Born in Pasadena, California, Richard Bellis began his show business career as a child actor. He worked in movies and television until the age of 12, then turned all his attentions toward a career in music and left acting behind. Within months of graduating from high school, he became musical director for the touring version of the popular rock-and-roll showcase SHINDIG (1964). This was followed by a stint with vocalist Johnny Mathis and a ten year period where he was arranging and conducting for a number of Las Vegas headliners. In the early part of 1976 the composer decided to leave touring behind and started to turn his attention to scoring films on a more or less full time basis. He won an Emmy for his inventive and chilling score for Stepehen Kings IT (1990) and also garnered Emmy nominations for HBO’s DOUBLECROSSED one year later in (1991) and again in 1993 for ABC’s DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE. As well as his career as a film music composer, Bellis is a former president of the Society of Composers and Lyricists and served on the faculty of the University of Southern California for 17 years, where he lectured in the Scoring for Television and Motion Pictures program; and acts as host/mentor for ASCAP’s annual Film Scoring Workshop.
You started out as a child actor and were in the 1954 sci-fi movie THEM and also had parts in TV shows such as BATMAN, MY THREE SONS, CHEYENNE etc up until around the age of 12, what made you decide to leave acting and move into a career in music?
I was not a good actor. I was merely a cute kid which, in those days, could get you work.
What musical studies did you undertake and where?
Piano lessons started at around age 8 and then my dad, the music teacher, would satisfy my voracious appetite for theory, harmony and counterpoint through middle school. I spent three months in college taking all kinds of music courses. My college career was abruptly interrupted by an offer to conduct for Johnny Mathis on a world tour. The rest of my music education was acquired at the writing table and on the podium.
Was writing music for TV and film something that you had in your mind to do when you began to study music or was this something that decided upon later as your career progressed?
Not at all. I was in love with music. With writing music. Arranging, specifically. My dad was a middle school band and orchestra teacher so he was able to give me theory, harmony and counterpoint lessons when I was 12 and 13 years old. I started arranging for various bands when I was 13 and 14. By the time I was 18, I was working as a professional arranger. I loved film music but there were no schools teaching it and only one book I could find titled “Underscore” by Frank Skinner. As I started to tire of the road, working as a conductor for live acts, the idea of being a film composer became attractive.
You have worked on both TV productions and feature films, what do you think are the main differences between the two mediums as a composer?
Time and money. Although in today’s digital world, feature films are being made for much smaller budgets than the television movies on which I worked in the 80’s and early 90’s. Those TV movies were budgeted around 3 million dollars and I had a decent budget and around 21 days in which to write a 45 to 55 minute score. The time and money factor relates not just to the music budget but to the entire film. When you score a well written, well acted, well directed feature which has a budget of 30 or 40 million dollars, the likelihood is that it will be a decent picture and the music budget will allow you to do a decent job. On those projects it becomes difficult to fail. You’d really have to work at it.
Your score for the TV mini series IT from 1990, is held in high esteem by collectors and critics alike, how did you become involved on the project and what size orchestra did you have for the score?
The phone call for Stephen King’s IT followed a four year period in which there was so little music work that my wife and I started a custom woodworking business. The call was from Jim Green for whom I had scored a number of projects (prior to the four year drought) from the beginning of his producing career.
We used several different sized orchestras but I seem to remember that the largest was around 55. It was, after all, a television miniseries.
Many directors make use of a temp track on their movies before the composer is involved, I know many composers dread the TEMP as they say at times the filmmaker will only hear this and dismiss anything that the composer might write for the movie, what experience have you had with temp tracks and do you think they can be a useful tool or guide for the composer when spotting a movie or are they a hindrance?
My personal experience involves working with the same people for much of my career. In addition, I did my first movie in the late 70’s and at that time, we still played a few themes on the piano for the filmmaker. So I was never typically affected by a temp score the way many are. I was trusted.
In order for the temp score to be a productive tool, both the director and the composer need to behave a certain way. The idea is to “ discuss” exactly WHAT IT IS ABOUT THE TEMP THAT IS WORKING SO WELL IN THIS SCENE – in dramatic terms. The director would be wise to change the temp periodically in order to narrow his or her focus on just what works, what doesn’t work and, most importantly, why?
The composer needs to initiate the discussion about “ Why is this music working so well for you?” “Is it the (nothing musical) the energy, the solemnity, the joy, the desolation?”, all dramatic terms. The worst thing the composer can do – in order to ‘not make waves’ – is to acquiesce without trying to determine what the dramatic reason for the love-of-temp actually is. Aspiring composers have the hardest time questioning a filmmaker about these issues.
When you are scoring a movie do you orchestrate all of the music or are there times when this is not possible due to the time factor and use an orchestrator?
I love to orchestrate. I think I like it more than composing. In the days when I was scoring movies for television, I would have 21 days to score and orchestrate approx. 45 – 55 minutes of music. If I orchestrated, I would spend two of the three weeks composing and one week orchestrating. It finally occurred to me that, If I hire an orchestrator, I could compose for three weeks and the orchestrator could orchestrate for three weeks. Which do you think would produce the better score?
Likewise do you conduct all of your scores or is it better for you to work from the control box so that you can monitor how the music is working for the movie?
I prefer to conduct and be in the ‘live’ room with my people, the musicians. That said, if I had the feeling that the director was not sure about the music or I felt that he or she would be looking for problems, I would certainly be seated right next that person in the booth.
Maurice Jarre once told me that he thought the film had to be good for the music to be good. Do you think it is possible for a good score to help a not very good film and vice versa can an inappropriate score damage the impact of a good movie?
Creating the score for a great film is hard. Creating a score for a not-so-good film is harder. Can the music help? Yes. Can the music make it a better movie? No. Good music might, at best, make it tolerable to watch.
Can a bad score negatively impact a good film? Absolutely. There are numerous examples, none of which I am prepared to name. Some were good efforts at a creative direction that didn’t work but most are the product of inexperience or unpreparedness.
You have worked on numerous genres, is there any particular type of movie or story line that you warm to more than any other?
No. I love a musical challenge. As long as music is needed and respected as part of the post-production process, I’m in 100%, whatever the genre.
Back to comparisons between assignments, you have worked on shorts, documentaries and also theme park attractions, which would you say is the most difficult of these to work on?
The one with the shortest deadline and the smallest budget.
Do you perform on any of your scores?
No. I hire “experts” for all phases of production of the score. Music editor, scoring mixer, copyists and musicians. I am only an expert at composing and orchestration.
I’ve always said, “If I am the best piano player on the session, we’re in big trouble.”
What do you think is the purpose of music in film ?
That is the big question these days. The only wrong answer from a composer is, “I don’t know”. Composers are supposed to be experts and servants at the same time. The expert must have an idea of what music is supposed to do in each film. If the composer doesn’t have any idea, then, by default, the director must become the music expert. That may be a roll the director is uncomfortable playing.
For me, music does what the camera can’t see and the dialogue and sound FX can’t fully convey. We enhance. We stimulate a universal emotional response from the (collective) audience.
How many times do you like to see a movie or any project in film or TV before you begin to start to get any fixed ideas about what type of music it requires or indeed where the music should be placed to best serve the picture, or is it an ongoing thing that maybe alters everyday because of editing etc?
I like to spend as much time as possible with the film (and my subconscious mind). The “top of my head” is not necessarily the best part. The more time I have to think and “play” with musical ideas, the better the score will be. Elmer Bernstein is quoted as saying, “I look at the film 20 times, once in the morning and once in the afternoon until the film tells me what to do”. I like that. I would just add, “until the film tells me how to satisfy the director’s vision”
You lecture at University about film music, what does this entail and how long are the students enrolled on the course for?
The are so many university courses in film music including Masters and even Doctorate degrees now. I don’t teach at any single university but rather do masterclasses and visiting professorships at many different colleges and universities around the world. I also present at many of the film music festivals which are very popular these days.
When composing do you work straight to manuscript or do you utilise a more technical approach also do you work out your ideas on piano or via a synthetic method?
If am working on an acoustic score, I will start at the piano and develop the musical ideas. Then I go to the computer and create the various cues. For me it is the difference between being the architect and the builder. Separate jobs and separate skills. Give an architect a pneumatic nailer and a skill saw and you might not like the result.
Many collectors myself included think that film music over the past two or three decades has again become popular, This is mainly I think because of the return to the symphonic score as opposed to the song score or fully synthetic soundtrack, what is your opinion of the film music of today and are there any younger composers that you find particularly interesting?
I think you’re right. I think it started with Jaws and Star Wars and E.T., etc. Young people saw these films in their most impressionable years and are today a large part of the fan base.
My only concern today is that our newly-minted composers are looking to emulate the top composers of the day. They are studying and listening to John Williams, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, etc. as if that is the sound they should be writing. “Film music”. I always ask them, “What do you think John Williams is listening to? What is Hans Zimmer listening to? They are listening to the farthest thing from “film music” they can” The idea is to THINK like John Williams and to THINK like Hans Zimmer. Film music in not a KIND of music like tango, jazz, klezmer, polka, etc. It is storytelling music and whatever genre that calls for, that is the kind of music we should be creating. If we start scoring films with “film music” it is the equivalent of musical incest.
What composers or artists would you say have influenced you, not just in film music but across all the musical genres
You have worked on a number of projects for Disney for their theme parks, ie THE INDIANA JONES ADVENTURE and STAR TOURS to name but two, is the company very hands on when it comes to music for their projects or is it just a case of they know what they want and brief you and then let you get on with the job in hand, and when was it that you started your association with them?
Disney attractions tend to run for years, even decades. Yes, they are very hands on. There is a ‘backstory’ behind each attraction. That is because there are so many different departments involved in the creation of an attraction that whenever a question arises, whether it be about the mechanical ride or the narrators script or the music, they can refer to the backstory as a reference. A great deal of time and effort goes into the creation of each attraction and, as composer, I was always invited in early and welcomed as a member of the creative team.
My thanks to Richard Bellis for his quick response to my interview request and his wonderful and interesting answers to my questions.