January, 2005

Interview with Gregg Shapiro

for AfterElton.com

Subject: Composing music for film


Robert -

Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?

I have no one favorite, but top contenders would include Aaron Copeland's haunting scores for THE HEIRESS and OUR TOWN, Max Steiner's Wagnerian-styled melodromatic music for the 1933 KING KONG, Alex North's ultra modern & complex orchestral score for DRAGONSLAYER, Alfred Newman's touching score for the 1939 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Vangelis's "brave-new-world" synth soundtrack for BLADERUNNER, David Lynch's rumbling sonic landscapes for ERASERHEAD - to name a few.

Do you have a favorite horror movie soundtrack?

Perhaps Jerry Goldsmith's unnervingly calm soundtrack for the 1979 ALIEN.
I also luv Dominic Frontiere's ominous "20th Century" style music for
1960's tv horror show OUTER LIMITS.

What is the first movie score or soundtrack that you remember making an impression on you?

As a very young child, I watched a lot of old movies on television. Maybe it was a gay thing, as I'd prefer coming home after school to watch television rather than to play baseball with other boys, etc. There was a day-time show in the NYC area called MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, which would run old hollywood classic films - the same movie would run once a day, and twice on saturdays, for a whole week. Thus, for example, i would watch something like the Marlene Dietrich's SHANGHAI EXPRESS or the original KING KONG up to eight times in a week. Naturally with so much repetition, both the films' images AND their music really burned into my child consciousness. Again, the score to the 1933 KING KONG sticks out as one of my earliest film score memories - it was, and still remains, a special favorite of mine.

As for going to movie theaters as a little boy - the classical score to Walt Disney's FANTASIA will forever be with me. And I must mention - seeing & hearing the Beatles' HARD DAYS NIGHT as a kid changed me forever - Having spent my whole life as a rock musician - it was probably the closest thing to a true religious experience I've ever had - the effect was that profound. Even today when I watch that film - it seems as fresh as the first time I saw it - such wonderful songs.

Are there other film score composers whose work you admire?

I really like Danny Elfman's work (BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, et al). He's like a modern day Haydn - such clean, crisp simple "to the point" writing. Plus, like myself, he has rock origins. I'm not crazy about alot of the films he composes for (except perhaps PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE - which was pure genius) but Elfman's work just gets better and better every time I hear it.

Please say something about the process of composing music for films.

First off - composing for films, especially horror films, gave me the chance to discover something in myself I didn't previously know - a talent for creating dark, disturbingly scary music. It's an exciting challenge to find it in oneself to create the sonic accompaniment... in a sense the sonic counterpart... to murder, horror, and all things ghastly. In composing for film - one gets a chance to stretch out and use music for both subtle and deep psychological introspections and expressions of the profound. - which one doesn't get to do much in pop (right Britney?)

There is great satisfaction when the composed music is placed exactly right in a scene - and when seen and heard together for the first time - it makes what's up on the screen "ring true".

Music has the power to change anything and everything in a film. It can convey important things to the audience faster (and often better) than spoken dialogue - and is key to any type of non-speaking scene. Producers and I have noted (often amusingly) how when we first screen a film without the music - some performances might seem weak/stilted/fake. Then we'll notice how those same performances can come alive and become genuine, once the music is behind it. Music in film can actually change our own perception of the quality of acting - turning what we thought was a lousy actor into a brilliant star.

How does it differ from other types of musical composition?

That's a big question! Generally speaking, film music composition differs from pure music composition the way Richard Wagner's "music drama" music differs from other classical music. As they reflect modern psychological phenonema, both film music and Wagner's music are essentially more melodramatic than abstract; more "emotional" than "ideal". Film music supports and follows drama that's already set in motion. Film music does not generate it's own dynamics, it mirrors a dynamic already set in motion, and whose end is already determined, by the intellectual content and visuals of acting/scenery/costumes/plot.

Interestingly, much film music - especially music from hollywoods golden age - the 20s up thru the 50s - is Wagnerian in style (e.g. - lots of chromatic shifting, nervous tension, "melodrama") Film music is more motif-laden (musical themes are good at representing different & recurring characters and their emotions in film) The opening and closing credits of a film are often the only place a composer can really "compose", some pure music. It's no small coincidence that the overtures/preludes/finales of Wagner's operas contain his best music.

How many film scores have you done?

I believe there are 6 or 7 full films I've scored. I've also contributed songs to several video and documentary film projects.

Are there any more forthcoming?

This summer I am back in the URBAN PRODUCTIONS recording studio for several purely musical audio projects. There are two new Robert Urban cds in the works - one will be all instrumental music and one a "live" album comprised of different concerts I've played. I'm currently recording the debut cd for gay singer/songwriter ROGER KUHN, and producing the opening track "The Muffin Song" for queer rocker SCOTT FREE's upcoming cd release.

When the smoke clears this fall, I'll be able to consider another film scoring project. I'm working on the screen play for an original film about my mother's life, so my next film composing job might just be for my own film.

“Zombies,” the song that plays over the closing credits, was written and performed by Scott Free. Can you please say something about that song?

Singer songwriter/rock poet extraordinaire Scott Free and I have collaborated on film soundtracks before. Scott composed the title song to the 2002 gay slasher film DEAD GUYS, for which i also contributed music score and songs. When I began scoring ZOMBIES, I contacted Scott to inquire if he might have any songs I could use. By sheer coincidence - it turned out Scott had just written a song called ZOMBIES for his own upcoming cd release. It was perfect. We ended up using Scott's song (without words) as incidental background music in one scene and saved the full song with words for the final closing credits - to great effect.

When I'm working on a film score - I sometimes put out a request to songwriters for a type of song I feel might work particulary well in a film. For example, when I scored the gay vampire film DAS HAUSE, I put out feelers to gay songwriters for any songs on a vampire theme, or that used words like "vampire", "blood", "death", etc. I found several. You'd be amazed how there's always SOMEONE out there who's written a song for whatever subject you need.

Zombies is getting some film festival play. What does that mean to you?

First off, it means i get to go enjoy the film, and experience my music at a real movie theater with a real audience and be part of the whole "movie going experience". Film fests & premieres are also where I get to finally meet the film actors in person, and is always fun to network with all involved. Sometimes I perform live at the screenings or receptions, or participate in panel discussions on music for films. ZOMBIES premieres at the glbt INDIE-OUTTIES Film Fest (www.indyoutties.com) in Kansas City, MO, on Aug 25, and will have it's NYC screening at the NEW FILMMAKERS FESTIVAL (www.newfilmmakers.com) at the Anthology Film Archives Theater, 32 2nd Ave, on Wednesday, Sept 29th. The cast of ZOMBIES will make a special promo appearance on Tuesday, Sept 28th at Will Clark's PEOPLE WILL TALK show (www.willclarkpresents.com) at THE VIEW BAR in Chelsea, Manhattan.

As a member of OutMusic, would you like there to be a category for film scores and soundtracks?

Yes - Whenever I compose music for a gay film, I also work hard to lobby the film producers to use songs & music by gay musical artists. I have so far been successful with the 3 films I've scored for Dead Guys Cinema - ZOMBIES, DAS HAUSE and DEAD GUYS - all contain soundtracks of songs & music by 100% out/gay artists. Thus, these soundtracks should meet whatever requirement Outmusic might have for their OMA categories. My own next Robert Urban cd release - due out this fall of 2004, will be an all-instrumental cd of music I've composed for films. I hope there's a category for it at the OMAs.

Thank you,
Gregg Shapiro

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