[Interview - Ira Newborn]
I recently had the opportunity to talk with actor/composer Ira Newborn about his latest film, BASEketball. Newborn has composed music for director David Zucker on previous occasions, including The Naked Gun, and High School High.

So you have BASEketball coming out on Friday in theaters. I had the opportunity to see a workprint, but it was all temp tracked, so I got a sense of what you were given to work with. What was your take on the film?

Well, the filmmakers wanted to appeal to a younger audience than they did with the Naked Gun movies. So they got Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have a fan base resulting from the success of "South Park". As such, the movie's soundtrack went more the way of contemporary songs. But whenever there was a need for real human emotions - even if it turned into a joke five seconds later - I had to support it. So that was my job, as usual.

I noticed that none of your music appears on the CD soundtrack from the film. Would you have liked some of your music to be available?

It would have been nice, but it happens a lot because in comedies, the studios and the production companies aren't putting together a soundtrack because they think the score is so wonderful. Rather, they're putting an album together so they can shove the songs that they put in the movie onto an album that they can then say is the "hit album from the hit movie". They're going to want things that are more likely to make money. If you have a film that has a lot of rock and roll tunes, it's unlikely that they're going to do the composer a favor, no matter how good the score is. They hire the composer to make things more human, with traditional scoring methods.

Are you considering releasing a promo CD of your work on the film? Is there enough music?

There are about fifteen minutes of music.

When at Sony forLethal Weapon 4, I noticed that you were scheduled for 2-3 days of recording. Was that enough time to get it done?

It depends on the budget of the movie. It depends on how much they care about their music. On a Lethal Weapon movie, where you have endless pounding, thunking, thrumming, it's going to take a long time to record. If you have a movie where the composed score might be more of an afterthought - which happens a lot in comedies - they're like "oh, you can do it in three days".

So you were rushed.

Well, not only did I have to get it right, everyone has ideas of how it should sound. Just because it looks like a little bit of music, doesn't mean it won't take a lot of time to record.

BASEketball marked your sixth collaboration with Zucker. You started with him on "Police Squad".

The show was fun - no one had done anything like that on television before. And we had a fun feeling - it was fun, subversive, and full of "wait until they get a load of this". We got a lot of good reviews.

Why did it last for only six episodes?

The show didn't have a laugh track, and it needed to get an audience. They call it the "boob tube" for a reason. People watch television during dinner, but they have conversations and get stuff from the refrigerator. The television isn't their focus. You needed to really watch this show to get the jokes. Most people who weren't focusing on it that way were going "what is this?".

Television is a peculiar medium. Some things work, and some things don't. Some things worked then that don't work now, and some things work now that wouldn't work then.

Would you consider The Late Shift a television show - or a film that was shown on television?

Well, it seemed to be in the middle, so I'm not sure. Aside from that, I love Betty Thomas and she did a great job.

Have you always not watched television?

No - I was a television idiot in the late 50's, early 60's. But as things went on, I watched less television, but still enjoyed it. But then in 1983, I was watching television, and I realized how boring it all was, and how much I disliked sitting in front of this little box. I felt I was dumpster diving - like a homeless person looking for something edible in a garbage dumpster. I was so tired from sitting there that when someone would call me up and say, "hey - you've got to see this it's really good", I didn't even turn it on or look at it. I would only turn on the television if it was a national calamity, or a movie I starred it.

So you're more interested in film as a medium?

Because of all the constraints [on television scoring], I would pick film composition. There's more money, a bigger orchestra. You can do more and different things but can't do anything you want because there's still a producer and a director to collaborate with. You can't do whatever you want unless you're an extremely lucky person and you happen to meet somebody who really respects your talent and they want you to give them something special - which doesn't happen all that often. But there's a lot less money on television - you never get an orchestra, you'll get enough money to have a small and they'll want it to sound like a full orchestra, and the deadlines are much more stringent.

Your style seems to be "big band" jazz.

No. I don't have a "style" like that. And to tell you the truth, most musicians don't have styles either. Regardless of my training and my work, I learned to do a million different styles - and I'm fascinated by all of them. So when I'm hired to write some particular thing, I sit down and study and I write and try to listen, and I try to make it as creative and interesting as I can. There are all sorts of things to do with big band. There are so many different styles with big band. There are so many different melodic things I can do. So basically, I can write pretty much anything.

I used tohate big band. The first big bands I heard were the Dorsey Brothers, and Glenn Miller, and that goopy stuff that became the pop music of the forties. It wasn't jazz. The jazz big bands - like the Duke Ellington, Count Basie - they were swinging, colorful music. But these other guys were doing this foofy pop music - I thought that was big band. But when I first heard the real big bands, it blew me away.

And then I did the Manhattan Transfer's first three albums, and they wanted big band music. So I got out Henry Mancini's book "Sounds and Scores", and I got out William Russo's book on big band composition, and I studied them like crazy. I had never written a big-band composition in my life. I would be reading, and checking, and calling people up, and I did five arrangements for their first album. I liked it! But I was always a rock and roll guitar player before that, and a jazz guitar player. My style is not big band music - it just happens to be one of a number of things I can do.

I think that the perception of your work as "big band" exists because of what music is available.

Yeah, you get stereotyped. Anything you do that's successful becomes what others want you to do. They have their own idea of what it is you do, and that's it. It's called typecasting, and that's why some actors have lived and died playing one part. But it's not just actors - it's everybody. If they know some guy can write comedy, they make a note, and if they need a composer for comedy, they will probably use him.

You worked on a lot of the teen angst comedies for John Hughes back in the 80's. Would you want to do those types of films again?

Not particularly. If I could have my druthers, I would pick a light comedy, a romance, or a serious film. Even a buddy adventure movie. Comedies are tough to do correctly. Most people don't get that you have to help a joke or know how to get out of the way of it. The job is to make the movie funnier - not to make your music shine, especially in a comedy.

Would you have worked on BASEketball if David Zucker hadn't directed it?

I don't know. Who else would possibly direct it?

But he didn't direct Naked Gun 33 1/3 or High School High...

Yeah, but he was there all the time. Let me put it this way. If you're talking about that type of humor, no one can do it better than David Zucker can. Nobody. He's the one who really knows how to get it together best. If somebody else can direct it, he'll get someone with a great sense of humor. But he and his partner write them, and that's his vision and sense of humor. I haven't seen too many movies in this genre that are as funny, over-the-top, and tongue-in-cheek, yet not stupid.

If you're going to go to a movie with that type of humor - if you don't walk out of the theater laughing your head off, you have nothing. When people go to comedies, they go to laugh!

There is on particular joke in BASEketball at the beginning that is so funny, that when I saw it in my house on the tape - ha! The comedy timing on it, and the whole thing... it... <laughs>

So the movie is fun to watch?

It's fun, it's somewhat crude, but that's okay if you're laughing your head off.

So you've had a good relationship with Zucker over the years...

I've known him for 18 years. He's talented, loyal, and he's a good person - which is more than you can say for a lot people in this business.

You met him on "Police Squad" - how did you get picked for the job?

Bob Weiss was producing it, and I worked with him on Blues Brothers. So he recommended me and after a little persistence I got the job.

Have you thought about putting out a compilation CD of your music?

I'm trying to make an album for myself right now that has nothing to do with movies. It's my own personal compositions. I've written a bunch of songs for me to sing, some of which may have come out better for someone else to sing, and I have a bunch of instrumental works as well.

What future plans do you have?

I'm working on these albums, and I have a few pictures up in the air. I've just completed a compilation CD of my music. I still need to get the artwork done. None of the movies are mentioned on them - it's just the music from them. If I say, "this is from The Naked Gun" then play some serious fantastic sounding piece, people will think "oh, comedy" just because it's Naked Gun.

So you're renaming the titles?

Yeah. They're in an order now - "Big Impressive Orchestra", "Romantic Stuff", "Contemporary Stuff", but, I'm not going to list any categories because if you give too many mental cues, people will hear with their eyes.

Hopefully it will bring in more business. I hope a drama comes your way so you get to try something different!

There's nothing for me to try. I want a little variety. Someone says to me, "I think you should stretch out". That's implying that it's going to be a stretch for me to write in a different style! It's all the same - underscoring what we're looking at, being sensitive to it, and being cinematic so you're helping what's on the screen. You write what's correct. If it's a drama, you look to see who's in it, when it takes place - it's no stretch.

Do you write with a scorepad and pencil - or the synthesizer approach?

No, I write with a pencil, and I check myself. But you have to do both now, since the director wants to hear something first. I'll compose it, and make the demo at the same time. Which, unless you have good restraint, puts you into "fingers do the walking" mode.

BASEketball comes out this Friday. Unfortunately, Newborn's score is not present on the CD, so you will just have to see the movie.