For any lover of thematic and melodic music the name of Michael J Lewis is one that will be familiar, his film scores and television works are for me personally some of the greatest scores ever written. I am so grateful to have discovered his eloquent and affecting music when I did which was back in the early 1970’s. I am also thankful that the composer took time out from a busy working schedule to answer my questions.
MJL. Hello John. Thank you so much for allowing me the pleasure of talking about my music.
MMI. I know that you are involved in more than just film music these days, but when you began your career was it film music that you wanted to write mainly?
All I wanted to do, from the day I was born, was compose – and that’s all I have ever done – except buy land. I was a choir boy at 6, school pianist at 9 and church organist at 10. Naturally, my early compositions were choral. After my enlightenment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, I taught at two blackboard jungle schools in Tottenham, North London for just two years. I had zero hope of introducing the natives to Bach or eighth species counterpoint, so I let them take me over and educate me in the ways of John, George, Paul and Ringo. A whole new world of melody opened up. I was re-educated by the kids. At about the same time I became a fan of the Bond films. The scores and sounds were mesmerizing. I was hooked. I walked out of teaching and lived in a garret, being fed by Welsh girls who learnt the benefits of being good cooks. Then ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’ came along. Suddenly I had orchestras filled with the best of the best, playing my music to the images of Katherine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins etc. Dreams do come true. 100s of tracks for commercials followed, then Broadway, an exploration of my Welsh music heritage, more choral music and now gospel in the Deep South.
You released a lot of your soundtracks as promo discs, a while ago, why were these scores not given a release by record labels, as they certainly warrant it, because they are superb all of them?
Simple answer. Not one single company regarded them as worthy of release!! The only reason that ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’ was released as an album was that I knocked on the wrong door. During the 1969 Warner Bros Jamboree in the Bahamas (The Wild Bunch, The Damned, The Rain People, Madwoman of Chaillot premieres) I had a date with a gorgeous Swedish blonde. She gave me her room # but I screwed it up and knocked on the wrong door. A guy answered. He asked me who I was. I said “Michael J Lewis, composer.” He threw his arms around me and said that I was a master. Naturally, I asked him who he was. He introduced himself as, “Kenneth Hyman. Head of Warner Bros.” He invited me in for a drink. He told me my music for ‘Chaillot’ was terrific and that he would like to talk to me for longer, but he was expecting Visconti at any moment.
He asked me if he could do anything for me. I told him that Warner’s didn’t want to release ‘Chaillot’ as an album – which they didn’t. Visconti knocked on the door; Ken Hyman shook my hand, told me to go find the blonde and that when I got back to London to call Warner Records and tell them to give me the money for the album. The score won me an Ivor Novello Award for my first picture. It wasn’t until I recorded and produced my Double CD in 1994, in Berlin and Los Angeles, that my music had any widespread distribution. Thankfully the reviews were exceptional.
Do you think that film music has evolved for the better or maybe has lost some of its appeal to collectors or cinema audiences because of the lack of themes in scores these days, do you think that the use of the soundscape or drone effects as opposed to actual thematic content has maybe cheapened the art of film scoring?
Now John, you are stirring the pot. To anyone who reads what I have to say, please understand that I am giving my opinion and that it is in no way critical of others. Film music has certainly changed over the last 30 years. Many things have changed in the digital age. Pro-Tools is amazing. Altiverb is amazing. Sampled sounds are amazing. I enjoy them all. However, I think the great turning point came, mid 70’s ish, when producers realized that they could demand to hear a ‘virtual’ score before it was recorded and consequently for the first time had real control over music. Up until this time, composers were highly trained musicians with their feet firmly planted in the European Romantic tradition. The first time a score was heard was at the session. Suddenly anyone could record a score in their suburban back bedroom and present it to a non-musician producer who had no knowledge of the past, and who was primarily concerned with imitating the rock guys with whom he identified. Changes could be made, scores diluted. It was all the action of the moment and to hell with subtlety. As for emotional melody – that belonged in the unenlightened Dark Ages populated by those over 39. Icons like Spielberg upheld traditional scoring but the majority has not. I truly believe that many who hold the purse strings today wouldn’t know a great tune if they heard one. I devote most of Christmas and New Year to reviewing the past years ‘product’ up for Academy consideration. I wait, in vain, to hear someone come up with a great ‘movie theme’. Some of what I hear is ‘clever’ but in no way memorable. A lot of what I hear is simply – baffling.
Three years ago, there was an outstanding movie that should have won Best Picture. If it had had an epic score, I’ve no doubt that it would have. To me the score for that great film was incomprehensible – and the price was paid. Please don’t ask me to name names. As I said, this is just my own, humble, unadulterated opinion! However, occasionally a film song appears (a song is not a score) that blows me away. This year’s ‘Stand Up’ from ‘Harriet’ thrilled me. Everything, just everything, about it was outstanding. The writing, the performance, the arrangement, the mixing – fabulous. We live in hope of more real music to come.
Can I ask you about two scores of yours, THEATRE OF BLOOD and also JULIUS CAESAR. The latter is a triumph of a soundtrack, and it just adds so much to the movie, what size orchestra did you have for this particular assignment, and were you given any specific instructions by the director of the movie as to what type of music was required and why is there no full soundtrack released of this score on promo or commercial release? To, THEATRE OF BLOOD this is such a beautiful score, the central theme is so haunting, we all know that it is essentially a horror film, so why did you choose to score it with a romantic and rather lovely melody, of course the film is a little tongue in cheek, but the music being so poignant I think makes the black comedy work even better, was this also your thinking behind scoring in this way?
Many great questions herein. First, Julius Caesar. I had met the producers on ‘Chaillot’ and had an excellent relationship with them. They trusted me. The director was a theatre man with very little experience in film. Consequently, there were a few problems. I was thrilled to be doing an historical epic. I had been in awe of the great epics of my youth. Exodus, (what a tune), Gone with the Wind, (melodic perfection) and later Lawrence of Arabia and Zhivago – master scores. I wanted JC to have a great theme. I persuaded the producers to have an overture like Lawrence. I recorded a demo (high quality demos always pay off if they are high quality!) and played it to the director. He was horrified. It sounded like a cinema epic. The producers loved it and off we went to CTS in Bayswater. Orchestra was about 78. The ‘Overture’ and ‘Caesar’s Entry into Rome’ remain some of my all-time favourite tracks. Big, melodic, vibrant, cinematic. Scoring and mixing finished I went for some R&R in Italy (where else?) A few weeks after my return, JC opened in Leicester Square in 70mm stereo.
I sat through the Overture and was thrilled. And then, reel by reel, horror transpired. They had re-cut the film after scoring and the scenes I was looking at did not relate to the score. I have never seen the film since.
When I relocated from UK to US in 1984, some of my recordings never completed the trip. ‘Julius Caesar’ was one of them and ‘The Legacy’ was another. Thank God, most made it.
Theatre of Blood was another great experience. The late, great Douglas Hickox was the perfect director to work with. He was a commercials director essentially and knew his craft. He also had a great sense of humour – what an asset. We spent hours at my house near Ally Pally in North London with that great hunk called a Moviola. (If you’ve never lived with a Moviola, you have never lived.)
We ran different tracks of mine against the film until we found the right feel. After that, Dougie trusted me and left me alone to do as I saw (heard) fit. My approach was to avoid horror/black comedy clichés. I wanted the score to work as a counterpoint to the film. When Arthur Lowe was having his head sawed off, the strings soared romantically like one of the TV medical series of the time. The opening needed a tune. All movies need a tune, good ones grab the emotion, hook the audience. The film was Shakespearian, so it called out for harpsichords and recorders and a poignant theme which would recur throughout the movie, organically, as a leit motif. That’s how movie scores are meant to be written – organically, not fragmented. The trampoline sequence was a hoot to write as a fugato. My years at the Guildhall paid off.
The ‘Variety’ review thought the score displayed “major talent.” Those who want to know more should pick up John Llewellyn Probert’s splendid book ‘Theatre of Blood’ which is devoted to the film. It has a fairly comprehensive ten page Q & A regarding the score, to which I contributed
The sound on your scores is always wonderfully clear and balanced, did you record at one studio or maybe did you have the same recording engineer for all of them?
My sound was born at the original CTS Studios in Bayswater, London – an old theatre. I had first visited CTS in about 1967 at the invitation of John Barry who was scoring Bryan Forbes’s ‘The Whisperers.’ I trembled at what I heard. The sound was utterly enthralling, magical, captivating. Lot of reverb, close mics, awesome musicians, great score. All John Barry’s scores are text book examples of what film music should be. All his English works were scored at CTS, as were Henry Mancini’s – who I met at that session – when he was in London. Jane Birkin was at the same session – what a beauty. A year or so later when I landed ‘Chaillot,’ I did not hesitate to record at CTS. The engineer was John Richards and he did an outstanding job. The score still sounds great. I adopted the CTS sound and have taken it with me wherever I have recorded. It’s all in the reverb, guys. Originally it was plates, now it’s (for me) Altiverb. I know an outstanding recording facility in the USA Deep South, where I currently hang, that has the latest Neve, a fine room for 60/70 and they have no idea what to do with reverb. I stay clear. I love recording. I love recording studios. I love mixing. It is all magic and has been since I first visited CTS way back in 1967.
You divide your time these days between the UK and the US, where you produce, record and also continue to compose, what are you working on currently?
Juicy question. In December last I read of an 8-part TV show going into production that interested me greatly, due to its subject matter. I recorded a demo and wrote to the UK and US producers on the Friday before Christmas. No reply, not even a thank you, or a goodbye. So, I thought to myself, “Screw you.” The subject is historical and hence public domain. I pondered how I might involve myself in the same period but with a whole different approach, and with a contemporary connection, for the cinema. Now five months later it has developed into an all involving project that demands every hour of every day – with the exception of this very enjoyable Sunday afternoon answering your Q and A in divine Mississippi – the birthplace of America’s music. So far so good. I am writing the script and the score simultaneously. The score is totally organic. It’s part of the story. One of the characters. A highly melodic character. Stay tuned.