[Interview - Basil Poledouris]
Basil Poledouris has been composing for films for over twenty years. He provided the music for such well-known blockbusters as Conan the Barbarian, Robocop, The Hunt for Red October, and Starship Troopers. He has also lent his talents to other types of films including The Blue Lagoon, Wind, Free Willy, Breakdown, and Les Miserables. After taking a year long hiatus, Basil returned and provided the scores to Mickey Blue Eyes, For Love of the Game, and the upcoming Kimberly.

What was the reason for taking a prolonged break last year?

I got a lot of offers after Starship Troopers to do more of the same, but the last thing I wanted to do was another space opera full of action and sound effects. I really loved doing Les Miserables because it was about people - actors portraying real human emotions. I decided that these are the types of movies I want to do now. I'm a bit older now than I was when I was trying to flex my muscles with a 110-piece orchestra. It was cool at the time, and I certainly wouldn't mind doing it again for the right film. I'm at a place in my career where if I disappear for a year or so, I can afford to do it. In the meantime, I've started pursuing other musical endeavors. I've started producing some of my daughter Zoe's songs, and I've been working on a ballet. I actually started it in college, but there's not too much there to revisit, just a couple of motifs.

Aside from the ballet, what other non-film compositions have you worked on?

The Conan the Barbarian Sword and Sorcerer show at Universal Studios was the first commissioned non-film piece I wrote. The next one was the piece I did for the Olympics back in 1996. Also the new thing I have is this music studio! I've had it for about three years, and we've mixed Starship Troopers, For Love of the Game, and other films in here. In fact, my daughter is mixing her albums here. It's a full production studio - we have the capability of doing full digital mixes. Right now we're starting to work on remixing the Conan the Barbarian score for the DVD Special Edition. We're trying to find all the various elements - I recorded it on two 24-track tapes. One was the orchestra, and the other one was the choir. It's been sitting in a vault for a long time, and if it's all there, we still don't know how much of it is in good condition.

What was your inspiration for your score to For Love of the Game?

There are 90 minutes of score in the film, and parts of it are comprised of a 100-piece orchestra and choir, and then some other moments just have a few guitars. The approach was, as it always is for me, "musically represent to the best of my ability what this movie is about." This movie is about many different things. It's about baseball. It's about a guy who is old school - he doesn't understand why people are traded, or why they turn free agent. He comes from that sort of mind-set; he is essentially old fashioned. The music needs to represent baseball, which is over 100 years old - a uniquely American thing. The guy is modern (if a bit old), and he is living in the 1990s even though his taste is a little retro. So I decided I didn't want to keep the whole score orchestral - and threw in a little guitar work. Not necessarily "rock and roll", but more of a cross between folk and pop with a serious hard edge to it. There is a sequence in the film where I used guitars and Daiko Japanese ceremonial drums to represent an edge: to show that he can be a mean son-of-a-bitch. That seemed appropriate, and Sam Raimi agreed.

The other thing that is strong in the film is the romance - it's a love story! It's a great blend of hard sports and a very sensitive love story. It a very Aristotelian in its dramatic structure because it all takes place in twenty-four hours. It was great because I got to work in at least three musical styles. The most important thing is that the music represents the ideas behind the film. In this one, there were several ideas, so there were several representations of music. What unifies them all, of course, is the thematic material. You can play the theme on guitar, or solo piano, or with a whole orchestra.

Your score to Mickey Blue Eyes felt like the ultimate "Italian Mafia Score". What was your approach to scoring a comedy like that?

I'm a quarter Sicilian, so I figure this is my heritage, and the other thing is that I'm a great fan of Nino Rota. 8 1/2 is one of my all-time favorite films that I watch once every year just to see how far I've come: to see how my point of view on what this movie is about has changed. I've always been a fan of how the great European film composers can capture the essence of a film with a theme, with a statement of an idea. There are two main themes that I love in 8 1/2 and most of the Rota films do that. Just like the early Morricone stuff - these westerns were brilliant! The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - you just have to hear that ocarina once, and you know exactly what it is - instant recall! You can smell the dust coming off the horse's hooves, and the way Eastwood looks, and all of it - that's brilliant! I think the American film composers have a slightly different approach, because a lot of us came up through animation or television, and we get locked into the clicks and cueing system. Somehow it becomes more about how well the music hits the cuts as opposed to how well the music fits the idea behind the film. I've always tried to approach movies with a European sensibility, and I think I really did that with Mickey Blue Eyes - that's what Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley wanted. They didn't want me to hit the cuts. They wanted to provide pacing - to keep it in that same world that a lot of the source music was in. The thing that was most heartening about working in that genre was that it had been a long time since I had worked on a comedy. I found it interesting because it happened to be the sort of project I was looking for - it wasn't an action score. Hugh had heard some of my music, and was obviously aware of it; Les Miserables had gotten some really good reviews in Europe. But the most rewarding part of Mickey Blue Eyes was that even with all those great songs, there were parts in the movie that had to be scored. As a film composer, that was the part where you say, "that validates my existence!" Not everything can be steamrollered with a song anymore, and in a particular comedic situation, which usually has drama attached to it, they need music specifically written for it. And that was cool! <laughs>

You have another romantic movie, Kimberly coming out soon. What can you tell me about that?

All of these movies were worth waiting for. They are all very different, very rewarding, and very fulfilling musically, for me. Kimberly is about a rowing team in Philadelphia who makes a bet with another rowing team and is hopelessly outgunned. Kimberly (Gabrielle Anwar) offers to help them out as their coxswain, and soon all four men fall in love with her. She becomes pregnant, and she realizes any of the four of them could be the father. It's a romantic comedy with an American setting, but it had a very serious European sensitivity to it. It's loosely based on Guy de Maupassant's short story, "Mouche". Frederic Golchan (the director) really wanted Georges Delerue to score the film - don't we all! I love Georges Delerue, and respected his work, so what I tried to do was to deliver a main title that was something Georges might have written if he were alive in the late 1990's. Eric Colvin arranged and conducted the score. I wrote some of the cues, and Eric wrote the rest. It was an interesting collaboration, and I really enjoyed it. The studio here was just humming, and it proved that I could produce an entire film score in this one location!

Do you feel that you've been typecast as an action composer?

Sure! Why do you think I sat around for a year? <laughs> Producers in Hollywood have the main impression that what I've done is Starship Troopers, Robocop, Hunt for Red October, Flesh and Blood, and others. They forget about The War at Home, It's My Party, Les Miserables, and even The Blue Lagoon! The reason is that they weren't really hits! No one saw them! Producers saw The Hunt for Red October. People remember Conan because it made a big impact on the whole industry and spawned the Sword and Sorcery films. So it's hard to avoid. The body of my work is action - there's no doubt there. There are some producers who know I can do other styles, but the main thing that they would probably want from me is another large action score.

In an unusual situation, you wrote two to Breakdown - what is the story behind that?

Actually, I wrote three scores - well, two and a half. The script to Breakdown was one of the most exciting things I've read in years. It was a page-turner, and I finished it in about half an hour. The pace of the thing was extraordinary! So Jonathan Mostow and I talked a lot about the style of music he was looking for, and it came around to Bernard Herrmann. Dino De Laurentiis, whom I hadn't worked with in 20 years since Conan, wanted a strong "tema" - theme. So the first time around, I came up with this idea of using guitars (because it takes place in the Southwest) and orchestra - and came up with this main theme which was…. well, I wouldn't say that it was as much Bernard Herrmann as Kimberly was Georges Delerue. It was a pretty large orchestra. We came back, and Jonathan decided that it wasn't really what the film needed. So he decided that it should be more like Ennio Morricone than Bernard Herrmann. So we explored that approach, and that wasn't it either. From there it became very deconstructionist. We utilized a lot of synthesizers. Eric Colvin played the synths, Jud Miller played the EVI (and got a lot of strange effects), and Steve Forman did the percussion. We ended up with those three instruments on the score - a drastically different approach.

At first it really bothered me that Jonathan could be so flip about it, but in the end I think he really got a score that best represented the film's ideas. He was right - it was a little annoying that we had to go through two other scores first, but it was really a process. I know it frustrated Dino a little bit. In the end, if a studio is willing to spend the money and take the time, and you're not fighting a release date and you have a film like Breakdown where there weren't too many precedents - we've all seen thrillers and action - it wasn't like Robocop or Starship Troopers where you're creating a whole new language for the genre. But nonetheless it took experimentation, and Jonathan was willing to do it. In the end, he had a really good attitude about it - it certainly wasn't an ego thing. So in retrospect it wasn't half as horrible as I though it was. Also it better prepared me to work with Hugh Grant, who really loves to experiment. Timing is critical in comedy, and I learned a lot about that. Eric Colvin did all the mockups, and we probably had 10 different versions of the Mickey Blue Eyes score - each one with minute changes - but they're all different in terms of timing, pace, where the payoff to the joke is, how much to clear for a setup to a joke, pausing for laughter, etc. I think Jonathan Mostow prepared me to be able to do that because all of a sudden the process became more collaborative.

What is your educational background? You went to USC's Film School at the same time as George Lucas and John Milius….

I was ahead of Randal Kleiser by a year, but was there with George Lucas, Caleb Deschanel, Walter Murch, Matthew Robbins, Gary Kurtz, Kathleen Kennedy, and others. I went to USC to study music. I had attended CSU in Long Beach for a year and half on music scholarship as a pianist. I had always wanted to go to USC, however most of the music theory and composition was very modern: atonal serial composition, 12-tone stuff, etc. It was too heavy for me - I didn't understand it, and I didn't want to understand it. Socially and politically, the 60s were going on (this was in 1965) and the Beatles had just hit America. There were cultural and political upheavals taking place, and I felt that being a Pianist wasn't going to address them, and 12-tone composition wasn't going to address them either. It was old and sill being taught as modern. Film and the idea of the power of cinema and the power of documentary film spoke to me. So I switched my major to Cinema with an emphasis on Directing, and I got my BA in Cinema.

I was on full scholarship working towards a Masters Degree when I became one of the first AFI interns. They would give me an internship for six months with a professional, and I requested to work with Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Frederico Fellini. They gave me Larry Turman. He was a producer who had just done The Graduate, so it wasn't a slouchy thing, but it made me realize that I really wanted to be a musician, not a filmmaker or a producer. It was a serious wakeup call that came at a good time in my life. There was something about leaving music that didn't feel right, but it's in my personality to be a musician and composer. I don't like "water cooler" manners: smiling and saying hello to people on a daily basis. If I want to sit here and eat plaster or whatever, it's my prerogative! As a kid, I spent four hours a day practicing the piano from the time I was seven. Even today, I much prefer spending time in my studio for 16-20 hours a day. That's what I've done all my life, and what I'll hopefully do until the day I die!

What future projects do you have lined up?

There are some interesting things pending, but nothing has been determined as of yet.

What would be your dream project?

Well, it would be great to do the new Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's an amazing combination of characters, fantasy, the ability to create a world musically, and a strong sense of mythology. It would be great to have a three-year commitment to it. The other option would be to continue along the "people-movie" vein - another wonderful love story, or drama. Only time will tell!

 The score to For Love of the Game, while fetching outrageous prices on eBay for the promo, will be released through Varese Sarabande with more music than the promo. The score to Mickey Blue Eyes is available on Milan Records, along with some great songs. No word on an album release of Kimberly as of yet.