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By Randall D. Larson
November 16, 2006
The untimely death of film composer Basil Poledouris last week, at the age of 61, has deprived the film music community of one of its finest contemporary practitioners. With more than seven dozen film scores to his credit since the early 1970s, Basil Poledouris lent his unique gift for folk melodies, warm orchestral colorations, and compelling riffs to films in almost all genres, from romantic dramas like The Blue Lagoon to the savage epic rhythms of Conan the Barbarian, from the Glorious pageantry of Starship Troopers to the noble personalities of Lonesome Dove, and from the iron-hewn power of The Hunt for Red October to the heroism of Red Dawn and the intricate intimacy of Its My Party. Basil’s film scores were defined by simple yet persuasive melodies that were immediately accessible and instantly affecting. He was a soft-spoken soul with a passion for making music for cinema who had a special affinity for linking rhythm and melody and texture with changing characterization, interrelating arcs of storytelling, and enhancing through his musical compositions the breadth and depth of cinematic artistry.
Basil was one of my favorite composers, since I first heard the intriguing textures of Conan the Barbarian in 1982. I had the opportunity to meet and interview him about his work on several occasions, and in memory of and in tribute to a lifetime of extremely powerful and unforgettable music I present the following interview segments. They have been published in various issues of CinemaScore and Soundtrack! magazines, and a couple of CD booklets over the last twenty-four years, and are offered here in the hopes of illuminating for continued and further appreciation his work and the considered thought that went beyond it.
On Conan the Barbarian (1982):
Working with John Milius is really a pleasure. He not only understands how to construct music, but as a director and writer he knows what kinds of music would enhance the vision that he has of a particular scene.
I started coming up with themes for the picture before he went out to shoot, as we had done with Big Wednesday. I would develop these themes throughout the shooting period. We spoke more in terms of lightness and darkness, power, force, fury – strange words for music, but yet very good words. John directs me the way he directs his actors, rather than getting specifically musical about it, he speaks in emotional terms.
The first theme I came up with was “The Riddle of Steel,” which is in a sense Conan’s theme, although I intended it to represent the quest that weaves throughout the score from the introductory speech on the mountaintop through Thulsa Doom’s revelation of the Riddle of Steel at the denouement. This theme locked down the mythology of the movie – the thread that would carry on reminding the audience that the reason Conan is doing all the things he is was because of his father’s speech on the mountaintop. The music for Conan is, basically, a movement from darkness to lightness.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN Soundtrack (1982)
© Varese Sarabande
John didn’t want the Riddle of Steel theme to be bright and happy, but more of a ballad. For the Thulsa Doom theme, I started looking at a lot of Gregorian chants. At the time we were trying to stylize the sound and it seemed to be that a Gregorian, or even a pre-Gregorian chant might fit into the time period that we’re looking at, The secondary theme of Thulsa Doom is actually the Dies Irae, which is from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, and I combined those things.
Originally John Milius wanted to use Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana
in all the battle scenes in Conan
. He didn’t know that John Boorman was using it in Excalibur
, which wasn’t released until he was shooting Conan
in Spain. When he heard it, he decided he didn’t want to use the same music. But he did like the chanting aspects, the repetition, the large orchestra and chorus, and he asked me to write something along those lines. The thing that we had to do that Carmina Burana really doesn’t have is that we wanted it to sound a lot more Eastern. The score starts off in the snows of Russia and it sounds very Northern Russian; as the picture progresses and Conan is constantly moving geographically to the south, the score does that too – it starts off in a more Middle-Eastern mode and then moves down farther. When he meets Subotai it starts lightening up, in terms of the harmonic structure.
The choral theme is used to represent anything dealing with the cultic aspects of Thulsa Doom. I think of the chorus as being like harpies. I always conceived of them as a cheering section for the bad guys, driving them on. They’re hiding out in the trees watching all of this happen! The lyrics chanted by these “harpies” are Latin, and what is actually being sung is something like:
We seek things of steel
We eat things of steel
Risen from Hell
Driven by fury
We are dying, We are dying
We are dying for Doom.
On Flesh + Blood (1985):
I think what Paul [Verhoeven, director] responded to very strongly in Conan
was its highly the¬matic content, and he thought that perhaps if we made use of that we could thread the needle for the audience to follow what was going on in Flesh And Blood
. Each of the main characters became identified, musically, so that I could try to shift the same empha¬sis from character to character in the score as he does dramatically; often using one per¬son's theme as a rhythmic counter¬point to another person's theme.
The first theme that I came up with was a motif for Martin [Rutger Hauer], the leader of the mercenary band. That theme also reflected the entire group of mercenaries. In a sense they seem to come off to me very much like pirates would, except that they're on the land. Martin needed some kind of swash¬buck¬ling yet very monastic kind of theme, because a renegade Cardinal is also one of the main leaders of his band, so I wanted to have something very much like a Gregor¬ian chant, but more the way pirates would sing it instead of monks.
Each of the film’s many fight scenes had a com¬pletely different dramatic thrust. The first fight, the siege of a city, occurs directly after the main titles, before the viewer has gotten to know any of the characters. I scored straight fight music for that sequence. During later battle scenes, the music would incorporate themes for the various characters who become the focus of the particular fight, emphasizing the interplay of character and thematic development within the scene itself as the viewer is led to believe in one character until the film switches sym¬¬pathy to the other side.
FLESH + BLOOD Soundtrack (2002)
There's a love theme that starts during the rape of Agnes by Martin, and it grows between them as in fact they grow in love by the end of the picture. It has almost gro¬tesque pro¬portions during the rape, whereas by the end of the picture it becomes very tragic, especially when it looks like Martin may lose her and he may actually kill her because the thought of her going back to her betrothed is more than he can take. So it's a love theme tinged with this hideous jealousy and this tragic quality.
In many ways, Flesh + Blood
is much bolder than the music for Conan
. Also, Conan
was not set in a definite time period, and therefore I could take a lot more license in terms of what I had to do, styl¬ist¬ical¬ly. Flesh + Blood is defi¬nitely set in the beginning of the 1500's, it's very near the Renaissance. Now there are certain styles of music from that time which I suppose I've drawn upon but didn't find dramatic enough for the purposes I needed for film scoring, so I primarily based it on Gregorian chant, giving it a bit of a swash¬buckle. The real music of the time just doesn't contain enough rhythmic or dramatic harmonic change to lend itself to the kind of feeling I think the main charac¬ters should have. I did stay basically within the harmonic limits of that era, but I took some license here and there.
Another difference is in the or¬ches¬tration. Conan
was essentially a movie that had very little dialog, so the or¬ches¬tration had to be very rich in itself to carry a lot of the very lengthy scenes that pushed the movie along. Flesh + Blood is a complete dialog picture, so the techniques of under¬scoring for dialog require a different kind of density than where you can just play full out or¬ches¬tral scoring. There's a real ruthless¬ness in Flesh + Blood
that really doesn't exist in Conan
. Conan is a very uncomplicated and moral character as compared to the ones that exist in Flesh + Blood
I relied heavily on French horns, because I felt that all the characters, particularly Martin, were noble characters, and the French horn is a great noble instrument. It's primarily a standard orchestral set up: French horns lead the way along with piccolo trumpets, and I featured low woodwinds a lot. There were three synthesizers play¬ing live, but like most of the synthesizer work that I do, they're not featured instru¬ments; they just become another color in the orchestra, I'm not sure you can even tell they're there. I realized that Paul was dealing with, truly, flesh and blood; all of his characters are very robust, very full of life, and the last thing I wanted to use to represent those ideas would be a synthetic kind of sound.
On Amerika (1987):
I wrote five and a half hours of music for Amerika
. A lot of music was shifted around [by the editors]. If they came across a scene that we hadn't scored and the director decided he wanted music there, there's not much you can do when you're not on the set. But I can say that it was handled brilliantly by Tom Villano, the music editor, who made sure that the score remained as close to the way I intended it. Tom works with Segue, Dan Carlin's group, and that whole place just jumped in. When I put together the music for the last night [of the miniseries], I had 12 hours to score it – literally to write the music for the entire 2-hour segment, and the music editors had another 12 hours to prepare it for dubbing. That's like scoring and dubbing a feature film in two days! That's when all the music editors at Segue Music really pulled together and they started using cues that I had written for other things on other nights, and they did a very splendid job.
AMERIKA Soundtrack (1987)
My approach definitely came from a strong feeling I had for the material. I read the script about a year ago, and I knew that it was a very powerful script with some very powerful ideas contained in it – notions about what freedom is, what the citizens' role in society is, no matter which kind of society or which kind of government, and what kind of responsibility you have towards being a citizen. Those kinds of ideas were very profound; they bring up all sorts of interesting musical notions.
The other thing that I went on is that in American music, there is no tragedy. We don't have anybody who's written the Pathe¬tique Symphony, or the Defeat of the American army at Waterloo, that sort of thing. You listen to Copland
, you listen to Roy Harris and Carl Ruggles, all this is very optimistic music, Copland
was writing at a time when the country was on an incredible surge. There' was a lot of disorientation in the score to Red Dawn
, because it was supposed to represent a society turned on its head and a group of kids decided to turn guerrilla, whereas Amerika really, I think, presented the opportunity to write or at least hint at what an American tragedy might be. You really think about it: the only real tragedy this country has suffered since the Civil War was Vietnam, and nobody has yet written a tragedy for Vietnam. So that was exciting, as was the idea of writing something that speaks to the land and speaks to the idea of freedom, without getting Jingoistic about it. It wasn't all marches, by any stretch of the imagination.
The flow chart on this film was quite interesting. There were so many characters, and just trying to thematically connect them, it's actually very interesting, because a lot of them overlap. Rather than give the Russian guys a balalaika theme and the Americans a piccolo and snare drum theme... They were all talking about the same thing -- the two main Russian characters were very similar to the two main American characters, so I had to go for a much broader kind of musical representation for the ideas. So I was scoring the ideas of what those people were representing, and that's what Donald [Wyre] did with the writing.
And the other thing, I started seeing dailies in August of last year, the images were just gorgeous, and very powerful, very dynamic, and that fired my imagination.
On Lonesome Dove (1993)
I came back from the first screening of the picture and sat down, and I think I came up with three themes in two hours. It was such a strong, instant reaction to it. The novel is so strong and the screenplay was so strong, and of course the acting was just phenomenal. It’s not one of those things where you go, “gee how can I solve these problems?!”
LONESOME DOVE Soundtrack (1993).
© LONESOME DOVE Soundtrack
I was a folk music freak. I loved the stuff. I was a classical musician, but folk was a sideline. I grew up with that whole Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, The Weavers, the Dillards, Alan Lomax was one of my heroes. I played banjo and guitar in a folk music group, and we played at shows, and it augmented my whole classical side. So I’d been a pretty serious fan as well as student of folk music. So Lonesome Dove
gave me an opportunity to use that. I had had played with that idiom in a bunch of educational films before, but never in a dramatic form. So this was really the first time I was able to use a folk idiom in a dramatic picture, and it seemed to really work. Lonesome Dove
needed a strong mythology, and I think that, by making it sounds like folk songs, like folk music, very simple structures, very tuneful melodies, that it would give it a reality, as if those were really, in fact, music from the period. Lonesome Dove
was the first Western I’d ever done, and it was the first time I got to work in this idiom, dramatically, so it came at a good time. Up until that point, I’d one a few things before that but nothing quite like it, so it gave me a real fresh palette to work from. The orchestra wasn’t as large, it certainly had no choir, it was different from most of the action type stuff that I had done up to that point.
Folk music is a wellspring. Because of its simplicity, there’s something very powerful about the folk idiom, but it can be couched in any number of styles. I mean, The Hunt For Red October
is basically a Russian folk song, so it’s the same thing, in a sense, just in a different setting. There was a parallel to Conan
in Lonesome Dove
also, in that it had a mythology to it, and it was in fact a romance, but it was real. It was an American romance, the old West.
On Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers is a very strange film and it has some very unusual requirements. Being science fiction, that always entails creating a world, so there was a lot of time to kind of think about it. It was very difficult to get the proper hit on this picture. Like all of Paul [Verhoeven’s] films, it’s so multi-faceted, it’s almost like every scene needs a different score.
The interesting thing about this is that there’s no real awe about space and that sort of thing, it’s so pedestrian. By the time these characters are living, it’s just like us getting on the bus, or on an airplane. There’s very little time actually spent on the wonders of technology. It’s basically orchestral, there’s very little electronics. It’s like the future is just the future, we don’t have to pretend. I don’t have to help that. We’re really interested in the human emotion, rather than the bugs, anyway. Bugs are taken care of by the sound effects and the incredible computer graphics – and they really are extremely good.
The unusual thing instrumentally is that I’ve used six trumpets, which is fairly new for me. I used eight in Under Siege
but just for the Main Title. There’s six trumpets throughout this score, because the thing is about the Mobile Infantry – the Starship Troopers
– so it’s very militaristic, and we’re using an enhanced snare section. So I’d say if there’s any main hits it’s during the battle, and it’s all very martial.
STARSHIP TROOPERS Soundtrack (1997)
© Varese Sarabande
A lot of it is very 1940’s, I must say. There’s a continuing story throughout the film, very much like in Robocop
where Paul used the news clips. He used the same thing here which is an Internet thing, called Fed Net, and so there are these news items that pop up throughout the film - it’s almost News on the March or Movietone News… and the warriors themselves are a real throwback to the ‘40s. I think it’s very heavily 40ish. Not in using 1940s era music, just more of an attitude. There’s almost an innocence to the 1940s. Of course with Heinlein there’s always a very restrictive, ordered society, so there’s also that consideration. But it’s not avant garde music.
[Since scoring Conan
] my sense of drama has expanded, I think, just from having done more than 50 movies now. There are various approaches. I always assumed it would get easier, because experience would teach me a lot of things, which it has. It certainly taught me how to work a large orchestra. It taught me the relationship of film and music. I’ve tried a lot of things that don’t work, I’ve tried a lot of things that do work, I think, really well. What’s happening now, because I used to be thrilled just listening to a major triad fully voiced on a full orchestra – and that doesn’t do it anymore! I want to go deeper. So, in a sense it’s given me the opportunity to try out a lot of things, and hopefully be able to try a lot more. Starship Troopers, to me, is as important as Conan
was, particularly in the harmonic notions and rhythmic notions that I’m working against the picture.
Very early on, with Conan, I sort of got molded into the action/large orchestral stuff – although, interestingly enough, not necessarily modern. It seems like it’s either been sci fi or mythological, which is fine with me, because frankly with the exception of Under Siege
, On Deadly Ground
and a couple of other things, I don’t think I’m really good with modern, contemporary action. It speaks of a time that will soon be passed, and that doesn’t interest me. I’d rather work in the past or the future. As to other types of films, I did a couple of films last year which I’m very proud of, one was It’s My Party
, a Randal Kleiser picture, and The War At Home
for Emilio Estevez, and I would like to do more films like those. I like to balance out the action films. I’d like to do more intimate things, even though I think bugs and submarines are fun.
Additional tributes to Basil Poledouris can be viewed at: www.soundtrack.net/news/article/?id=861 www.varesesarabande.com/details.asp?pid=Basil www.soundtrackcollector.com/viewarticle.php?articleid=1166 www.musicfromthemovies.com/sotw.asp?ID=66
An official messageboard has been set up where fans and acquaintances can leave thoughts and condolences for his family, at http://basil.poledouris.com/
For questions or comments, contact the author at Soundtrax@cinescape.com