[Interview - Marc Shaiman]
Composer Marc Shaiman has worked on a slew of hit films. From When Harry Met Sally…, The Addams Family films, George of the Jungle, Sleepless in Seattle, Misery, and most recently Patch Adams. His fourth Academy Award Nomination was announced last month for Patch Adams, and I had an opportunity to chat with Marc in his studio about his work on that film, and his upcoming projects.

Patch Adams marks your fourth Academy Award Nomination. What were your thoughts on working on the film?

It was a wonderful film to work on. I knew that it was the type of film that critics were going to beat up on, because it was very sentimental. That word seems to be a very dirty word to critics. Whenever something is referred to as being sentimental, it is used as a derogatory term. I guess I missed that day in school when we all learned that something sentimental is bad. Everyone who worked on Patch Adams had the purest of intentions, yet the critics acted as if we were twirling our silent-movie villain mustaches! To get an Oscar nomination was like God's little pat on the back. A few critics beat me up - if they don't like it, they don't like it, I just don't know why they were so brutal! Simon Birch had the same fate, but didn't have Robin Williams in it to get more people to go see it.

Was it an intentional choice to make the music so "sentimental"?

I came up with different melodies and themes for the filmmakers approval, but they always went with the most "sentimental" I was often asked to put "more strings, more violins" in places where I tried to orchestrate it a tad subtler. But they wanted it to be that kind of score. I guess John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith can write a score like that and have a maturity behind it that would make the critics that are typically disparaging of that style not as upset about it…

Isn't that a bit self-deprecating?

Well, one has to be a bit self-deprecating when you pick up reviews and read such horrible words attached to your name and music. I wanted to call the reviewer from the New York Times and say, "Would you have said this to my face? What did I do to you? Why are you so mean spirited about it?" Then the first weekend's grosses came in, and that's a bit of a salve, but I'm so Jewish that I thought, "Oh great - now more people heard my terrible score!" <laughs>

Your first recognized score was for When Harry Met Sally... , a lively interweaving of old pop/jazz standards and contemporary "transitional" music. Was your experience with this what urged you on to becoming a full time film composer?

Well, scoring films wasn't something I solely dreamed about, any combination of show biz and music was. Broadway, records, arrangements, movies - I just loved all of it. So I didn't exclusively idolize Max Steiner and the others - I knew the names, and knew the movies and loved the music in them, but I also probably loved musicals most of all - it was what I was immersed in. When I moved to New York, I was working as a musical director for cabaret acts, and to a degree that's how I approach a movie; as if it were a singer, and I'm accompanying it - figuring out the best chord changes and melodies to support the singer.

Would you work with Harry Connick, Jr. again? You did have two very successful albums…

Sure, I would love to work with him again. Both those albums were a phenomenal experience for both of us, and I got to live out a fantasy on those records. In my twenties, I was first exposed to those Frank Sinatra records with the classic arrangements. I used to think, "I'll never get to do anything like this" and suddenly this movie came up, as well as this singer - I got to do these two records. Performing with him was also fun - we toured and performed on Broadway.

Your work on the City Slickers series was an interesting homage to western themes of the past as well as maintaining a contemporary feel (as in the "Stampede" cue from the first film). Was that easy to do?

Well, it was about a bunch of modern guys' fantasies - so it seemed correct that part of it should recall the music from the Western movies and TV shows they had grown up . Then the other stuff , "finding your smile" and all that, was very contemporary.

For The Addams Family, the television show already had a well-established theme. Did you find that to be a hindrance in creating a new theme for the film?

Not at all, I love those types of jobs - George of the Jungle, Sister Act, Addams Family - like I said, I started my career as an arranger, and I truly love doing that as much as composing. In The Addams Family I enjoyed finding ways to use the television theme in a more orchestral movie-style fashion. I still got to write a whole lot of themes that stand alone, and I got to make the TV theme sound like what the movie sounded like. I love the little lullaby waltz version of the TV melody at the end of the first movie - it's the first time in the whole movie when you hear something like that. I feel like I am very much an audience member - for a movie like that especially - so I might write what I would want to hear as an audience member watching the film.

Do you find that a film's failure or success determines whether or not it gets a CD issue? After all, North had a CD release…

Very funny. <grin> Well, not exactly, since the decision to put out the CD is made before anyone knows if the film is a hit or a flop. Unfortunately, it seems on every movie I am imploring someone to put out a score CD, and it's only getting worse, and I seem to get less amount of time on the CD's that do get made. It's because of reuse fees, and the fact that (I've been told) comedy scores don't really sell. I look at the Film Score Monthly bulletin board, and the newsgroup, and it's true, people are mainly talking about action or sci-fi scores. The people buying the CDs aren't as interested in the types of scores I mainly get to write.

One of your most recognized pieces is for the dramedy The American President, which gets played to accompany anything from film previews to news casts and television specials.

To hear The American President used in the trailer for Saving Private Ryan was beyond my wildest dreams, in terms of use of music. It was perhaps the most soul-satisfying use of music I've written (almost even more than for the movie for which it is from!) 'cause on that first "SPR" trailer, it was pure music and imagery working together to make you feel something. I was very moved that they felt that particular theme was going to do what they wanted. Of course, after a few days, I started neurotically obsessing that people assumed that John Williams wrote that theme. I wanted to walk around town with a billboard saying, "I wrote that music!" Anyway, it obviously wasn't a choice anyone had made lightly, and so I was honored to have been chosen.

Is "The American President" your favorite piece of music?

Well, I do think I nailed Americana and Romanticism at the same time - it's simple and elegant (if I may say so myself!) It's sometimes frustrating that I am often type cast as only "theatrical" or "comedic" because the style of The American President is very much how I play piano. And yet, on Patch Adams they needed some convincing to hire me - and that type of music comes so naturally to me! It's not that writing a score is easy, but for The American President, it was just the kind of thing that my fingers would naturally go to.

You recently just finished work on The Out-of-Towners, which seems to be a comedy with Carl Stalling-esque moments. What was your approach on this film?

Yes, it gets a bit Stalling-esque at a few points. I was editing the CD today, and I considered titling this one cue, "The Out-of-Towners meet The Roadrunner". It's mostly a big-band version of that kind of stuff. When I first heard of the movie I wondered if it could have a big classy "Nelson Riddle" kind of Swing sound - without having seen a single frame. And that's just what happened! They wanted a fun and yet romantic score. I got to write the exact score I was hoping it to write when I got the job - six months before I saw the movie. They had temp scored a lot of the film with the 'pre vocal intros' of songs from modern swing bands, and that's a style I feel so comfortable in also. Writing that movie was a wonderful experience; I would wake up every day knowing I knew how to attack it, and it was a pleasure! The director and producer loved what I was doing, and that really made it a joy.

What are your thoughts on temp scores?

I know it's a cliché, but it's a double-edged sword. It's a fantastic way to have a dialogue with the director, but it can also be a brick wall to any new creative thoughts. I remember on Mother, they were playing the temp score at the spotting session, I finally said to Albert Brooks, "You've already scored your film with John Williams - do you know what this is like for me?" I tell people: Can you imagine showing an actor a tape of Dustin Hoffman doing his scene the night before the actor is filming? And if the next day, when he's acting in the scene, you keep stopping him saying "Dustin put his hand on his head on the word 'the'." or "Dustin paused at this point"? That is not an exaggeration at all. I did finally get ballsy enough to say to one director, "Can you imagine if the studio had this scene filmed by Billy Wilder or Alfred Hitchcock before you? How would you feel?"

You mentioned earlier that you sometimes visit the film score bulletin boards. What do you think of what you see there?

Well, since no one every writes about me there, I'm safe to read them without fear of stinging essays! <smiles> One pet peeve though - I was reading an internet bulletin board, and (believe it or not) someone was saying something disparaging about Randy Newman's Awakenings score - and they hadn't seen the movie! I see that all the time - all these film music aficionados talking blatantly about how they haven't seen the movies and yet they are dissecting the scores! C'mon! A score is made to go with the movie, and a CD is put out to help recreate the feeling the listener had during the film. If you can enjoy it outside of the movie, that is phenomenal, and obviously, no composer will ever be unhappy about that. But literally every note, every measure, every beat, every tempo, every oboe, every flute - it's all written to service the directors vision and the film. That's what it's all about. And to think that people are "judging" this music without having seen the movie once!

You are due to be working on the South Park Movie - what can you tell me about it?

I got a big kick out of the fact that the day I got the Oscar nomination (for a score that was a sentimental, feel-good Academy-style movie), I was writing the most filthy lyrics one could imagine. I was writing lyrics that you couldn't even print in a Manson Family newspaper. If the people who had nominated me had heard what I was writing that day, they would have rescinded their offer!

The truth is, I'm so early on the process that I don't want to talk about it. Let's just say that I am indeed working on the movie. I was one of the original lucky collectors and distributors of their original "Spirit of Christmas" video short, so no one is a bigger fan than I. I've been having a great time collaborating on the songs.

Can you tell me anything about Kingdom of the Sun, the Disney animated feature?

You know, aside from knowing I'll be working on it, I have no idea what's going on with it. Sting wrote the songs, and I assume I will work with him and/or make use of his melodies as well as my own - but I haven't seen anything yet.

What would your dream project be?

I don't think I have anything specific. I would like to get to keep working on the kind of movies I currently do, I just wish I didn't have to go to meetings where I am selling myself. I understand that these meetings are designed to determine if they want to work with me as a person, but I would love not to have to audition my music. That's another irony about getting nominated for Patch Adams, because I really did have to sell myself to them. Ah well, I can't complain!

Marc is also scoring The Story of Us, directed by Rob Reiner. He says it will be the closest thing to a "sequel" for When Harry Met Sally… Patch Adams is available from Universal Records. The Out-Of-Towners will be released on April 2nd. The Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 21 on ABC - be sure to watch!