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 TWO: THE BARBARIAN, THE PRETENDER, AND THE WOLVERINES

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

Despite the success of The Blue Lagoon, Poledouris continued to work in television, scoring two TV movies for 1981; both projects continued Poledouris' typecasting as a composer who specialized in The Great Outdoors. A WHALE FOR THE KILLING was an adaptation of the book by Farley Mowat (Never Cry Wolf), starring Peter Strauss, Dee Wallace, and Richard Widmark. FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN was an adaptation of the novel by Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang), with Buddy Ebsen as a rancher who tries to keep the government from turning his property into a missile range:

I remember that it was so hot that the tar was melting off the roof of my home in Encino! It was about 120 degrees outside and I didn't have air conditioning, and the room inside was 95 degrees! Although it was a contemporary piece, the Buddy Ebsen character was very much in the mold of Gus and Call from Lonesome Dove. He was the guy who was bringing that morality and that kind of mythology into the present. It really has to do more about moral character and strength, and I think that's what I tried to address in both of those films. I've read a couple of reviews that have said "oh, this is Copland, Copland, Copland." Well, Okay. Copland created an incredible sound for what America was in the 1940s, and it was the same place that I draw from, which were basically folk songs. He took it to a very sophisticated simplicity, whereas I tend to keep it simple, because the film itself is complicated. You have characters speaking and you have plots and you're watching things instead of just using your ears to hear them as you do in a concert. I think, by definition, film music can't be horribly complicated, so I guess in a way maybe it's time to distill it back to its essential essence, back to that era of simple folk construction. I think both Lonesome Dove and Fire on the Mountain share that idea. (S77)

1982 saw the release of his second feature for his old USC friend, writer-director John Milius, and though Poledouris went on to score higher-grossing films, his score for the epic fantasy adventure CONAN THE BARBARIAN is widely considered his greatest work for the big screen:

Conan is an unusual film because it's a music drama and Milius involved me with concept all through the filming. It called for almost continuous music and a huge orchestra and chorus, all of which we recorded in Rome. (MM)

John loves melody. He and I share a great admiration for Ennio Morricone's scores for the Sergio Leone films. I think those were a model that he liked, because they were operatic in a way with their use of voices and leitmotif. But he also knew that Conan needed to be ancient sounding.

He wanted it to be prehistoric, so it went way beyond Rome as depicted in the great movie epics, very much like what Miklos Rozsa did to create the sound of Rome -- nobody really knows what the hell any of that music sounded like. Milius wanted a very strong theme, and for it to sound mythological, [to have] that sense that this was a name that was known throughout time -- as if Conan were as real as Ulysses.

He knew he wanted it to be an opera, because he had so few lines of dialogue in the film that he thought the music would really need to carry a lot of the scenes and help the audience understand what it was about. The main thing was to plant this idea of the mythological. There's a scene where Conan is in a cave with the skull and the treasure, when he discovers the Atlantean sword. And I said, "What exactly is going on here?" And John said, "This is a ritual that's been waiting ten thousand years to happen -- just make it sound like that." Oh, okay, that's really clear!

But those are the kinds of directions he would give me: strong, powerful. It was about the strongest man on earth at that time. The romantic aspects of it I suspect just sort of snuck in because that's my personality. But John's very romantic as well. We just got on the same wavelength, and I always do with his scripts, because I understand them.

I did a lot of piano work before he started shooting. I'd play him themes, and then he took a couple of them on location and it sort of grew as he was shooting, and I would continue to write. I did the same thing on The Blue Lagoon with Randal Kleiser. That's why I say when he wanted an opera, it wasn't so much the fact that we used the voices but it was really more the idea behind the music, using music as a storytelling device.

The very first thing was the melodic line. I actually sat down with a guitar and came up with a song about Conan, this guy who was a king of his tribe, as if I were the bard who would be passing on a Homeric kind of heroic poem about this warrior. And for that reason I actually wrote lyrics for the main theme of Conan because I wanted it to be communicative. I wanted the phrases of the melody to be singable, conversation-like, so that future generations could remember them easily. That's really where I started. When it came time to harmonize it, the main model was Gregorian chant -- my idea of what Gregorian chant is. I didn't study Gregorian chant beyond school. But there's a fact that in primitive music the first interval was the octave and then historically, what'll happen next is you have people singing in unison, some of them will be singing in fifths and they won't realize it because they think they're singing the same note, so the next most primitive interval would be the fifth, and Conan uses a lot of that in the harmonic structure. So the film starts off very sparsely harmonically, and primitively (the sort of thing you'd flunk a harmony class in music school with if you turned it in as an example of your work). (KS)

The film starts at on the Steppes of Russia and gradually proceeds toward the Mediterranean Sea. The harmonies trace this journey by being rather pagan and cruel but warming up by the time we get to the cue "Theology and Civilization" after the transition cue of "The Atlantean Sword". Then it becomes even more harmonically rich with "The Orgy" culminating in "The Funeral Pyre" which then takes us back to revenge mode until the death of Thulsa Doom. I was speaking with John last week and he mentioned that he would never be allowed to take the screen time today that he did when Conan is sitting on the steps of the Mountain Of Power while contemplating his next move before burning down the evil den and offering his compassion to the Princess whom he is obviously going to return to King Osrik (even though he has been murdered unbeknownst). (BS)

I tried to keep an arc of the film warming until Conan's final realization, after he destroys the Temple of Doom, that he is king now, he has a responsibility -- he's not just a warrior, a slayer bent on revenge. And that was supposed to set up the second in the series of films, where the next one was going to be Conan the King. That of course never happened.

Conan I wanted to conduct because it was all free-timing. There were a couple of cues where I used clicks, but for the most part I really wanted it to breathe, I really wanted it to have a sense of being very natural. I think there was time to record -- I was in Rome for three weeks -- so we had a very comfortable recording session. When we recorded that, we didn't record every day, and because of that I could hear playbacks and really listen to try to find out what it was we were doing, but everything was fine. (KS)

For the cue "The Orgy," Poledouris gave a co-composing credit to his daughter Zoe:

She was nine years old at the time, and studying the recorder in school. And I was playing the basic melody which starts off the thing on the piano one day, and she walked in and started playing this counter-melody to it, over it. I thought it was awfully good, and we had a lot of fun. Basically we were just jamming, and I kept doing this stuff, and essentially the part she played became the French horn -- the long line that floats over all the activity, the active stuff. So that really is the origin, and I got to thinking about it. I thought, well she did as much writing as a lot of our colleagues do and get credited for writing. I thought in that sense it was truly co-written by us. She was with me in Rome when I recorded it, and I hadn't told her that I was going to use it (because she also wrote a little thing for Blue Lagoon too, before that), and I invited her to the recording session, and brought her out to the podium. I ran the cue down, and the French horn line came on and it was her stuff -- she recognized it immediately. So we finished the rehearsal and I asked her what she thought of it, and she said, "Well, it's okay, but you really messed up one of the notes." (S44)

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 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. (F9-4)

Poledouris reunited with Blue Lagoon director Randal Kleiser for another nudity-filled youthful romance, the modern-day SUMMER LOVERS, though in contrast to Blue Lagoon's lush, orchestral and melodic score, his Summer Lovers score was extremely brief, merely low-key synth cues. He also scored the IMAX short FLYERS:

Greg [MacGillivray] made one of the ultimate surf movies, called Five Summer Stories, long, long ago, and he updated it with a skateboard sequence, back when skateboarding was hot, and I scored that and several other films of his. Then that kind of led to going into the IMAX format. We had both worked on Big Wednesday, Greg was in charge of all the water photography, and of course I had scored it. So our relationship goes way, way back.

I think it was the first dramatic IMAX film, if I'm not mistaken -- certainly the longest dramatic IMAX film up to that point, with a story and characters, as opposed to purely a documentary. It was much more like a short theatrical feature. They knew they definitely wanted a large, orchestral, impressive sounding film score that also spoke to the action that's in the picture. And it had some quite extraordinary footage -- they have a landing on a carrier, they have stunts over the Grand Canyon, a gliding sequence that is absolutely gorgeous. I think as filmmakers it gave them the opportunity to do a lot of aerial work, which Greg has always been known for, as well as to flex their muscles in the dramatic world. (S77)

During this period, Poledouris also scored two TV movies -- the relationship drama SINGLE BARS, SINGLE WOMEN, and an old-fashioned fantasy-tinged adventure, AMAZONS. He scored the barely released medical school comedy THE HOUSE OF GOD and a college comedy, MAKING THE GRADE (the Varese Sarabande CD Club release of Poledouris' score features extensive liner notes by Richard Kraft discussing how Poledouris became involved in the project.). Not surprisingly, he scored the second (and to date, final) Conan film, CONAN THE DESTROYER -- this time Milius was not involved, and veteran Richard Fleischer was at the helm:

It's in the same style because ostensibly it's the same character. There is a new theme for new archvillains. But the film has a completely different attitude - a rather ridiculous one, at best. I used to refer to it as Conan the Pretender. (M17)

He followed the second Conan with AMERICAN JOURNEYS, a short documentary for the Disney theme parks, and RED DAWN, his third film for John Milius, an adventure drama about a group of teenagers fighting against a Russian invasion of the U.S. (which was also the first film rated PG-13):

Red Dawn was a political fantasy with a lot of heart. I never perceived it as a right-wing paranoid raving. Look at Hungary, Poland and Chezkoslovakia after WW II as models. I do wish that the villains in Red Dawn had been the giant multinational corporations instead of the Cubans and Russians. Easy to say because I didn't write the script.(BS)

The end of 1984 saw another rare Poledouris comedy score, for the Goldie Hawn vehicle PROTOCOL. The following year saw a brief resurgence in TV anthology series, including a revival of the classic ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. The pilot movie featured three stories including a remake of Roald Dahl's "Man from the South" (the story had been filmed for the original Hitchcock series with Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen), directed by Steve DeJarnatt and starring John Huston, Melanie Griffith, her then-husband Steven Bauer, and her mother Tippi Hedren (Dahl's story also inspired Quentin Tarantino's segment of the film Four Rooms):

I actually wrote two main titles. The first one was jazzy, it was almost an Afro-Cuban sort of thing with a saxophone lead. We all mutually agreed that that didn't work, and I came back with another thing which spoke more to the obsessive compulsion of the game itself, with a little touch of the bizarre quality to it.

I approached the score with a sense of the bizarre. We have the old man, who is completely obsessed with gambling, and we have the kid with the lighter, who during the course of that last game became as obsessed with the idea as the old man is. There's a transference of insanity that takes place between them, and that was really the subtext that I used in scoring it, and tried to set that up early on. The cues were very short, so it's hard to do that. The longest one runs about four minutes. (C13)


NEXT TIME: From medieval times to the second Russian invasion of the U.S.


BS: Interview for BSOSpirit by Jose Luis Diez Chellini
C13: Cinemascore, issue #13/14: "Basil Poledouris on Flesh = Blood," interview by David Kraft and Randall Larson
F9-4: Interview by S. Mark Rhodes in Film Score Monthly (Vol. 9, No. 4)
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)
S77: Interview by Ford A. Thaxton in the Spring 2001 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 20, No. 77)


Part One 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.