INFO index

BASIL POLEDOURIS INTERVIEW
Interview Source: MUSIC FROM THE MOVIES #17/1997
Interview by: Mikael Carlsson (Summer, 1997)

STARSHIP COMPOSER
 
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 choir sessions."
 
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 remembers.
 
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 it."
 
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 near.