Interview by: Dan Goldwasser
Composer Lee Holdridge might be known for his work on the hit television series "Beauty and the Beast". But he's also a film composer, having worked on such films as Mr. Mom and Splash, as well as countless television movies and dozens of television series.
Recently, he provided the underscore to the Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, and scored a hit with the phenomenally successful miniseries, The Mists of Avalon. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Holdridge about his work on that acclaimed series, at his home in Beverly Hills.
You recently had a phenomenal hit with the television mini-series, The Mists of Avalon. What was working on that project like?
This was quite a task because when I got the call from Roxanne Lippel at Warner Brothers Music, she said that there was 150 minutes of music in the score. I thought she made a mistake on the phone, and she must have meant 50 minutes of music. Well, lo and behold - we got involved in the film and I started spotting it and sure enough, there was two and a half hours of music! Wow! But I did have three months to work on it, and that was nice. I started around Thanksgiving 2000, and worked every single day, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Years, because I knew I had to write a certain number of minutes every day or else it wouldn't get done.
We went to Munich, Germany in mid-February - I had booked a large contingency from the Munich Symphony along with an extended percussion session. I had talked to the percussionists quite a bit ahead of time and made sure we had a lot of what I call the "pagan drums". We got our hands on a lot of ethnic percussion. Drums from Egypt, Africa the Middle East, India, Taiko drums from Japan, and all of these which we used in the score extensively to give it, as had been requested, a much more pagan feeling. The filmmakers didn't want a traditional "King Arthur" type score. They really wanted me to avoid that. So I stressed a lot more string and percussive writing, and I used the solo voice a lot in the score. That was an idea of the producers because they liked that distinction of something that was like her soul, it was in her mind. And I thought the vocal sound without words would work really well.
We even used an esraj, which is an Indian stringed instrument that is played seated and held between the legs (shades of Ravi Shankar). The esraj is a great instrument. It adds wonderful atmosphere in places throughout the score and adds an exotic quality. Most people hearing it don't know what it is. I had quite a time finding someone who could play it! But after calling England, and then being led to New York City, and then to upstate New York, I found a gentleman in Ventura County who played it beautifully! So he's the one who played it for me. I did use some Celtic stuff - Tony Hinnigan played ethnic flutes including Celtic instruments, Bolivian flutes, and shakahazi. All of these elements are in the score, as well as the symphonic orchestra. There are some nice textures in the orchestration, which helped the idea of Avalon to be a little bit away from center in terms of traditional Arthurian type scores. There wasn't a lot of brass - I did use brass in some places, but I used it in a different way. I used it for more big choral type of chords, instead of a lot of fanfares. Both the director and the producer were very adamant - no fanfares! We established this as the language very early on, and it worked quite well. I love challenges like that because as a composer, the pleasure of scoring a film or miniseries, or anything is that you inevitably are led to work on ideas musically that you wouldn't normally consider. But, now you find yourself really thinking about and working in the intended genre. It renews you - it keeps you young -because you're constantly a student and starting over again, wondering "how can I do this a little different? What can I do differently here?" It keeps you constantly growing creatively - that's the beauty of it.
I really love a miniseries because you can stretch out - it's like writing a gigantic opera - you can just go! You can explore a theme and do quite a number of variations on it if you get a chance to. I was able to explore my Guinevere / Lancelot theme 8 or 9 different times in the score, and each time try something different with that. I love that! I love being able to do that because in that kind of a large canvas you do get the chance to stretch out, and that is the fun of doing a miniseries. You can introduce something new an hour down the road - a completely brand new idea can appear all of a sudden that you haven't done anywhere before in the score. It's like a whole new character arrives. That's also quite exciting.
How did you get the project?
Warner Brothers recommended me to the director and the producer. They had talked about the kind of score they were looking for. They wanted something exciting, but they wanted great themes. Fortunately Roxanne Lippel said, "You've got to listen to Lee Holdridge's music". So I put together a CD for them of some things I've done. It included bits of Beastmaster, Into Thin Air - which has some startling percussive moments, which they liked a lot, and a couple of other nice big strong thematic sweeping kinds of cues. I think they liked the combination a lot. I met with Mark Wolper, the producer, and we hit it off pretty well - our ideas were pretty much in sync. I met the director, and next thing I knew, there I was. It came upon me pretty suddenly.
With 150 minutes of score, how did you figure out what to put on the soundtrack and what to leave off?
Of course we couldn't put everything on the album. It was a difficult choice as to what to leave off, and after talking to Bob Townson a couple of times, we decided we would stress more the romance and myth of the story, and leave a lot of the battle stuff off. As much as I love the battle music, you have to see the battle. We thought the audience for the CD would enjoy listening more to the story and character aspect of the score. So I did leave a lot of the battle scenes out, but there are a few bits in there so you can get a good taste of it.
Why the inclusion of the two songs?
They take up a lot of time - that was a contractual thing. Turner Pictures had always wanted the Loreena McKennitt song - right from the beginning, that was their choice. At first I asked if I could edit the song down to 4-minutes, and was told by her record company that I couldn't touch it - I had to put the entire 7-minute song on, so there you are. Also, because I had used Aeone singing throughout the score, it was nice to end the album with a song completing her journey through the whole score - I didn't mind that at all. There's a theme that she sings quite a bit throughout the score, so she spun the song out of that theme, and expanded it. It's her song, with my theme. But I liked it a lot, and I thought it would be a great way to close the CD - it plays like an end title. It does make dramatic sense because you hear her voice throughout the score. Had we had more time, I might have even gotten it into the film somewhere. But it still left us 65-minutes of room to play with, so I think the score is pretty well represented. I did think of it more as "listening" CD, so if anyone wants to do the "Battles from The Mists of Avalon", they're welcome to it. There's some great battle stuff in there.
What are you thoughts regarding the incredibly positive comments regarding your score?
I think it's wonderful! First of all, it's a great kind of story you can get lost in. It's beautifully acted; all of the women actresses are extraordinary. It was interesting when I was working on it - much of it was blue screened, and it was stunning for me to see a lot of it for the first time at the screening. I think it's a great fantasy that you can just run off into. The book is like that, and the movie is a little different than the book in places, but it still has that sense where you can get lost in these people's stories. There's something about the Arthur legends- they will always spawn stories. It's one of those great myths that will go on forever.
When the CD came out, and was getting great reviews, I went to Amazon.com - a place I support quite a bit - I noticed there were a lot of listener reviews that were posted. They were very complimentary about the CD. Then I noticed the sales rank - it was 65, or something like that. Out of curiosity, I looked at Jurassic Park III and Planet of the Apes and noticed that they were way below where we were. I thought it was interesting that we were outselling those albums. I tracked it for a few weeks, and we still outsold them. I think The Mists of Avalon is something you can listen to and it will stay with you because there are a lot of thematic ideas in there that you can come back to and will come back to - and that's important. It goes back to the sense of writing a symphonic work. No matter how elaborate the symphony is, you can always find a great theme or something recognizable to come back to. In a score of that type, it's a good thing to do and it works in our favor. I think there is a listener response to that - it's kind of like why you like certain classical works - they're like old friends.
What is your background?
I was born in Haiti, my father was a scientist and my mother is Puerto Rican - they met and married in Puerto Rico. My dad was one of the original botanists who worked on tropical forests - one of the first to research them. A lot his students were very musical, and played instruments. Living in Costa Rica, I was far away from the pop music scene, so I listened to a lot of classical music. My dad had fully intended for me to be a scientist, but I was so drawn to music that when I was ten I took violin lessons. By the time I was twelve, I knew I wanted to be a composer - to such the point that I would rewrite my violin exercises because I thought they were dull, which used to irritate my violin teacher a lot! <laughs> But he finally decided that I really was serious about this composition stuff. I convinced my parents to let me live during the school year in the Boston area with an uncle and aunt so that I could go to Newton High School and take music courses. That's where I met Henry Lasker, who I studied with privately and in high school. To this day, most of the great compositional technique that I have, he taught me when I was in high school. It's amazing to me that even now when I'm writing, I can almost feel his hand come on my shoulder and look at me and say “You can do better than that"!
When I was 16 I wrote a piano concerto, when I was 17 I wrote a ballet. I wrote a number of chamber and string works, and went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, and met Nick Flagello there, who I ended up studying privately with. Nick was one of those great teaching geniuses - he had a lot of students all over. He had done a lot of orchestration for Dr. Zhivago, and often told us that it was that film that bought his house in Yonkers. He was the first one to talk to me about film scoring and the techniques, and everything. He was very knowledgeable about timing, and how you orchestrate for film and a few years later, I got a job doing a film called Winterhawk, and I had to write a 45-minute score in nine days, and I needed some people to help with the orchestration. They were going to record in New York, so I called Nick, and told him, "Nick, I know this is embarrassing, you used to be my teacher, but would you do some orchestration for me?" And he said, "I'd love to!" He actually did a lot of orchestration in that movie and his stuff was phenomenal. It was very strange being out there conducting a cue that he orchestrated - I was his pupil!
I think the key about Henry Lasker and Nick Flagello is that they were very open minded. They were interested in all types of music. I think you have to have that mindset when you go into film scoring - you need to be interested in all kinds of music. In the late 1960's and 70's, a lot of my colleagues thought that going into film was the most horrible think you could do as a composer. Of course twenty years later they're banging down the door asking how to get into film music as well. It's funny how perceptions change. They were always so snobbish about it - they had a funny attitude towards film composers. I'm glad I followed my hunches early on - it certainly worked out!
You had also done work for Neil Diamond - how did that come about?
When I started out in New York, I got some early jobs doing some arranging of pop-rock records for RCA in New York. I had a friend, who was a producer there, and he brought me a Neil Diamond song one time and I did an arrangement of it, and it came out great. He played it for a friend of his who happened to be Diamond's record producer at the time, Tom Catalano. He loved the arrangement, and played it for Neil, who also liked it. Neil was going to start recording an album in Hollywood in 1971, and they decided they would hire me as their arranger. So they brought me out to California. The record, which had "Holly Holy" on it, ended up being a big success, and that started getting me more work. I was involved in a lot of Diamond's big hit records, and that led to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which is the film that finally opened the door to me in terms of writing film music. Obviously I worked heavily on the score, and did a lot of it - Neil was really a songwriter, I had to do the scoring. That's how I discovered that there was this whole other world of film composition.
You're also well-known for your work on "Beauty and the Beast"...
I won two Emmy's for that. We also made a wonderful discovery, when we brought in Don Davis, who did a phenomenal job with the series. It was a great job - it was twenty-five minutes of orchestral music every week. Don and I used to say it was like writing a symphony every week. Now we know what Haydn felt like! It was a beautiful show for music - those episodes, when you watch them, they're wonderfully scored. Little, if any, of it was tracked - it was all scored to picture, motion picture style. We always had a fairly decent sized orchestra, anywhere from 30-40 pieces for a few hours, and then a chamber sized orchestra for an hour. We'd do the whole thing. It was hard work, but it was great fun to do.
And you worked on "Moonlighting"
Moonlighting was a wonderful series. The producer called me up and sent me the script. I loved it, but thought it was way to sophisticated for television. He wanted me to come up with some themes - he had some production money and wanted to record the different themes, and then they'd pick one. So I wrote five themes for him, based on reading the script. I wrote the themes just as they started shooting the show. He liked number 3 of the five I wrote, and I told him I thought it would be great as a song. I asked who his favorite singer was - and he said "Al Jarreau". So I decided I would try to get Al to sing and write the lyric for the title song. Three months later, Jarreau walked into the studio and sang it - five days before the show went on the air! If you look at the original 2-hour pilot that I scored, you can hear the complete song over the end credits. It's a great movie - I still go back and watch it and laugh all over again.
You've also released a bunch of promotional albums, including Splash! and Heidi...
Well, that is something I have to thank Ford Thaxton for. He's managed to get some of these things done as promos, which is great. There's no way of being able to release some of these scores commercially, so it's a way of archiving them which is something I really appreciate - and I know many other composers he does this for appreciate it too. Splash! is a wonderful score - there's a lot of music that wasn't used in the film, but we stuck it on the CD anyways because it's great stuff. I really appreciate having these archived. A score like The Tuskegee Airmen, which I think is a phenomenal score, had no way to be released commercially. I'm so appreciative of the fact that it is archived - it's a stunning recording, beautifully performed by the Toronto Symphony. But it would have to live as an archive and not a commercial release.
Any scores you'd like to see released?
I would love to see Winterhawk released. I think that might have to be re-recorded someday, just because the recording techniques have changed so much, but I'd love to see excerpts from that be done. Another great score is El Pueblo del Sol. It hasn't been out for a while, but I would love to see that come back again. It's from a Mexican documentary I did with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's a 45-minute symphonic suite - the film had no dialogue, just music. It's a nice big beautiful epic - it's a symphony in a way. It's a great recording. There are a number of things I'd like to do - there are a number of television themes and stuff from some movies - I should compile them all together someday.
You had also done some work for National Geographic?
I worked on their 100th Anniversary film, which was a 2-hour movie. They had a substantial music budget, and I wrote a nice big orchestral score for that. They had fallen in love with my "Wizards and Warriors" theme, and they wanted to use it as their opening - so they got the rights from Warner Brothers, and we rescored it for that opening - it works fantastically. That score won me an Emmy that year, which was very exciting.
When working on Into Thin Air, were you inspired by the book or the film - or both?
I had read the book in advance, and my friend Robert Markowitz, the director did an extraordinary job with the film. I was totally blown away. The combination of the book and the film just got to me. As Robert always does he just spurred me on in the writing of the score, because he's a great music lover, and he has a deep appreciation not only for great symphonic music, but also for great jazz and all kinds of music. For Into Thin Air, we did talk about the orchestral medium as a way of exploring that film - he just let me go, which I love! Free range! He said, "Don't hold back," and I like that. As a director, he really wants you to do your best, and try things that you've never done before.
You also worked on the Academy Award winning documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers...
That was a wonderful project. I'm so lucky to have worked on it. I got a call on a Saturday from Deborah Oppenheimer and she told me she was having a hard time finding the right music. I watched the film the next day, and then went off to do a recording in Russia on another project. The film stuck with me though, and I kept thinking about it. I came back, and I was completely entranced over the film - so we spotted on a Monday night, and on Wednesday I had Deborah over to my house, and I played the main theme on the piano for her. We knew that I had hit the right way to do this film. It's a beautiful film. I love the way of scoring a documentary feature film not like a documentary film, but like a dramatic feature film. That's the choice that I make. Mark Harris the director is in favor of that; we did that for his The Long Way Home as well. That approach worked beautifully. That score emerges out of that film as a good dramatic score should. So by the end of the film you realize that the music is right there, it's part of the power of the story. I think that's a big accomplishment. I' m very proud of my association with that film - plus it's an incredible story. I don't know where they found the footage. Mark has a way of telling a story - I know it's a documentary, but we've got to study his films - there's something about the way he does it. I think it's in his writing and the way he puts it together with the film - it just hits you.
I've never been to a screening of a documentary film before where at the end everybody was crying. I looked around and everyone was sitting there with Kleenex - all these executives from Warner Brothers just sniffling. It really moves you! I think being a parent, too - any of us would say, "What would I do if I were in that situation?" You can't help but walk away from that film with a question mark hanging over your head - "what would I have done?" Would you just hand your kid off to a stranger, and not know if you'd ever see them again - but maybe save their lives that way? Gosh. I don't know the answer to that. Most of us who have lived in America are fortunate - we haven't had to deal with some of the horrors of being torn like that. Yes, there's a lot of music that can be written about this!
You tend to do a lot of television work. In the whole debate over film vs. television, wouldn't you prefer to do more feature films?
If you're doing the big, big blockbusters, sure. But in some cases, some of my colleagues who are doing low-budget films have smaller budgets than I work with in television. It's ironic. There's a strange perception about television versus movies, and I'm not sure exactly what it is. In television, they don't have as big a budget, so they need composers who can get the score done fast, and they can rely on them getting it done the first time - because that's all they've got! I don't think the scores are any less - I think there are some great television scores, and some great film scores. I would match The Tuskegee Airmen or Into Thin Air to any feature film score, at any time. I'm not embarrassed or shy about it, and I think that on sheer compositional level alone, I think it's better than a lot of feature film scores I've heard recently. But there are a lot of great, great film scores that have been written, and the fact that they have unlimited funds for the orchestra (although I think that's changing) has given those composers the opportunity to paint on a very large canvas. It’s certainly not as free range in television, but you do everything you can. If you're creative, you make it work.
There's snobbery involved, and it's silly when you think about it. I like what they do in England, where it seems everyone does everything - the actors and the writers and the composers - they do BBC, and they do film and concerts. They go back and forth. I think that it would be productive.
What upcoming projects do you have?
I have two television movies - a Masterpiece Theater film called Almost a Woman, which is a Puerto Rican subject - that's very dear to my heart because it's similar to my mother's background. Masterpiece Theater has been doing a series of five great American authors, and this is the fifth one, based on Esmeralda Santiago's autobiographical book. The other one I'm doing is for my friend Robert Markowitz called The Pilot's Wife, based on the successful bestseller. It will air on CBS this fall.
What is your dream project?
I don't know - maybe a great miniseries, like Homer's "The Odyssey", but done right!!! <laughs> I would love to do a big epic. And I would love to write a great opera one of these days. I've written short operas, but I would love to do a full length one. I actually find that keeping my concert work alive feeds my film work, and vice-versa because you're constantly regenerating yourself and trying things and exploring ideas and sometimes if you come back to work on a film, you're all charged up and fresh and you have a lot of new ideas. So I'm always composing - to me, it's like breathing. It's a very natural thing to do.
Lee Holdridge's score to The Mists of Avalon is available in stores now, as well as Into Thin Air. Splash and the other promotional albums are available through Super Collector (http://www.supercollector.com). You can find out more about Aeone at her website: http://www.aeone.com, and more about Lee Holdridge at his website: http://www.leeholdridge.com
The Art of film and Television Music
Release date: 9/10/2001
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