Not so epic with the sound down
Films aren't the same without their music, as Shane Hegarty hears from Conrad Pope, one of the most prolific orchestrators.
'There's never been a truly silent film. Ever," says Conrad Pope. Having worked on the scores of almost 300 movies, he should know. As an orchestrator he has worked on Troy, Seabiscuit, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, two Star Wars films, three Harry Potters and two-thirds of the Matrix trilogy.
You have probably never heard of him, and he is not always credited. But his reputation means that, whether you know his name or not, John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman and Thomas Newman are among the composers to have relied on him.
He sums up his job with entertaining candour. "It goes from making it up to being a high-flung secretary. There might be a composer who can write two bars of music. They might last 10 seconds, but they are a brilliant two bars. So what the studio needs is for somebody to be able to spin those two bars of music into three or four minutes. The orchestrator or arranger will do that.
"But then you might be working for someone like John Williams. He gives a complete piece of music in shorthand, and because I have my experience of conducting music myself, and having written a lot of music myself, I can read his shorthand and know exactly what he wants."
Pope says he had his "ego death" many years ago and is unflustered by his relative anonymity. Besides, when he went to Hollywood he was following money, not dreams. He had hoped to be a concert composer, and was a university lecturer for eight years, before, at the age of 33, he became jobless. He returned home to Los Angeles.
"I decided that I would go to Hollywood. I didn't know if I was fit for it, because I was so orientated towards concert works. I must have been the only person of my age not to have seen the original Star Wars in the theatre. I had no interest in it. Now I've worked on the last two Star Wars movies."
He applied for a job selling shoes, but the store owner told him to go and do what he was trained to do. So Pope began from the bottom rung of the industry. He made soundalikes for films that couldn't afford to buy the original song. He did the music that played in the background of hotel scenes. He made what he describes as "musical props".
He has since orchestrated about 120 films; last week he was in Dublin to give masterclasses for Screen Training Ireland, sharing his experiences and passing on tips to Irish producers, directors and composers. His favourite among the films he has worked on is the equine adventure Seabiscuit. He is proud, too, of AI: Artificial Intelligence and his small contribution to Schindler's List.
It always helps, he says, to work on a good movie. When it comes to putting good music to bad films he has a few tricks. "There's a saying that if you get a dog, well, it's your dog. I think what you have to do is not to overdo it. I've had a dog," he says, although he is too coy to say which film, "and I thought I could make it better by writing this grandiose score, and all I did was make it look ridiculous. You have to strike a happy medium. You have to ask what is the intent here. And then you try to match it. You have to accept that it's kind of like having an ugly sister that you think is beautiful, so you always see the best."
It's an expensive business. He tells of one composer paid €1.2 million to write a score that was never used. As each member of the orchestra is paid €100 an hour, Pope describes himself as the studio's insurance policy, there to keep costs down by ensuring that the musicians are prepared and that the composer gets what he wants, sometimes in quite extreme conditions.
While working with Elfman on Sleepy Hollow he endured two "48-hour days". When Horner was given 12 days to come up with a score for the two-hour-long Troy it got a little difficult. "People don't sleep, they go crazy. I have an ex-wife - and that's why she's an ex-wife."
A good score is integral to a film. "One should look at ET without the music to see how dry it can be. Henry Mancini used to say that it's amazing how dull movies are without music. What we do is tell the story through music, just as the writer does through words and the cinematographer does through pictures. And when these elements come together in concert you can have a very powerful experience."
He has composed original music for less famous films, such as Ghost Ship and Pavilion Of Women, and he also sometimes picks up the baton to conduct concerts of film scores.
Since the 1970s, he says, film music has broadened its reach and concert composers such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman have written fine scores. He still believes it is music very much constrained by the medium, however. "What we have in this postmodern age is a breaking down of musical barriers. And I'm not sure that film is responsible, because film music is always made to capture something about the film and its form is always dictated by the film. Being neither a historian nor a theorist, I'm not sure what that means musically. I do know that it's different from pure concert music, but I am encouraged that the walls seem to have been coming down.
"There's a bridge between the community of film composers, who must maintain that link with audiences, and concert composers, who wanted the audience to appreciate their genius, if not their music, but who now realise that loving their music is just as important as appreciating their genius. There's a nice cross-fertilisation happening now."
Technology is also changing the industry. The television series Nip/Tuck couldn't afford a full score, so it conjured one up from a computer program called GarageBand.
Even the likes of John Williams have begun to prerecord music rather than record live. But Pope says that scores such as Thomas Newman's for Road To Perdition show that the technology can be an asset.
"He'll record this guitar a quarter-tone off, out of tune, just to portray Jude Law's character. And because the recording techniques are so advanced now it's almost like a painting - it's like a little bizarro, something that you've got that's been made perfect - and you can't take it to the Hollywood Bowl and re-create it perfectly with an orchestra. But I think that has expanded the emotional and colouristic palette of film music."
He is now a composer of orchestral works too, and he enjoys the freedom it gives him. "When we record film music it's almost like we're recording on 35-millimetre tapes with sprocket holes, which is how it actually used to be. That's how defining and exact music for film has to be. It's almost like being a tailor and making an individual item of clothing for each person.
"So when you're not constrained by that, of course, it's much better. But then you can just babble on. I think it's Bob Williams once said that everybody should have to write a film score, because it will teach them that they do have ideas that are disposable."
He will next work on The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis's Christmas movie, with the composer Alan Silvestri before moving on to work with Williams again on Star Wars: Episode III, which is due out next year. Will he get cramp signing confidentiality agreements before working on that? "I just keep my mouth shut. Anyway, with Star Wars I won't see any of the film. John is so exact."
Once again he'll be tucked in among the credits or won't appear at all. Conrad is untroubled, believing that even the music should be unobtrusive. "One person once said to Erich Korngold [the Oscar-winning composer who died in 1957\], 'Oh, Mr Korngold, I so loved your score to Robin Hood.' And Korngold replied, 'Well, if you were aware of it, then I wasn't doing my job.' "
What the expert recommends
ET: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
Score by John Williams (1982)
"For its sheer joy, brilliance
and caught-in-the-throat type
of experience," says Conrad Pope, right.
Score by John Williams (1993)
"It's a very fine album to get. It's very much located in a time."
Score by Hans Zimmer (2000)
"For someone trying to get into film scores I recommend this for its sheer propulsive energy."