Jazz Professional               


Always a deadline

Obituary: Tom Vallance in The Independent The film composer Ron Goodwin has died in Brampton Common, Berkshire at the age of 77. This interview was made with him by Les Tomkins in 1970

I’d always had a fair idea of what film composing was all about, before I actually started doing it about eleven years ago. The actual technical side of fitting music to pictures is really comparatively simple, I think.

The editor gives you a breakdown of all the music sections, to the nearest eight frames of film. As the film goes through the projector at 24 frames per second, this means you’ve got all your timings to the nearest third of a second.

The thing to do is to look through each section, and decide what particular points you want to make in the music. It’s then a question of finding a tempo that will put all those points on strong beats so that you can make something of it musically. It sounds a bit complicated, but basically it all comes down to setting the right tempo. Once you’ve done that, it must work.

You’ve also got to consider the director’s wishes. Two different directors will want two totally different types of musical score for the same picture. And unless you violently feel that what the director wants is wrong, it’s part of the composer’s job to give him what he thinks is right.

After all, he’s the overall supervisor, artistically, and if you can make your ideas for it work in the terms that he’s got in mind, it’s your duty to do that. If you feel you can’t do what he wants, then the only honest thing to say is: “Well, I’m sorry—I don’t think this picture’s for me.” But I always find it very helpful if a director’s got definite ideas about music. It’s much better that sitting down writing in a vacuum. If he says: “I’d like a conventional orchestral score,” at least you know the kind of sound he’s got in mind. If he says “I’d like it to be jazz–orientated with a small group,” there again you’ve got something to hang the whole thing on.

The type of director I don’t like working with is the chap who doesn’t come to the runnings and says: “I’ll leave it to you.” Because there are so many different ways of approaching any given picture. With one or two exceptions. Obviously, if you were doing a period piece about Henry the Eighth or something, that in itself makes it fairly evident what kind of score is wanted for the film. There again, though, you could go way out and do a jazz score for that kind of film and make it very effective. But that’s something you should definitely discuss with the director first! He might be very unpleasantly surprised when he came to the recording if you hadn’t. If he’d suggested it and you felt you could write it in that kind of idiom, great—because it gives you a challenge.

What I find a bit disappointing, really, is that film producers are inclined to put you into boxes. Somebody’s making a war picture; so he says: “Who did the last successful war picture?” And that chap is then stuck with war pictures for the rest of his career. They don’t seem to have the vision to see that a good composer can do any kind of film.

I mean, I’ve got kind of type–cast, in a way, with big war pictures and road show comedies—like Battle Of Britain, 633 Squadron, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, Monte Carlo Or Bust. Whereas I’d really like to do something different to all that, such as one of these with contemporary things. But you get channeled into a certain area, and they don’t even consider you for a picture like that. They say: “Oh yes—he’s the chap who does the war pictures and comedies. Very good—but not for this picture.” The difficulty is to know how you can tell film producers that you can also do the other things. They can only judge you on your past work. It needs an adventurous director now and then to say: “Well, he hasn’t done this before—but let’s see what he comes up with.”

Mind you, I can understand their point of view, too, in playing safe all the time. They’re spending a lot of money. If it’s a big orchestra and you’ve got three days, say, to record —it’s too late to change it if they don’t like it when they turn up at the studio: they’re stuck with it. It’s a very expensive business to commission another score and another recording session. First of all, it means you’ve got to wait another six weeks while somebody else writes the music.

But it is a bit frustrating from the composer’s angle, really. I bet there are a lot of writers who’d like to do things that nobody ever asks them to do. Like John Dankworth, for instance—he’s stuck with the big band jazz image, in a way, but he can obviously do anything. Nobody asks him to do certain kinds of things.

It would be nice to work a change–around, and all do what everybody else is doing. In fact, I thought at one stage of organising all the composers into making a big demonstration tape, on which we’d all written things totally different to any score we’ve ever done. Then we’d send this tape round to producers—just to show them. If you can only do one kind of music, you shouldn’t be in the business anyway. But it would be a very difficult and expensive thing to organise; booking sessions and so on.

You’d probably find, to start with, that everybody was busy and they didn’t have time to do it.

I was quite pleased, though, when Charlie Schneer asked me to do the score for The Executioner. Sam Wanamaker directed it; he’s very go-ahead, and likes to explore new fields. I used twelve—tone techniques for that.

And I worked with Peter Zenovieff, who is an electronic music expert. The way we worked on it was that I wrote the twelve–tone score, and then Peter came to the sessions, listening to see what he could do with what I’d composed. If he decided, for instance, that something I’d written for the brass would stand some kind of electronic treatment, we would record the whole section without the brass and record the brass separately. Peter then took it away, put it through the computer or whatever it is they do.

After he’d treated it we married the two tracks. It was very effective in several places in the film; it’s got some unusual kinds of noises, combined with orchestral noises. Which was quite a new approach for me.

This is a very workable technique, I think. You see, I’m not an electronic composer; I wouldn’t know where to start, to do an electronic score. But this kind of electronically–treated orchestral score has great possibilities that we didn’t really explore in The Executioner. If I ever did it again, I think there would be good grounds for a lot more consultation with the electronics man before the score was written.

Having had the experience of first writing the score, with him deciding what to treat afterwards, I would now want to say: “I’m going to write this to be treated,” and then get together to find out what kind of sounds we could produce to make even more way–out, unusual noises. In other words, if I could discover the electronic possibilities before I write it, I would probably write something different, because of the way it was going to turn out in the final mix.

As to whether electronics could put musicians out of business—I don’t think so. If people want conventional music, there’s no other way of producing it. I know they claim they can reproduce the sound of any orchestral instrument; theoretically you can, because all you have to do is put the right sine–waves together and you’ve got the sound. But there’s really no competition with live musicians, because the sort of sounds that people would want from electronic music equipment are ones that can’t be produced orchestrally anyway.

Apart from any gimmicky things, I think the future of it lies in the integration of instrumental sounds and purely electronic sounds. It’s really given me an appetite to experiment a bit more with it. Using it as part of the original score, you could get some great effects that way.

You require a lot of time to write that kind of music, though. If you were commissioned to do that kind of a picture, you’d want two or three weeks with nothing to do but experiment with the electronic equipment and obtain the right sounds before you even started to write a note of music. It certainly needs more time than the average film can give you.

There’s always a deadline to film composing, for the very simple reason that the film company’s borrowed a lot of money, they’re paying a vast amount of interest, and they want to get the picture out. I suppose you get about six weeks to write the music for the average film. Which depends on the subject of the film, the kind of music required, and how much of it.

For instance, I did Of Human Bondage—that was one of the easiest scores I’ve ever had to write, since it called for a lot of romantic, slow music. But then if you get involved in a frantic comedy like Magnificent Men, every section is a major work, really. If you’ve got chases going on, you’ve got to match the music to the scenes, obviously. It takes ages to write those fast things—getting all the pointing that they want in comedy films.

You have to write something like forty minutes of music in the six weeks. It always starts off with me making out a big timetable and saying: “Well, I’ve got to do a minute and a half a day” or something—that’s to write and orchestrate. So at the end of the first week you find you haven’t done that much, and now you’ve got to do two minutes a day.

It tends to pile up that way—but you always get it done somehow.

I very seldom get commissioned until they’re on the last couple of weeks of shooting. Normally they don’t start thinking about the composer until they’ve practically finished on the floor. Which is a mistake, probably. I think if you could get brought in at the beginning, it would give your subconscious a chance to work on it. Even though you’re not consciously thinking of it, something’s boiling up there somewhere. From that point of view, the earlier you can get in on it the better.

Of course, with cartoon films they usually want the music before they make the picture—which is rather nice. They animate to the music, in fact. That takes a lot of detailed planning with the director. He’s got an overall plan of what it’s all about, and knows where he wants certain things to happen. They’ve usually timed it all out with a stopwatch and they give you what they call bar–sheets, on which all the points that have to be made are marked out. You write the music with the picture in mind, even though it doesn’t exist yet.

I’m never completely satisfied with my scores. I always feel afterwards: “If only I could do it all over again. . .” But I’d say probably the score that worked best with the picture  was the one I did for Where Eagles Dare—the Richard Burton/Clint Eastwood film. Because it wasn’t bad musically, and it seemed to be right for what was happening on the screen.

A strong theme is important, although that depends on the film. I mean, if you’re doing Bride of Dracula, you’ve got to be a bit careful about introducing a melodic theme! But I suppose it could still be done. There are certain obvious films, such as Magnificent Men, where you must have a strong theme. It’s a clear opportunity to write some music that can fit the film and also help to exploit it. After all, every time the tune’s played people think about the picture.

633 Squadron was another one like that. It doesn’t always work. For some films you can write a commercial theme; for others you can’t. And it’s ridiculous to try to force a commercial theme into a film that won’t take it. because all you do is finish up with a bad score. Which doesn’t help the picture, and it’ll never work as a commercial entity either. If it’s not right when people see the picture, it won’t mean a thing as a piece of music. It’s a question of taste, really.

Music is an added dimension to a film—but it can’t enhance a bad one, either. You often get directors saying: “We’re very worried about this scene, and we’re relying on the music.” Well, once they’ve said that—there’s nothing the music can do for it. If they’re worried about the scene, the scene’s wrong. If you’ve got something good on the screen, the music can make it better. If it’s terrible, you can’t kid people by trying to make the music say that it’s not.

The music might ease the pain a bit, but you can’t make a good picture if the music’s the only good thing in it. Mind you, I think you can do the reverse—you can spoil a good picture with bad music.

I’ve often wanted, just for the fun of it, to write the wrong kind of music for a film. To send up. say a John Wayne epic with the music.  I’ll probably do it one day in my old age, when I retire. It’s the sort of thing you could only do for your own amusement.

 Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved