David Shire: a Grammy in one fist, an Oscar in the other

The film composer was having a fine time even before he landed in Hollywood

"Isn't modern technology great?" David Shire says after appearing on my computer screen.

It certainly is. On a sombre winter day I find myself looking at the composer of classic scores for such films as The Conversation, All the President's Men and Zodiac. Now 81, lean and grey, Shire – who will be visiting Ireland for the Virgin Dublin International Film Festival in February – positively sparkles from his home in New York State. His enthusiasm is undimmed by the passing years.

I've spent the last few days listening to his best-known compositions: the gentle, ambiguous piano that tinkles through Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, the 12-tone jazz that rattles The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and those sinister orchestrations in All the President's Men.

Of all the great film composers, he is the hardest to pin down. We know what is meant when we talk about an Ennio Morricone sound or a John Williams sound. There is no Shire sound.


"You are right and I am very pleased that you noticed that," he says. "On the other hand, it's been bad with some directors. I don't have a specific style – like Morricone or Hans Zimmer. I suppose my main typecasting comes from my score for The Conversation."

Released in 1974, the film was Shire's first big studio production. Then married to Coppola's sister – the actor who still calls herself Talia Shire – Shire assumed he'd get his hands on a huge orchestra.

“Francis said: ‘I want a piano score.’ It was my first big score and my heart sank a little,” he says. “Here I was at Paramount. We could do anything. But he was right. That score seems to be identified with me more than any other.”

That's interesting. For me, the most memorable Shire score is that for All the President's Men. There are few shots more resonant than the bird's eye that moves upwards from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as they run through records in the Library of Congress. Shire's pondering chords are a vital part of the atmosphere.

"That's interesting you pick that cue," he says. "That's the first music cue in the film. I said to Alan J Pakula [the director of All the President's Men]: 'Why do you need music for this?' He said: 'I want the score to show this is a story about two guys whose hearts are beating faster and faster.' That was my way in."

Up to that point the film had a documentary feel, but something shifts with that famous sequence.

“The cinematographer was Gordy Willis and that was his first stylised shot in the film,” he remembers. “At that point it really becomes a movie and then we could bring in music.”

Shire has been thinking about music for a long time. Born in Buffalo in 1937, he grew up as the son of a bandleader. As a child, he remembers hearing snippets of the great popular composers floating around the house. I get no sense that there was anything else young Shire could have done.

"My father had a society dance band," he says. "He played weddings and coming-out parties. He had an orchestra and he worked enough to support us. He taught pop piano – in those days that was theatre music. It was Gershwin. It was Cole Porter. That was the first music I heard. But we both realised to get anywhere you had to have classical technique."

Shire went on to study composition at Yale University. He smiles as he remembers that he chose that great college because it staged a proper undergraduate musical. At this point, his ambitions lay mainly with the stage. At college, he began collaborating with Richard Maltby jnr – the lyricist behind later shows such as Miss Saigon and Fosse – and they have remained working partners ever since. Their 1996 musical version of the movie Big was not originally a hit, but it has gained fans on subsequent, successful revivals. The two medias continue to fight for Shire's attention.

"Stephen Sondheim said to me: 'Why are you wasting so much time writing movie scores when you should be writing for the theatre?' When I am in Hollywood they say: 'Why do you waste time writing for that dinosaur medium?' Ha ha! It's been a good career."

If something is wrong Barbra Streisand will say: 'What the f*ck are you doing?'

It sounds as if Shire was having a fine time of it even before he landed in Hollywood. He played piano at dance classes and at society parties. He and Maltby had shows staged off-Broadway. But the job that really jumps out from his early CV was his stint as an accompanist for Barbra Streisand. Now that sounds like a challenge.

“It was a combination of having to be very careful and very good,” he says diplomatically. “She, erm… doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If something is wrong she’ll say: ‘What the f*ck are you doing?’ But she is a great friend. She liked me and I liked her. I had to do a lot of work. You can’t fake it with Barbra.”

Throughout the 1960s, Shire worked on TV shows and lower budgeted movies. He is credited on Jack Nichsolson's cult hit Drive He Said, but he admits that he can't remember writing much music for the flick. His gig on The Conversation seems to have kicked him up to another level. How was it working for his brother in law?

"It was good," he says. "I knew him. I wasn't intimidated by him. I'd stayed in his house. He stopped being Francis Coppola, the giant. He was my brother-in- law."Shire reaches out to a keyboard situated beneath the screen (apparently) and plays the theme that accompanied Gene Hackman's Harry Caul as paranoia poisons his sonic investigations into a political conspiracy.

“The left hand is very classical,” he says. “Harry has that anal controlling style. The right hand is jazz. It captures that dichotomy. But when I wrote the music I wasn’t aware that’s how it was working out analytically.”

His work in the 1970s confirmed Shire as part of the new Hollywood royalty. He worked with George Romero on Monkey Shines. He worked with Ulu Grosbard on Straight Time. Though the film was not a commercial success, he remains particularly proud of his orchestral score for Walter Murch's Return to Oz, an impressively creepy variation on The Wizard of Oz.

“With good directors like Coppola or Pakula it’s always a collaboration,” he says. “I want to work with them so that I don’t end up in the booth with an orchestra and the director runs out and says: ‘That’s not what we agreed.’ You have to collaborate."

But something has changed. Technology has had an unexpected effect on the relationship between director and composer.

"I go to the piano and start improvising," he says. "Sometimes it comes right away and sometimes it takes a long time. It took a month for All the President's Men. Back then we had time. Now, with movies being edited so fast, they want the score yesterday. 'Where's the score?' It takes some time to write a good score."

When Fincher was talking about who to get for the score, he said: 'What about David Shire? Is he still alive?

He has, nonetheless, retained the respect of the generations that followed. He still works on independent films and continues to devise musicals. His most admired score in the current century was that for David Fincher's excellent 2007 film Zodiac. Telling the story of the hunt for a serial killer in 1970s San Francisco, the picture gave him the opportunity to get back into the same conspiracy mode he exploited so effectively in All the President's Men.

“When Fincher was talking about who to get for the score, he said: ‘What about David Shire? Is he still alive?’” he laughs.

He seems very much alive. As lunchtime looms in New York, we chat about his wife's current adventures in London. Since 1982, he has been married to Didi Conn, the comic actor known best as Frenchie in Grease, and he is greatly enjoying her spell on the current series of Dancing on Ice. He makes grumbling noises about Trump.

"People come up to her and say: 'What's going on over there?' It's like Saturday Night Live, but for real. Ach! Dancing on Ice! She's 70 years old, but she looks much younger."

I'm impolitely staring, scanning the shelves behind him as he speaks. I can't see the Oscar he won for best original song, It Goes Like it Goes, in 1979. He asks if I want to see it. Do I? Shire wanders into the wings. There is some mild clanking and he reappears with a Grammy in one fist, an Academy Award in the other. They do not live too far from the computer it seems.

“It’s a perfect metaphor for Hollywood,” he says, smiling at the Oscar. “It’s made of lead with a thin veneer of gold. It’s a lump of lead made to look really great. Ha ha!”


The Conversation (1974)
Shire hangs something a little like a Chopin nocture and a little like a gentle jazz riff around the adventures of a surveillance expert going steadily insane.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
"I messed around for a month coming up with bad Lalo Schifrin," Shire jokes. He ended up with an angular jazz score that sounded quite different from the Mission: Impossible composer.

All the President's Men (1976)
The music holds off for the first third of the film. When the pulse kicks in it presses home the increasing danger and stress of the Watergate investigations.

Short Circuit (1986)
Shire broke into electronics with his score for the hit robot flick. The irresistible, clanking main theme could not sound less like his earlier work.

Zodiac (2007)
After finishing his rich orchestral score for the David Fincher film, Shire realised that he'd unconsciously based it around "a chord that never resolves". Much like the movie's central mystery.