This interview was carried out in 1993, the composer Trevor Jones had just completed CLIFFHANGER and was talking at his home and studio in Highgate London. Trevor Jones was born in March 1949,in Cape Town south Africa.
I suppose it all started when a cousin of mine took me to the cinema, I must have been around five years of age at the time, the cinema was just across the road from where I lived at the time. I can still remember coming back from the cinema that day and saying to my Mother, I think I would like to write music for films, I had made up my mind even at that early age that this is what I wanted to do. I come from a family that has a theatrical background, my Uncles and aunts were all actors and actresses and a number of my other relatives were involved with the theatre in some way or another, I would often go on set to watch my Uncles acting in J Arthur Rank productions. I won a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music and studied there for four years or more. I trained in conducting, composition and also orchestration. After my time there I joined the BBC, my job there involved listening to a vast amount of music. Whilst at the BBC I met Wilfred Mellors who at that time was the Professor of music at York University. We collaborated on and designed a course which was a Master of Arts course on Film and Media music. Wilfred Mellors was a great mentor for me and this course encompassed ethnic music including Javanese, Balinese, Indian etc. I spent a further four years studying different types of music and then I went to the National Film School, so altogether I spent around twelve years in different institutions. Whilst at the National Film School I scored about twenty or so student films, which for me was a great way of training and becoming used to schedules etc. The school was a marvellous training ground and made it a lot easier for me to progress and move into the industry proper. Whilst at the school I got together with some other people and we made a movie called THE BOTTOM DOLLAR, and it won an Oscar, I think I had a grand total of four musicians on the film, which by the way I thought was a very entertaining movie. After this I thankfully went from one picture to another with very few lulls between, apart from a few which were self enforced so I could get away and relax”.
I think I am right when I say that the majority of soundtrack collectors associate you immediately with THE DARK CRYSTAL, This I suppose is looked upon as a landmark score for them and also a milestone work for yourself. How did you become involved on the project which as we all know was a Jim Henson movie?
Jim and I were friends already, he actually lived just down the road from where we are now. We met up at a restaurant and started to talk about this movie, or at least about the idea of turning Jim’s ideas into a movie. I think this was about two years before it was made, in fact the script had not even been written it was all inside Jim’s head. This also happened when I worked with him on LABYRINTh. Once THE DARK CRYSTAL had been launched in the United States, I had to attend many charity premieres. Jim liked to do this because the shows were for charities and he supported many organisations and groups. I spent a great deal of time signing albums and also talking about the movie. On the way back to England we were talking on the plane and Jim said we should really start to think of what our next project would be and this turned out to be LABYRINTH, we were so fortunate to get David Bowie to star in the movie, he was fantastic to work with.
Talking of LABYRINTH, there are a few songs on the soundtrack which are performed by Bowie, did you have a hand in writing these at all?
No, these were written by David, although I did manage to weave some of the content from them into the fabric of the orchestral score. He was very complimentary about my work. There was just a mutual respect between us, which made our working relationship all the more easier and enjoyable. He was always perfectly rehearsed and was able to do a recording in just a couple of takes. I cannot speak highly enough of him. He is a consummate artist and deserves the status that he has. I have been very lucky to have been able to work with him.
Have you ever been involved on any movies where you have thought midway through proceedings, Oh My God I don’t really want to be here!?
Well, I have never pulled out of a project that I have committed myself to, this is because I only ever commit to a project when I am 100 percent certain that I am going to enjoy it .Even if one is told that it will be an eight week job and those eight weeks turn into twelve or sixteen or even longer., you are still committed. I would say also even if things went on for months you have to remain committed, it is after all a motion picture, so you just have to take that chance. Commitment has to be total, so no I have never pulled out of any project and thinking about it I cannot think of any project that has not given me pleasure from working on it. I am very conscious of the fact that when I say yes to a project it is not just myself I am committing but an entire team of people within my company, studio, assistant, engineers and so on and so forth. We are at the stage now where the creative prospect is the most important. It is all about experimentation, customising sounds for particular projects, inventing sounds, finding new ways of scoring and finding ways to do the same thing but differently. For example you may know that this sequence is a car chase or a love scene, but preconceptions have to be re-examined and we have to try and juxtapose different types of music that in theory probably would not work, then suddenly there is a new chemistry present and it is stunning. The fascination for us is not just the music or the film, but it is the coming together of these two art forms to create this third thing. A watching audience is probably not aware of the music, or how the film is lit or indeed where the soundman is, because for them it is a total experience. There is something that happens when you have the music right, the picture is running, the music is running and then somewhere along enters this third thing and you are emotionally engulfed by the experience. I think that we are very lucky to be doing what we are because for at least 90 minutes you have people who pay to sit in a darkened environment and let us control what they see and hear, it is a privilege to be able to do that, to entertain I mean. So it is great for the people who work with me when another composer calls up and says something like, “you know that sound you used on Blah Blah, or can I borrow your programmer for my new project or whatever. It is very flattering because we then know we got it right, it is also great when you produce something on a score and then you hear the sound or a similar style in other peoples music, it is good to know that your peers are listening to what you are doing.
Every project is different, in variably I am sent a script, which I read and then try and forget. The reason I do this is because the finished picture will probably be nothing like the script, in fact I think it is easier if a producer/director would just send a storyline or an outline of the story, for example A story of a little boy who is being raised by his Mother because his Father has gone away to war, I use that loosely as an example, but that is what I mean, rather than sending me a draft of a script which will change enormously by the time I get to see the finished film or rough cut. So I suppose I prefer to come in when the film is assembled even in its rough cut stage before the final editing is carried out. A 90 minute movie will probably run for two hours when I see it, to attempt to get a feel for the picture and its storyline before this stage I think is a waste of time.
Have you ever been on location for a film that you will be scoring?
Yes, I have been onto location in the past, I once played a piano strapped to the railings on the deck of a boat in the Artic, I also was once winched down to a location from a helicopter and was on location for EXALIBUR because they needed music to shoot scenes to. When a film is being shot in London, I just tend to go off to Elstree, Pinewood or Shepperton etc and have a look at the rushes.
So when you go to look at a movie in its rough cut state, how many times do you like to view it before you begin to get fixed ideas about what music you will write or where music should be placed to best serve the picture?
As many times it takes to fully understand the needs of the film, I can sit through something once and say “yes” that’s it I have it, and do not need to watch it again then I go off and start work straight away. However, when you run individual scenes you can cycle the video machine so that you can watch it hundreds of times. I suppose just watch it till you are sure of what you want to do really. When you are scoring a picture, the producer or director are obviously involved in the scoring process and they will say things like, “now this scene is very sad, okay off you go….. However it is not as simple as that for me, sadness like all other human emotions has varying degrees. It can be anything from misty eyed sadness to wrist slashing stuff. As a composer you have to put a little black dot into relation with all the other little black dots in such a way that you hit the centre of that emotion. For instance is she sad because her Mother has died-or because her lover has gone away-which degree of sadness are we talking about? It is a fascinating business. A director can hire a composer who will score his or her film, but hiring someone who is going to explore the potential of that scene and make it come alive in a way that is magical, well that is something else. I can think of a few instances, for example SEA OF LOVE and the Alan Parker movies, where I know that what we did with the music was in all modestly right, I felt happy with myself and happy with what we had done because we had managed to add another dimension to the story. If you were to throw yourself off of a high rise building in LA you would probably kill at least five composers when you hit Sunset Boulevard, honestly they are two a penny over there. Good film composers are hard to find and that is why the likes of Jerry Goldsmith is held in such high esteem, he puts music onto a picture that is so masterly integrated that it becomes the soul of the filmic experience.
Do you think that it possible for a good score to save a bad movie?
I suppose the thing to do is avoid bad movies, I do not believe that a good score is able to save a movie if it is a bad movie, that is it if a film is not good then it is not good, no amount of music is going to be able to help. A good score however I think has the ability to make a good film a great movie.
Have you a favourite film score of your own or by another composer?
I suppose I could be really silly and say I think that Strauss wrote a knockout score for 2001, I don’t know,,,,, I am not really a “fan” type of person, I am someone who looks at other peoples work very clinically and objectively. I still go to the cinema, and I enjoy the picture whoever has scored it, I then come out of the cinema and subconsciously I think, “Well if the composer had done this or done that, or put that there, it would have been better, I don’t purposefully go to the cinema to criticise though, I love the occasion, the big screen the popcorn etc, and there is that magical moment when the lights begin to dim ,the moment when anything could happen, the opening logo comes on screen, with its fanfare, I still get a thrill and if I ever lost that feeling I would sincerely think of working at something else. I want to be entertained. I went to the premiere of CLIFFHANGER, in LA and I purposely sat right in the middle of the audience, I like to do this because then I can feel the reaction of the audience to certain scenes.
What composers if any would you say have had an influence upon you, either in your style or approach to writing for film?
I don’t think I can actually answer that, because stylistically scores change, THE DARK CRYSTAL and CLIFFHANGER were both big symphonic scores, However SEA OF LOVE had jazz influences, as that was the style that the movie needed, So I don’t think I am conscious of any particular composers having an influence upon me. That does not mean however that I do not admire other composers that work within the industry. I still don’t think of myself as a composer. A composer for me is someone like Beethoven, who as we all know was way ahead of is time and still remains to be today.
His music is so advanced that you can only hold it in awe. The music that has been written for the Cinema during the 20th Century is so diverse and far ranging; we have Jazz, Rap, symphonic, electronic, pop folk, plus the squeaky door Avante Garde stuff too. So because of all of this I really cannot site one or more composers that I can say have influenced me, because I think I am influenced by all music.
Do you orchestrate all of your own music or do you have orchestrators, and do you always try and use the same orchestrators?
My orchestrations when it comes to the big symphonic scores are very detailed, in fact sometimes the orchestrators I do use shout at me and say “why don’t you just get a copyist”. Basically it’s not because I am a megalomaniac, I feel the need to look after every single black dot. This is my sound and the colours and instrumentation I use are fundamental to the emotions I am trying to express. On occasions the score is so detailed that I sit down and print out what I want to go to the orchestrator and say to them, “Right this is what I have written, how can you make it sound better”? They do have a say in the orchestration, but the choice of instrument and register is fundamental to my sound, and if I think that their suggestion is in keeping with this and would enhance the picture then we go ahead and use the idea. I normally choose certain instruments, particularly in dialogue scenes, these instruments are chosen so that they are not going to be in the same frequency range as the dialogue, whether it is male or female. I am pernickety about everything related to my work. You saw the studio downstairs I think, it is probably the most sophisticated studio that I have ever worked in. For example there are 200 tracks of digital sound and 48 tracks of analogue sound, yet there is barely a wire showing. Every machine down there is linked to the other so they are all able to communicate with each other. It is a very efficient set up.
You studied conducting, but do you conduct your film scores at all?
I do conduct at times, but I prefer not to conduct my film scores because when the picture is changing as most movies do. They are chopped and changed by the day or at times by the minute. At times one is all set to record a sequence and the director stops it and decides to cut out this bit and maybe add something, so the timings are all over the place, which means I have to re-write certain sequences, so I may be up till 4 in the morning doing this and have to be back in the studio at 10 o’clock the same morning. So it is not a good thing for me to be there talking to the orchestra of say 90 players about the alterations, Conducting with respect is really having someone there to talk to the orchestra, about feeling, emotion and expression; everything is laid out meticulously in front of the players, there is fortissimo, crescendo and so on, all are present it cannot be better defined. I think that there is not a tighter form of communication than music, if you tell the orchestra to exactly what it is they are supposed to be playing at exactly what speed they are supposed to play it at, then a conductor serves essentially to elicit the correct degree of expression from the performance. When I am sitting there listening to a cue saying “God this does not sound like a nightmarish sequence it hasn’t got enough aggression”. The conductor goes back to the orchestra and says “Ok chaps that was really wonderful, so what we have to do now is do it again and put a little more aggression into it”. In this way I am able to be very precise and objective about what I am getting out of them. I am not into the glamour of standing up there waving my arms around, I have done enough of that over the years, and the only thing that I am really concerned about is what comes out of the speakers.
I am at present putting together suites of my music for performance at the Oulu Film Festival, and I must admit I am looking forward to doing this, now this is a time to stand up there and wave your arms around a lot. When doing something like this festival it is very exciting because it gives me a chance to concentrate solely upon the music and not have to worry about the images, don’t get me wrong my first love is scoring motion pictures, but I suppose this is a chance to showcase the music.
There was a TV series called THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII which contained some great music by your self. Do you think that there would be a chance of this and some of your earlier works getting a CD release?
You know I am sure that if I were to start up a record label tomorrow morning we could easily fill up our first ten or twenty releases with scores that have not been issued. The tapes for all my films exist, they are all here and they are all recorded in digital sound, there are around 2000 tapes her. There are quite a few scores that I love and have special memories of and that I know people would like to see on compact disc. But what happens when you score a film is you are assigned to do the work and you get paid a fee for that work and as far as the film company is concerned that is it, that music is no longer the property of the composer, it belongs to the film company and they can do what they want with it, release it on a recording, put it in a box and throw it in the cellar, or worse throw it in the bin. The whole thing is a big can of worms, so involved and I tend to stay out of any discussions about it, because this is a full time job we have a department within the company that handles all of this, royalties, what music is being played where, who is using what music etc, its very involved.
I went on a visit to PRS recently, and was amazed at how meticulous that organization is in monitoring what music is played and even for how long it is played etc, I must admit I thought at the time rather them than me.
PRS is a society who’s sole aim is to ensure that composers and singers get what is due to them, I was in the States when THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS was released and to my surprise some of my music was being used for the Presidential campaign for Bill Clinton, to trace royalties due on this proved to be virtually impossible and it is something that one cannot really do anything about so we just gave up in the end. It is something that I am becoming increasingly concerned about, and one would think in this computer age it would become less difficult and I find it quite frankly inexcusable.
A few composers have told me that after a session scoring a movie, the manuscripts are literally swept up and thrown into the rubbish, do you keep your scores?
Absolutely, the company is very diligent about this. Everything is collected and collated and then we send it off to the binders. The reason for this is that somebody is bound to say “I saw that film you did and there was a particular cue I liked” so I need a system to locate the score.
I worked on that movie in 1990/91, it was made by an independent Australian film company, and it turned out to be a very curious project and starred John Travolta. The company went bankrupt and they did not pay me. The company went into liquidation and was taken over by a receiver. They did not release the movie but decided to release it straight to video, and did so without giving me a credit. So all you can do is put it into the hands of your lawyers and wait and see what happens.
Are there any film scores that you have heard by other composers that you maybe would like to have written?
Written that tune you mean, Well Jerry Goldsmith’s music always comes to mind. There was a score that I didn’t like very much it was the score to a film that I was supposed to have done but I turned it down in the end, and to my surprise Jerry did it, why I am not sure because the film was not that good, I have always been fussy about what films I become involved with, I put too much into a project and when you are giving up so much of your time, money is frankly immaterial. Another thing that makes me fussy is my four children, who are going to look back in years to come and say, “Dad ,,,,, why did you score that picture”.