ROBERT FOLK. Can I just say, I’m really happy to be interviewing with movie music international today.
Many thanks to the composer for taking the time to talk to MMI.
Did you start out wanting to be or at least thinking that you might become a composer of music for films?
Well, I was studying at Julliard for ten years working on my bachelor’s master’s doctorate and also teaching school. During the last couple of years that I was there, which was the late 1970s, I had a student whose father was a film director, and he would often come to my concerts that I was giving around New York City, These were mostly of orchestral and chamber music, and it was at one of these that he told me about the movie, it transpired that the film he was working on had quite a big budget which included a lot of resources for musicians. After he told me this I became very interested in the prospect of maybe writing the score for the film . He mentioned that they were going to hire the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London to record the music. So, that certainly caught my attention and I signed up. So really it was quite by accident that I did my first film, and I ended up having so much fun on it, with the added bonus of it being good business arrangement for me compared with what I was used to doing in terms of teaching and whatnot, that I decided to move to Los Angeles to see if I had any luck trying to score additional films having done this one project. I had only been in Los Angeles for about six weeks when very fortunately for me I was introduced to the great Lionel Newman, the composer, conductor and at that time president of music for Fox Studios. So, I went in to meet with Lionel and the same morning that I arrived at the music department I was introduced to John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, who were two of his very favourite composers, and worked on so many things at the studio that they actually had offices at the Fox Music Department on the studios lot. Lionel had been listening to some of my music that I had recorded in New York and in our first practice meeting he said look I have a small film for you. It was a Fox picture a thriller/action piece called SAVAGE HARVEST, he arranged for me to record the score with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London, which happened to be Jerry Goldsmith’s favourite recording orchestra. During that period.
Another early project for me was a horror thriller called THE SLAYER. Which I scored around about the same time as SAVAGE HARVEST. Then after that I got another one of my first studio films with Warner Brothers, called PURPLE HEARTS. So, these three films which were recorded in Los Angeles were kind of the movies that got my career started on the West Coast.
Were any of your family musical or were you conscious of music at home when you were young?
As a kid, I was listening to music that my parents would have playing around the house. We had some musicians in the family, not professional musicians, but nevertheless they had talent. My father was a violinist my brother was a violinist and my sister studied piano for some years, but it was the music of the British invasion. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. The Kinks, The Animals, Cream, you know all these bands that you know we’re having such great success in the early 1960’s, I guess beginning around 1963 or so. This was the sound that actually got me very inspired and very motivated to go into music to begin with and at the beginning I really wanted to be a rock star or a songwriter with the intention of emulating these heroes of mine that were all in the Great British bands. Initially I was studying, mostly guitar and some light keyboards, but mostly guitar. I had several bands up in the Boston area where I was living in the suburb of Lexington, Massachusetts. I was involved with a few bands from the time that I was about 14/15 years old, which I continued with for around five maybe six years. We went on tour all over the East Coast and about as far West as, Ohio and we had some real success with a couple of these bands and actually we recorded quite a bit of music with a very prominent producer of the day by the name of Tom King, who mostly worked with Capitol Records. After focusing on the rock genre for about five years. I decided to move to New York City to get an education. I had my sights set on the Juilliard School and I began studying with some of the Juilliard professors, on a private basis, so that I could prepare myself for the entrance exam for the school, which I guess I spent a couple of years really working very hard on in preparation for trying to get a place there. My main focus was to enter the school as a composition major, but I also wanted to emphasise some work as a conductor as well. I took the entrance exams and I was very happy to hear that I was admitted to the composer department my major teacher was an internationally renowned composer conductor pianist by the name of Vincent Persichetti. This began an affiliation with the Juilliard School, that would last for the next 10 years, up until the time that I decided to move out to explore Hollywood in 1980. At this point, I left the academic world behind, and began to work on the first handful of films that I mentioned. SAVAGE HARVEST, THE SLAYER and PURPLE HEARTS.
How did you become involved on the POLICE ACADEMY movies?
I had heard about a film called POLICE ACADEMY and I decided to start exploring the possibility of writing music for it, I set about finding out who was involved with that film. I learned very quickly that they were about to sign Elmer Bernstein. My first thought was, well Elmer certainly would be perfect for that movie. I guess it’s probably not a film that I’m going to do.
But, a few weeks later I got a call from the Ladd company this was a company that was based on the Warner Brothers lot.It was run by Alan Ladd Jr, who had been the head of Fox at one time and had moved to form his own company over to the Warner Brothers lot. So, I got this call from the Ladd company. And they mentioned that suddenly Elmer’s schedule had changed as he was working on another couple of movies and he was too busy to work on POLICE ACADEMY. So, I set up a meeting with the director and the producer of the movie. which was at the same time that I was finishing the score for PURPLE HEARTS. Warner’s were very happy with what I had done on the picture, which helped because they gave a little push to POLICE ACADEMY producer Paul Maslansky and to the Director Hugh Wilson and they both came to the recording sessions of PURPLE HEARTS where we had our first meeting. I am pleased to say this went really well. After this they listened to some of my music which I had submitted to them. I think the first thing they asked was could I write a good memorable solid march? What I did then was to see the movie and I listened to some of the temp music which included a lot of Bernstein, and also had in it Jerry Goldsmith and a few other composers, after which I set out to write what would eventually become the POLICE ACADEMY march. I played it to both the producer and the director and they both loved it. The march became the foundation of the score and also was the cornerstone piece for the rest of the scores I did in that series. It was the first time I had scored a comedy, but I very quickly learned that writing music for a comedy was probably the hardest thing that I had ever done. It was quite a challenge because I was learning as I went going.
You know that there’s a lot of event making a lot of hits a lot of very sectional writing a lot of very specific to picture phrasing, that takes a lot of planning and detailed work. So I learned very quickly that comedies, may be the hardest genre. When scoring movies. And with the success of POLICE ACADEMY of course I was then asked to work on quite a few comedies, these included animated films as well, after which I think probably animation is definitely the hardest music to write when scoring for film.
You worked on THERE BE DRAGONS for director Roland Joffe, how dd you become involved on this as I understand there was another composer working on the film?
THERE BE DRAGONS is one of my favourite scores over the past few years, now Roland Joffe is one of my favourite directors, and I was lucky enough to be introduced to him by a mutual friend a producer who was working with Roland to re-do the editorial as well as entire score for there be dragons. He had an earlier version. And I guess he was influenced a lot by the producers on the earlier version, and he really wanted a director’s cut, something that was much more indicative of the way that he saw the film in a finished forum. And his directive was. He wanted really an epic thematic powerful, emotional, and action-based score to support his Director’s Cut. So, I got to theme writing right away, and Rowan was very pleased with the themes that I wrote, along with the producers that were still involved on the project. And we made plans to record with Seattle symphony orchestra members, up in this old church where they often record, where the acoustics were absolutely wonderful. Working with Roland was really a thrill. I was a big fan of the mission. This film with Robert De Niro, and as well as many of his other films so city of joy. The Scarlet Letter. The Killing fields. He’s just an incredible director, and sometimes script writer. He has incredible taste as well. He loves history and he also loves the religious influence on culture.
So, with there be dragons you have a lot of history involved with the Spanish revolution. You have a lot of Catholicism. And it’s set the tone fora very emotional rather deep and intensive musical experience, along with quite a bit of action writing as well. I was fortunate to have a wonderful choir, along with an orchestra of about, 98, players. So, we had lots of resources, and the recording was really turned out to be quite fantastic up in Seattle, I was very pleased with it. Robert Townsend became a fan of the score and arranged for it to be released on Varese Sarabande records which was certainly another bonus of working on this fantastic movie.
When working on a film series such as POLICE ACADEMY, do you recycle any themes from earlier movies into the current release?
There were seven police academy films for this franchise all of them, produced by Warner Brothers. And there was a certain challenge with each new version of the film that came out for creating additional themes, know they covered quite a bit of ground in those seven films. Of course, I always had the police academy March as the musical backbone for each of the scores.
But it was fun to have to come up with new signatures for different characters that would come into play, or different locations that where you need a certain sense of style in the music to represent where you were in the storyline. And it was kind of fun in the very last film the film that was set in Moscow. Of course, I got to bring in a few Russian influences here and there, but unfortunately on that last film the budget had been trimmed way back so I did not have the orchestral resources that I had for the first six films. Most of the scoring for that last film was recorded in my own recording studio. But nevertheless, it was fun to work on all these all these different styles throughout that series.
Would you say that there are a lot of differences between writing for TV and scoring feature films?
While I’ve concentrated mostly on writing for feature films during my career in Hollywood. I’ve also scored quite a bit of music for television. and I guess the main difference when writing for television is that your resources are a lot less as in fewer musicians are usually involved. And probably the most important difference is the element of time. You know, for an average episode on television you generally have to turn each episode around in about five days, because they’re usually coming out every week. So that is probably the biggest element that you’re challenged with. So, a lot of the work I’ve recorded in my own recording studio. Over the years, there have been certain occasions where I was able to get a small orchestra together for a television project. But normally especially with episodic television. I would record them in my own studio. But I certainly enjoyed working on many different shows for television over the years. When I first got to Los Angeles. I had a manager, who also managed the great composer, Mark snow. And Mark became an early advocate for me. And when he was working on certain episodic series, and he needed a break or he was too busy.
He would often just call up our mutual manager and say hey, see if Rob has time if he has interest in taking care of this or that episode for me. So, I really have to thank Mark a lot for giving me so many opportunities to work in television.
You scored THE NEVER ENDING STORY ll, did you utilise any of the themes from the original score, just for continuity and also when working on other sequels such as LAWN MOWER MAN ll do you again for continuity incorporate themes from the original movie?
I think I’ve scored about a dozen or maybe more films for Warner Brothers, the studio was sort of a nice home for me over the years. One of my favourite projects at that studio was scoring the first sequel for THE NEVER ENDING STORY. I really loved the first film and I was very excited to be able to work on this tremendous franchise. I was introduced to George Miller, the director by Carey La Mille the president of music at Warner Brothers. He had a meeting at my studio. He went in very well. And he said, Look, I’ve loved to have a really epic orchestral score with choir, and some beautiful themes. So, I set off to write and gather my materials together and he was mostly in Europe during that time. So, I would send him recordings of each theme as I developed them. I had a chance to take a trip to Munich, where a lot of the filming was going on Houston while I was beginning to write. And that was a great inspiration to see all the characters. And, you know, the clay-mation style that George Miller was also utilising for this film. So, I returned to Los Angeles back to my studio and kept writing themes for George. And, of course, they were also being referenced over to the producers to make sure everybody was on board. And I began building this very epic, very lush fantasy action score.
Other than a few sequences, using a Giorgio Moroder scoring from the first initial THE NEVER ENDING STORY. As I remember there was not much temp music in the film, which didn’t give me quite a bit of freedom. I think I referenced Giorgio’s theme, maybe once or twice in the film, but mostly I was working from my own materials that I created for this first sequel. We hired a great orchestra in Munich, where most of the score was recorded. And I believe that we had an orchestra of 95 players and we also had an all-female choir, I think it was around 30 to 35.
Later, there was some re-editing of the film, so we had to go back and record additional music, which was recorded in Berlin, the recordings in Berlin. Were also done with an exceptionally fine orchestra, luckily, we were able to match the sound pretty well even though we had different players in different studios. But because I was using the same engineering team for both recordings, it all, it all sounded pretty well matched together the entire score, but certainly the never ending story it was one of my favourite projects of everything that I’ve scored so far. And I really have fond memories of working on that project, along with all of the, the great creative team that was also attached. THE NEVER ENDING STORY of course was a sequel for me.
And I’ve done other sequels, including a score for THE BEASTMASTER ll and for THE LAWNMOWER MAN ll, and, you know, I love working on these sequels. It’s almost as good as working on the original films. But to be honest, whenever I can. I tried to create a fresh score, rather than utilising. Let’s say themes and other materials from the original instalment of these franchises, where there are sequels. So, in both of those films I did write completely original scores with little or no reference at all to the past scores.
Do you think that the main theme or themes for movies are in the decline, or is the current trend of soundscapes and drone like passages just a passing thing?
My idea of a great and rewarding film score is one that is built around really strong memorable themes. And for almost every film that I’ve written the score for. I’ve tried as best I can to come up with themes that are memorable. And that serve the film and the characters in the best possible way. You know this is certainly a long-standing tradition in Hollywood and elsewhere internationally in many countries and cities where films are made and has been that way for decades and decades. However, in recent years. We all must agree that there are many scores that are coming out, that are not particularly thematic or memorable. They really are mostly textural scores. And, you know, they can function very well in the movies that they are utilised for. And there are some great composers out there that are very very skilled at working through an hour or a couple of hours of music, with no real strong memorable themes or components from which they are basing their writing upon. And it’s just a matter of choice.
I really believe that young filmmakers are mostly the creative people that are driving this style of film scoring. And my own opinion is that it’s sort of a phase. I think that we will come back to hearing more thematic writing in films. As we continue.
Certainly, there are genres, anything historical period, those particular films tend to have still strong thematic materials for the most part, and I just I just happen to be of the opinion that we will come back to seeing more and more films that utilise strong thematic material because after all you want to remember a film, not only by its content and its performances, but also by the fantastic musical scores that accompanies it and when you have themes that are so memorable that they just come to mind immediately when you think of certain character or films. I think that’s just something that’s so important in filmmaking. And I do think we’ll see a lot more of it. Once this phase, gradually comes to an end.
Do you have a set routine when working on a project, as in main theme first and then moving on to smaller cues or maybe the big action cues if they are required?
Whenever I am asked to score a film. For me, the first thing I want to do is to get my materials created. Most of the time, this means strong melodies strong themes, or at least motivic work for characters or events or incidents that may be coming up in the film. I want those building blocks in place before I sit down to score a specific theme. I would liken it to an architect, having his blueprints. Absolutely, as strong as he can get them for the building of a house, or a property begins. Once I have those building blocks. I typically will score a couple of small incidental scenes. Just as a warm-up, and to start establishing the orchestral style the electronic style, or the acoustic small chamber ensemble whatever the elements of that score are going to be. I do like to try and set the tone. In a couple of smaller scenes from there, I usually like to work in the order that the film unfolds.
That is assuming that the filmmakers can deliver locked picture or mostly locked picture in film order. I really do like to work in the order of the way the film comes to life from beginning to end. It just helps me with continuity. And with developing a strategy for where the score is headed.
Are there any composers or artists that you have found particularly inspiring or have influenced you?
A lot of people ask me this or maybe say what composers do I feel have had some kind of an impression on what my music sounds like, and it’s hard for me to answer. I know who I like and I know who I love to listen to. I’ve done a lot of listening and studying, of course. To all the classical and Romantic Period composers, let’s say, starting with a Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, etc. and a little bit later, I listened to to a lot of Berlioz, Chopin, Wagner, Bruckner, Ricard Strauss and I do love Tchaikovsky Rachmaninoff and also Sergei Prokofiev In terms of the Russian composers and film composers. I guess I’d have to say my favourites have always been John Williams. Jerry Goldsmith Elmer Bernstein and I love Morricone and of course, the great John Barry. I really love some of Maurice Jarre’s work, and earlier material such as Korngold. As for composers working now, well there is working today. I really love James Newton Howard, Tommy Newman and Dave Grusin, there’s just there’s so many places to find such great music to listen to and I do believe that eventually all that listening and studying in some way, it impacts the work that each composer does, including myself,
Temp tracks I think it’s a case of love them or hate them, what do you feel about the temp track?
I would say ideally it would be great if we lived in a world where there were no temp tracks, because I think it would give, we composers a lot more freedom in our creative process. But in a practical sense, they are here to stay and I feel at this point that you might as well take advantage of them in respect to the fact that they represent music that the director feels , is working properly in his movie, this I think as composers we can learn a lot from. There is nothing more specific than listening to music, that a director has approved, and sometimes has helped to choose. In a specific musical language and if you can be influenced by that with the music that you are writing, without trying to copy it, or get too close to it, but just influenced from the tempo the mood and maybe some of the rhythmic and stylistic elements. It’s not that you’re quoting it or trying to get too close to it. It’s just that you want your score to say similar things in the end. For the director, whose film it is. And I do think that the temp track is one of the best ways for a filmmaker to communicate with a composer.
Is orchestration as important as composition, do they go hand in hand, and do you like to orchestrate your own film scores if this is possible and do you conduct all the time or only when you are not required to supervise from the recording booth?
Certainly, I think orchestration is one of the most important aspects of a musical score for a film. The writing can be great. The themes can be great, but you need to have that orchestra sounding absolutely as perfect as you can get it in terms of the arrangement of the musical components, and the orchestration of all the ideas and the score. I prefer whenever possible to orchestrate as much of a score by myself as I can. But sometimes that’s just not possible because of recording schedules release schedules for theatres, etc etc and in those cases, one needs to reach out to supporting orchestrators to sometimes get through a show on time. I’m not really into the whole concept of having 20 or 30 people working on the musical score for a film.
I like the way that john Williams works where he usually has one orchestrator working with him. In the case of POLICE ACADEMY, the very first film. I wrote and arranged and orchestrated the entire score by myself. As I got busier and busier in the 80s 90s into the 2000, s. There were times when I simply didn’t have the luxury of orchestrating everything on my own. One big example of that was working on the rescore of the film TREMORS for Universal Pictures. In that case, they had theatres, you know, very firm dates.
They were replacing almost all the original score. And I ended up having about three and a half weeks to get through everything. I think that was a film where I used the most orchestrators of any film that I have worked on. There were probably about six orchestrators, as well as me on TREMORS. As far as conducting goes, I really love to conduct my own music whenever I can. It is the most fun part of scoring a movie is to interact with a great orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra, or the Royal Philharmonic, or the amazing musicians in Los Angeles, which are largely comprised of the LA Philharmonic. However, in some cases, it really is better to be in the mixing room with the director so that you can discuss elements with him right away upon playback and really understand his point of view, in a very specific way and it’s hard to do that when you’re out in the recording room with the musicians.
You have written for the concert hall, is writing music for performance as music in the concert hall, less restricting than composing for film and TV with timings special effects explosions etc going off?
I have written quite a bit of concert music over the years. But I don’t have that much time on my current track for that form of expression as much as I enjoy writing it, building and sustaining a film music composing career is consuming. It takes a lot of your time, even between projects. You are always setting up for future projects. So really, you’re never in a place where you’re resting up unless you’re intentionally on a vacation.
But it’s the same token pursuing a career as a composer of concert music that’s also another full-time job. So, I have basically chosen to stay in the film, television, and visual media end of the spectrum for quite a few decades now, and I’m very content there, perhaps, at a future time. I’ll focus more on song writing and composing concert music, chamber music, these sort of endeavours, but not right now.
How many times do you like to see a movie before getting any fixed ideas about where the music should go or what style of music you will compose?
When I first start working on a movie. I like to watch the film, several times, including at least one time with the director, then get back to my studio and start playing around with some initial ideas. I usually begin by improvising very freely to picture, just looking for a mood, looking for a tone, a sound an idea a scene. Setting the right tone is really the most important first step I think in creating any film score. I will usually begin this process, playing on an acoustic grand piano, like a real piano and sometimes, bringing up this sort of instrument in my studio. Based on samples so that it is interfaced with my computer system. And I can record as I go every single phrase and manipulate it as I move on.
And once I feel that I’ve found an approach, a sound, a style a tone. Then I will develop my themes. Again, mostly writing to picture using my computer system. Once I have these materials really developed and I’m happy with them, and the director signs off on them we’re all in agreement that we have the basis for the score. Then I will begin writing specific scenes, in today’s world I tend to do that also working on my computer system. Whereas years ago, it was all done with pencil and paper. Now I prefer to perform all of the parts into my digital recording system. So, I’m composing and orchestrating and building a mock-up of each scene which is fully recorded and mixed, as I go. The advantage of working this way, of course is to be able to play something for the filmmaker that really closely resembles what the finished orchestral sequence will sound like once it’s recorded with a major orchestra now working this way.
There is a certain level of artistry, that perhaps is lost a little bit when compared with writing pencil and paper detail into an orchestral score. Sometimes, particularly if it’s a big film with large orchestral resources. I will take the entire score all my mock-ups, you know everything, fully recorded and I will send that over to an orchestrator who works with pencil and paper, and let him go through and follow notations that I’ve made to implement another level of that fine detail that you can really only reach, when you’re working. Writing a score by hand with pencil and paper the old-fashioned way.
Are there any preferences as to where you like to record your film scores as in studios etc?
When I consider what location, I’m going to be recording in my favourite places are always Los Angeles and London. They are by far the best musicians’ and best studios in the world. When recording in Los Angeles I prefer the Fox Studios stage, this would be my number one request for recording large orchestra. Also right up there with that stage would be the recording stage at Sony Pictures in Culver City, and of course the Warner Brothers stage in Burbank in London over most I often recorded at Abbey Road, which is a phenomenal studio, and of course there’s also Air studios, those are my two favourites in London. As well as Los Angeles and London. I think I’ve been happiest in Dublin, Ireland, and also working with the Seattle Symphony, the pandemic of course has affected production bringing it to a standstill, for the last six months.
So, the marketplace is pretty slow, but it’s a time for working on developing future projects, and the one that I’m most excited about is called PLANET X. Now this is a big budget feature film that I’ve been working on as an executive producer, as well as a composer. We’re in the earliest of stages, got a long way to go, but it’s something really exciting for me. It’s a modern day, Star Wars, space fantasy, so of course that’s going to allow for a lot of big orchestral thematic adventure and fantasy writing. And I guess I’d have to say that’s one of my very favourite genres, along with PLANET X, I’m also interfacing with several of my directors that I’ve worked with in the past, to see what’s upcoming for them and once production gets ramped up again we’re all hoping to have a lot of new material too work on and to talk about.
So, I just wanted to thank you once again for the chance to do an interview with you, and movie music International. That’s the place for all the greatest latest film music news and it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Have a great day.