by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Theodore Shapiro is a New York based film composer who has been score all manner of films in the course of his career. From the percussive drama of Girlfight, to the 70's funk of Starsky and Hutch, to the whimsical small town comedic stylings of State and Main, he always tries to do something different. His latest film, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story opens this week, and SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with Shapiro about his work on this film, and his other works.
How did you first get involved with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story?
I had done the scores for two recent films that Ben Stiller was in: Along Came Polly and Starsky and Hutch. So Ben and Stuart Cornfeld, who is Ben's producing partner, were familiar with my work and liked what I'd done on those two films. They introduced me to director/writer Rawson Thurber, and everything went from there.
Typically comedy films are filled with licensed songs. Yet Dodgeball has quite a bit of underscore. Did you find that the expanded canvas allowed you to provide a more complex score?
Yes. At the heart of Dodgeball is a traditional sports film, with a little guy going up against the big guy, at impossible odds. Even though the movie is broadly comedic, I wanted to play that aspect of the film completely seriously. In this way, the music is scoring the interior lives of the dodgeballers, who are treating the tournament in the film as though it's the most important thing in the world.
Did this film give you a chance to write some stylistically different music for you that you hadn't explored before?
Yes, this is the first score I've done that has a lot of traditional orchestral writing. As someone who grew up loving John Williams' late 70's/ early 80's scores, this was a fun opportunity to live in that world without it being parody or pastiche. There's also a lot of pop writing in the score, which is more stylistically similar to other scores I've done.
How did you maintain the "flow" between the orchestral and pop elements of the score?
The flow between the pop music and orchestral music has a dramatic construction. The protagonists start out as "Average Joes", scored with a pop ensemble, featuring vintage keyboards and a whistled tune. The introduction of the orchestral element comes with the inspiration to play in the dodgeball tournament. So you have a group of regular guys with large aspirations (at least large to them), and the two styles play on that dramatic shape. After they've won the tournament, and you have had the biggest orchestral statement, the music returns to the "Average Joes" theme; in other words, they've won the tournament but at heart they're still the same people.
What was your biggest source of inspiration when writing the score to Dodgeball?
The three weeks I had to write the score.
Do you find that you work best under that kind of pressure, or do you prefer to have a longer time-frame in which to work?
Creatively, I prefer the tight deadlines. There's something very exciting and exhilarating about having to perform like that, and a lot of times for me it translates into work that I'm proud of. It also helps you maintain the coherence of the score because you address the entire work in a short period of time. The music for Girlfight is one of the scores I'm proudest of, and I believe that was written in two weeks. The downside of the tight deadline is that there's no time to make mistakes. I think it's important to feel free to do things that are risky and maybe wrong, and have the time to backtrack if you go too far.
Now I'll contradict myself. On some films I've come on board very early and written music from the beginning of the picture edit. This prevented the film from ever being temped, and so every preview had my mock-ups. When this works, it works beautifully. Old School had very little temp music other than mine, as did Starsky and Hutch, and so both scores developed organically. Of course this approach can have you writing a score for months and months and obviously increases the amount of writing you have to do, but it has its advantages.
You've worked with quite a few first-time directors. Is it harder to work with a director who hasn't gone through the process a few times?
I don't think you can make a generalization about first-time directors. First-time directors can be great to work with, and experienced directors can be difficult. Or vice versa. In this case, Rawson was a pleasure to work with. He has the great quality of knowing what he wants but also being open to other ideas. You really can't ask for more than that.
Have you ever had to rewrite a score or scrambled to make serious changes after it got to the scoring stage?
No, thankfully. I've certainly done my share of rewriting, but thus far always before the scoring sessions. The one thing like that I've had to do was come up with a dramatic edit in the final scene of Heist. I had written an expansive statement of the main theme as Hackman is jilted for the final time. It was lovely, but admittedly risky in the sentiment department. David Mamet asked for something a little cooler emotionally, and luckily we had the pieces to cut something together that worked nicely.
How do you approach scoring a comedy versus a dramatic film? Do you try to underscore the humor, or the serious emotion in a comedy?
I think scoring a comedy is the most difficult thing to do as a film composer. The music can't be "funny"- there's nothing more desperate and depressing than a film trying to wring humor out of a joke with funny music. At the same time, the audience needs to feel free to laugh, and sometimes the music can subtly provide that cue to the audience. It's a bit of a razor's edge. On the whole I prefer the approach of playing the film seriously and letting the comedy come out in relief.
You said that Dodgeball was your first big orchestral film score. Have you written any other orchestral pieces before, for the concert world?
Yes, I've written a handful of orchestral pieces. I wrote a piano concerto for Awadagin Pratt and the Seattle Symphony, a chamber symphony for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a flute concerto for Eugenia Zukerman and the New York Youth Symphony, and some others.
Do you find it easier to write for a large orchestra, or are you happier when it's a small ensemble or band?
I will admit that I love big orchestral sounds, and there are certain things the orchestra can do which are hard to replicate with a small ensemble. On the other hand a lot of scores that I love are for small ensembles, and I generally feel that the orchestra is too often a default choice for film scores.
Your score to Starsky and Hutch is a big brassy 70's styled score, with lots of "bang" to it. Had you written in that style before? What kind of research do you do on writing in a particular idiom?
I love Lalo Schifrin's 70's scores and I love 70's pop music with big orchestral arrangements. The score to Starsky is an homage to those two things. As I was gearing up to write Starsky I listened to a lot of Schifrin scores, like Bullitt and Dirty Harry, and also the music from the first season of Starsky, which he wrote. Director Todd Phillips was going for a very faithful rendering of the 70's, so I wanted to try to be as faithful as possible with the music.
You studied under John Corigliano. How did you make the transition into scoring film music?
It was always my intention to score films. A lot of people assume that composers start out wanting to write concert music and cross over (cravenly) into film. For me, I started wanting to write film music and became more interested in concert music while at Juilliard. I got a Master's in composition there, where I studied with David Diamond. Afterwards I wanted to continue studying privately and John took me as a student. At the same time I was scoring student films at NYU and writing music for a show on MTV called "The State". So I was writing music for picture and music for the concert hall and both things were progressing well. Hurricane Streets, an NYU thesis film and my first dramatic feature, ended up going to Sundance and winning a bunch of awards. That led to some other films and it just continued from there. At the same time, I had a handful of orchestral commissions and spent the next bunch of years jumping back and forth between the two worlds. As time has gone on I've begun writing more for film than the concert hall, and I'm happy with that.
Have you encountered any of the animosity that seems to exist between composers of the concert world and composers of film music?
There is a bit of condescension from the concert world looking on the film world, but I've experienced it pretty rarely. Most composers, in my experience, are respectful of what it takes to write a film score. They understand that any type of music requires craft to write, that the deadlines are very intense, and that writing for picture is a difficult skill. I would say, though, that the concert world is mostly interested in film music insofar as it resembles concert music; in other words, I think people respect it when a composer is hired to write like himself or herself, like John Corigliano doing Altered States or The Red Violin. (John may feel differently about that, but that's my perspective anyway.) But frankly, I don't mind that kind of snobbery, because I think pressure to be yourself, to satisfy yourself and to forget momentarily that you have to please a director, four producers, a studio and a test audience of 400 people from the suburbs is good pressure.
Do you feel that your musical background and New York based location provides you with an advantage over other composers who are here in Los Angeles?
My musical background, yes. My training has provided me with a lot of tools to draw upon. Those range from compositional techniques to knowledge of the standard repertoire. It doesn't make your music better, but every tool you have at your disposal helps you write; the usefulness of those tools becomes magnified when you're writing with a deadline.
Being in New York helps only in that it's good to live away from the industry. Psychologically it makes me feel separated from the politics and egos, and freer to be an artist. Not that you can't separate yourself from that while living in LA, it's just harder.
What is your approach to writing?
I sketch with a pencil and paper and then commit things to a sequencer. I do very detailed mock-ups and will do as much of the "orchestrating" as possible in the sequencer. I've found that it's worthwhile to have the director know, as closely as possible, what the final product will sound like. This avoids surprises on the scoring stage.
You're done quite a variety of film projects, from dramatic films (Heist, Girlfight) to comedy (Not Another Teen Movie, Old School). Do you have a preference for any particular genre?
If I had to choose I'd say my preference is for writing for dramatic films; it's just more in keeping with who I am. Of course the bottom line is working on films where there is room for the music to be creative and inventive, and I'll take one of those no matter what the genre.
How did you get involved with Todd Phillips, and is there some kind of Ben Stiller connection going on, now that you've scored a few of his films?
Around the time he was looking for a composer for Old School, Todd saw Heist and liked the music. So I met with him and liked him, and eventually he hired me. It tells you something about Todd that he hired me to do something completely different than the score that had initially interested him in me.
As for my Ben Stiller connection, the first two films were coincidental. John Hamburg, who wrote and directed Along Came Polly (and was a co-writer of Meet the Parents), is a close friend of mine dating back to college. In fact, the first student film I ever scored was his. And Starsky, obviously, came out of having worked on Old School with Todd Phillips. Through those two movies I got to know Ben a bit, and he got to see the way I work with directors, which is very collaborative and which appealed to him. That was how Dodgeball came about, so now I guess you could say there's officially a Ben Stiller connection.
You are credited with a small role in Along Came Polly. How did it come about that you would end up on-screen?
Well, as anyone who saw my six seconds of wordless screen time could tell you, there simply is no other actor who could have performed that role. No, John offered me the part, if you can call it that, just for fun.
Did you provide any musical "nods" to the teen flicks parodied in Not Another Teen Movie?
Yes. There's a bunch of allusions to pop songs, but the one that's really satisfying is a loving homage to Ira Newborn's score to Sixteen Candles. Only in this case, the music is lush and pretty and the scene is disgusting.
Do you have any musical heroes? A composer you most aspire to be like?
My answer to this question could change weekly. Today my heroes are Olivier Messiaen, for being a visionary, and Benjamin Britten, for being a consummate musician.
What are you working on now? (What can we expect to see from you in the coming months?)
Nothing I can talk about right now.
Do you have any "dream projects"?
I'd like to work with Todd Haynes. His films are amazing.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story opens nationwide on June 18th. Sadly, no soundtrack album is planned at this time. Along Came Polly is available on DVD, and Starsky & Hutch will be released on DVD next month.
Dodgeball director/writer Rawson Thurber has contributed to SoundtrackNet in the past - check out his reviews here!