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Lost Issue Wednesday: Excerpts of a Ron Goodwin Interview

At British Cinema's Service

by Jorge Leiva Romero

Probably the most respected British film composer alive, Ron Goodwin has developed a second career as a conductor of outstanding orchestras around the world. Throughout his 35-year career, his knowledge and experience have touched on every facet of music, from composing to conducting to recording. The following is part of an interview that took place in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, the day before his concert of film music with the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra as a celebration of cinema's centennial.

Jorge Leiva: Ron, you've been recognized worldwide as one of the finest conductors doing film music...

Ron Goodwin: The very first public concert that I did was in 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a "night of charity" to support people who worked for the cinema industry. That was organized by a man called Sidney Samuelson who had decided to do a series of concerts which he called the "Filmharmonic Concerts," and wanted to have four film composers to come and each conduct a half an hour of his own music. The very first one of those conductors was Elmer Bernstein, followed by Henry Mancini, Muir Mathieson and myself. As a result of that, not only the Royal Philharmonic but many other orchestras invited me to conduct concerts of film music. That happened in all over the world really as a reaction of its development in England, so I gained invitations to go to Scandinavia, Sweden, Denmark, America, New Zealand, Australia... It was growing and I wasn't really trying to do that, you know, I mean it just went and happened without any effort. It survived another dimension to my career and now it's becoming a very important part of it; I have to cover about 20 concerts at year in many parts of the world, and I enjoy it very much because it's different to writing film music, which is a very lonely job, all by yourself for weeks to get it finished. In a public concert you get an instant reaction from the audience; it's a very live theater and the whole thing and it's very enjoyable to do.

JL: Do you think they have a real interest in the performance of music from the movies?

RG: Well, I think it has become that. I think it's started from necessity and this enthusiasm has developed. If producers have a successful album, then they have to change their attitude [about doing a concert], they think well, "We are reaching a wider public." I mean the people who came to my concerts were not often people who go to a symphony. So the producers are broadening their audience as well, which is very good for the orchestras. A lot of orchestras in England do a series of classic concerts with Louis Clarke. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra did a very successful recordings of excerpts from the classics played with the rhythm section. I think film music is here to stay with most orchestras really. I've heard in Spain there are a lot of good orchestras. I personally just know Galicia and Tenerife ones. The Tenerife Symphony Orchestra is an excellent quality orchestra to do film music with.

JL: Many "classic" orchestras are doing film music recordings nowadays.

RG: Yes, I think orchestras' attitude to recordings has changed also. The factor is economic. I think most of the orchestras have found they have to do other things in order to survive. Most of the orchestras now are very depending on their concertship. I don't know about here, but in England and most of the countries I've visited, they have to get sponsors to be able to put the concerts on because particularly in England the level of the government's support is very low and the orchestras cannot survive on what they get for the government. So they have to get money from other sources, which makes them more interested in making different kinds of records they can sell to a wider public than they can with the classical repertoire.

JL: How did you feel writing for a movie for the first time, I think it was in Whirlpool?

RG: Yes, but before Whirpool I did music for several short documentaries which gave me very good training in how to write music for feature films. As you said, the very first feature film I did was Whirlpool and I was most excited because this was something that I wanted to do for many years. It was a wonderful opportunity and, of course, it was the film that opened doors for me because the producer-writer was a man called Lawrence Parkman and he used to be a producer in Europe for MGM. Because he liked the music for that picture he had me write the music for domestic productions in England, and I've been in that kind of work for the last 40 years.

JL: Was it difficult for you to learn the basic rules of film composing?

RG: Not really, because I had been studying film music for so long before I actually did one. I used to go to the cinema not to see the movie so much, but just to listen to the music. One of the very first examples I can remember, where I realized how powerful a part of the film the music could be, was for the film called The Picture of Dorian Gray. I went to see that in the cinema as a young man. There is a scene in that film where he has the picture of himself in the attic and he remains forever young and handsome, but the picture gradually deteriorates and becomes corrupted according to the way he was living his life. What happened was that the whole film was in black and white and at the end of the film when you suddenly saw the picture in the attic, it suddenly went into color, and there was a tremendous effect from the music. It really was quite startling and without that music the color would have done an impact but the music tied the whole thing together, it made a very forceful effect for the audience. I used to love to see things like that. I thought how I would get that when I am writing for films: what sort of sounds and what sort of harmonies, musical instruments I would use. So it was something I'd been waiting to do for a long time and of course I had a lot of experiences in recording studios because I was the musical director for the Parlaphone Records Company at that time. So when the opportunity came over I was really ready for it.

JL: You've done some good music for comedies. What's the real secret to do it so well?

RG: Oh thank you. Well, I think there are two ways to do it really: There always certainly seems in a comedy film that it needs pointing, what's known as Mickey mousing -- everything in the action has a musical connection. But I think it's a great mistake to do that all the way through a comedy film. I think there are some scenes in a comedy film where you need conversation going on between and afterwards for instance. I think the only time you need to point everything in a comedy film is maybe in a cartoon, in an animated film. One of the greatest writers from the technical point of view of film music was the guy who does all the Tom & Jerrys [Scott Bradley] because it's not easy to do that degree of pointing when you're doing it all the way through the picture. But it depends of the comedy film. If it's a sophisticated comedy film, something like VIPs, I think it was scored by Riz Ortolani -- the whole film took place at the London airport where they couldn't take off because of the fog and that was basically a comedy film with a romantic element. I don't think there was any comedy pointing in that film at all.

JL: Henry Mancini used to do comedy music very well...

RG: Yes, but Henry Mancini really... I think he was called "unique." He was an interesting composer and a great man, typically American, a very sophisticated man. I met him at the very first Filmharmonic concert and then I saw him again in Montréal. I was there working on a cartoon film and he was giving a concert at the Big Opera Auditorium. We had a meal together after the concert was over and I thought he was a very nice guy...

JL: Talking about Frenzy, it's said about director Alfred Hitchcock that he was really a fallen angel at that time.

RG: Yes, he was at the end of his career but he still received tremendous respect from all the technicians who worked on that film. You know, the editor, the cameraman, all the people -- even the crew -- who worked with him really had a tremendous respect for him.

JL: How did you approach him and the music for that movie?

RG: Well, first of all I was asked to go to Pinewood Studios to meet him and I was bit nervous about meet him. But he was very relaxed, very humorous and told me some funny stories; he was very, very friendly and made me feel welcome and relaxed. But he was very, very meticulous about what kind of music he wanted. I mean, I left to rewind the film and his secretary transcribed all the notes of our conversation -- she spent some paper with all the suggestions he made for the current scenes. He went back to Hollywood before we recorded the music, having said that he would like the first-stage recording sent by courier to him so that he could run it with the picture and see how it went. To my great surprise, it was quite late on the evening of the first recording, and my first ring was a call from him from Hollywood just to say that he'd run the first reel and he was very pleased with it, so I thought that was very kind and nice thing to do. I don't think many directors would be able to do that. So I think my short association with him was very happy to me. I believe he could be quite impolite if he didn't like someone but I enjoyed working for him. I enjoyed meeting him and just wished he lived long after the meeting with him was over. He did one more film after that in America, which is called Family Plot , and at the end he died. It's an interesting thing about Alfred Hitchcock that my orchestration teacher was a man called Harry Stafford. The very first film that Hitchcock made in England, the music was composed by a composer called Hubert Barth, and it was orchestrated by Harry Stafford, my teacher. And, the very last film he made in England I wrote the music for. So Harry Stafford and I started and finished his England career, really.

JL: Did he ever talk about Bernard Herrmann?

RG: Not to me, no, no. I mean, his name didn't come up really. It was a long association [between Hitchcock and Herrmann] and it finished in nothing really.

JL: You gained a reputation as an "air battles" composer.

RG: Yes, I know that but I don't know why. I think actually the film directors and producers tend to typecast composers in the same way they would actors. I think they go on your track record. Margaret Rutherford, she was a great example of an actress who never did anything other than play an eccentric old lady, and I'm sure she was absolutely capable of acting in much bigger roles than that.

JL: It's said that your music was an inspiration to other air-film scores, like Goldsmith's Blue Max.

RG: Blue Max was made after Those Magnificent... and that's a funny thing actually because I was offered Blue Max and I was not able to do it because I was working on... I think it was Operation Crossbow. So I think it's a strange coincidence that Jerry Goldsmith did that one.

JL: Which would be your favorite score?

RG: One of my favorite scores was for a film which was a complete failure, and that was Beauty and the Beast, with George C. Scott and his wife. It was a terrible film; he was the Beast, and in the end when he turned into the prince, when we recorded the music all the musicians were playing the music but they saw him changing to George C. Scott and they all said, "Bring back the Beast." I quite like the music I did for that but unfortunately the film was a bad film. I've seen again as it was showed on television recently.

JL: Did you ever had the opportunity to do music for a James Bond picture?

RG: Oh no, I would like to do that.

JL: Would you have done something different than John Barry did?

RG: Oh, undoubtedly yes. I mean, it mainly wouldn't be better, it would be different. I think everybody wants to write in his own style. I hated when somebody said to me, "I would like you to write the music for this film in the style of John Barry or Henry Mancini," because I would say, "No thank you." You must do it in your own style. If you did it in somebody else's style it would just be a sort of pastiche, it wouldn't be a good score really.

JL : You wrote your last score in 1985, I think.

RG: Yes, it was called Valhalla and that was in Denmark. It was a score that I did for a 90-minute animated film but the company that made it went bankrupt shortly after the film was released in Scandinavia. I don't think the film has ever been released anywhere else... maybe Germany and also in a London Film Festival where they've shown it a couples of times.

JL: Why did you leave film composing?

RG: Well I got off due to all sorts of silly things. Michael Winner, for instance, called me not that long ago and said he was making a film that I can't remember how it was called. All the actresses were working on a "you do not get paid a fee front" and he had some stupid package of £10,000 in their project for all the music and I said, "Well, I think you better talk to my agent." If he's only got £10,000, the only way you could do it would be on a synthesizer because you couldn't afford to book musicians in a studio. So I asked my agent to turn it down in the nicest way that he could. A man called Stone who's doing The Return of the Dirty Dozen, he wanted all the music written, orchestrated and recorded in two weeks because they had to get it done in that time to get it shown in America in fall for the television awards. And I said, "Well, no thank you." I was going on a tour anyway with the orchestra. It's all become very silly these days; there's no way you can write a good film score in two weeks. All you can do is write two or three themes and just slide the amount to the film. I prefer when somebody brings me in and says, "You get five or six weeks to write, two or three days to record it and the money you need." Then it's, "Okay! Yes, I will do it." But the whole business has changed. Also, I'm enjoying what I do. I write a lot of music, conduct different music, different commissions, meet sweet cities and so on.

JL: Recently you wrote a piece of music for the Royal Marines.

RG: Yes, and they've invited me to hear the first rehearsal when they do it. It will be played twice a day for 14 days at the Royal Courts in London, and it will be on television and recorded out on SOS, you know. I enjoyed doing that sort of thing and there's no silly pressure -- you have time to do it, you don't really want to drive yourself crazy trying to do the impossible by writing film scores in two weeks for no money. A lot of the young writers are not being paid fees. The sole honor of being asked to do a film is such that they do it for nothing thinking, "Well, I'll pick it up on the roll or whatever." A lot of them are orchestrating their own scores anyway. They are playing it on a synthesizer, giving it to Nick Ingman who is a good arranger. Nicky has to transfer it from the synthesizer and turn it into orchestral music. That's not my idea of writing a film score.

JL: What about your plans in the near future?

RG: Well, we are planning a new album of film music with the BBC Concert Orchestra which is not finalized yet, so there's the possibility that it may or may not happen. But just before I left I talked about putting together a proposed program for repertoire. Also, I'm doing a lot of concerts in Ireland and Scotland and a special night to be held in September at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I will be one of the I think seven guest British composers conducting two or three pieces of their own film music.

Jorge Leiva has been a film critic and film music specialist for 15 years in Spain. He contributed as Tenerife Symphony Orchestra's film music advisor at the above refereed concert.

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