BASIL POLEDOURIS INTERVIEW
Interview Source: MUSIC FROM THE MOVIES #17/1997
Interview by: Mikael Carlsson (Summer, 1997)
Surely, among soundtrack collectors STARSHIP TROOPERS is one
of the most eagerly awaited scores of the year, a big science fiction score
nobody want to miss. Basil Poledouris confirms that there will be a soundtrack
album released; several companies have shown interest in the project. "The
final score will contain 80 minutes of music, I think. I have been involved
with the film minimally for over a year and started working exclusively
on the picture in February of this year. All recording sessions have taken
place at the Sony Studios, Culver City, Los Angeles, and was recorded in
SDDS." An interesting aspect of the STARSHIP TROOPERS venture is that
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and Basil Poledouris finally are working
together again. Twelve years ago, they made a huge impact together with
the period adventure FLESH+BLOOD, and two years after that they both made
their big breaks with ROBOCOP. Subsequently, Verhoeven have been working
primarily with Jerry Goldsmith, on TOTAL RECALL and BASIC INSTINCT. However,
for STARSHIP TROOPERS, the director wanted to join forces with Basil Poledouris
again. "I assume he appreciates the way I score films! Jerry Goldsmith
was never involved with this project. Working with Paul is always and extraordinary
experience. He is a director of unparalled vision, energy, creativity and
support. In short - wonderful", Basil says enthusiastically.
To work in the science fiction genre is something the composer
clearly enjoys. Scoring for STARSHIP TROOPERS means scoring space and otherwordly
atmospheres, which in the case of Basil Poledouris is a very rewarding
task. "Science fiction is a terrific genre since there are no rules,
no accepted ways or conventions that inhibit one by expectations like a
love story for instance or a hip, contemporary street film. It's a lot
like when Rosza and Bernstein did ancient Rome... who knew what that sounded
like?", Basil reasons.
THE SCORING OF 'ROBOCOP'
However, STARSHIP TROOPERS is not his first outing in the genre,
although it may be his first clearly taking place in outer space. Two of
his most respected work are sci-fi scores, namely ROBOCOP and CHERRY 2000.
Today, the approach for the ROBOCOP score - electronics for the robot and
orchestra for the human - seems so obvious and natural we almost forget
what an intellectually sophisticated treatment Poledouris and Verhoeven
gave their story. "Paul and I spent about three agonizing weeks exploring
whether ROBOCOP should be extremely contemporary, as in rock rhythm tracks
and lead instruments, or be orchestral", Basil remembers. "The
studio thought that the film's audience would be young and that this particular
audience wouldn't be interested in the movie unless it contained music
that spoke to them. Kind of an insult to the young movie goer, but that's
the way people in marketing tend to think. As artists, Paul and I were
a bit confused also since either approach would be valid. In the end it
seemed perfect to join the two styles in order to represent the half-human,
half-machine idea of ROBOCOP himself and we ended with a fusion between
fairly outrageous synthesizers, by Derek Austin in London, and a sort of
punk approach with the orchestra."
One of the most striking features of the ROBOCOP score is the
kind of metallic sound which dominate parts of the score. It's very brassy
and percussive. "I assume that the metallic sound you're referring
to is the anvil-like clang throughout the score. It was created with a
fire extinguisher we found at Abbey Road Studios and banged on with a large
metal hammer", Basil reveals. ROBOCOP is also one of few Poledouris
scores to have been recorded in London. In fact, it was very much the great
session orchestra Sinfonia of London's great comeback in the business.
Basil, however, prefers to work in Los Angeles with union musicians. He
explains why: "I have always been sensitive about scoring films abroad
which are made in the United States, which is in direct violation of the
American Musician's Union rules. There, of course are no serious consequences
for doing so, however I repsect the Los Angeles musicians and the excellent
work they have performed for me over the last two decades."
HUNTING AND FLYING
The ROBOCOP score opened the eyes and ears of many directors,
one of them being John McTiernan, who hired Basil Poledouris to score his
blockbuster action movie THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. "John is a terrific
director with a great sense of movement and pacing. The RED OCTOBER score
didn't need to duplicate this so I got to stretch the tempo and tried to
provide a sense of the size and mission of the sub itself. I played all
the main themes for John on the piano, he approved them and we met again
on the scoring stage. He was very involved with the recording and the Russian
As in many of Poledouris action scores, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER
combines electronic and orchestral environments to create a unique sound
and atmosphere. Working with synthesist and keyboard player Michael Boddicker,
these scores have a very special "Poledouris sound". In practical
terms, Boddicker usually performs the electronic parts live with the orchestra.
"If there are any changes in the music from the podium he can affect
them immediately as well as change any sound which may conflict with the
acoustic instruments", Basil explains.
Shortly after THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, Poledouris went on providing
several well written scores in the action genre. John Milius' FLIGHT OF
THE INTRUDER, starring Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe, caused the composer
to write a patriotic, infectous march. However, there is more than just
patriotism in the score. "With the exception of the Intruder March,
I don't think this score is about patriotism", Basil says. "I
think it addresses the individual who would break all orders to circumvent
political non-action. It also addresses the terror of what it must have
felt like to be in the cockpit of an A-6 jet plane and watch Surface to
Air Missles screaming toward you. It is also about a recurring Milius theme
- loyalty to one's friends. Unfortunately, the sound effects are so loud,
I can understand why these concepts may be impossible to hear!"
CLOSE DIRECTOR/COMPOSER RELATIONSHIP
John Milius and Basil Poledouris have been working together
on five films forming one of the most interesting director/composer relationships
in modern cinema. Their most hailed achievement is without doubt CONAN
THE BARBARIAN. Milius and Poledouris met at the University of Southern
California, where Poledouris earned a Masters degree in Cinema. Poledouris
is, by the way, a rare film composer in that he actually is schooled in
more than just music: he studied writing, directing, editing and learnt
virtually everything about film-making at the USC. However, it was always
music that seemed to be closest to his heart, right from the beginning.
"Music has always been in my home. My father was an amateur violinist
and my mother an equal calibre pianist. I started formal studies at age
seven with the desire to become a concert pianist, until I picked up a
guitar... and discovered opera... and went to The University of Southern
California School Of Music where I quickly became disenchanted with twelve
tone and other intellectual schemes designed to make one think they were
musicians and composers... until the war in Vietnam became the burning
issue of my generation... until the social ills of our time seemed more
relevent than perfecting 400 year old finger exercises. In short I was
maturing, searching, and had discovered the Beatles along with 40 million
other people my age", Basil recalls. "Maybe its time for analysis?
I started earning money when I was 12 years old playing alto sax in a Dixie-Land
band. I also was in a folk-singing group in high school and we played coffee
houses in the beach cities of Southern California where all my schooling
took place. My studies in piano, were the foremost musical activity until
I entered the School Of Cinema at USC."
Later on, Basil Poledouris studied with the legendary David
Raksin at the USC. "I went to USC for three reasons. First, Miklos
Rozsa had been teaching film score composition and I loved his music. Second,
John Crown was head of the piano department, and third, my girlfriend was
attending the university", Basil remembers. "Rosza retired that
year and David took over. The main thing I took away from the classes with
David was his unique approach to film scoring. That scores must have an
intellectual and emotional basis before the music is written. In other
words, the drama must be understood before music can be considered".
Watching the films Basil Poledouris has scored definitely proves that the
young student managed to keep this theory close to his heart throughout
his career. One of the early examples of this is his first collaboration
with John Milius, the cult surf movie BIG WEDNESDAY. "It was my first
score that utilized a big, symphonic orchestra. John wanted it to represent
the mythology of both the Sport of Hawaiian kings and the ultimate end
of the westward expansion of America - west coast surfing - very mythological,
heroic. The Beach Boys offered their songs for the film but John wanted
the music to be timeless, not associated with the 60's."
When Basil first worked with John Milius, he actually did not
provide the music - he was directing a script penned by John! "He
said it was about a torpedo. I said, 'how can we build a submarine on our
little sound stage at school?'. He said, 'not a torpedo - a torpedo!',
apparently a term for a hit-man in gang-speak. I ended up being the first
director to do a John Milius script... not the torpedo idea but a true
story about a super hero. George Lucas who was also a class-mate wanted
to do it as well, but I guess he had to wait until STAR WARS, Basil amuzingly
CONAN AND ALEXANDER NEVSKY
As things turned out, Basil became the professional composer
and John the professional writer-director. Their most important collaboration
came in the early 80's, with CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Film critic Leonard Maltin
hailed the score, saying it made the film "superior to the many low-grade
imitations it spawned", and film music critic Mark Walker compared
Milius' and Poledouris' achievement to that of Prokofiev and Eisenstein
in ALEXANDER NEVSKY. What was the secret behind the success of the score?
"The very close collaboration with a director who was also the writer.
John's unflinching desire that it should play like an opera contributed
to the constancy of the score. When he shot the film, he never referred
to the script. The film was in his mind firmly including what the music
was supposed to be that accompanied it. He steadfastly insisted on motifs
for the major characters, events, and even suggested that as the film progressed,
the harmonic invention should move from dark to light as Conan himself
works his way Southward in his search for Thulsa Doom. He wanted to have
a musical mythology that might suggest that these events were historical",
Basil explains. "The other key element of the collaboration was my
having an entire year to piece together the motifs which I developed before
he started shooting. I wasn't writing the entire time - only the last 12
weeks - but the film had a chance to enter my psyche and was allowed to
gestate within my sub-conscious - I had been on location in Spain for several
weeks. Working with John is always a grand adventure as he, like Paul,
demands and supports the attempting the near-impossible, looking for a
true musical expression for their ideas."
The latin text in the opening, wordless sequence of the film
was originally supposed to have been in German - that is what John Milius
originally wanted - but Basil suggested latin instead. "I thought
it was older and knew that we would be recording in Rome. It seems to make
Thulsa Doom more evil somehow", he says. The sequel, CONAN THE DESTROYER,
was also scored by Basil Poledouris. It's in the same style, however several
new theme are introduced. "It's in the same style because ostensibly
it's the same character. There is a new theme for new arch villans. But
the film has a completely different attitude - a rather ridiculous one,
at best. I used to refer to it as CONAN THE PRETENDER. I hadn't thought
about for years until you brought it up!"
Presumably, the CONAN music made Basil Poledouris the obvious
choice for Paul Verhoeven's FLESH+BLOOD in 1985. Howvere this film is quite
different in approach. "Different time periods, different kinds of
mythology. FLESH+BLOOD is laced with religious symbology, mostly Christian.
Conan is laced with religious symbolism, mostly pagan and pantheistic.
They do share a strong willed characters", Basil says. "The romantic
relationships in FLESH+BLOOD are very complicated particularly to score
since you have a woman who share her love with two men who are mortal enemies.
I ended up with love themes for each male character, a noble theme for
Stephen, and a pirate-monk theme for Rutger's character which in essence
was the main theme of the film."
WORKING IN THE FAMILY GENRE
In the 90's, Basil Poledouris has moved on, from scoring these
kind of mythological, romantic and violent stories, to work on more family
oriented films like LASSIE, FREE WILLY, THE JUNGLE BOOK and WHITE FANG.
These films give the composer vast opportunities to demonstrate his fascinating
gift for melody, something which is an important element particularly in
these kind of scores. "The fact that kids are going to see them I
try to make them a little more fairy-tale like and transparent", Basil
explains. "The melody may help them understand the film and give them
an emotional connection to nature or animals or whatever. I have two daughters
and I know what they liked as children. I try to get some magic into the
score and let them have fun with it. That is if the director will allow
The typical sound of Hollywood's family adventures, especially
those coming from the Disney studios, is that of warmth and innocence.
At the same time, the music - which is always symphonic - is very distinctive
in its emotional language. Mournful moments are extremely sad. Exhilarating
chases are sparkingly joyful. Moments of horror are very scary. Have a
look at Basil Poledouris' WHITE FANG and you will discover these contrasts.
To achieve this dynamic music, the orchetral palette has become standardized
in most family movies. For Basil Poledouris, the symphony orchestra means
a lot for the timelessness of the film. "No hi-hats banging out a
'70's beat. You can show the film for generations to come without dating
it. Which is my feeling about most films", he says.
THE SOLO PIANO SCORE
Quite opposite the rather traditional approach of these family
movies, Basil composed one of his most original scores last year. Written
solely for piano, the intimate and sensitive music for IT'S MY PARTY came
as a pleasant suprise. Again, Basil Poledouris kept in mind what David
Raksin had tought him at the USC: to understand the drama of the film before
writing the music. "The idea eminated with Randal Kleiser, the writer-director.
Randal was also a class mate at USC Cinema School and I've done several
of his films. He is always taken with the thematic material I present him
on piano and has expressed, in the past, a desire for the orchestrations
to be more like the piano. He got his wish with IT'S MY PARTY, and I think
the choice was bold and correct", Basil says. "The film is about
a man and his estranged lover who is dying of Aids. They reconcile in the
last few days of the lover's life. We needed something that was expressively
tender but also masculine. Piano was the choice. I played all the cues.
Randal and I spent several months working out the various ideas. Music
was loosely sketched but not to any frame-accurate timings. We didn't want
the cues to sound contrived but very natural and improvisational. By the
time we recorded, I had memorized the film and its timings became internal.
It was a new approach for me and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Again, it seems
as if time were a partner in this score as it changed from week to week
as the entire film became clearer and more fluid to me."
In the days of computerised composition, Basil Poledouris stands
out as one of those composers for whom writing music really means writing.
"I write with a pencil, paper, and my Steinway piano from my childhood.
It's the only way I feel connected to the music. I have attempted to write
on the computer and it's a complete bust. I keep thinking it would be quicker,
easier, more fun, but alas. I need to touch the material I'm working with",
he says. "I skecth on anything from 4 lines to 22 lines, two 11 line
systems connected together. A cue can be complete even if it is solo oboe.
I suppose I sketch on whatever is needed to make my ideas clear. I always
indicate the various choirs of the orchestra but generally leave things
like divisi of the strings and arpeggiating cellos, violas and violins
up to the orchestrator. If voicings are contiguous like trombones and tuba
in root positions, I will indicate for the orchestrator to continue in
this style". Basil says that he doesn't know if he would like to do
his orchestrations all by himself, even if he had the time to do it. "Composing
for film involves so many other tasks - working out timings to cue sheets,
tempi changes to fit action, phone calls with the producer, meetings with
director, setting up recording sessions... I would orchestrate if I were
doing a concert piece or a piece which had no immediate deadline. like
the interaction with an orchestrator. I have been working with Greig McRitchie
for twenty years now. Scott Smalley is the lead orchestrator on STARSHIP
TROOPERS as Greig had some minor surgery during the scoring."
Which brings us back to where we began this interview, the 100
million dollar budget space epic of the year. For many moviegoers, STARSHIP
TROOPERS is just another big science fiction adventure, but for the film
music afficionado it's much more. It's the reunion of Paul Verhoeven and
Basil Poledouris, the guys who gave us ROBOCOP. Considering that to be
one of the most intelligent action scores of all time, what can we expect
from STARSHIP TROOPERS? The answer lies in the future. And the future is