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 THREE: FLESH + BLOOD + TELEVISION

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

Director Paul Verhoeven's first English language film was the violent medieval adventure drama FLESH + BLOOD. Verhoeven temp-tracked the film with James Horner music, and when Horner proved unavailable to score the film, Orion Picture president Mike Medavoy recommended Poledouris to the director:

Paul asked me if I was interested in doing a picture set in the Middle Ages. I thought that it was a grand opportunity to explore some things that I'd never gotten into, musically.

I came completely unglued [after seeing a cut of the film]. It had no sound effects other than what had been recorded on the production track, but something in me responded very strongly. I was jumping up, telling whoever I could grab that this was just an amazing movie. (FB)

There's a real ruthlessness in Flesh + Blood that doesn't exist in Conan. Conan is a very uncomplicated and moral character compared to the ones that exist in Flesh + Blood. (C13)

I loved doing that movie. That movie's got balls. And it was a rare thing. It was the first time I'd seen a Hollywood film, with the exception of Miliius's stuff, that wasn't timid. It was really strong stuff. It had strong and ambiguous characters. There wasn't a good guy and a bad guy. Those guys are both good and both bad. It's all gray stuff. I like that. There's a complication to it that appeals to me a great deal. (IFM)

[Verhoeven] was going back and forth between Los Angeles and Holland probably every two or three weeks, so it was a rather interesting way to write. I was given quite a bit of freedom without having somebody always checking in, asking how it was going. It took its own shape as it went along, instead of my having to force it into something to present to someone, which unfortunately often happens.

Our first session was over some very cursory impressions that I had received from the picture. I had a couple of motifs, but nothing was even so fleshed out as much as a theme. They were just two or four-bar ideas, kinds of melodic and harmonic notions that I thought might fit a particular scene.

It's a very complicated picture! The plot line is not in any stretch of the imagination linear. It has a very three-dimensional structure. There's no clear-cut hero -- you're rooting for as many as three or four people at once, so you have this incredible dynamic which is always shifting balance. There's never a gravity to it where you definitely say "Yeah, this character should win or that character should lose." It all shifts. When you think you've got it all figured out, it takes a completely different point of view, and it's truly brilliant how Paul managed to juggle all those elements throughout the picture. It's a little like Rashomon in that sense, except the audience is put into the position of being the observer. The characters all have very strong realities -- it's the audience who goes through the various degrees of interpretive alliances that are forged with these characters. (FB)

Pretty cool stuff for a film composer to chew on. I loved this film and its unabashed ruthlessness which was probably very close to life as it was in those days. Not much romanticizing in this movie. It is Verhoeven at his multi-faceted best, showing us many points of view and realities, simultaneously. Paul earned a PhD Degree in mathematics and he thinks three dimensionally, which is always a welcome challenge to portray musically. (BS)

Paul thought that if we used [the leitmotific] kind of approach we could thread the needle for the audience to follow in what we were doing in Flesh + Blood. Each of the main characters became identified musically so that I could shift the same emphasis from character to character that Paul does dramatically, and with necessary variations -- oftentimes using one person's theme as a rhythmic counterpoint to another character's theme.

[Martin's] theme came first because he needed some kind of swashbuckling yet very monastic kind of sound, because a renegade cardinal is also one of the main leaders in his band. I wanted to have something very much like a Gregorian chant, but more the way pirates would sing it instead of monks.

There's a love theme that starts during the assault of Agnes by Martin, and it grows between them as in fact they grow in love by the end of the picture. It has almost grotesque proportions during this scene, whereas by the end of the picture it becomes very tragic. (FB)

There are many complex themes dramatically in the film which I attempted to manifest musically. First off, we have the mercenaries who will fight for any cause. Then we have the priest who understands that he and Martin can manipulate the others through the power of religion merged with politics.

Then there is the swashbuckling, land pirate kind of adventure theme followed by the Agnes-Martin love theme, then the Agnes-Steven love theme, the final assault, the attempt at killing Agnes followed by the resolution of Martin smiling as Agnes and Steven ride off and he climbs out of the chimney of a burning castle. (BS)

Paul's dealing with very robust characters, very full of life -- truly flesh and blood. The last thing I wanted to use to represent those ideas would be some kind of electronic synthetic type of sound. I relied very heavily on French horns, which is a great noble instrument, because I felt that all the characters, particularly Martin's, were noble characters. French horns lead the way, and then piccolo trumpets, and a lot of low woodwinds. There were three synthesizers playing live, but they're not featured instruments. They just become another color in the orchestra.

There are certain styles of music from that time which I suppose I've drawn upon but didn't find dramatic enough for the purposes I needed for film scoring. We did use some percussion instruments that were of the time, bone drums and rattles and some bell-like instruments, but the picture didn't need period instruments. I've primarily based the music in Gregorian chant but tried to give it a swashbuckle. Among many other things, the film is first and foremost an adventure film, and I needed to capture that. The real music of that time just doesn't contain enough rhythmic or dramatic harmonic charge to lend itself to the kind of feeling that I think the main characters should have.

The London Symphony is a marvelous orchestra and we had a great time recording this score. Because of the swashbuckling nature of the film and because the visuals are so exciting, the musicians kept turning around to watch what's happening on the screen during the playbacks. They liked it a great deal and gave that back to me as a conductor. (FB)

1985 saw a temporary resurgence of the TV anthology series, with the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (with Poledouris scoring one of the pilot segments, "Man from the South"), the Spielberg-produced Amazing Stories (Poleodouris was practically the only major composer of the time who didn't score any episodes), and a revival of Rod Serling's classic THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which featured new stories as well as remakes of older ones:

I loved writing for the new Twilight Zone series. I loved to see how fast I could write. For this I did "Profile in Courage," "A Message from Charity," and "Vampires." "Vampires" was really great. This was really great because each show was in short form around 20 minutes. This was a like a short story. We used a 20-piece orchestra and no one tried to make it sound like a 40-piece orchestra. There were no pretenses about what we were trying to do. In fact, I love working on films where there are no pretenses about what we're trying to do, because you're scoring what is instead of what everybody wants it to be. It's how you turn a camel into a horse. (S64)

The same year, Poledouris score the pilot movie and multiple episodes of the short-lived MISFITS OF SCIENCE, a light-hearted sci-fi superhero series featuring Courtney Cox and the late Dean-Paul Martin:

The movie was about technology, it's also about people who are very human. They relate to those things like this guy who was frozen. The whole idea of a misfit, taking in a person who is shunned by society, appeals to me. Misfits are outcasts. And those are people who generally tend to be interesting in society. That score was bizarre and comedic. The film was rooted in technology so, for that reason, we used electronic instruments and a kind of calypso, Caribbean rhythm which gives a holiday feeling.

I loved the show; it appealed more to my younger daughter who was eight at the time than to my older daughter, who was eleven years old. They understood it completely. They loved it. And many of her friends wanted to picket Universal when it was taken off the air. I thought it was unusual. And fun! There was a real sweetness about it. Particularly the actors involved. It's unfortunate Dean Paul Martin isn't with us any more. I thought he lent a real aura of sweetness to the picture. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was too bad, I would have looked forward to seeing the show go on for years. It could have gotten to some very interesting places. (S30)

One of the recurring trends in Poledouris' career was military-themed films, and in 1985 he scored director Sidney J. Furie's IRON EAGLE, with Jason Gedrick as a young man trying to rescue his father, a downed and captured pilot. The light-hearted futuristic adventure CHERRY 2000 spent years on the shelf before getting the smallest of releases. Its soundtrack history was similarly troubled -- Varese announced the original soundtrack album, which was never released. Later they released it as one of their early CD Club releases, but the disc became so rare that Poledouris himself reportedly lost his only copy when he loaned it to his Serial Mom director John Waters. Fortunately, Prometheus later released an expanded edition, paired with Poledouris's No Man's Land, so fans can own one of the composer's most purely enjoyable works.

Continuing to balance work in features and television, Poledouris scored perhaps the most ambitious work of his career, the controversial seven-part miniseries AMERIKA. Written and directed by Donald Wrye, who had previously worked with Poleouris on The House of God, Amerika took a more somber approach to roughly the same premise that Red Dawn covered, with citizens coping with a Soviet takeover of the United States.

It was great having Donald be the director, writer and producer, with a strong, singular vision of how things should be. You'd never get that today.

I almost didn't get the job because of my association with Red Dawn, but Donald really believed in me and went to bat for me with the network. In reality, it really is a much different film, and my approach to scoring it was completely different. (AM)

Amerika, for instance, is not about Russians and Americans. It has Russians and Americans in it. But it should have been about USX or the Coca-Cola Corporation or an oil consortium taking over the United States government. The fact that it was Russia had absolutely nothing to do with the main thrust of what I was after, which was really about freedom, and how a person defines personal freedom, and to what limits they'll go to compromise freedom in terms of existence and survival. The same thing in Red Dawn, very little Russian. (S44)

The idea of it is crushing, in terms of the amount of work that's needed. The approach definitely came from a strong feeling I had for the material...it was a very powerful script with some very powerful ideas contained in it -- notions about what freedom is, what the citizens' role in society is, no matter which kind of society or which kind of government, and what kind of responsibility you have toward being a citizen. Those kinds of ideas were very profound, they bring up all sorts of interesting musical notions.

The other thing that I went on is that in American music, there is no tragedy. We don't have anybody who's written the Pathetique Symphony, or the defeat of the American army at Waterloo, that sort of thing. You listen to Copland, you listen to Roy Harris and Carl Ruggles, all this is very optimistic music, Copland was writing at a time when the country was on an incredible surge. In a sense, Red Dawn touched upon it, a kind of possibility of a tragedy, although there's a lot of disorientation in the score to Red Dawn because it was supposed to represent a society turned on its head and a group of kids decided to turn guerilla, whereas Amerika really, I think, presented the opportunity to write or at least hint at what an American tragedy might be. You really think about it, the only real tragedy this country has suffered since the Civil War was Vietnam, and nobody has yet written a tragedy for Vietnam. So that was exciting, as was the idea of writing something that speaks to the land and speaks to the idea of freedom, without getting jingoistic about it. It wasn't all marches, by any stretch of the imagination.

There wasn't time to do anything except charge ahead. Fortunately being set early on helped that, because there was no time to ponder anything, there was no time to make any kind of tortured decisions, all that needed to be done was to make a quick decision and stick by it. Fortunately, I did work out some of the main thematic ideas early on, as sketchy as they were, so that served me in the end when there wasn't time to edit or reconsider them.(C15)

The main theme, written for the full orchestra, speaks of the land. It's nostalgic, with a sense of loss, but not too sentimental. In a lot of ways, I used the music of Aaron Copland as a model. Its harmonic structure is that of a folk song, and it's about it's about the expanse and the freedom of America. His music is full of optimism, and I put a spin on that. It's "Dark Copland," if you will.(AM)

The flow chart on this film was quite interesting. There were so many characters, and just trying to thematically connect them, it's actually very interesting, because a lot of them overlap. Rather than give the Russian guys a balalaika theme and the Americans a piccolo and snare drum theme...they were all talking about the same thing -- the two main Russian characters were very similar to the two main American characters, so I had to go for a much broader kind of musical representation for the ideas. So I was scoring the ideas of what those people were representing, and that's what Donald did with the writing.

I started off with electronic instruments, using two synthesizers complementing the orchestra, but then the director really felt that they were giving it a kind of cheapness, that's the word he used. He thought some of the musical solutions were too easily solved by using the synthesizers, and he wanted it to have more substance. To him, the synthesizers represented a kind of fakery that he didn't want in the score, to the point where we actually went back and rescored scenes that had synthesizers, and took them out. There are still some electronic sounds in it, but they are blended in. So it's a traditional kind of orchestration. I used the woodwinds quite a bit, because they add such a human quality to it, and that's basically what the picture's about. I also had brass complementing them.

[Orchestrator] Greig McRitchie started on the project and he left after night two, Jack Smalley did some of the orchestrations, but the bulk of them were done by Scott Smalley. Jack and Scott stayed with me from night three to the end. When you're trying to come up with ten minutes of music a day... (C15)

We ended up recording for 30 days straight. We were still recording while the show was airing. The last episode ended up being satellite transmitted from LA to New York with fifteen minutes to spare, and was still being sent during the broadcast on the East Coast. (AM)

I loved doing it, I really loved being involved in a project that long. I did several projects in between the time I started pre-scoring Amerika and the time I was on it exclusively, but somehow being involved on something that allows you that much time to develop the ideas is so rewarding. In my own experience, a lot of that happens subliminally, it just takes time for an idea really to come to fruition and to really get some interesting variations. The kind of a schedule we had on Amerika, because it really did go on and on, allows for this.

The other thing that I enjoyed immensely was that there were something like 30 recording sessions! It would normally take seven feature films to get that many recording sessions, and I probably do three or four features a year, so the experience gained by working on something that's that intense was invaluable.

Also, I liked the largeness, the whole idea of the large scope of this thing -- it was gnarly, as they say in Malibu! Very gnarly. Somehow you kind of keep beating back your fear and coming closer to it. Everybody on the project -- and I think we all felt it -- got this sense that there was something so much bigger than all of us put together and we were going to win. So there was kind of that going on, which is very unusual on a film, very unusual.

I wasn't on the dub stage, which is unfortunate I feel for a lot of reasons, but oh yeah, a lot of music was shifted around. If they came across a scene that we hadn't scored and the director decided he wanted music there, there's not much you can do when you're not on the set. But I can say that it was handled brilliantly by Tom Villano, the music editor, who made sure that the score remained as close to the way I intended it. Tom works with Segue, Dan Carlin's group, and that whole place just jumped in.

You have to realize something, when I put together the music for the last night, I had 12 hours to score it -- literally to write the music for the entire two-hour segment, and the music editors had another 12 hours to prepare it for dubbing. That's like scoring and dubbing a feature film in two days! That's when all the music editors at Segue really pulled together and they started using cues that I had written for other things on other nights, and they did a very splendid job. (C15)


NEXT TIME: A cyborg, a sub, a lot of cattle, and an Emmy.


AM: Liner notes for the Amerika CD from Prometheus CD Club, by Christopher Landry
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
C15: Cinemascore, issue #15: "Basil Poledouris on scoring Amerika," interview by Randall D. Larson
FB: Liner notes for the Flesh + Blood CD from Prometheus CD Club, by Randall D. Larson
IFM: From the book Inside Film Music: Composers Speak, by Christopher Desjardins (Silman-James Press, 2007)
S30: Interview by Vincent Jacquet-Francillon in the June 1989 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 8, No. 30)
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 and Two 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.