Interview by David Thomas
Insatiable underwater killing machines. Black-clad terrors of the galaxy. Be-caped champions of liberty. Scruffbag adventure-seeking archaeologists. It's impossible to think about cinema's greatest icons without his music starting to play in the back of your brain. So meet John Williams- this man is the history of the soundtrack.
Close your eyes and think about Jaws. How many nanoseconds does it take before you can hear those notes - those heavy, dark, infinitely sinister notes - as they boo m up from the deep? Take away that defining score, and Jaws is a picture about a bloody great rubber fish. With it, it's a $500 million sensation. Now think of the opening moments of Star Wars. and the words that scroll across the screen, just before the spaceships hove into view. Two great things about this sequence: the first is that it begins with "Part IV", right away projecting you into the middle of an epic, intergalactic tale, rather than the beginning of some low-budget sci-fi bun fight. And the second? The music. You must know the score. It's the best-selling orchestral soundtrack of all time. It's epic, almost arrogant, and thrillingly assertive. It tells you that this is a great adventure, that it's dazzling, overwhelming - above all, a hit.
John Williams understands hits. He wrote the theme for Jaws, like he wrote practically all of his Spielbergness's scores. Those are his melodies on E.T., Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones trilogy and both Jurassic Parks. He did Spielberg's serious pics too, like Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List. Williams received an Oscar - number five - for Schindler, and has been nominated 34 times. The best analogy for his career is to imagine that one pop songwriter had created all the Bee Gees' hits during the '70s, all Madonna's during the '80s, and all Oasis' during the '90s: that is what Williams has done for TV and film.
As an arranger at Columbia, and elsewhere in Hollywood, he worked on numerous movies, even providing the accompaniment for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. And when he switched briefly to TV, he came up with themes for American classics like Gilligan's Island and The Virginian. Back in the film world, he was nominated for the score of Valley of the Dolls and won his first Oscar as music director for Fiddler On the Roof. That was 1971, and it was the '70s that saw Williams pick up speed. As disaster films ravaged the planet, he composed scores for The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Quite apart from his work with Spielberg, his credits also included all three Star Wars, and Supermans 1, 2 and 4.
By the '80s, John Williams was the undisputed top tunesmith in Hollywood. Cue scores for The Witches of Eastwick, The Accidental Tourist, and a few rare box office duds like Stanley & Iris and Far and Away, and a brace of Oscar-nominated themes for Born On the Fourth of July and JFK. He wrote a couple of symphonies, a whole stack of concertos, the official fanfares for a trio of Olympic Games and was for 13 years the conductor of the world-famous Boston Pops Orchestra too.
Now, at 65, Williams is still working flat out. The Lost World is still putting it's great dino-footprints all over global box office charts, and he's already got the music for Spielberg's next outing, Amistad, in the can. Just as he did four years ago with Jurassic and Schindler, Spielberg is following a big, schlocky crowd-pleaser with a low(ish)-budget arty feature, a historical drama about slavery. Williams' genius is he can switch from genre to genre as effortlessly as Spielberg, and a good thing too - their movie-after-next is Saving Private Ryan, a World War Two piece starring ol' reliable, Tom Hanks.
What all this amounts to is that John Williams knows more about the business of applying music to movies than anyone else alive. During our chat he talks about Jurassic Park - how the music keeps "pumping away" - as if it were no big deal. He's selling himself incredibly short. When I got back home from Boston, where we'd met, I played the film back on video, just listening to the score. It was a revelation: the whole emotional tempo of the action is carried by its music, a constant series of tiny hints and triggers that tell you how to feel, what to expect, when to be uplifted, and when to be very, very afraid.
John Williams has a quiet, rather earnest, and professional, air. He would have made a brilliant teacher: fairly stern when he wants to be, but impeccably fair and ready with information and praise whenever both are required. He must be mind-bogglingly rich and has a stellar reputation in Hollywood, but he's still completely focused on his work. We met for lunch (which he insisted on buying); he was writing during the morning and afternoon, and in the evening conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So our talk wasn't an interview at all; more of a masterclass...
Total Film: You've composed hundreds of hours' worth of film music where do you get the ideas?
John Williams: I don't know how to answer that - I really don't want to make it sound like it's easy. I work very hard, and it's not possible for a composer to answer the question: how do I create a melody? The little things that may seem so simple, maybe even obvious, are sometimes the hardest thing to do. When you get something that's so right, you think, "Ah! It has always been there, it's just that now it's right." But if you go back to three drafts before that, before you changed the B-flat to a B-natural, you realize how off it was and how you were still searching for something.
Writing a tune is like sculpting. You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, as the sculptor says, "In that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it". There's a story that says it all. Paul Hindemith, the brilliant German composer, was offered the chair at Yale University as the Professor of Composition. He turned it down. Then they offered him the chair of Professor of Music Theory, which he took. So they asked him why, and he said, "I can teach music theory. But only God teaches composition."
Total Film: What you do especially well is write riffs. Take the opening bars of Jaws or Star Wars - it's like they're the hooks in classic rock anthems.
John Williams: It's very hard to do. I spend more time trying to create those little musical signals than I do with anything else. Movie composers have the problem of capturing an audience's attention with music. Not that our ultimate goal is to have them listen to the score. It'd be too counter-productive. Movie music is often banal and simplistic, mostly because it has to be, as we don't have the listener's attention, and if we expect to have it we'll write a bad film score - that's the novice's great mistake. But within a two-hour film, memorability from reel-to-reel can be helpful. Something in the third act, which you can reach back and quote as an old friend from act one can be part of the structure of what makes the soundtrack of the film unified and solid and function well.
You mentioned riffs, and that's a good way of putting it. A snippet of melodic identification for a character, or a fish, or a spaceship, can fill in the tapestry and create memory triggers throughout the 16 reels of the film that can be pushed from time to time. We use them as building blocks. If you've a seven-note riff, and you give them the first two notes in the first three reels, the next two in reel six, and all seven when the bike goes over the moon, then your audience has a sense of putting it together and it's wonderfully satisfying.
Total Film: With Jaws you have it right up front..
John Williams: Yes, that's a different approach.
Total Film: So which is your favourite riff of all?
John Williams: It's hard to say that, but I always answer Close Encounters. I don't know why, but I like that.
Total Film: And of course the whole story depends on the music that summons the alien spaceship.
John Williams: I composed that motif and 350-odd more of them. The script called for a five-note motif, so I began writing and writing - I have them at home, I've never used them anywhere else! Steven and I had some meetings, and kept playing them over and over. I had done literally 350 of these things during a period of days, looking for the thing that said, "Eureka!" - it only takes a second to write one - but we couldn't decide which one to use. At one point we called a mathematician friend of Steven's and we asked him, "How many five-note combinations exist within the 12 chromatic-scale notes, given no rhythmic variation at all?" And he called back and told us, "I've worked it out - it's about 134,000-odd combinations." Well, we'd got as far as 350, so we thought we'd better stop and pick one of those. So we did that...
Total Film: Which other movie composers do you admire?
John Williams: Bernard Herrmann very much. Of living people, I guess Jerry Goldsmith [of Chinatown, Basic Instinct, the Star Trek and Rambo series].
Total Film: Which Herrmann scores in particular?
John Williams: Oh, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, Vertigo, and so many of those things. Psycho was not a great score, but it was very effective.
Total Film: Do you draw a distinction in your own work between serious films and commercial ones? Is one more important than the other?
John Williams: I like to mix the two. Take Schindler's List - as wonderful as that is, you wouldn't really want a steady diet of doing that particular piece. For a musician, whether it's serious or not, something like Star Wars is fun. It's an opportunity to do the fanfares and flourishes. So it's welcome. We had the London Symphony Orchestra, and they all left their serious music-making and came out to Denham studios. We got the brass out and had great fun, with ruffles and flourishes and druins. It doesn't have to be taken so seriously - there should be enough room in film for serious films, for comedies, for the lot.
Total Film: You mentioned Schindler: did you write that at the same time as the score for Jurassic Park?
John Williams: They were separated by a couple of months. Jurassic was a spring assignment and I composed Schindler at Tanglewood during the summer while conducting the Boston Pops. I loved Schindler for many reasons, not least of which was that it was an absolute contrast to what I had been doing all spring. The biggest problem in Hollywood, and the British film industry, is that you get typecast. If you do comedies, then you can spend all your career doing nothing but that. It was a fantastic opportunity for music, but the procedure was so completely different.
Jurassic Park has a 95-minute score. It pumps away all the time. It's a rugged, noisy effort - a massive job of symphonic cartooning. You have to match the rhythmic gyrations of the dinosaurs and create these kind of funny ballets. It couldn't be more different from Schindler's List, which was a fantastic opportunity for music and a singular honour for me. It was a big risk, though. Everyone's forgotten now, but at the time a lot of people were sure that Spielberg couldn't film the Holocaust - he was far too glossy a director. What can one say about the Holocaust that wouldn't seem empty and banal? But I would say this; that it was dear that part of the musical assignment of Schindler's List was to make a statement that even in these years of unspeakable tragedy there were loving aspects and beautiful aspects of jewish life... even then.
Total Film: In the film you have these conflicting cultures, German and Jewish, and they both boast incredibly rich musical traditions. Did you ever think about that as you were preparing the score?
John Williams: Well, Samuel Goldwyn once had a film with a French subject, so he said to the composer, "Be sure you use a lot of French horns in this score!" But yes, there couldn't be a richer background, not the least part of which, and the most obvious, was the violin, which was actually invented by the Italians, but which seemed the most direct way to express a certain aspect of jewish life.
Total Film: And yet you couldn't afford to have it turn into Fiddler On The Roof.
John Williams: Absolutely. When we were doing the movie, all of us - including Steven - were so concerned that the film wouldn't slip over the line and then become kitsch or camp. We were taking a terrible chance, because there are hundreds of thousands of survivors from the camps still alive who could watch the film and say, "This is Hollywood. This is not a representation of what I experienced." Instead the opposite happened. Letters came to us from all over the world from people who had been in camps - because Schindler's camp was like the Four Seasons Hotel compared with most of the camps - saying that it was true and honest and that they embraced it. And Steven would be the first to say that filming itself was miraculous. All the extras, for example, knew what they had to say, how to say it, how to hold their heads - it was as though the hand of God was directing the whole thing for all of us.
Total Film: I imagine Schindler was very special from the off. But on other films do you get a sense of what the finished thing will be like? Like Star Wars..
John Williams: If you asked me, "Could I have known how effective it was going to be when I was working on it?" then the answer is no: it's quite impossible for anybody to know that. You're writing blind.
Total Film: How do you mean?
John Williams: Well, the mundane part of the process is that you begin to work on the film. None of the tunes exist, and half the characters aren't on screen, as they've yet to be postage-stamped in for the post-production. You write the music for battle scenes and they aren't on the screen - they're just grease pencil marks about where the spaceships are going to be flying. All these pieces come from disparate sources. And before the musicians have even had a chance to pull them all together and get the full impression our particular part of it is finished. With Star Wars, we couldn't have imagined what was going to happen. Certainly I can't speak for George Lucas, who did most of the creative work, hut until Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, went to Skywalker Ranch and told us what Star Wars meant - started talking about collective memory and cross-cultural shared history; the things that rattle around in our brains and pre-date language, the real resonance of how the whole thing can he explained - we regarded it as a Saturday morning space movie.
Total Film: There are a lot of stories about how everyone working on Star Wars thought that it would be a commercial disaster.
John Williams: Even George, before it opened, thought it wasn't going to work, it wouldn't be a success. It had been too difficult to get off the ground with Fox. But Steven Spielberg was saying, "You're all wrong, it's going to be very successful. I'm going to put in an envelope the figure for gross earnings for the first six months of the film, just to prove you're all wrong." He wrote down a number, put it in an envelope and gave it to George Lucas, to be opened six months later. So he opened it six months later and the worldwide gross estimation from Spielberg was $33 million. Six months after it had opened I think it had already taken about $500 million, or something like that. Even the most optimistic utterly under-estimated the sheer reach of this thing.
Total Film: Looking back, what do you think of your work on Star Wars?
John Williams: I think it's very good. But if that music had been written without the movie, we'd probably never hear it. It'd be in a dustbin somewhere, or stuck in a library.
Total Film: Then there were the two sequels...
John Williams: There's a musical programme I'm doing this year that covers a whole concert and it's amazing to see how much is in the trilogy musically I have to say, I owe George much, not least of which is he gave me some very interesting and describable characters in terms of music. Darth Vader is just so unforgettable, so you give him a tune, and the Ewoks, too, are memorable. Characters who are less indelible would be far harder to compose for.
Total Film: So how does a director set ahout getting a John Williams score? I have personal interest In this: l've got my first script being shot next year...
John Williams: Sometimes producers or directors will call a composer directly. Others will call your agent, or they'll have a discussion with studio heads or the legal department to see who's available. Someone like you could send a script to a composer like me and say "Will you read the script?" But usually I work from a director's cut or a first cut. If it's a new film-maker, I want to see it. An established composer can say, "Well, I'll look at it, and if I like it, I'll do it." Someone not so established will say, "Will you hire me if I submit some music?"
Total Film: How long does it take to write a score?
John Williams: Eight to 12 weeks, but we could always use more time. There's never enough - but that's part of our business, it's journalistic. You can't go back next week, look at this week's work, and fix it.
Total Film: How much of what you do is dependent on the director's approval?
John Williams: All of it. The director has complete power, so if he or she rejects a score or a theme, it goes.
Total Film: Has anyone ever rejected a theme?
John Williams: It's never happened completely. But it often happens a director will say, "I believe that such-and-such a scene is too fast." It's like redrafting a script. You talk about it, and, if you can convince them, fine. If you can do it better, you do - I've done it numerous times. It's part of the process.
Total Film: On the subject of directors, how did your partnership with Spielberg come about?
John Williams: One day I was invited out for lunch by the late Jennings Laing, who was one of the senior people at MCA. He said to me, "There's a kid on the lot who tells us he can direct a film." He thought the two of us would work well together. Steven was probably 23 or 24 years old, he'd just done Sugarland Express. He said, "I have all your records. I have The Cowboys and The Reivers," and he mentioned some other scores that I had done. So of course I enjoyed talking to him. We did Jaws, and we've been working for 25 years ever since. We share an office together at Universal.
If professors and critics think he fails, that this or that fell way short of expectations, then so be it. But I think that Steven is exceptional in every way - generous, thoughtful, and a really honest guy. I see him as a force largely for good in the world, certainly in our industry. It's easy for me to praise him, you'd expect it, but it's genuine.
Total Film: With the amount of hits that he's had, and you've had, what keeps you working, long after you no longer need to?
John Williams: I need to work all the time. It could go back to some kind of Puritanism in my family. Maybe the hedonists sitting under a palm tree have us all beat. But I think work's the best way to feel that you're making a contribution, to keeping sane.
© 1997 Total Film Magazine - Issue 8 (9/97), pp. 74-79