Interview

[Interview - Philip Glass]

Award-winning composer Philip Glass has successfully bridged both the concert worlds and the film world. Most recently, he has scored the new Richard Eyre film, Notes on a Scandal. SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with this prolific composer about his work on this project, as well as his approach to writing music for films, and more!


Your recent film, Notes on a Scandal will be released in limited capacity later this month. How did you come on board this project?

Sometime last April, I was invited by producer Scott Rudin to see a rough cut of the film. There were still several months of editing yet to go, but the structure of the film was really there. I was impressed with it, and Scott asked if I was interested in it, and I said I was. About two months later, in June, we began to put the music in, and I spent a few months on it.

Does it normally take you a few months to score the film?

Not really, writing a score doesn't take much time. Writing a score two or three times takes some time! <laughs> That's generally what happens. It's just like if you were a writer - there's a first draft, a second draft, third draft, that kind of thing. Actually, getting the idea, the general gist of the piece, will come right away - that's the first draft. But there can be a lot of rewriting. What happens in a film like Notes on a Scandal, is that the dramatic understanding of the film is developed in the editing process. That's not only how Richard Eyre works, but most people. You think you know what the film is when you read the script, and then you think you know what the film is when you shoot the film, but you really don't know what the film is until you finish editing it, and all sorts of things are developed, in terms of the characters, and the pacing of the film.

In this film, when you first meet the Barbara character (Judi Dench), you have no idea who she really is - you only find out through the course of the film, and that's true for everybody. But the pace in which that is revealed is a critical part of how the film is edited and presented, and that can change a lot! And as that changes, then the way the music is geared to that can change also. Very often the music is driving the change, or anticipates it, or helps it. One of the functions of music is a kind of "inner dialogue". The spoken word is the dialogue of film, then there's another narrative which happen in the music which parallels that, and it reflects the emotional development of the film.

So you can say that the action is in the words, and the emotion is in the music. It may sound oversimplified, but it's very close to being what happens. So as the film is edited, our perception and conception of the film is changing. And as that changes, things get rewritten. So it doesn't take long to write the film once, but it takes long to write it two or three times! <laughs>

How did you come up with the orchestration used in this score? All of your works have a similar composition style, but sound different.

They do sound different, and it's supposed to. The orchestration evolves around this process. The film begins with Barbara sitting on a bench, and a lot of what is going to happen in the film happens in that first cue, and the last cue. But there has to be a lot of room for the drama of the film to take place. When we first meet Barbara, she's an elderly schoolteacher, close to retirement - a very refined and dignified person. But by the end of the film, we have a very different idea of who she is. Along the way, there are some tremendously dramatic confrontations, most of which take place in the last quarter of the film. So the whole film is building up to these tremendous emotional explosions that take place, and you have no idea that all of them are going to happen.

One of the things we talked about a lot, through the writing and pacing of it, was to show Barbara at the beginning as a rather refined and dignified person, but at the same time, there's a feeling of danger about her - there's an intonation that there's something we don't know, there's something strange that's going to happen. Part of the exercise for the composer - in this case myself - was to present Barbara in this rather complicated way - as a rather serene elderly dignified person, but someone who we really didn't know who she was. Richard Eyre and I talked about that a lot - he would spend weeks at a time with me in New York, going over this, and I would be writing music and playing it for him. Along with Scott, we'd look at the picture and have these extended conversations about the characters and development and the movie - it sounded like a graduate course in psychology! <laughs> We talked about the motivations, what people were thinking, how much they knew, and all this stuff.

So getting back to the orchestration, the kinds of things that are coming later in the film are not revealed at the beginning. You first hear strings and woodwinds, and it's rather gentile in a certain way, and by the end, it's extremely dramatic and the music is very confrontational. So what I had to do was leave room - I knew where we were going, but the big thing in the orchestration was how things were added in. It couldn't be a suddenly different score in Reel 5 or Reel 6. It had to slowly - although sometimes unexpectedly when the moment came - show a different side of itself. So when we get to the end, there's percussion and brass, and it's very heavy. At the beginning it's a very delicate, warm orchestration.

One of the amazing scenes that we had to deal with early on was when Barbara was looking for Sheba during the Christmas concert and finds Sheba and young Steven having some kind of sex in the classroom. We don't see it, but we see what happens to Barbara when it happens, and the revulsion and horror and fascination, you might say, with it. She's just completely shocked, but at the same time can't stop looking. Scoring that scene was very interesting - I tried several things. The first time I did music for Sheba and the boy, and it was much too obvious in a way, much to vulgar in a certain way. But then I concentrated on scoring what was happening inside Barbara - her interior mayhem of what was happening to her - and that became much more interesting. So very often what I had to do on the score was to figure out what the music was about - it could be about the husband, the errant wife, the boy, or several things. And through my discussions with Richard, we were very concerned about this - we wanted to make sure we knew what the music was about at every moment. And the music is extremely precise - it allies itself with a point of view which has to do with what you're looking at.

Is this working process similar to how it is when you're working in the concert world?

The film world is different from what I'm doing in opera, where I'm working with a librettist and a designer, and the work takes place over a period of at least two years. The work in film happens much more quickly, and I know a lot about what is going to be in an opera long before I write it, and when I'm writing a film score, I don't know what's going on until the film score's over. It's party because the style of collaboration is quite different. Making a film is really a process of discovery - you're learning about the film as you make it.

When you write an opera, you pretty much know what it is you're trying to say, and you figure it out before you start. We don't have time to rewrite and edit in the opera house. In opera, you have an opening night, and you might do some rewriting before the next season, but big changes really don't happen that much. In film, however, big changes can really happen. I've been involved with many films where in the middle of the editing process, they go out and re-shoot scenes! Characters are recast. Dialogue is rewritten. So film is really a work in progress, and it's a very dynamic process. It can be completely exhausting and unnerving and quite scary when I don't know where it's going. On top of that, you have executives, studio people and marketing people, all who want to know what's going on! They want to know what you're doing, and sometimes you just don't know! That's very common in film, and you must know that since you talk with a lot of film people.

How have you been able to survive bridging both worlds?

What I've found I have to do, it's like being bilingual. I have to speak two different languages: I have the different work language in the ballet, the opera house and the theater. Film is a world unto itself. We often say that it's the art form of the 20th century that didn't exist before, but it's really a modern version of what operas were back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's a popular art form that is also an entertainment art form, very much as it was when people went to the opera in Vienna, London, Milan and Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries - that was their experience. And what we have today in film, there's no question that film is the popular art form of our time, though operas are astonishingly popular too. I have four or five operas in performance somewhere in the world every year, and that doesn't happen with films. Films don't get revived the way operas do. There are a lot of interesting ways you can compare operas and film, and because I live in both worlds, I know the whole routine. And yet, I have to say that I'm as interested in film as I am in opera. The amount of control you can bring to the symbiosis of image and music is beyond anything you can have in any other form, precisely to the frame, to the moment. That doesn't happen in the opera house. That kind of precision is something which is extremely interesting in film, and there's a tremendous amount of power in that. But at the same time, there are all kinds of things happening in film that make it problematic, like the numbers of people involved, and the whole marketplace/box office issue, which is quite different than you have in an opera house.

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You've also done numerous documentaries, which many people say are harder to score than narrative films. Is it possible that your musical style is just well-suited for documentaries?

I'm very comfortable with documentaries. I've never really thought about it, but I think it's true. When I'm working with Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi), they're not really documentaries, they're non-narrative films. When I'm working with Errol Morris on The Fog of War, it's difficult in a different way. There's much more room and fluidity. We can be more experimental with documentaries than I can be with narrative films. The kind of films that end up in movie houses and malls and award ceremonies, those kinds of narrative films - they're a very conventional form. The structure is conventional, what people want to see is conventional; the kinds of things that are allowed, the kinds of relationships between the different elements are conventional. That's not true for documentary; it's much more open ended.

So in a sense, they're more related to your concert works...

That's true, and not surprisingly, I entered the film world through documentaries, working with Godfrey Reggio and Errol Morris. Those were the two people who got me started, and I did three films with each of them. Then, as I was doing that, I began to work with narrative films like Mishima and other projects of that kind.

Earlier this year you also scored The Illusionist. Did you set out to write a "period" score at all?

It was supposed to take place in Vienna in the late 19th century. The film opens with us looking at the exterior of a theater, so I wrote music that you might have heard in the theater. It's rather subtle, so at least you gave me a chance to explain what I did - thank you! But after that, it was a romantic film about magic and romance, so I didn't worry too much about the time period after that.

You've also scored horror films, like Candyman, Secret Window, and Taking Lives - although that's not really a "horror film" per se...

Well, Taking Lives is pretty intense - it's about a serial murderer. It doesn't have that esoteric element that Candyman has, if you look in the mirror and say three times, "Candyman, Candyman, Candyman". You know, my god! How many millions of people actually tried it, do you think? Did you ever try that?

I didn't want to! After seeing the film, I refused - I wasn't going to!


It's scary as hell! I know it's still around because I'm still getting little checks from it every now and then.

So now you're doing another horror film, The Reaping...

Oh, it's more than that. It's about a fundamentalist religious sect in the countryside of the south, and you get to see the ten biblical plagues. Hilary Swank plays the part of an investigator that's trying to debunk the plagues, thinking everything can be explained, but over the course of it, she finds that she can't explain it. And at the end of it, literally all hell breaks loose! <laughs> I've already scored it, and it's being mixed now.

What was your musical approach to this film?

Oh it was quite different. These kinds of films are more about action instead of character, if I can put it that way. With Notes on a Scandal, you're talking about interpersonal dynamics - they're very delicate, and profoundly dramatic and challenging and exhausting in a way. With The Reaping and Candyman, for that matter, you're talking about events which you can't really explain, and can't be explained by character - they have nothing to do with character! You're talking about music that works more with the surface of the action than with the depths of the character. It's a very different way of working, and I had to learn how to do it.

When I was doing more abstract theater pieces, there are similarities with working on those and horror films. Wouldn't it be funny to compare doing a Beckett play and doing a slasher film? But it's true! You're working with more abstract ideas with these kinds of films. I'm putting it the way I experience working on it, and I've found that horror movies are more difficult to do. They're more challenging for me, and I find them very interesting. So I enjoyed working on Taking Lives. I liked the director, and I liked the performances and it was a very interesting film to work on. I felt that was true of The Reaping too. It was a long process because, again, it was a film where the director (Stephen Hopkins) really began to understand the film as they were making it. There were whole sections re-shot, people re-cast, and things were being changed all along. It was a film that was a voyage of discovery, there's no question.

Do you have any other upcoming projects?

There's a Woody Allen movie that's coming out sometime next year, but I'm not doing any other films for a while - I've done quite a lot this past year! I'm currently working on a song cycle with Leonard Cohen, an opera for the San Francisco opera, and I don't expect that I'll be working on films for six months or longer, perhaps.


Notes on a Scandal will be in limited release on December 27, 2006, and the soundtrack will be released by Rounder Records on January 9, 2007. The Reaping will be released on March 30, 2007.

Special thanks to Brooke Wilcher and Jeff Sanderson at Chasen & Co. for their help with this interview.