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BASIL POLEDOURIS: IN HIS OWN WORDS

PART SEVEN: STARSHIP TROOPERS

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

Poledouris followed Breakdown with another outdoor action thriller, SWITCHBACK, the directorial debut of Die Hard co-writer Jeb Stuart. He spent much of 1997 on one of his most ambitious projects, STARSHIP TROOPERS. This adaptation of Robert Heinlein's classic science-fiction novel about a future war between humanity and insect aliens was Poledouris's third (and final) collaboration with director Paul Verhoeven, and was a lavish and controversial mixture of spectacular action, Oscar-nominated visual effects, and satire:

This is a cautionary tale of how governments manipulate their populations to hate, to kill shamelessly in the name of whatever god or social philosophy that their masters or elected politicians can utilize. How else could you actually make people understand concepts like "collateral damage" or suicide bombers unless governments were inciting the populace into the lunacy of revenge or a Holy War no matter whether it is Crusades or Jihad. There were Gods of War but they are as outmoded as the eight track tape recorder. (BS)

There's a repressed society here that's very ordered and very structured. In that sense it's really very much like the '40s, where everything was goal driven. [Winning] World War II was the goal of the '40s. This is basically an attack on the human species by bugs and they have to rise to that. There's very little room for anybody deviating from what the dictates of the governmental structure of this society [are]. It's very militaristic and martial, but there's almost a naivete to it at the beginning of the film. But when the bugs arrive this sort of innocence is broken almost immediately; I think in the third minute of the film.

It's very, very sincere. But you have to realize that there's also a very conscious, formal design at work that Paul and I have had months of thinking and talking about. Essentially it's supposed to represent an innocent approach to a futuristic world. There's a kind of wide-eyed "golly" to a lot of what takes place in the film. Hundreds of people get wiped out and it's like, well here we go, we're going to the next planet to kill some more bugs.

I think in that sense there's a kind of a World War II modeling in the film itself, in the writing, the costumes, the weapons. It seems like the major officers are dressed up as S.S. troops. I don't think there's any association with it ideologically, but it's kind of retro in the way that 2001 was, when the pencil floats up. You know, it's 2001, and they've got pencils? I think musically it represents the same attitude, it's about propaganda. We're going to war and we're going to save our species. It is very conscious, but there's a tongue-in-cheek quality to it. That's very difficult to do, though, because there are real moments in the movie that you have to play. The love theme, for instance. I mean, to me that's a real love theme.

Most of the audience, it's going to go right over their head, frankly. They're going to watch those bugs. But on the other hand, it's saying "This is you! Are you aware of this?" This thing works on so many levels. We've often wondered, did the bugs really attack the humans? Maybe poor Joe Smith's, which is some Mormon outpost on one of the places, but did the bugs really send asteroids to the Earth? Or is it just a whole propaganda thing so they can corrupt these planets and drill for oil? It brings up those things. (F2-8)

The film's temp track included pieces from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, James Horner's Aliens, David Newman's The Phantom, and Poledouris's own The Hunt for Red October:

What Paul would tell me was "If you want to listen to it, fine. If there's anything in it you can use, which is either if you can get an idea of the size of the orchestra that we're interested in or a particular tempo seems to work that could give you an indication of what the music should be, that's fine." But in terms of melodic content and the actual harmonic structure of it, he couldn't care less. That's pretty amazing.

Every cue in this movie is like a main title, because Paul approaches everything differently. Every scene takes you somewhere else; it's been so unlike a normal film where you develop your motifs and you basically do variations of those motifs in different tempi and that's your cue. The devices become more textural and harmonic, associative things. (F2-8)

It's a very strange score in that there's not that much thematic continuity in the score. If anything it's more of a harmonic continuity that all takes place within a certain kind of harmonic setting. The sound of the orchestra using a lot of low brass, using a lot of very low trumpet brass, and at the end using these multiple percussion ideas is really what gives it its character and style. In terms of its melodic content there are definitely themes, but it's not like a normal picture where you see the troopers walking and there's the trooper theme, or you see the bugs and there's the bug theme. It just doesn't seem to work that way. It's been a fascinating process and this is because of Paul. He's such an incredible director he can come at the same scene several different ways. There are so many different points of view that he will present as a director. All those points of view need to be addressed in the music as well. I tend to look at a scene and I think "This is a piece of cake, a mobile infantry theme goes here." All of a sudden this doesn't work here, even though you see that the mobile infantry is walking around. I'm scoring more of the environment than any kind of thematic scoring. Each planet, that these battles take place on, have their own distinct character. Even the bugs, there are four or five different kinds of bugs in the movie. And each one of them has their own distinct flavor, depending upon which planet they're on. It's a very fascinating process. It's been hell, sir, but fulfilling. Definitely fulfilling. (S64)

It was Paul who pointed out [the score's main theme] very early when I was experimenting with different themes. We found something that I think represented the struggle, the camaraderie, the heroism, with a sense of fate attached to it. Paul's requirements are very thematic and emotional, to humanize what's happening in the middle of all this violence and technology. (F2-8)

[The score's themes are] very general. There are some specific themes, but they really only get stated once or twice. Instead of just repeating the theme, there's this rather elaborate variation of it. In terms of what they are, there's the mobile infantry which is very military or martial. This is somewhat rousing, but enclosed in a sort of 1940s innocence. To really understand what the music is, you really have to understand what the music is trying to do. (S64)

It's very aggressive. An octatonic scale is used, and it gives it an edge, which Paul has given it visually. It's a scale we used to call double diminished. It's a symmetrical scale, a series of half-steps and whole-steps, and I got way into this thing, because I knew that it needed to sound different.

There's an ambiguity to it; you never commit to a tonality, you never commit to a triad. The themes don't move in the same way that we're used to, say in song direction. The military theme at the end is based on the four major chords of the octatonic scale; it's going up in tritones, and then I turn it around. Interestingly, these triads can either be major or minor because of the half-step relationships, so you have a major or minor chord and everything else is diminished. I got heavily into this scale and after a while it just started to sound like the film. (In the past I've used it as modulations or transitional devices, not as the main course). I started playing it for Paul, and he's going "Yes," because I think it reminded him of certain kinds of music he's familiar with. That's why I say it's inspired by it; it's not like we said let's use the Rite of Spring.

I think Paul's been looking for stuff that's highly rhythmic, and he approaches every scene from at least three points of view. That's why I say it's almost like a different main title every time, because he will come back with the same characters and same situations from a different point of view. It's like when they show the bugs moving through that canyon, I'm almost scoring the canyon. This cave at the end has its own kind of weird ambience. So the environments become almost as important as the characters.
 
We have an organ [for the "Brain Bug" sequence], which we were afraid to play because of the acoustics in the room. It's pretty outrageous. We spent two days trying to decide whether it should be an organ, so instead of just making it an organ, I wrote what could easily have been played by an organ, but for the whole orchestra. You have to flip in and out of being concerned with going too far over the top, but the whole thing's over the top anyway, so why not go all the way?

I think if you look at, I don't know if this would even be a comparison, but I think what Johnny Williams did with Star Wars -- and Paul and I have never even discussed Star Wars in relation to this film -- a lot of what he did was, he went retro for a lot of where film scoring was at the time. He was heavily inspired by Mahler, by Holst, and all of that. And I think this is where Paul and I are coming from, since this is 20 years later, we're heavily influenced by Prokofiev, by Stravinsky. Paul's whole musical aesthetic, like mine -- our sense of modern, if you will -- is people who were writing 60 years ago, just the way Mahler was sort of modern in the 1970s. I'm starting to wonder if I didn't go too far back, now that it's coming to the conclusion. I'm wondering if I shouldn't have gone more Alien-like. It's not that electronic percussion and electronic instruments are foreign to me, but that there was a conscious decision not to put that stuff into the score. All of a sudden, if you hear those effects, you start wondering if you're hearing trailer music.

What we found during the first round of combining music with the sound effects is that oftentimes I may have tried to play the action when the action has been covered by the sound effects. [The Brain Bug] scene is a direct divergence from the way I've been approaching the orchestration, with many clusters and string textures that I think will work well in filling around the sound effects. (F2-8)

I must say the recording sessions have been just marvelous. The L.A. musicians are the most extraordinary group of people I've ever worked with, ever, anywhere. There's so many different types of music in this film. For instance, the bugs obviously are a very angular or jagged kind of music. Space tends to be much more flowing and lyrical. The relationship motifs are very ephemeral. These are three completely disassociated styles and I can go from one of those cues to the other and in an instant the musicians understand where I'm going. It's just such a joy to work with such an incredible orchestra.

Basically this [the choice of a symphonic rather than electronic score] was one of the formal requirements by the director. He really didn't think that we should make any concession to the future. There should be no wildly futuristic-type sounding music because this implies new instrument combinations and electronic instruments representing the future, like where violins would go in four hundred years or oboes or flutes. If you advance the whole orchestra four hundred years, what would it sound like? That was never a consideration.

We kicked it around for about ten seconds. I think it's because the bugs themselves are so alien and they make such harsh non-musical noises, that I suspect he felt the music should be a little more natural and a little more human. So basically the music represents the humans and the sound effects take care of the bugs. Also I'm scoring the humans' reactions to the bugs. Nonetheless it's still within a richer and warmer sound that plays counterpoint to the effects. The other consideration was that a lot of the effects are electronic, in fact made up of electronic elements. Paul wanted no conflict between the sound effects and the music. He was very clear about that. He's very clear in all of his thinking and I think this is a very good concept that he's got for the whole sound design of the film. (S64)

Paul has a strong vision. There's nothing worse than confronting a director who will say to a composer, and they have said it, "I really don't know what I'm looking for, but I'll know it when I hear it." When you hear that, if you're a composer, it's like your life flashes before your eyes. Basically they don't know what the hell they're doing. They don't have any concept of what the film is and they certainly haven't considered what the music ought to be.

If somebody who said that to me then kept their mouth shut and let me go off and do my job that would be fine, but I've been involved with those who really mean it. They don't know what they want, and they want to hear everything in the world in the process of searching for it. Then basically they hear something that reminds them of something they've heard before, and that's what they like. It's a really sick, stupid process.

This is the exact opposite of the way Paul works. He knows exactly what he's looking for, he knows the tone of the picture, he knows the characters and why they're doing what they're doing, why each bug makes a particular movement. It's a total understanding. It's such a joy, because what we're involved with then is the creative process. We're not involved with something that worked in Alien or worked in Star Trek. He's never once alluded to those things because he knows his film is different from those films and therefore the music should be different from those films. (F2-8)


NEXT TIME: A gangster, a girl, and a revolution


BS: Interview for BSOSpirit by Jose Luis Diez Chellini
F2-8: "Basil's Battle of the Bugs," by Jeff Bond in the October 1997 issue of Film Score Monthly (Vol. 2, No. 8)
S64: Interview by Rudy Koppl in the December 1997 issue of Soundtrack (Vol 16, No. 64)


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


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

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