him, as well as me.

I got this amazing kind of tutoring in Homer. So the Iliad and the Odyssey weren't mythology...I mean, they were mythology, but they were more like history as I learned them, as the history of Greece as opposed to the stories about the heroes of Greece.

So I think that gave me a particular kind of identification, not with the modern Greece so much, but with ancient Greece. I mean, the real heritage of the ancient world, to which I took, studying classics. And I
particularly enjoy doing movies that are about mythology, and heroes. (BP)

He wrote a brief, intimate score for Emilio Estevez's third film as a director, the little-seen, underrated, THE WAR AT HOME, starring Estevez as a Vietnam vet and Martin Sheen and Kathy Bates as his parents:

It was soft, tragic, and about a family in crisis with a guy who's in the middle of a nervous breakdown. This is about the war and what it did to a lot of people, like the characters in the film. That was the war in Vietnam. For a number of reasons this is something I lived through. I didn't go to Vietnam, but there were discussions in the film amongst the family that went on in my own life. It's about being divided by circumstances.

My father had just passed away and this was the first film I did since that happened. Thank God it wasn't Celtic Pride I was scoring or some damn comedy. This film, and I will be eternally grateful to Emilio Estevez for making it, gave me a place to put my grief appropriately. It wasn't as if I were doing a comedy and then writing this emotionally charged music. The film sort of collided with my world at that time in the sense that it was an appropriate vehicle for me to put myself into it without having to force anything. I didn't have to force anything with The War at Home. You don't have to do that with good movies.

The war to me was an unbelievable tragedy. I remember when I went on an interview with Oliver Stone for Platoon, he was very interested in using The Battle Hymn of the Republic for the main theme of Platoon. To this day I remember saying "Oliver, to me the Vietnam War was the single largest tragedy to dissolve this country since the Civil War. I really don't think you want to be out there singing Battle Hymn of the Republic when you're marching through Vietnam." He may have meant it in a very ironic sense, but I never got past that. I said "Frankly, I think it should be very sad." He said, "Sad?" I said, "You know, something like Adagio for Strings." Of course now that's what he got in there. (S64)

He scored a boy-and-a-horse drama, AMANDA, starring Keiran Culkin, which never received a major release in the U.S., and BREAKDOWN, a tense action-thriller from writer-director Jonathan Mostow, with Kurt Russell as a man whose wife (Kathleen Quinlan) disappears from a truck stop during a cross-country trip:

Breakdown was an incredible script. I think it was the quickest read I've ever had, a real page-turner. It was kind of a gestalt the way it read, very clean, very clear, it wasn't burdened with all kinds of camera directions and scene descriptions and blocking and things like that. Jonathan Mostow took it and gave it a real style quite different from the way I thought it would be. What I look for is a consistency in the style of the film because I think a score should have a consistency too, and if the film's all over the board -- unless it's intended to be -- I think it creates problems for scoring.

[The final film] was much sparser than I'd imagined. It would be the difference between The Wild Bunch and...well, Breakdown! Wild Bunch was very epic, full of grandeur, and Breakdown is more internal. I thought originally Breakdown would have a fuller sound with a larger orchestra representing the heroic kinds of things, whereas in fact it's about a guy who is not a fighter; he's not a cop, he's just a guy, an Everyman who finds the strength to overcome that terror to save his life. But he doesn't do it with trumpets and French horns! The music is sparse, not paranoid but definitely edgy. (KS)

Actually, I wrote three scores -- well, two and a half. Jonathan Mostow and I talked a lot about the style of music he was looking for, and it came around to Bernard Herrmann. Dino De Laurentiis, whom I hadn't worked with in 20 years since Conan, wanted a strong "tema" -- theme. So the first time around, I came up with this idea of using guitars (because it takes place in the Southwest) and orchestra -- and came up with this main theme which was...well, I wouldn't say that it was as much Bernard Herrmann as Kimberly was Georges Delerue. It was a pretty large orchestra. We came back, and Jonathan decided that it wasn't really what the film needed. So he decided that it should be more like Ennio Morricone than Bernard Herrmann. So we explored that approach, and that wasn't it either. From there it became very deconstructionist. We utilized a lot of synthesizers. Eric Colvin played the synths, Jud Miller played the EVI (and got a lot of strange effects), and Steve Forman did the percussion. We ended up with those three instruments on the score -- a drastically different approach.

At first it really bothered me that Jonathan could be so flip about it, but in the end I think he really got a score that best represented the film's ideas. He was right -- it was a little annoying that we had to go through two other scores first, but it was really a process. I know it frustrated Dino a little bit. In the end, if a studio is willing to spend the money and take the time, and you're not fighting a release date and you have a film like Breakdown where there weren't too many precedents -- we've all seen thrillers and action -- it wasn't like Robocop or Starship Troopers where you're creating a whole new language for the genre. But nonetheless it took experimentation, and Jonathan was willing to do it. In the end, he had a really good attitude about it -- it certainly wasn't an ego thing. So in retrospect it wasn't half as horrible as I thought it was. Also it better prepared me to work with Hugh Grant, who really loves to experiment. Timing is critical in comedy, and I learned a lot about that. Eric Colvin did all the mockups, and we probably had 10 different versions of the Mickey Blue Eyes score -- each one with minute changes -- but they're all different in terms of timing, pace, where the payoff to the joke is, how much to clear for a setup to a joke, pausing for laughter, etc. I think Jonathan Mostow prepared me to be able to do that because all of a sudden the process became more collaborative. (S44)


NEXT TIME: Everything you always wanted to know about Starship Troopers.

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)
F55-56: "Basil Poledouris Scoring The Jungle Book" by Paul Andrew MacLean in the April 1995 issue of Film Score Monthly (issue 55/56)
IFM: From the book Inside Film Music: Composers Speak, by Christopher Desjardins (Silman-James Press, 2007)
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)
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, Four and Five of this series can be accessed on the website.


Edited by Scott Bettencourt
 

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