SOME PERSONAL MEMORIES OF BASIL POLEDOURIS
by Richard Kraft
"Mr. Poledouris, you don't know me, but I am a huge fan of your score to CONAN and have already gone through two copies of the BLUE LAGOON soundtrack." Those words, nervously uttered over the phone after locating Basil Poledouris' number from Directory Information, ushered in one of the richest relationships of my life.
"Hey, want to come over for dinner?" was Basil Poledouris' response. There was no reason for him to invite me over. I was a 21 year old filmmusic nerd, who had just moved to Los Angeles, mooching off my brother's couch while struggling to earn money by passing out free research screening tickets on street corners. I had nothing to offer him except a lot of nerdy questions and a great deal of appreciation of his work.
Basil greeted me at the door of his home up in the hills of Encino, CA. He was like a bear. A short, rough, strong, warm, curious bear of a man. His home was dominated with the energy of his two young daughters, Zoe and Alexis. Although this was the house of a great and successful Hollywood artist, it was not filled with movie posters or film scores or mementoes from Basil's career. It was a home where children's artwork was plastered on the fridge and Zoe's ice skating trophies were proudly on display. Inexplicably, there were also rows of Christmas lights lining the exterior of the house, even though the holiday had long since past.
Basil's writing room was a small bedroom, barely large enough for a battered old piano. Several of the keys were scorched with cigarette burns. Haphazardly piled in a tiny clothes closet were his original scores to Big Wednesday, Conan and Blue Lagoon.
Within a minute or two of being in Basil's house something strange started to happen. I started to feel less and less like I was in the presence of a Great Master and more and more like I had entered a real home, in every sense of that word.
As a point of clarification, this wasn't Basil's home. It belonged to BasilandBobbi. BasilandBobbi were two separate people, Basil Poledouris and his wife, Bobbi. But for all practical purposes, they were BasilandBobbi. I would be hard pressed to remember a time I ever saw them separately.
As I sat down to my first dinner with BasilandBobbi and the kids, I was overwhelmed with how open and easy the conversation between all of them was. There was so much laughter and joy at that table. Basil, like his friend John Millius, was a hardy man, likely to frame any thought into a noble proclamation of honor and glory. His daughters were smart and engaging and asked this extremely geeky stranger a million questions. And Bobbi was luminous. Beyond her extraordinary beauty (her mother was a former Miss America, I believe), Bobbi was the calm, nurturing, curious queen of that table. She had met Basil in college and everything they talked about was framed as "we." Bobbi was Basil's sounding board for everything he composed. If a theme of his made her get goose bumps, it stayed. She had very tasteful and intuitive goose bumps. As he spoke, her eyes would focus on him as if she had just met the great love of her life. And when she spoke, Basil would smile with deep contentment. Not only did I never want this dinner to end, I secretly craved to be adopted into the family.
My wish came true as I was invited over for dinner again the next week, and the next, and the next. For at least a year I looked forward to my meals with the Poledouris'. On a superficial level, it was exciting because I could barely afford a decent dinner the rest of the week, and on a far more significant one, I was starving for the emotional nutrition I knew I would receive as soon as BasilandBobbi opened the door.
Basil would fascinate me with tales of his adventures at USC. He told me about the time Bernard Herrmann came to campus with a print of THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. The audience of hip, young filmmaker wannabe's hated the old fashion romance and Herrmann railed against them. But among all the students, Basil was different. The opening music, with its call of an endless sea and eternal love touched him profoundly. It became clearer and clearer to Basil that his fate might not be as a director but that of a film composer.
Eventually I stumbled into a job as Head of Music for Cannon Films. When the opportunity arose to hire a major composer, I turned to my friend, Basil. Though MAKING THE GRADE was hardly a masterpiece of filmmaking, it was my first chance to return a bit of the countless kindnesses that Basil had offered me. For reasons that never made sense to either one of us, Hollywood did not beat a path to his door after the success of CONAN. MAKING THE GRADE was just the financial assignment needed to keep Basil afloat until some good career fortune would come his way.
Shortly thereafter, another great composer who had also become a friend, Elmer Bernstein, got me a job as a pipsqueak agent at the Bart-Milander Agency. Basil was another one of their clients. I took it upon myself to start pushing and promoting Basil as much as I could. I felt very comfortable singing his praises to filmmakers about his extraordinary talent.
Our first great break working together as client/agent was when Paul Verhoeven was seeking a composer for FLESH + BLOOD. Basil and I loved Verhoeven's Dutch films and fortunately Verhoeven was a big fan of Basil's CONAN score and ultimately chose him over his other contender, James Horner.
I would go over to Basil's house every few nights when he was composing that score. He was so excited to be working again on something so attune with his sensibilities. Theme after theme he would bang on that piano.
When BasilandBobbi and the kids flew off to London to record the score they left me in charge of house sitting for them. For a week my secret wish of living in the Poledouris household had come true. Every night I would pull out his scores from the sloppy pile in the closet and offer mangled one-finger renditions of Basil's music on the very piano on which they were composed.
When they returned from England they didn't even bother to unpack their clothing. Within moments of entering the door they rushed to their old reel-to-reel recorder and started playing for me the finished score to FLESH + BLOOD. Bobbi held Basil's hand cue after cue as we listened. Those themes that only a few weeks ago were piano notes played roughly on a slightly out-of-tune piano were now another Poledouris orchestral masterpiece.
The most involved Basil ever let me get in the writing of one of his scores was CHERRY 2000. It was a strange little film and everyone involved in it, including Basil, was a bit baffled as to what tone it should take musically. He snuck me a video of the film, and for several days I would throw different music against it from my soundtrack collection to see if anything would stick. Eventually a strange amalgamation of Jean-Michel Jarre, Philip Glass and The Wild Rovers began to emerge. It was fascinating to hear the final score which was all of these disparate influences re-imaged through the magical Basil Poledouris filter.
A major, major highlight in Basil's life was scoring LONESOME DOVE . This mini-series, more than anything else he had ever worked on, captured Basil's spirit. Basil excelled at writing emotional music for strong male characters. And the length of the mini-series allowed Basil to develop thematic ideas to a degree far greater than a regular motion picture. Basil would call me on almost a daily basis to come over and hear his latest batch of music. I remember him writing dummy lyrics for almost all the major themes (most of them lame and having to do with little doggies). He was wonderfully self-deprecating, even referring to one motif as his "Budweiser" commercial.
I was only able to attend a few of the recording sessions for LONESOME DOVE. And for whatever reason, whenever I showed up he was doing a minor source cue. Basil would promise, "no really, it's going to have a full orchestra, this isn't a Mariachi score." For years Basil would tease me that I only ever showed up when he was doing his "Taco Bell" music.
I remember sitting with BasilandBobbi at the Emmy's when his named was called for DOVE. He was so appreciative of the recognition he had received from his peers. Something Basil and I discussed for years was the notion of turning LONESOME DOVE into a stage musical or opera or even turning CONAN into a ballet. Alas, it was not to be.
When Basil started scoring THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER he knew he was once again working on something that he could really sink his teeth into. Basil never talked about the literal nature of what was going on in a scene. He would talk about the spirit of the characters or the grand thematics of the intention of the film. I remember him being completely frustrated when Paramount sent him a poorly dubbed black and white video of the film to work from. This was just when pirated copies of films were starting to curse the studios and they were looking for ways to combat it, including giving the people working on them substandard black and white dubs. Basil was thrown by what he saw. In his mind it was a grand adventure of two foes ultimately coming to respecting one another. But his eyes instead saw a low-budget 1940's, black and white B war picture. Eventually, he watched the footage less and let his imagination soar.
He also took great pride in his lyrics to the Hymn that started the film. Even though they were sung in Russian, it gave Basil an opportunity to use words as well as music to express his noble thoughts.
Towards the end of scoring HUNT, the filmmakers started getting nervous, sending Basil back several times to redo the same cue over and over. I noticed Basil, who was normally a very open collaborator, growing a little bit uncomfortable with the degree of second-guessing.
FREE WILLY was a very happy experience for Basil. I remember sitting in the scoring stage when the big finale cue came up. Lots of musical build-up leading to the whale leap and then... wow... a huge, joyous, emotional release of pure Basil thematic uplift. Basil smiled devilishly, "See, that was no Taco Bell cue."
One of my favorite bits of nutty matchmaking was putting Basil together with John Waters. Basil was a pretty macho guy. A real sailor and surfer. John Waters was not. To make things even more delightfully perverse, we recorded the score to SERIAL MOM in Salt Lake City. Having dinner with John Waters and Basil in MormonTown was priceless.
Basil adored John Waters. He loved any passionate, fearless outsider. Basil wanted to be a pirate. He had a romanticized view of the world loaded with swash and bluster and emotions that ran as wide as the ocean.
Basil and I once sailed together to Catalina Island. Well, he sailed, I tried hard not to barf. Of course I failed. But even in losing my lunch, Basil was magnificent. "Now, you're a real sailor!" he pronounced.
When my brother, David was about to die in a hospital in Pittsburgh, BasilandBobbi jumped on a plane to be with him towards his final moments. Later, with my parents, we took my brother's ashes out with BasilandBobbi onto his boat and at sunset on the Pacific Ocean we scattered David's ashes while listening to Bernard Herrmann's score to THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. The Poledouris' had become part of our family.
One of the more disappointing chapters in our history came with DANCES WITH WOLVES. For a year I kept sending Kevin Costner Basil's music. Word would come back from the set that Costner was hooked on the LONESOME DOVE score. One extremely memorable day, I got The Call. Basil was signed to do DANCES WITH WOLVES!
I was on my honeymoon in Canada when I got a call from Basil that he was going to quit the film. "WHAT!?!, I screeched into a pay phone at a train station somewhere in Vancouver. Basil explained that John Millius wanted him to do FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER and that the schedule might overlap with WOLVES by a few weeks. "Don't do anything," I begged just before jumping back onto the train. At the next stop I raced to find a pay phone (this is pre-cell phone days). "I just talked to Costner, and he is cool with them overlapping if I am." Thank god. At the next train stop I located another phone and discovered that the FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER camp was not as open to the schedule conflict. "Screw them," I said, "You are already working on WOLVES, it is a great film, and you have to do it." "You don't understand," said Basil. "John Millius gave me some of my first big breaks, he is one of my best friends, and I have to be loyal to him." I begged Basil to not do anything until I got to my hotel and we could discuss it further. By the time I had arrived Basil had already made up his mind and called Costner to let him know he could no longer do DANCES WITH WOLVES.
Painfully, the schedule of FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER ended up sliding 6 months later, and Basil did not end up working on anything during the entire time DANCES WITH WOLVES was being scored. For years I kept Basil's contract to WOLVES in the top drawer of my desk as a reminder. But a reminder of what? Sometimes it represented to me a symbol of acting too quickly and too emotionally. Sometimes it was a representation of missed opportunity. Sometimes it was about getting cold feet before stepping into greatness. And at other times it was a symbol of honor and loyalty to a degree that Basil possessed in extraordinary abundance.
Things shifted with Basil after that experience. The movies he worked on were not as strong and the headaches involved in them were greater. There was a shift going on in the world of filmmusic and Basil was starting to feel a bit like Sisyphus, always pushing the boulder up that hill only to have it roll back down on him.
All the curses of contemporary film scoring came battering down on Basil. Temp-love, tossed-scores, micro management, competing with film scoring teams. Even though he was still a young man, I believe Basil identified more with the Herrmann' s and the Rozsa' s than what was becoming increasingly popular. My meeting with him about future projects became less and less focused as Basil's eyes drifted off to the horizon.
Our last hurrah together came with Sam Raimi, who was looking for a strong, emotional, thematic composer for FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME. I suggested Basil. Raimi liked his work, but couldn't really remember any of this themes or how they worked in his films. I took off work the next day to drive all over Los Angeles to find Laser Discs of Basil's films. I then assembled a video showing one extraordinarily well-scored sequence after another, each packed with a moving and memorable theme. That night I drove to Sam Raimi's house and dropped off the video. The next day Sam called to say he was blown away by Basil's talent and wanted to hire him.
The sweetest moment of all came when the star of the film, Kevin Costner, came to the recording session years after the DANCES WITH WOLVES incident. "Basil," Costner said as he put his arms around him, "It's wonderful to finally be working with you." Basil smiled deeply with great relief.
A few years and a few forgettable films passed after that and then one day Basil left me. He told me he had had enough. A while after that BasilandBobbi broke up and Basil moved to an island in Seattle.
I lost touch with Basil for several years after that. Then a few months ago I heard he was ill. He had lung cancer and brain tumors and was in the hospital in Los Angeles. I stared at his phone number. I was so nervous tabout calling him. Much, much more so than 25 years earlier when I called him out of nowhere as a stranger. What if he was too sick to talk? Or more to the point, what if he was still angry and didn't want to talk to me? I called anyway. Bobbi answered the phone. She filled me in on Basil's condition and said, "Wait, he really wants to talk with you."
"Hey, Basil." "Hey, Richard."
"I just read the linear notes you wrote for MAKING THE GRADE CD. You wrote such nice things," he said. I replied, "That's because I love you."
"Hey, why don't you come over," he offered.
The drive to the hospital was so different, yet so similar to my drive to his home all those years before. I really had no idea what to expect. I opened the door to his room and there was that bear. The same warm, loveable, open, funny, kind bear I had always known. 5 years of disconnect evaporated and we picked up our old conversation as if no time had passed at all. Bobbi was there and so was his daughter Alexis. For hours we chatted about everything. His life, my life, movies and music. My son, Nicky, who was born the day THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was released, joined us a few hours later (I know he was born on that day, because I ditched my wife shortly after his birth to catch a midnight screening!!)
We talked about Spain. Basil so wanted to feel well enough to make it to the concert in Ubeda to conduct CONAN. The pragmatic side of me saw a man in chemo and brain tumor scars. There was no way he was getting out of that hospital, yet alone traveling across the Atlantic to conduct a robust and challenging score.
When I left the hospital room, I sensed that would be the last time I would see my hero, my client, and my friend Basil.
After that we exchanged a few emails. Mainly about him wanting to make it to Spain. Of course he was going to go. Basil was a pirate and a dreamer and an adventurer.
When I heard things had taken a turn for the worse after his triumph in Ubeda, I started to think about his old house. The one filled with warmth and love and family. When I heard they had stopped treatments and the end was imminent, I remembered those Christmas lights outside of his house year round. And when I heard he had finally passed over to the other side, I finally understood their significance. While for most of us light and joy and passion are something we bring out and celebrate on occasion, for Basil those things were part of his everyday life.
I am a very fortunate man to have known Basil Poledouris. He was someone I knew before I ever met him through his music and someone I will know forever as I listen again and again.