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BASIL POLEDOURIS: IN HIS OWN WORDS

PART EIGHT: REPLACING YARED, RECALLING ROTA, REMEMBERING DELERUE

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

The international success of the stage musical version of Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES reignited interest in the source material, and Pelle the Conqueror director Bille August directed a lavish, English-language (and non-musical) feature version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes. Gabriel Yared wrote the original, rejected score, and Poledouris was hired to replace him on short notice:

I hate to admit it, but I think I am one of the few people on this planet who never saw the show. I've never been a fan of musicals, or opera for that matter. I think that was one reason why they hired me.

It was a replacement score, so I didn't have the kind of lead-time that I usually get. Knowing that I'm going to be scoring a film, I usually do research, particularly when the movie's based on a book that is so well known. I think the time from when I was set to do the movie until I finished it was maybe eight weeks. I read the book -- which is a big, brilliant, wonderful book -- as I was writing. (IFM)

Replacement scores are very difficult for me. Only a composer knows what it takes to write a film score and how much of one's soul and energy goes into it. Replacement scores are usually a sacrificial device when a studio knows it has a picture that won't make much money. It often has nothing to do with the quality of the film or the music. It is just the only thing they can change short of re-shooting the film. It rarely helps the film. We all know that in the end. I never spoke with Gabriel as it is oftentimes painful for both composers. (BS)

Bille August is an amazing director, and he understands what he wants. The main thing I think that he was after was a sense of movement. I know the studio wanted that. Then he wanted an idea that represented the repression that the characters felt. I mean, the character Jean is put in jail for nineteen years, I think, for stealing a loaf of bread. That's outrageous. It's kind of a hard concept to follow today, when people can kill and get out in thirty days or not go to jail at all. So, musically, I tried to create a sense that there's this kind of darkness. There's a lid on the music that never really opens up until the last shot of the movie. There's this muted quality to the score itself. It never really becomes free. (IFM)

I wanted to keep the score in the period of the film, if anything, in the style of Berlioz. I tried not to become anymore complicated harmonically or melodically than would have been relevant for that era. It just seems that if an art director and costumer and director of photography and director work hard to create a moment in time, why shouldn't a composer? There is a reason why we don't see jet planes or cell phones in 1700 France. Why should we be subjected to the same kind of intrusions musically? Romanticism wasn't around yet, which may feel as if the melody doesn't soar, nor were Bizet or Wagner with their grand orchestration. One of the goals of the music was to provide a restless urgency or undercurrent to represent the ever-threatened Jean Valjean by Javert. The other requirement was to keep the temperature medium to cool. This was a directive by Bille and what he was asking was that by not letting the music become overly passionate or romantic that a tension would be created. As if this guilt of Valjean's was just below the surface and he needed to keep himself in check and not let his emotions betray his feelings.

A deceit for sure, but one that he needed to live by to survive. We kept the music from releasing this tension until the very end when Jean Valjean is finally free from the torments of Javert. He has led an honest life and shows us the injustice and cruelty of his times by being virtuous.

Bille had already mixed the film so his full concentration was on the music. Eric Colvin and I set up a studio in a home in the Hampstead Heath section of London so we could provide Bille with really great sounding mock ups of the final score.

He would come from Sweden once a week and spend an entire day or two listening and commenting on the week's work. He was very relaxed and wasn't plagued by the usual exhaustion that most directors exhibit at this stage of the project. As this was a replacement score he also had more of a direction in that he knew what he didn't want. (BS)

They wanted to have a simultaneous release of the album and the film, which is smart marketing. The score hadn't been written yet. I probably still had three weeks of writing and recording left to do, but the record had to be compiled for the artwork. It was a marketing demand that I had to meet.

So, instead of giving track titles and that sort of thing, I said "Screw it. The film basically moves in four acts, so I'll find some music and throw it together." That's not the way I would have liked to have done it, frankly, because I think it plays way too long in certain sections.

Without being boxed into decisions before I really knew what this score was, I said, "Hell, I'll just do about ten minutes here and about twenty minutes there and maybe this will be fifteen." So I basically cut it into those suites. It was a way of my hanging on to a little bit of control over what goes on the album without having to be so specific: What if I hated a cue that I thought I was going to put on the album? (IFM)

I really loved doing Les Miserables because it was about people -- actors portraying real human emotions. I decided that these are the types of movies I want to do now. I'm a bit older now than I was when I was trying to flex my muscles with a 110-piece orchestra. It was cool at the time, and I certainly wouldn't mind doing it again for the right film. I'm at a place in my career where if I disappear for a year or so, I can afford to do it. (S44)

I wanted to slow down after Les Mis. It took a lot out of me, and then Greig McRitchie, my orchestrator, died the very day I got Les Mis. My younger daughter was in her last year in college and we wanted to support her through that. A lot of things culminated with Les Mis that I wanted to stop and take a look at.

The main thing was that I was turning down every action film I was offered, because after working on a film with characters and situations and working with Bille August, I just thought that was what I ought to be doing, and I was looking long and hard for a repeat performance. (F4-8)

Next he turned to lighter subject matter with MICKEY BLUE EYES, a gangster comedy starring Hugh Grant and made by Grant's production company:

They had gone through every possible song choice in the world and frankly came up with some really good stuff, that sort of Mafioso, swingers, Vegas, '50s/'60s music. The choices were excellent and gave the film a pace, and point of view, so the James Caan character's point of view was always being put through in the music. It put you in that world.

The obvious model for me was Nino Rota and 8 1/2, which is one of my favorite films, and which instantly came to mind because it has that kind of zany, circus-like atmosphere where you've got several different characters and influences spinning off one another. It needed pace, and that kind of oompah circus music keeps it rolling along without giving it any particular kind of dramatic importance, because one thing this score didn't need to be was heavy-handed. It's a comedy, after all. So I came back and put a demo together based on that screening because they wanted to hear my ideas, and it was triggered by my love of 8 1/2 and Rota, and it's an interesting piece of music. It goes through everything from an Italian tarantella to a guy whistling, to a jazz walking bass. I tried to sum up the film in four minutes, sent it off to him and got the movie.

There were moments when they knew it had to be dramatic underscore, or comedic underscore, or rhythmic underscore. Then the problem became does it stay in the style of the songs, and of course the answer is "Sure," because the style of the songs has a certain point of view. For that reason the score is almost retro. I met with Hugh and I had read the script and saw the film, and I loved it.

It was an interesting process because timing and placing of musical gags, making them not seem like stings, is critical in this kind of a score. I learned a lot about comedy timing from Hugh; he's brilliant at it. He's very natural, but how do you do that musically and emulate that kind of smooth performance with those halts? When you have a score which is driven by rhythm, you have to plan where the pauses are and the instrumentation is important too, the density of it. How weighty the thing is.

It's hard, I gotta tell you. It's easy to hit a loud note with a hundred piece orchestra and have timpani and trumpets going off and everybody says "Wow, that rocks!" When you're down to 12 or 15 instruments, working in the melodic framework and trying to find the attitude in that... (F4-8)

I'm a quarter Sicilian, so I figure this is my heritage, and the other thing is that I'm a great fan of Nino Rota. 8 1/2 is one of my all-time favorite films that I watch once every year just to see how far I've come: to see how my point of view on what this movie is about has changed. I've always been a fan of how the great European film composers can capture the essence of a film with a theme, with a statement of an idea. There are two main themes that I love in 8 1/2 and most of the Rota films do that. Just like the early Morricone stuff -- these westerns were brilliant! The Good, The Bad and The Ugly -- you just have to hear that ocarina once, and you know exactly what it is -- instant recall! You can smell the dust coming off the horse's hooves, and the way Eastwood looks, and all of it -- that's brilliant! I think the American film composers have a slightly different approach, because a lot of us came up through animation or television, and we get locked into the clicks and cueing system. Somehow it becomes more about how well the music hits the cuts as opposed to how well the music fits the idea behind the film. I've always tried to approach movies with a European sensibility, and I think I really did that with Mickey Blue Eyes -- that's what Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley wanted. They didn't want me to hit the cuts. They wanted to provide pacing -- to keep it in that same world that a lot of the source music was in. The thing that was most heartening about working in that genre was that it had been a long time since I had worked on a comedy. I found it interesting because it happened to be the sort of project I was looking for -- it wasn't an action score. Hugh had heard some of my music, and was obviously aware of it; Les Miserables had gotten some really good reviews in Europe. But the most rewarding part of Mickey Blue Eyes was that even with all those great songs, there were parts in the movie that had to be scored. As a film composer, that was the part where you say, "that validates my existence!" Not everything can be steamrollered with a song anymore, and in a particular comedic situation, which usually has drama attached to it, they need music specifically written for it. And that was cool! (SN99)

Poledouris continued in a lighthearted vein with KIMBERLY, a barely released romantic comedy directed by producer Frederic Golchan:

Kimberly is about a rowing team in Philadelphia who makes a bet with another rowing team and is hopelessly outgunned. Kimberly (Gabrielle Anwar) offers to help them out as their coxswain, and soon all four men fall in love with her. She becomes pregnant, and she realizes any of the four of them could be the father. It's a romantic comedy with an American setting, but it had a very serious European sensitivity to it. It's loosely based on Guy de Maupassant's short story, "Mouche." Frederic Golchan (the director) really wanted Georges Delerue to score the film -- don't we all! I love Georges Delerue, and respected his work, so what I tried to do was to deliver a main title that was something Georges might have written if he were alive in the late 1990s. Eric Colvin arranged and conducted the score. I wrote some of the cues, and Eric wrote the rest. It was an interesting collaboration, and I really enjoyed it. The studio here was just humming, and it proved that I could produce an entire film score in this one location! (SN99)

There was a time when every score had to have synthesizers in it or it was considered passe, and now people are going back to orchestral sounds and textures. I've been lucky. In Kimberly, that certainly wasn't the case.

Frederic approached my agent with the Delerue concept, and Richard [Kraft] sent me the film and there was something so refreshing and charming about it; it didn't feel like the normal Hollywood take on this situation, and it was beautifully shot. There was something about the attitude that was really appealing. There was no violence, no one gets killed -- no one even gets threatened by anybody. Kind of like the way we wish the world would be. And that's what filmmaking is all about: we can't create our world, so why not create one?

I saw it with a temp track the first time and I thought his musical choices were very good. It was just where his head was at, rather than "I have to have the melody from Jules and Jim." Georges was a great writer, and his counterpoint was extraordinary, and I wouldn't have tried to duplicate that, but that Frederic was after was the melodic sense, the lilt that Georges had and the way he could underscore relationships.

One of the other things that appealed to me about Kimberly was that I was contracted to provide the film score, so in a sense I own all the music. That's the first time I've ever done that, and it's a strange kind of empowerment. It was just something in my own mind that I liked, that the music was really mine and I didn't have to sign this contract that someone else is the "author of the compositions throughout the known and unknown universe in perpetuity and beyond." I own the masters. It really did make me feel more empowered and I don't want to say I wrote any better, but it was different. The film was finished when I looked at it, which was also different, and I had six weeks to write the score. It was very comfortable. (F4-8)


NEXT TIME: The final scores


BS: Interview for BSOSpirit by Jose Luis Diez Chellini
F4-8: "At the Top of His Game," interview by Jeff Bond in the September/October 1999 issue of Film Score Monthly (Vol. 4, No. 8)
IFM: From the book Inside Film Music: Composers Speak, by Christopher Desjardins (Silman-James Press, 2007)
S44: Interview by Darren Cavanaugh and Paul Andrew MacLean in the December 1992 issue of Soundtrack (Vol. 11, No. 44)
SN99: Interview by Dan Goldwasser on Soundtrack.net, 10/8/99


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


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

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