Michael Kamen in conversation, 1998

Interview by Jonathan Broxton and James Southall


The first thing we wanted to ask you about is What Dreams May Come. The new one. How did you get that? How did that come about?

By accident. I think some of the best things in life happen by accident. It was at the expense of a man that I admire tremendously, and I have to be as philosophical and self-aggrandising at the same time as I can be. I’m happy that I got that score. I probably would have been happier had they come to me first, but the fact that they went to Ennio Morricone, whose work I really admire, personally admire, and enjoy, the fact that they went to him for the score was understandable. The fact that his score, for one reason or another, didn’t fit their bill, was also kind of understandable, because he chose… you know… a film composer looks at the story and comes up with musical solutions for that story. There are many, many solutions that one could choose – there are many ways to skin a cat, you know.

What Ennio reacted to, I think, was the very serious, touching, philosophical and metaphysical nature of the film. The film is a very serious one, and concerns death and love, two fantastic themes to be involved in musically. The first time I looked at the film, the first event you see in the film of any significance, two minutes in, is the children, who are the product of this whirlwind relationship you see forming, a fifteen year marriage takes place and you meet the family and their kids at breakfast and, two minutes later, he’s waving goodbye to them in the car, and the camera suddenly slows down and he says “that’s the last time we saw the children alive”. And that’s the beginning of the film, that’s the first thing you see and it knocks you for six, it just takes all the stuffing out of you. As a father, to even contemplate that reality is so beyond the bounds of reason. If you choose to dwell on the tragedy of that moment, if you choose to dwell on the profound sadness and sense of loss, you could easily write a very profound piece of music that would make the rest of the film unwatchable. You can’t go any further. The first time I saw the movie I would burst into tears roughly every three minutes. I was a mess, I was a pile of jelly on the floor, and I realised the only way to help people to listen to this story, to watch this story, to see it unfold, was to treat it as a love story, which eventually you realise it is. It’s a very moving, very profound, very touching love story, about the depth of his feeling for his wife, and her depth of her feeling for him, and the meaning of life, the meaning of life as it is being lived, not the metaphysics of life beyond the grave.

I have mixed feelings about that. I have a deep respect for people that have a metaphysical outlook on life, and I’m very keen to share that, but I have to confess that my own feeling is that we are what we are, that this is now and this is the only dance that there is, and it’s that kind of ‘be here now’ philosophy. If there’s a payoff in the next life – great! You know, I intend to be as good a person as I can in this one and, sure, it might result in something, but I certainly can’t live for the next life. I’m not as filled with faith or dedication as Bach was, who wrote everything for the glory of God, everything was with a certainty that he would be dwelling in heaven for eternity. I’m not so lucky, you know. I heard Richard Dreyfuss once say in an interview, when he was playing a preacher, I think, in a film and somebody was interviewing him and said, “Do you believe in God, Mr. Dreyfuss?”, and he said “Nah, put it this way – I’m an agnostic who’s willing to be convinced!” I have to share that.

You say you treated it like a love story, and that’s one sort of film you haven’t done too many of. Is that a change of direction?

Well, it’s not a deliberate change of direction. I’ll write what they put in front of me. I do paint what I see. I write a lot of different kind of music, and of course I have written love stories – I’ve have written Don Juan, you can’t get more of a love story than that.

But that was a Spanish influence.

Well, it was, but that’s just because it was Don Juan. You know, if it was Don Lewinsky, that would be different! But there’s certainly a different flavour to each character.

Did you ever hear Ennio’s score?

No, no, no. I wouldn’t listen to that.

So you don’t know what he did?

No, I don’t know what he did, but I do know that he was very liturgical, very Roman Catholic, very profound, very serious, and the film was already profound and serious and weighty. As often happens, even in my own work, I probably should have been fired from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, because I was determined to make as convoluted and complex and baroque a score – it was actually the age of reason, not the age of baroque – and my score was so encrusted, it was so busy, and Terry Gilliam was so busy, that every frame was weighted down by the music, and enhanced by it, and that’s my own self-critique. But, for real, you know, sometimes we can work too hard. The film has to be allowed to tell its story so, for a change, especially after Lethal Weapon 4, which was great fun but little else, to be able to work on a film of such significance, with so much to say, I was very easily guided by the film, and would wait for it to say something. I’d wait for an actor to do something, and then I’d say something. I wouldn’t ever lead you into ‘the void’, I would let ‘the void’ show up, and then I’d come in. It was a great thrill – I think Vincent Ward is a tremendous practitioner and, you know, he’s more than just a director, he’s a director, he’s a facilitator.

Did he write the movie?

No, he didn’t write it the movie, he just shot it, but he’s a fine artist, he literally painted many of the frames himself. It’s a very unusual-looking film, the technique that was used, it’s closer to animation than it is to film-making.

He’s got a very good attitude towards music, he did Map of the Human Heart, and that had a great score. He used the music very well in that.

At this point, you know, sometimes the crucial problem of making a film score is that you spill your heart out into the score, and then the director fusses with it, and the producer fusses with it, and the studio fusses with it, and then somebody else has to come in, and the director’s shoe-maker happened to come to a screening and has a cut, and you’re dealing with a committee in which to make your stand. In this case, they just simply had run out of time, so as much as they could say, I was simply trying just to get my first mix in, and was able to concentrate thoroughly on it, was able to make my statement because it was very close to home having almost lost my wife at that point. You know, relationships are always very complex but, needless to say, if a relationship has gone on for thirty years, it will have its complexities and whatever the story is you don’t want to lose it. We had just, I mean JUST, come off that incredibly crucial period in my own life, and my family’s, and to be asked to look at this film, much less score it, was a real kick in the head.

So do you think that inspired you moreso to make it a better score?

I know it did. I know that it drew from me some musical statements that I was poised and ready to make. I’m also focusing this whole period of time on things other than films – I’m writing a symphony, so I was just about ready to start the symphony when my wife became ill, and of course that took all my attention, and as soon as she was in recovery, before I had a chance to go off and go back into my symphony, this movie came along.


How is the Millennium Symphony going?

Well, I just returned from another sojourn in the south west of America and the story of the Millennium Symphony is that the National Symphony in Washington has commissioned me to write a symphony for the millennium. They asked me to write a symphony that was representative of one hundred years of American music in retrospect, and I suddenly had visions of John Philip Sousa, and I can’t stand John Philip Sousa! So, I said “Wait a second, guys, look. It’s a millennium, that’s a thousand years, not a hundred years. I’ll give you a thousand years in a retrospective” and they said “There isn’t any thousand year old American music” and I said “Yes, there is, there are Indian tribes”. Specifically, its one fabulous tribe called, by us, the Anasazi, we don’t know what they called themselves, but they built those incredible pueblo houses in the cliffs of the south west. They started in the Grand Canyon area at a place called Chaco Canyon and a place called Canyon Des Chelly, which is a Navajo word. I’ve always been keenly interested and sympathetic to the Navajo tribe, and I’ve always worn lots and lots of turquoise, it’s my own totem. So, when I was checking out the Anasazi I realised that, exactly one thousand years ago was when they decided, for reasons as yet unknown, to leave their homes, leaving everything behind and make a mass migration. We don’t know why, we don’t know even where they went. We know what their route was, but we don’t know what happened to them. They were an extraordinary culture. If there is anything for me to say about music in a symphonic form, it’s that we are related to each other from the beginning of time, that musical feelings are exactly the same now as they were back then. We have a few different devices to make the music on, but the music is the important thing, and the story behind the music is the important thing. For the film composer, obviously the storytelling aspect of it is what intrigues me about it, and the idea that I could take a look backwards, even though it was a completely hypothetical look backwards, and decide that these people were defined in such and such a form, melodically, and then try to advance and look forward a thousand years and try to say what it is about music that might be consistent over all of this time. It’s a soap box for me which I am very happy to stand on about melody, and about the storytelling nature of music. I believe that human beings have not changed that much, fundamentally, since the beginning of time, that music is our emotional language and, therefore, emotions can be expressed with melodic cues. Not film cues, but cues to the human heart. It is that that I wanted to say, so the symphony is being called by another Indian expression which, I think, is an Iroquois expression which describes when you look at the sky and you see the crescent moon just waning, and because it’s so bright it illuminates the entire face of the moon inside it, and the Iroquois call that “The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms’. And that’s the name of my symphony.

So how do you come up with Navajo music?

You don’t. What you do is come up with music that seems to suggest the phenomenal scope of the canyon, seems to suggest the horizon, the eagles flying into the canyon, the evocative nature of an echo around the canyon walls.

Is it going to be performed on New Year’s Eve 1999?

It’s not New Year’s Eve, but it’s very close. I think it’s January 3rd or 4th in Washington DC first, and then in Carnegie Hall. It’s a real windfall of a commission for any composer. I’m thrilled. The conductor will be Leonard Slatkin.

You’re not conducting it yourself?

Well, I won’t do the first performance. Leonard will do Washington and New York. I may conduct a premiere here shortly thereafter. But I went to school with Leonard Slatkin!

Talk about coming full circle!


You’ve written concert music before, like the Olympic themes, which I’ve never heard

True. But I don’t think that’s concert music. That’s spectacle music. The Olympics was an interesting commission. There were two bits of music, but they were unadulterated heroism, and as such were set pieces, a bit like writing a march.

You’ve got to make it as grand as possible.

Yeah. Just grandiosity. I enjoyed that, but I think my concert music has been actually restricted to ballet scores, and the saxophone concerto, and the guitar concerto and some small pieces I did for chamber music. I keep saying I’m going to write myself an oboe sonata.

Because you play oboe, don’t you?

I do!


I read somewhere that some of your ballet scores were going to be released by Polygram.

I think they will eventually, but I think it’s going to take time. Aside from you three, there are very very few film music fans and it’s a big problem. You can’t sell music and you’ll have noticed, I’m sure, when you look in classical record departments where, number one, they don’t sell many records to begin with, but the records they do sell are being sold by either the soloist or the conductor. It’s not Beethoven who’s selling the records, it’s Von Karajan, it’s Bernstein, it’s Esa Pekka Salonen. Whoever it is, it’s who they’re able to make into a personality. With film music, almost by definition, because you’re talking about a film, the personality of the composer is going to be subdued.

It’s the film that sells the score.

Yeah, the film makes the difference.

Except in our case, where we buy it for the composer.

(laughs) You’re a rare breed. You know, the most glaring example of it is very recent, with James Horner, who sold squillions of records on a pop scale, which is something I’m familiar with. I don’t have the same notches on my bedpost as he does, you know, fifty million sales is a lot. I think the Bryan Adams record must have done twenty million, or something like that.

It was number one over here for months, wasn’t it?

Yeah. But I know what that feels like. On the other hand, people will come to see Bryan Adams, but if Michael Kamen says he’s playing a concert at such and such, they go “Who?” You know, they’d rather see Pearl Jam. I’d rather see Pearl Jam, you know, I understand that. It isn’t a serious draw. It’s the personality that sells things. You know, even Wagner realised that, the ‘cult of personality’ was what he recognised would get him elevated. I don’t have any such pretentions. I’m not immodest, and I’m not saying I’m without ego, but I’m absolutely more dedicated to the music than I am to being a pop star. I’ve left my rock and roll band days behind me! But I had a great time, and I will in future continue working with rock and roll bands. I just agreed to do a concert in the spring with Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony. Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony!

It doesn’t quite go really, does it?

Well, it will! (laughs) They are a real, kickass, old fashioned rock and roll band, you know. There’s a temptation to denigrate them and to think of them as ‘heavy metal crap’, but in fact they are as tight and precise and multi-rhythmic and unusual and energised in their presentation as any group I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve been a fan of rock and roll ever since I could spit! So, I’m going to be really happy doing this thing with Metallica, because there will be a far greater audience for the orchestra with Metallica as the beacon, than there will be ever if, you know, even if Beethoven himself came back from the dead – “Ah, no, I think we’ll go see Metallica tonight!”


We wanted to ask you about Lethal Weapon 4 as well. Of course, that’s just opened. Obviously, that would have been instantly yours having done the three prequels. I bet it was like coming home working with David Sanborn and Eric Clapton again.

It was. It was going back to your family and working with Eric and David again is always… Well, these are two of my biggest heroes. Clapton and I started the Lethal Weapon project back in the year dot and I brought Dave Sanborn in board because he’s my favourite sax player. Stuart Baird, who was the editor of the first Lethal Weapon, suggested that a guitar could be the voice of one character and he said “What about a saxophone for the other?”, so I said “Yeah. Who?”, and he said “Well, there’s this guy I really like”, and I was really nervous because if he had said anybody else I would have declined to do the film at that point, especially as David Sanborn was the only living sax player that I was willing to stand the sound of the sheep being squeezed by! (laughs)

And he said “Well, there’s this guy, you might not know him, David Sanborn” and I said “You got it!” So the idea of putting David and Eric together was prompted then, and since they’ve since gone on to become great friends and collaborators, and to get them both in the studio for Lethal Weapon 4 was a real trip. You know, it was as much fun as it could be without lying down! (laughs)

We had a ball. It was very intense, a very small period of time, but relentless and energetic and a scream. Really funny.

How much influence do they actually have over what music is performed? I mean, I assume that you do the majority of all the writing, but do they chip in with bits and pieces?

Eric and David?


We share the writing between us. The main theme of Mel Gibson’s character is something that Eric and I came up with for the original film. As in the case of many film scores, it’s a theme and then variations. So in this case we have two main themes: Danny Glover’s character, Roger Murtaugh, has a theme and Mel Gibson’s character, Martin Riggs, has a theme, and these themes often combine, and then you have bad guys. And the bad guys get their own identity.

You’ve got the new one this time, the Chinese guy.

Yeah, Jet Li. So, in this case, it’s Oriental, Chinese stylised music. We have a wonderful player, an erhu. It’s a Japanese violin, and he plays a lot of flutes too, so I used some ethnic Chinese music.

That’s a first for you. You’ve never used Chinese music before have you?

Ah… no. No. First Lethal Weapon was Vietnamese bad guys.

Then the South Africans.

The South African guy was in Lethal Weapon 2.

And then the third one was…

Just a bad guy.

Stuart Wilson.

Just a bad guy. “What’s wrong with him?” “I don’t know, he’s just a bad guy!” (laughs)

Is it difficult to come up with new stuff for a fourth film? I mean, with you being so rooted in the first three, is it difficult to keep… or do you keep churning out the same stuff again?

No, you know, because I do honestly think that the character of the film is defined by Mel and Danny, because they have a unique chemistry, but the family has grown to include Joe Pesci, who is mad and wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Lorna, Renč Russo, who is now a fixture. Darlene Love. And, not to put them too much behind the screen, Dick Donner and Joel Silver are at least as filled with personality and colour. They’re fantastic people, and the idea of being able to work with them on anything is always a major gas. They’re completely wild, and a film like Lethal Weapon 4 is a juggernaut, an army campaign, you know. They’re churning it out really, really fast. Much faster than a normal film, because they could and because they had to. There was nothing difficult about it, you know, it wasn’t a challenge.

You always seem as though you have a lot of fun with those films.

Yeah. It was fun, but, you know, Lethal Weapon was all original work and, whether it’s good or bad, it’s what made my career. I had done films that I can say, very proudly, “Yes, I did Mona Lisa. Yes, I did Brazil. Yes, I did The Dead Zone.” But I’d still be nobody at all worth looking at, to film music fans, without Lethal Weapon. Career wise, as far as Hollywood is concerned, you’re only as significant as the significance of your film.

And then Die Hard came along…

Well, it was Lethal Weapon that led into that morass of action films, mostly through Joel, and I’m not about to tread on the hand that feeds me. It is absolutely so that I said yes to everything that came along in those days. As you can see, it’s a very big house… (laughs)

I needed to buy it. I needed to pay for it. But, I was just sort of inclined to say yes. If it was a ballet, I would say yes. If it was a pop tune I’d say yes, if it was a film I’d say yes, if it was a symphony I’d say yes. I guess the only thing that would stop me, or change me, is that I get older and older and older and finally lose interest and lose energy. I think I’d lose energy before I lose interest and I don’t have any plans to lose energy just yet. Lethal Weapon was what it was. It led to number two, and that was a lot of borrowed music. Lethal Weapon 2‘s score was made up of a lot of cues from Lethal Weapon with a couple of new ones. Lethal Weapon 3 was made of Lethal Weapon 2 and Lethal Weapon. Lethal Weapon 4 came along, and I could have easily just sat there in a room like a library and said “Well, I’ll take that one, and this one, and put them together, and change that one..”

People do do that.

Of course they do, but I didn’t want to. I thought that this was an opportunity. Not a challenge, but an opportunity to express myself. Not reinvent myself, there’s no… I mean, Joel Silver said it best when I do try as often as I can to give some significance to a character or to an idea, or to an emotional weight, and in this one Danny Glover suddenly got serious about these Chinese people who were sold into slavery, and he related to it as a black man, and it was a culture to culture kind of thing, and I made a piece of music that was pretty dark. A little heavy. And Joel came into the studio and heard that piece of music, and goes (with a harsh New York accent) “What is that? What is that?” and I go “well, it’s a kinda serious…” and he goes “That’s not funny!” and I go “No, no, it’s not funny, it’s a tragedy, you know he’s talking about death and slavery” and he said “No, no, no, no, you don’t get understand. People come out of jail to see Lethal Weapon! They don’t want that shit!” (laughs)

But I love the suggestion that the audience for Lethal Weapon is people who have just come out of jail. (laughs)

Does that happen a lot, though, with people saying “No, we don’t want that in the movie! Do it again”

It happens occasionally. Not a lot. Often, you listen to them if it’s somebody who you respect, and you say “Well, I’ll try it, what about this, or that”. You try to make the score work, and when it gets ridiculous you hand them the pencil and you say “Here, you do it if you’re so clear about what you want.”


Is it very frustrating when you write a score like Lethal Weapon and it’s not available on CD?

Not to me, I know what it sounds like! (laughs)

I think we’ll get that fixed. It is mostly to do with the fact that the ship has sailed. You know, I think I finished my last session about ten minutes before they pulled the last fader down on the whole film and sent it off. It was then released to 2,100, or 2,500 or even 3000 cinemas, but that’s easy to do. To press 100,000 CDs and to get the artwork ready takes eight weeks, in the best of circumstances. They can do it sooner, but most record companies are simply not geared to do it sooner. We have an unusual case in What Dreams May Come where an old friend of mine named Alan Kovac agreed to take the score, even though I’m a Decca artist and this is a Decca company, Polygram, they couldn’t get the record out in time. And Alan Kovac, who has a deal with BMG, could. So the record will come out in the States and, I guess, Canada and some of South America, on this BMG company. And they will have this record out in two and a half weeks. So it will be out the day before the film opens, whereas in Europe it will be a Decca record, but they will have had two months to get it ready.

How much control do you have over what gets released? I mean, do have any say in what’s out there?

I try as much as possible to actually make the record. I’ve been able to do that in the case of Don Juan, in the case of Brazil, and in the case of a few other film scores, I think The Three Musketeers I had input to actually making the record. The most successful of them, in financial terms, was a record which is actually enjoyable, is actually interesting and actually has some fascinating sounds on it. Not anything close to the film, the film was an unadulterated piece of rubbish called Event Horizon. The score record, not the score in the movie – God knows what that is – but the score record was actually scary as all fuck. It is a completely frightening experience to listen to that record. That, really, I enjoyed. And I have a great collaborator to do all of this stuff who I’ve been with since Someone To Watch Over Me, and his name is Steve McLaughlin, who has been my engineer and co-producer.

His name comes up on all your CDs.

Yeah, we’ve done everything together. He’s fantastic and I couldn’t do any of these records at all were it not for Steve. Steve helped put the What Dreams May Come album together, and of course we have a much easier time now with Pro Tools and Performer and different technologies which have finally metamorphosised into something that’s usable. It’s phenomenally helpful, I mean, the stuff that we’re doing just by blinking used to take Pink Floyd, when I worked with Pink Floyd, three days to do a cross-fade that was exactly right, and then you’d get it once and you had to cut it on tape, and then splice it in and be really careful not to get grease on the tape and… You just do it now, and dial it into a computer. I think that gives us a lot more opportunity to be hands on with our work. Sometimes it stands between you and the product, and the eventual result is often a mixture of technology and procedure and a little bit of art. But it is gradually getting to the point where the computer tools have been so friendly in their design that you’re actually able to use them creatively.


Talking about unadulterated pieces of rubbish… The Avengers? What happened with that?

It’s not my unadulterated piece of rubbish! (laugh) I didn’t adulterate that piece of rubbish!

Is that why it’s not yours?

I would say that’s a clear thing to say. I was also saved by the bell. I did hang that film around my neck for nearly eight months, and no matter what I tried it didn’t make the film any better. It would just keep showing up and the director would show up and say “You don’t get it, you don’t get it” and I’d say “No, I really don’t get it…” (laughs)

I bet you’re quite pleased you bailed now.

I didn’t have to bail. Lethal Weapon 4 is also a Warner Brothers film and they eventually slipped… I mean, I was supposed to do that film, The Avengers, this time last year (October 97). That’s when it was due, and it didn’t show until some time in, I guess, some time in September. I did get the film and it was “Well, we’ll record it in Octo… Novem… Decem… Janu… Febru… March. April!” and I was like “Whoops, sorry guys, I gotta do Lethal Weapon 4.” And it was the same studio, so it was no contest.

So how much stuff did you actually write for it then?

Buckets. Buckets and buckets and buckets, and I’ll probably use it all at some point. It was good music, interesting, funny. God knows, I don’t think there’ll be an Avengers 2. (laughs)

There was barely an Avengers 1!

It’s a very sad state of affairs that I don’t need to comment on. An explosion that size makes it’s own comment! But it was certainly symptomatic of a big problem in Hollywood when the studios give the right to do a film to a production team, and it eliminates the studio. The studios, for all their lack of creativity, and there is a tremendous lack of creativity up in that bean counter, at the same time they have a tremendous weight of experience making films, and they do know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, or at least they’re experienced enough to say “Well, I don’t know if this is going to work, but this is what I think”. In the case of a production team that is arrogant to the extent that they keep the studio away from the film, you sometimes get a tremendous success, like we’ve all heard about with Dances With Wolves. Difficult subjects that are made by touchy directors and committed producers and for very little money, which is the key. When there’s very little money involved nobody gets too over-excited. When there’s a lot of money involved you either have somebody who’s, in their arrogance, kept the film company away, or a film company that’s totally full of shit, that has made this abortion knowingly. And I’ve been involved in those too, in Last Action Hero. But at least Last Action Hero was an attempt at making an action film for kids that was preaching to kids that ‘this is not important’! That it’s more important to ‘be a kid’ than it is to be an action hero. And it was a noble failure. I have no problems with that. At that point in my life the last thing I was going to do was take an action film. And the studio came to me, because I was known for action films, and said “We have this Schwarzenegger vehicle we’d like you to do”, and I was like “Oh, shit, I don’t want an action film” and I read the script and I said “You know what, I’ll do this. This is great”. And the script was great, but they ran out of time. I think John McTiernan is a great director. His work on Die Hard really did transcend the normal combination of special effects, special visual effects.

Yeah, it was a real turning point in that genre.

It was a real collaborative coup, and McTiernan is responsible for turning that one out. The fact that Die Hard II was such an undignified effort was that they didn’t have a director, you know. They had a Finnish motorbike rider.

Renny Harlin.

Nice guy, but not, you know, not in command of that kind of thing. When John came back to make Die Hard: With A Vengeance, I don’t particularly enjoy the film but it is another of those great collaborative feats, and my hat’s off to him.

I read yesterday they’re doing a fourth one. Just about confirmed.

(long silence). I wouldn’t know.

You haven’t been approached for that one?

I won’t be approached, I don’t think. I’ve said it loud and clear that I don’t wish to do it. But you never know (laughs).

I long ago stopped… I’ll zipper my mouth. It’s nice, like on Lethal Weapon, to be associated with something that has such longevity to it and, you know, at the end of the day my life and my work will not be judged, I don’t think, by the job I did on Lethal Weapon 3 or 4 or Die Hard 10, or, you know. I think there’ll be, I hope, there’ll be more to assess my value on. But, if it is, so be it, and you just do the best you can with what you have.


I think the one which James and I like most of yours is Mr. Holland’s Opus, I mean, that’s a fantastic movie and a fantastic score.

Well, thank you. It was a fantastic opportunity, and it has led to an entire fixation with music, children, and schools.

Because, you set up the Foundation, didn’t you?

I set up a foundation called the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, and it is now being run by Felice Mancini, Henry Mancini’s daughter, who is our Executive Director and she has taken the Foundation and it’s functional, and actually we’ve put it to work, and now municipalities in the States who have an awareness that their school music programmes have either gone or are failing, can come to us and we will help them restore it. We have wonderful expertise and great education committees, and just very valuable input. What’s happening is we get grant from, say, the City of New York or the City of Rochester and various places, to help revitalise key schools, and we know how to do it, and I’m happy to say that there are several thousand kids who now have instruments to play on.

I think I read somewhere that you went into a school in New York or somewhere, and there were broken instruments all over the floor.

Well, that’s what started it. When I was promoting Mr. Holland’s Opus I went back to my high school, which was a special music high school in New York City, and I was amazed to discover they were out of instruments, and that the Board of Education didn’t get them any more, and that the kids who went there, inspired by music, couldn’t play anything. It seemed like such a likely opportunity to grab. You know, it’s one thing to set goals, it’s another thing to set achievable goals and this was such an achievable, clearly achievable goal. It’s relatively few kids stuck in one place and with a very clear problem which could be solved. So we have solved that problem, fixed all those instruments, got them a bunch of new ones as well, and distributed instruments right through fifty states. We’re constantly trying to raise money but, luckily, we have Felice Mancini, who’s got the patience of Job.

And it’s such a worthy cause as well.

Oh, it’s great. I mean, it’s how I started, so I can only try to give back that same opportunity to other kids. And now I go around the country conducting youth orchestras.

I’ll bet that’s fun!

It is fun! I’m going to L.A. on October 3rd to conduct the University of Southern California Marching Band and a symphony orchestra made of 2,000 schoolkids at half time of a football game! It’s like the big college football game, and it’ll be an audience of about 85,000 people, and I’ll conduct Mr. Holland’s Opus with an orchestra of 2,000 and a marching band. Whoo-hoo! (laughs).

There was a marching band scene in that movie, wasn’t there?

Yes. Yes. But I didn’t conduct that! (laughs)


They were playing Louie Louie. Louie Louay!


What do you think about temp tracks?

Trying to give them up, actually! (laughs)

You know, you realise that as film makers work a film, they are completely correct to try to paste a scene and cut it to a piece of music because music imposes its own logic on a scene. The surest film makers, people like Gilliam, very rarely use temp except to see occasionally how a scene holds up. Once in a while they will cut a scene to an existing piece of great music. When you’re cutting a scene and showing to an audience to get ratings and to get ideas, temp music is very valuable. You’re showing an unfinished picture , but if you show it with finished music, it will help it, it will help lubricate it for the audience. I don’t generally watch the film with temp scores, because it gives me bad ideas or good ideas, it just gives me ideas which I would much prefer to come up with myself. It’s much more healthy for me to come up with my own reactions. Once in a while that’s been unavoidable, a film like 101 Dalmatians, because it was being made on such an assembly line, and because so much of it was actually live animation, they needed to have a temp score, and they needed to have a good temp score. They had a GREAT temp score, which scared the shit out of me because I didn’t know whether I could match it. What Dreams May Come, of course, with Ennio not being used, with his score being removed from the film, they had another copy with sort of generic temp music. God knows where it was from.

Well, the trailer had James Horner’s Legends of the Fall.

Right, I guess that’s where. They had a lot of Horner in their temp score. I know that there’s a film called Sommersby which used Robin Hood as their temp score, a lot of my music winds up in temp. When I do Die Hard I tell them, “Look, I know you need a temp, just cut it with my score” and with Lethal Weapon, you know, they can do it. I don’t mind trying to hit some of the same points, and it’s often a good illustration for a composer, but there’s an old aphorism which is ‘Never show a fool unfinished work’ and, unfortunately, the rate at which films fall these days, at great risk, you have to show a film to studios in order for them to see where the money went, and if you show a temp score of finished music with your temp movie of unfinished digitals, or dialogue isn’t clean, or sound effects are not in, temp scores are vital, a necessity. It’s like it you lose your teeth, you go to the dentist, they can quickly put something together so that you don’t embarrass yourself in public. That’s kind of what a temp score is like: it’s not much good for chewing, but it’ll make you look good. It’s a cosmetic purpose, and it serves it’s purpose.

We’re not dealing purely with a world of artistry when we’re dealing with the film world. It’s a major contribution to genuine artistic achievement in film, but it doesn’t mean that every film is a genuine contribution to artistic achievement. Plain and simple, it’s run by profit, it’s run according to commercial motives. It’s art as commerce. That’s what we’re selling. I’m not selling. You know, a piece of music can be fabricated but I’m not really expert enough to do that. I can’t actually make it go this way and that way. I can make a piece of music do what it wants to do, I can realise the architecture of a piece of music that I have created, or even make a great variation. I tried to give them a temp score for Robin Hood and failed, totally failed, to give them a bunch of interesting music, that was interesting to me. It’s not interesting to the suits, they’re not listening with the same ears that I am listening to it with. So, it’s a lengthy answer, but what it is, is that temp scores are, number one, a pain in the ass, and number two necessary.


So have you got anything lined up next?

Yeah, a symphony! A symphony and Metallica! No, I don’t have a film lined up at the moment.

So, what’s going on with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

It’s gone, isn’t it?

Did you do anything for that?

Yeah! With Ray Cooper, who is one of my great heroes and one of the guys who has invented Michael Kamen, you know. It was Ray Cooper who was playing tambourine when I was producing Pink Floyd, and I had just written the string charts for one of their things, and we brought Ray in the studio, and because we had just re-orchestrated it was still quite loud in the mix, and Ray was playing tambourine and listening to the music and he said “Who did the charts? Who did the orchestra?” and I went “I did” and he went “Really. Have you ever done any film?” and I said, kinda sheepishly, that I had done the film Venom, which was on billboards in London, it was the week it was opening. It’s a wonderful cast in Venom, it’s not a wonderful film, but I was astounded when Ray Cooper went “You did Venom?!?!?”, like it was “I had written the Bible?!?!?” (laughs)

He goes “That’s an incredible score! George Harrison and I listened to the score!” and I’m like “What? What? What are you talking about?” It turns out that Ray Cooper, better known as a tambourine player with Elton John and Eric Clapton, who looked like an escapee from Belsen, was actually the managing director of Handmade Films, and ran, of course, all of the music from Handmade, which of course was all the Monty Python films, a lot of Terry Gilliam’s work, and George Harrison’s film company. I was gobsmacked, I think is the word, to find that they had actually listened to Venom, apparently it was offered to Handmade to distribute it. They had passed on the film, quite wisely, but they recognised the music and, on that day, Ray said to me “Do you know Terry Gilliam?” and I said “No. I know Eric Idle.” and he said “Would you like to work with Terry? He’s doing a film called Brazil.” and I said “Yeah, yeah” and he said “I’ll get you that, I want you to do that film. Give me an example of your work”, so I sent him a ballet score. He called me and said “Yeah, Terry loves it, we’ll do this” and then I didn’t hear from them for nearly a year, and I thought it had just vanished, like things do in the entertainment industry. These great ideas are taken and turned into birthday cakes, beautifully designed but gone the next morning. It took a year, and I had all these visions of Robert De Niro pulsating down the streets of Rio drowned in sweat, or the history of the revolution in Brazil, and then suddenly it wasn’t quite like that. It wasn’t even the brazil nut, it was the song, and I started a whole new relationship with films.

You often say that’s your favourite score, though, of your own.

It was my favourite immersion in film. I liked doing it. I think, happily, that the result of some of my other scores makes me happier to listen to. I love Don Juan, I love Mr. Holland’s Opus, I love performing that. I think the score I’ve just written for What Dreams May Come is probably my best score ever.


There was one thing I wanted to ask you about Edward Shearmur. You two have a really, kind of unique relationship where you, like, be his mentor.

Well, he worked for me for many many years. I met him when he was fresh out of Cambridge as an organ scholar, and he was sent to me by Pink Floyd’s manager’s then-girlfriend, now-wife. He’s her nephew. She said “I want you to meet him, he’s a really good musician, and he’s very eager to find out about a career in the music”. I said “What does he do” and she said “He’s an organ scholar from Cambridge”, so I said “Fine, I’d love to meet him”, and he came round to me and he made his big points with me almost immediately. I don’t quite know how he got onto it, but he said that – you have to remember that at that time I was in my thirties, and he was nineteen years old – and he said that one of the great, epochal moments of his life that made him realise that there was classical music contained in rock and roll, that there was possibly an area of great interest, something that really inspired him, and I said “What was it?” and he said there was a David Bowie record with an incredible oboe solo in it. And I smiled, ‘cos it was me! And it was my playing oboe solo in “1984”, the song from the David Live album, that started Ed thinking that maybe there was a place for him in this new world of commercial music, that maybe there was some value in it.

He wound up working for me, at first just sorting out my papers, then keeping track of my papers, and then helping me every once in a while filling in some lines on a score, helping to keep track of the manuscripts. You know, the clutter of a composer’s life is prodigious. I think eventually he wound up doing a little bit of scoring for me on the Eric Clapton 24 Nights thing, and, because we needed one, he wound up playing organ in the Albert Hall on the guitar concerto. And then, you know, I introduced him to my agency, and he did a film or two. We’re good friends, and he just happens to be disgustingly young (laughs)

But he’s sweet, and he’s a great musician too. It’s great flattery to hear him call me his mentor. We wear the same sneakers! Composer’s shoes. But he’s doing really well.

He’s suddenly just taken off, hasn’t he?

Well, it’s always a film that gets a composer the recognition, and his score for Wings of the Dove was significant, really, and he was able to steer people in his direction. There are a few people who have taken off over the last couple of years. I suppose I’m one of them, but people like Paddy Doyle, certainly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman.

John Altman.

What, you mean from the result of Hear My Song?


Yeah, I mean, he’s a fantastic working musician and has been a successful working musician for many years. I was not a successful working musician. I was a serious oboe player, an interested participant in ballet music and was always in my mind a composer. I’d worked with Pink Floyd, which I guess nobody can say is a punter’s occupation, and with being involved in all of that I had a lot of credentials but, you know, I didn’t have a pot to piss in! It’s not that I had a status in my own life before I started doing film scores. I had just begun. And Ed has, equally, just taken off. But I’m happy he did it with Wings of the Dove, a film of substance, than with Lethal Weapon 15.

But now he’s turned to Species II and he’s likely to get offered loads of sci-fi’s.

Well, he has been loaded down with horror movies, but our greatest hero, all of our greatest hero, the man who we all respect and bow down to nearly every time we pick up a pencil is Bernard Herrmann, of course, who wrote the scariest movies in the world.

Thank you very much for talking to us.

You’re very welcome.

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