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David Shire Is Still Writing Scores That Make Movies Sing

March 8, 2019

David Shire has made a mark everywhere he’s applied his composer’s pencil. Off-Broadway and Broadway? Check. The golden age of live television? Check. The pop charts? Check. Hollywood? Check, check, and check. At just about every point in his career he’s created music that captures the zeitgeist, while often transcending the mood of the moment. In Hollywood, he was an essential part of the creative upsurge powered by the new generation of directors in the 1970s.

More a consolidator than an innovator, he contributed in quick succession four strikingly different but iconic scores, capturing the brassy, improvisational chaos of 1970s New York City in Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the loneliness and alienation of the surveillance state in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. He evoked the creeping paranoia of Watergate in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and the giddy high of New York nightlife in John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever. That’s a grand slam that puts Shire in serious contention as the quintessential 1970s Hollywood composer, and that’s before adding his Academy Award for co-composing “It Goes Like It Goes,” the theme song for Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (a score that was partly responsible for him losing the Apocalypse Now assignment, which he discusses below).

At 81, Shire is still working. I caught up with him via Skype at his New York studio for a conversation focusing on his film work. Hosted by the San Francisco State University School of Creative Arts in conjunction with the CSU Entertainment Alliance, Shire is in town this week for a series of workshops and masterclasses that culminate Friday, March 15, with a concert at Knuth Hall featuring the Alexander String Quartet, the SFSU Wind Ensemble, and others playing Shire’s music.You’ve worked in so many different fields as a composer. I’m wondering how you see yourself. Do you identify with one particular field more than another?

My primary career was theater. I thought I’d write film scores eventually, but not that I’d have the career that I’m best known for. Sondheim would say, “Why do you waste your time writing those film projects?” In Hollywood they say, “Why do you waste your time doing those Broadway projects?” It’s been a good thing and a bad thing. I had to give up a lot of theater to do film scores and vice versa. I had a real schizophrenic career for a couple of decades.

Let’s start at the beginning. You were sort of weaned on music.

Yes. My father was a bandleader in Buffalo, a society bandleader, who played three or four gigs a week. During the days he taught piano, the popular songs of the day. On those days, I could hear him teaching Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, so the music was imbued in me at a very young age. He started showing me little things at the piano in early adolescence and I took to it right away.

You found your path pretty quickly, and your lifelong collaborator.

I had a jazz group in high school and summer jobs as a cocktail pianist, and I studied music theory privately. I was accepted at three different colleges, but Yale did an undergrad musical every year — not a revue, but a real book musical. I met Richard Maltby at the beginning of freshman year, and our junior year we wrote the school musical. Our senior year we wrote another.

You and Maltby eventually landed in New York City together and tried to break into Broadway. What role did Stephen Sondheim play in your budding career?

Sondheim was always a mentor to us. He was very generous with writers and took us under his wing. He saw our Off Broadway show and a friendship started. In the mid-’60s he did a musical, Evening Primrose, based on a John Cheever short story, and he asked me to be the rehearsal pianist. The director, Paul Bogart, was a big TV director and he liked my work. He asked me to do some CBS Playhouse scores for him and on one of them he had us to do a couple of full numbers for a musical called Love Match. They liked them so much they threw away the whole score and we wrote a new one. But when they tried it out at the Ahmanson Theatre, it got mixed reviews and the producers decided to scrap it.

That’s an inauspicious start, but you broke into the Hollywood scene a lot faster than Broadway.

Love Match closing was another blow in a long history of not getting our own shows produced. I decided to poke around out there. A friend, Billy Goldenberg, got a job at Universal and he was very successful writing television scores. He said “Let me introduce you to people at Universal.” I had these tapes from CBS Playhouse and within a week I started writing scores for westerns. I did some for the fifth season of The Virginian, and that led to getting McCloud, which led to some bad features and then some good features. Ever since then I’ve had one foot in New York and one foot in L.A.

How did your background in theater inform your writing for film?

Theater work gave me a background in writing for character and situations. The foreground music I’d written in New York gave me that dramatic scale. The film scores I did got more venturesome as far as orchestration and composition as I went along. That nourished the theater score I was going to write. It was a really useful feedback loop.  

You arrived in Hollywood at an exciting time, when there was a lot of leeway as far as style and instrumentation.

I loved all those old elaborate orchestral scores. By the time I went out there, film scores were becoming much more hybrid. Working on The Virginian I complained to the director “I want to write cop-show scores, not these traditional westerns.” He said, “write them to your own voice.” Quincy Jones had just scored McKenna’s Gold, a western, but the score was half western and half jazz. Universal became my training ground. There’s nothing like having to write 30 minutes of music in a few weeks. The orchestra is hired. The date is set. It has to be scored for 20 or 30 players. You learn very quickly that way. When you’re writing for a class, you never hear your music.

Was there anyone in Hollywood who played a role like Sondheim in mentoring young composers?

Well, Hugo Friedhofer, a legendary film composer who did the score for The Best Years of Our Lives, would do salons. I had contact with lots of other film composers, but nothing like the relationship with Sondheim. We were friends but competitors. I was at Universal for two or three years and what was useful is that we’d go to each other’s recording sessions, John Williams, Lalo Schifrin, Maurice Jarre, or Oliver Nelson, and sit in the booth and follow their scores. That was an informal training ground, and nourishment from my peers.  

I think of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as a breakthrough for you.

It was a pivotal score for me, and it was one that almost eluded me. I just couldn’t get the feeling I wanted. I start with improvising to the picture, and everything that came out for weeks was bad Lalo Schifrin. It didn’t have anything individual about it. The picture was very good, and I didn’t want to deliver a rip-off of all the jazz scores. That’s where the classical training came in. When I was at Brandeis, Stravinsky had just written Agon and all these composers were ripping up tonal scores and writing atonal pieces. The professor, Paul Glass [no relation to Philip], said serial music, tone-row music, doesn’t have to be atonal. At a point where I was almost ready to give up the assignment, I remembered that.

Well, maybe I’ll write a tone row with only jazz intervals, say major 7ths. It was the only time in my life I made one of those charts, and to my great delight at 3 a.m. I realized I can do anything with those notes, and it’ll sound jazzy with an organizing principle, like a metaphor for New York with all the chaos on top but with that grid underneath. I was so delighted. It was definitely the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had writing anything. It saved my life. The main theme came very quickly after that, and the cues were really fun. I had a wealth of material. I could do anything.

That same year, you wrote a totally different score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which is like another character in the film.

Francis, who was my brother-in-law, asked me to do the movie. He knew I was writing a lot of genre scores where you were supposed to sound like the other scores. He wanted to break me of those habits. We finally sat down when he had a rough cut and talked about the nature of the score. I was thinking, a big-budget film with a high-profile director, at last I get to do one of those movies! The first thing he says is “I don’t want a big orchestral score or an electronic score. I want a piano score. I want the score to do what isn’t on the screen.”

The obvious thing would be an electronic score, Harry Caul was an electronics guy. Francis said, “I’m going to give you five titles, and none of them respond to anything specific in the film, they relate to the inner life of this man, which he never shows. Go back to L.A. and write me five three-minute piano pieces: Harry Caul visits his grandmother. Harry Caul goes to his high-school reunion.” I thought he was nuts, but he was Francis Ford Coppola. I came back a few weeks later and played the first piece, the second, the third, and he says “That’s the theme for The Conversation, that’s the basis for the score.”

In thinking about how I came to that, I see now the double influence of jazz and classical. If you take that score apart, the right hand is kind of jazz, a blues thing. There was a radio station at Yale with a self-important disc jockey who played a riff over and over again as he talked. I think that had stuck in my head. But the left is pure Chopin, inspired by so many nocturnes I played as a piano student. I learned more and more to get both sides of my brain working and do the things they do. Be logical or be crazy. I think that’s the way all artists work. You need the technique. At the same time, you have to free yourself.  

There are so many films we could talk about, but I wanted to ask you about Zodiac, which is a fascinating, disturbing score.

That was a totally different process. Ren Klyce was the sound designer, and he was wonderful to work with. I’ve gotten a lot of credit for things he made happen. I’d write cues for one place and he’d switch them to another place. His sound design is so integral to the music. You can’t tell where the score ends and the sound design begins. Fincher’s first idea was to use only source music, only records from the period. They got 30 licenses for hits from the period. It must have cost a fortune. He didn’t want an original score at all. But those intimate scenes [with] Jake Gyllenhaal and Chloë Sevigny were scratch-scored with the secondary theme of The Conversation, a very sad theme. Fincher liked that. Who wrote that music? David Shire. Is he still alive? He’s not only alive, but I can get his telephone number.

That led to a meeting with Fincher. Yeah, I can do that kind of music. He said, “I really like using those pop songs and I don’t want any big orchestral, obvious thriller score.” Let me try to show you what could work. I thought about it for a while. For some reason, the right brain said, “The Unanswered Question by Ives.” It’s very transparent, a large orchestra playing softly. I played it for him. “That’s wonderful, can you do that?” So there was a combination of The Unanswered Question and I wrote my own theme.  

That theme is in the cracks, and I think that’s what makes it interesting music. Most of us, especially in film and theater, we’re hybrids. We stand on the shoulders of everyone before us and use different combinations to make new sounds out of old sounds. These scores we’re talking about are very different but all have this common genesis, the classical study and jazz study.

Now, you may be one of the few composers with an album of music that was rejected for the film. What’s the story behind David Shire’s Apocalypse Now — The Unused Score, which was released by La La Land Records in the fall of 2017.

Well, my score was thrown out. It was an all-electronic score. You’d never guess that I wrote it. It’s been well documented that Francis was going crazy down in the Philippines. Lots of drugs, the set was blown away by a monsoon. Footage would come my way, but intermittently. When I was asked to do Norma Rae, I thought I could easily do that and handle whatever came back from the Philippines. But the third element of the perfect storm was that Talia [Shire] and I were separated, heading for divorce. Francis called and said, “I hear you’re working on another movie.” He was angry and he fired me.

I had plenty of time to work on Norma Rae, but it was a big blow to lose that. Walter Murch told me years later when we were working on Return to Oz that the score we wound up with was virtually the same kind of thing. It would have worked equally well. A couple of years ago, a film critic and writer, Tim Greiving, asked to go through my archives and came across these cassettes of things I’d been sending up to San Francisco, where they were mixed into the film. After he listened to said, “This has to come out.” There was a year-long saga trying to get the rights. We got permission from Francis, the studio, we were able to find the masters. The funniest thing was when I called Francis — we patched things up not long after Apocalypse Now and Talia and I had a reasonably friendly divorce — I call him up to say that somebody wants to put out my score, any objection to that? There was a long silence. He said, “what score?”

Ha! You’re sitting in your study at your keyboard, what kind of things are you working on now?

Most of my work since Zodiac has been working with young directors on low-budget indie movies. I use the same muscles but in a much more intimate way. I can deliver a reasonably good orchestral score with samples. Everything’s in the computer. It’s really extended my working life. I was getting very tired of writing everything out with pencil and paper. I also do a lot of master classes and workshops. With film students, we talk technically, lots of nuts and bolts. With theater students, they’ll often learn some songs of mine. I often find that they sing the songs beautifully but have no idea what it’s about.

A song is a dramatic expression. I often ask, “what were you thinking about? Did you have an image in your brain as you were singing?” A good theater song reveals something about a character or even better an action. You look at the character in a different way or the plot is advanced. With movie music I think of myself as a set or costume designer. I’m there to help someone else fulfill their vision. You have to remember that. With All the President’s Men, the score very subtle except for the main theme, which you only hear at the end. The scene with Deep Throat in the garage is nothing but harp chords and lots of silence.

Thank you, maybe next interview we’ll get a chance to talk about your life on and off-Broadway.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.