On Thursday, January 28, iconic composer David Shire will appear in person at the Los Angeles revival house New Beverly Cinema. He will be on hand to talk about his vast body of work and answer questions in conjunction with screenings of the original 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the 1975 disaster epic The Hindenburg. Additionally, on January 29, Shire will participate in a discussion of Steve Horowitz' "The Re-Taking of Pelham One Two Three," a reinterpretation of Shire's music for Pelham that will be performed at the Roy and Edna Disney/ Calarts Theater (REDCAT). Finally, he'll also be on hand January 30 at Burbank's premier horror and fantasy bookstore, Dark Delicacies, to sign autographs and sell copies of some of his most famous music scores.
Shire's appearance in Los Angeles -- not to mention at three high-profile events -- is something of a fulfillment of a film score fan's dreams: the longtime composer worked steadily since the 1960s to create some of the most haunting and memorable scores in movie history, including the music for All the President's Men, The Conversation, Saturday Night Fever, and of course, The Hindenburg and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In anticipation of his tour of Los Angeles film fandom, Cinematical spoke to Shire via telephone to discuss the significance of the films and film music these events are celebrating; in addition to discussing the origins and inspirations for some of his most famous movie music, Shire talked about his technique and approach to composition, and offered a few reflections on his expansive body of work, which spans film, television, theater, and even pop music.
Cinematical: All of your upcoming appearances in Los Angeles are based in part around your music for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It's certainly an iconic score, but is it one that's especially important to you?
David Shire: Oh yes, very, because I used some compositional techniques which I'd never used before which the demands of that score led me to. It was kind of a compositional bifurcation point for me. So it's very important in the things I've done, to me.
Cinematical: Can you explain how it was different?
Shire: Well, I used 12-tone techniques that I'd never used before. I had learned them in some private composition lessons I had with a composer and they kind of were in my back pocket but I didn't think I'd ever really have an occasion to use them. But all of a sudden Pelham made demands to use a kind of dissonant but yet confluent music that I wanted to write in my ear by itself but not lead me to it, so by employing those techniques, the problem got solved and I'm very proud of it. It's one of my favorite scores of mine.
Cinematical: By the way, I wasn't crazy about last year's remake of Pelham, but I was especially disappointed they didn't try to use your score, or even reference it.
Shire: I didn't see it but a lot of people told me about it. Generally, as you probably know when someone does a remake they want to get as far away from anyone connected with the original production as possible because they want the new one to have their own stamp, and hopefully be better than the old one, or at least be as good in a different way. So I wasn't surprised at all that they never called, and from what I was told about the movie, my music probably wouldn't have been right for it anyway. The music didn't seem to be as prominent as in the original.
Cinematical: Did it surprise you to hear that Steve Horowitz was doing the reinterpretation of the Pelham score for this REDCAT performance Friday night?
Shire: No, it was a pleasant surprise when he called me a couple of years ago and said that he was doing something called "The Re- Taking of Pelham One Two Three." I think he called to ask me for my permission, which he didn't really need, but I was complimented that he wanted to do a riff on my material and I went to see it and I was even more surprised and delighted, because I thought he was true to the original material as much as he needed to be, but he went off and did his own thing. It's very much his composition based on my composition, so it's like a theme and variations. But I thought he did a lovely job on it.
Cinematical: You talked about Pelham changing the way you composed scores. Do you or at that time did you use a recurrent method for approaching new material, or has it always been fairly individualized?
Shire: Well, it's all of that in a way. Each movie makes its own demands in terms of style, in terms of what the director wants the music to do for the movie, so really you kind of create a new musical universe for each project you do, and then within that universe you try to make good choices so that the music is interesting and does the job that it needs to do to service the director's vision but has character of its own. More than that, those two demands are compatible, [but] sometimes they're not. Sometimes in order to do what the director wants, you can't go in a direction you would like to go, but I consider music for movies like being a set designer or production designer -- your palette is defined by the movie and what the director would like for you to do for it.
Cinematical: Does that extend to the structure of your composing? For example, listening to several of your scores, including All the President's Men and The Conversation, each movie gets its own main theme that you build other pieces around.
Shire: Yeah -- I like to do that to give a score unity. I like to have one, two or three themes; sometimes you need more because there are other characters or situations that need a particular treatment, but in general I like to work from basic material, which it sometimes takes quite a while to find, but once I've found it and it's right, the cues then all seem to flow from that basic material. Each cue becomes kind of a separate development of one or more of those themes, and sometimes they go together and sometimes they're in counterpoint to each other.
Cinematical: Pelham is paired with The Hindenburg at the New Beverly screening on Thursday. Were these movies where you participated in the creative process from the beginning and worked with the filmmakers?
Shire: It varies from film to film. The Conversation, because Francis was a relative of mine at the time through marriage, I was involved with the project before it even went into rehearsal, and I was at the first rehearsal with the cast, so it was great because it gave me a long time to think about it and the score was able to be developed along with the editing, which is a big advantage to be able to do that both for the filmmaker and for the composer. Other pictures, they're not sure what they want to do as far as a composer they want or a type of music, and you're only called in after the movie is shot and often with a temp track of music they seem to want your score to be in the same style as. And it varies; sometimes earlier, sometimes later. On Zodiac, my first contact with it was reading a script they sent me. They said the movie had been shot but I read a script first and saw the rough cut. Generally you're called in more often than not somewhere in the rough-cut stage. The more time I have to think about the score, the better.
Cinematical: Have you found that the insertion of those temp tracks has become an additional challenge?
Shire: It can be; it's a mixed blessing. At least it gives you a tangible model of what the director has in mind, because it's very hard to talk about music in words. To hear something is to have a much more specific idea of the direction they're leaning in. On the other hand, I don't like to see a movie for the first time with a temp track on it because before I can have a reaction to a film, I'm being told what to think musically. Often I ask as I think many composers do to see the movie for the first time without the temp track, and then I ask to see it again with the temp track, and that seems to work best. Because then I can have my own initial, instinctive reaction to the film and then hear what the director had in mind. Sometimes they get too wedded to the temp track and it's hard to take them in a different direction. Sometimes the temp track points you in the right direction but then you can show him some possibilities down that road that that director didn't have in mind. That's what happened on Zodiac.
Cinematical: Have you found any limitations as an artist, even because of having successfully created so many identifiable and iconic scores? Are there things you might have wanted to do that you weren't able to because filmmakers wanted you to recreate the sound or tone of something you've already done?
Shire: Well, I got the Zodiac job because Fincher temp-tracked some of it with The Conversation. But then I pointed out to him that even though that solo piano worked for some places, there were other places where I didn't think it was the correct approach. So he said, "well, what do you hear?" So I brought in a classical piece of music that was along the lines of what I heard, kind of supplying my own temp track, and he liked that a lot. He started tracking with that and said, "yeah, do something like that." So a compromise can be come to if the director and the composer are both open to it.
Cinematical: In the 1980s and '90s you seem to have focused more on theater and television work. Are those different creative endeavors you chose to explore or was that just where people's interest in your music migrated?
Shire: Both. Television seems to be much related to movie work in that you're still scoring a picture, except with lower budgets generally, although not always -- and less time, but not always. Theater is a different animal in that the music is foreground instead of background; instead of servicing someone else's vision, it's partly my vision to begin with, so there's a lot more freedom and other people are working for me. So it's a different animal in that sense; it still requires the same compositional techniques. But even those vary because you're dealing with vocal music instead of instrumental music, whereas film music is the opposite. Theater has its own ground rules and techniques that are different, or at least tangential from movie music.
Cinematical: You've also done pop music composition. Notwithstanding the obvious structural differences, how is that process different?
Shire: It's putting on a different hat and knowing what I'm after in that area. I find it refreshing to jump from style to style and from niche to niche. The hardest thing for me to do would be to, say, score a western and then immediately get another western (laughs). It's almost like a farmer with various fields; recommended practice is to grow something in one field and then let it lie fallow for a season so the ground can re-nourish itself. I find it the same with writing: when I've worked in theater for a while, it's very refreshing to do a movie, and when I've done a movie it's nice to return to the theater. Unfortunately it doesn't work out so beautifully timed all of the time; often I'm working on a film project and a theater project at the same time. As far as pop music goes, the basic difference is it's not music related to a dramatic purpose; you're writing for a singer or a style more than you're writing for a story or a character.
Cinematical: Is The Hindenburg an equally important score for you?
Shire: Every big movie is its own memorable experience, good or bad. That was terrific because, A, I got to work with Robert Wise, who I wanted to work with, and B, I had an 80-piece orchestra. I had been doing smaller scores, and I tend to get scores like The Conversation where their instrumental forces are minimal. I enjoyed as most composers do having a big orchestra to work with, and so I really enjoyed working on that and it gave me room to stretch some muscles that I hadn't stretched yet as far as screen composition goes.
Cinematical: Are there any particular scores of yours that haven't been released you'd like to see put out on CD? Or are there ones that you would recommend to fans of some of your more recognizable compositions?
Shire: Well, I'd like to have all of my work lined up on CD, and I think I'm no different than anybody else in that respect. It's nice to have that out there for anybody who wants it. but through the years, thanks to Film Score Monthly and Intrada and Varese Sarabande, many of my scores have been quietly released. Norma Rae just came out. Can you imagine, 25 or 30 years after the movie, Short Circuit was released. All the President's Men was released in the last three or four years. So most of the big ones have been released. There's a lot of TV movies that I would love to have CDs of -- Sarah, Plain and Tall. I'm trying to think of major motion pictures that haven't been released at some time or another. Can you think of any that you would particularly like to hear? Once you finally get it released, the trick is to keep it in print; like my all-time favorite score is Return to Oz and I've run out of all of the original records except one or two, from which I am constantly being asked to make one-off copies. I would love to have that packaged again, but I don't think it will ever happen.
Cinematical: One of the scores that you did that is personally important to me is the music from Saturday Night Fever. I've always been disappointed that not all of the music you did for the film was released. Do you foresee a time when that might happen?
Shire: I don't think that's ever going to be released. That's just meat-and-potatoes incidental music, as far anyone is concerned.
Cinematical: What's coming up for you? Did Zodiac rekindle people's interest in having you do film scores?
Shire: It rekindled interest but the spark seemed to go out after a year or so. I did one other picture, a very low-budget score for Peter Hyams for a movie called [Beyond a Reasonable Doubt], and since then I haven't had any other movie scores. So I've been busy working in the theater on a musical I've been working on for a decade. We've had productions in England and Japan, and it is now going to be produced at Princeton's Macarthur Theater this spring and we've done a lot of rewriting for that and re-orchestrating. My wife [Didi Conn] and I have a television series, a musical animated series for children that we've made the pilot for, and we have a third meeting with Disney this week. And little musical odd jobs, but I would certainly love to get another feature.
The problem is at my age, there are so many young composers, many of them quite good (laughs), and I think all things being equal, young directors prefer to go with young composers. Every once in a while you find an archivist who is intrigued with the idea of working with an older composer who's already established and one of the greats or whatever category I fall into; I don't think I ever reached the legendary John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Morricone level where they'll get scores until they're 95. But I always hope that there's another one coming along the way. Fincher said he'd like to work with me again, and meanwhile I keep busy doing these other things. That's another advantage of not having all of your eggs in one niche; if I can't work in that area, I'll work in this area. As long as it keeps me busy, I'm quite happy.