[Interview - George S. Clinton]
George S. Clinton got his start in film music working on the Cheech and Chong movies in the early 1980's. Since that time, he has done numerous feature and television films, including the Mortal Kombat films. His latest film, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is a sequel to the hit movie Austin Powers, for which Clinton also provided the groovy retro score. I recently had an opportunity to chat with Clinton at his studio about Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

You have Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me coming out this summer. It is one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer, including Star Wars, Eyes Wide Shut, and Wild Wild West. Was it guaranteed that you would be scoring sequel?

You never know. One of the things you learn early is never to presume anything. You hope, and inquire, and let people know you're interested. Hopefully in the end you get the sequel. It happened with Mortal Kombat and now Austin Powers - but you never know until they call.

Did you find yourself revisiting the themes you had established in the first film?

Of course! One of the challenges of doing a sequel is being able to revisit the older original material and build upon it, rather than just recycle it. Everyone that was involved in the first film took at approach. Instead of just recycling what they'd done, they used it as a place to start and then built on it. That's one of the things I really like about this movie - I think it's reflected all the way through the music, the visual effects, the comedy, and the characters. It's up a notch and with new material. There are some new characters, Mini-Me and Fat Bastard, so new themes were required. Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) is Austin's new love interest and so there's a new love theme. Dr. Evil's and Austin's themes are still there, and it was fun to use them in new ways.

Would you say that this movie better than the first one?

I think it is better. Jay Roach, the director, approached this film with the intention to make it better, and to go beyond what had been done the first time around - we all did. Certainly Mike Meyers - he is a hard working guy in every aspect. He not only works hard as the characters in the film, but also writing it and promoting it. He's tireless! That's why I think the first one was so well received - he was willing to go on the shows and do the bits, and promote the film.

Did you intentionally make the score have a James Bond feel, or did it come from the sixties?

That's part of it. When you get involved in a film you're dealing with a temp track issue. For me, the temp track is a point of departure. By the time a composer gets involved on a project, a lot of musical decisions may have already been made and considered by the director, the editor, and the music supervisor. Unfortunately certain things might have already been discounted early on, and they have found a direction and decided to go with that. For the first Austin Powers they used music from Thunderball, and The Pink Panther as well as the source music that appeared in the final music. So when I came into the project, there were all these directions that had already been investigated. My goal was to create music that was homage to the genre and the period without specifically being a rip-off of John Barry or Henry Mancini. So for Austin sneaking around I used a rhythm ensemble and four horns - stuff that you would associate to an extent with the Pink Panther stuff. For Dr. Evil and the big adventure aspects, I would use what John Barry called the "wall of steel" sound - these huge brassy, cymbal gong filled hits.

So it really came from the instrumentation."[George

Yeah, a lot of it is. In this orchestra, I used two woodwinds - piccolos and bass flutes playing in unison. I also had a huge string section, 5 trombones and a tuba, 4 French horns, and 4 trumpets. It's real brass heavy so when those hits happen it leaves an impression. If you listen to the John Barry 007 music it's really one of the aspects of these scores.

Was Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me temp tracked with your original Austin Powers score?

Yes, that was very interesting to deal with. In fact that's one of the things I'm working on now. There's an orchestral hit when Mini-Me is introduced that they had used from my first score, and I had redone it in a different way for the second score. Now they're on the dubbing stage and wondering if it was better on the first score. So I'm finding a hit for them within the context of the second score that they can move to that location.

You have written music for many different film genres. Do you have a specific genre in which you feel most comfortable?

While I'm working on a film it's whatever that film is. I really get into it, and crawl inside the film and live in it and enjoy living whatever that is. For example I have a film coming out in August called The Astronaut's Wife - it's completely different from Austin Powers and Wild Things - it's got it's own universe musically. That's what I try to do, rather than impose a style on a film - I just try to let the film inspire me to come up with styles or instrumentation or themes that I feel are within the universe of that film. For instance, with Wild Things I knew I wanted it to be sleazy and swampy, but at the same time have some thriller aspects with it. So it really depends on the film. If the film really engages me then whatever that moment is, is what my favorite genre is.

Wild Things gave you the opportunity to score a very sexy thriller which included a lot of rhythmic "slinky" moments (like Gator Tango) and some more "traditional" orchestral noir moments - what were your influences for that score?

Well, I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and if you've spent a summer there without air conditioning… <laughs>. One of the influences of south Florida is Latin music, so I wanted it to have a little bit of the Latin influence. The alligator in the film represents the reptilian aspect of everybody's brain. Everyone in that movie is working on a reptilian level, so the baritone saxophone was the alligator for me. I used a slide bass, which I thought was a great sound. The guys from Morphine, Mark Sandman played the slide bass and Dana Colley played the baritone for the score. That's what I wanted to do - involve the artists from the bands in the score in some way. So even though it's my music being played, it's their sound. Also, the voice of the swamp siren is a singer named Sarah Bettens who also has a song in the film. It was great to get the artists in and actually play on the soundtrack - they really enjoyed it.

With a name like George Clinton... how often you get asked about being in P-Funk? How many times do you correct those people? How many times do you let it slide and let them believe the joke?

It's been a thing for a long time for me. The first time my wife and I spent the night together at a hotel, a U.S. Marshall handed me a summons for delinquent child support and alimony for some woman in Orange County. So I tried to explain to my wife that it wasn't me! Another time someone from Akron, Ohio left a torrid explicit message on my answering machine. The next morning she called back and said, "Mr. Clinton? Did you get my message last night?" I replied, "Yeah honey and I got bad news for you - I'm white as a sheet." She said, "Oh my god!!" and hung up the phone. After all, she left her phone number and her name on some stranger's machine, as well as all of this graphic detail of what she wanted to do. <laughs>

But there have also been frustrating situations. I had to prove who I was to New Line Cinema, even though I had done Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat Annihilation and other stuff, to get my first check for Austin Powers. Apparently there had been a judgement against the other guy, and lawyers had sent out notices to all the entertainment companies to garner the money. So they didn't pay and didn't pay, and then embarrassed the secretary at New Line calls my manager and says, "Look, we can't pay George because there's a judgement against him and we've been instructed to withhold payment." He said, "No! It's not him!" So we called the legal department, and they said, "Well, we know it's a different guy, but you're going to have to go to a notary public and swear that you're not him before we can pay you." <laughs>

As to the third part of your question, I let it slide a lot. Sometimes I'll be buying something and the cashier will see my name on the credit card and ask, "George Clinton? I thought you were black!" "Nope!" "P-Funk?" "Yup!" <laughs>

What is The Astronaut's Wife about? What type of music did you write?

Johnny Depp is a space shuttle astronaut. There's an accident on one of the missions, where for two minutes they lose contact with mission control, and they are unconscious because of some energy force causing an explosion. When he comes back, his wife (Charlize Theron) is slowly convinced that some alien force has possessed him. Meanwhile, he's convinced that she's beginning to lose her mind. So the whole movie plays out as this whole "is it him, is it her?" thriller. Rand Ravich (the director and writer) did a great job. I wanted the score to be a "sacred meets the profane" kind of thing. Her music is almost religious - I used a choir and symphony orchestra, and it has a mystical quality to it. His music is very atonal, and when we get into the sci-fi aspects there are lots of textural and dramatic qualities.

What is your background? I know you started on Cheech and Chong…

I went to school outside of Nashville, at Middle Tennessee State University, and got a degree in Music as well as Drama. I worked my way through college playing country sessions in Nashville writing music. So I was involved in the country and pop aspects of that, but at the same time studying classical music. In 1969 I went to the Atlanta Pop Festival, and saw Joe Cochran and the Greaseband. I was on a plane to LA the next weekend - coming out to rock and roll! <laughs> I moved out here, and had four bands. I then worked as a staff songwriter at Warner Brothers for six years, and orchestrated for various singers, and had the chance with Cheech and Chong to get into film scores. It sounded interesting, so I tried my hand at it.

Have you always been a "thematic" composer?

I've always been interested in musicals, and thematic material is very important - songs follow characters. I also like ballet music - I'm not fond of watching it - but there's a corollary between camera moves and the ballet music moves. I really enjoy that aspect of writing for films, because depending on the cinematographer and the director, it can be a ballet between music and image. But I don't necessarily consider myself a thematic-styled composer offhand. If that is the style that lends itself to a movie, that's great. But if there is a director who thinks melody detracts from the image, that's fine too. It's a team effort. I'm a filmmaker - I happen to be responsible for the score part of the film. Anybody involved in a film is a filmmaker - it's not just the director.

What would be your ultimate dream project?

I think it's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. I can't think of anything that would be better than working on a sequel with to a highly successful film in a genre that has now become associated with me because I'm the most recent guy to do it, and it's going to be one of the biggest films of the summer. There is other music I'd like to be involved in, like a large dramatic score - The Astronaut's Wife approaches that, but a relationship oriented film. Not just a romance, but something that Merchant Ivory would do - a big sweeping epic - like The English Patient.


Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me will be released in theaters on June 11th. A compilation album of score music from both Austin Powers films is being considered; no word on when that might be out. The Astronaut's Wife will be released on August 27, 1999.